Conquering Fear Surfing in Costa Rica

I’ve dabbled in surfing

I took my first lesson in Maui on a family vacation. The instructor put me on a gigantic board, taught me the basics of a pop up on sand, then took me out into the ocean. It was clear that this particular location was where the surf schools took their patrons. It was packed with people, the waves were small, and there were absolutely no locals. None of that mattered to me, as I popped up on my very first wave!

When I returned home to the Bay Area, I bought a used board and a wetsuit. I took another lesson at home, before I went into the freezing San Francisco Pacific Ocean, alone. I spent the rest of that summer trying and mostly failing to surf. Then I headed back to college, no where near the ocean, placing that board and wetsuit in my Dad’s storage, where they remain to this day.

Even though I didn’t become anything more than a novice surfer that summer, I love it. It’s a thrill. It’s the ultimate face your fear and do it anyway. Because when I’m sitting on the beach, getting ready to go out and brave the ocean, the waves look gigantic. There were days when I let fear decide that I would not surf. Fear told me that my rudimentary skills couldn’t handle what the ocean was doing that day. Maybe that was right, maybe not, but I’ll never know. 

Surfer at Linda Mar Beach
Photo By: Noelle Salmi

After six years of not touching a surf board and a miserably cold Midwest winter, I booked a surf and yoga retreat in Santa Teresa Costa Rica.

Every morning at 7am we ate a light breakfast, walked the dirt path to the beach, surf boards hoisted overhead, and took to the waves. The first 4 days my instructor kept me in the whitewater where I dusted off my pop up, getting more comfortable as the days progressed. By 9 am,  thoroughly exhausted, with more bruises on my hips and arms from the board, I’d enjoy the delicious post surf breakfast before returning to the beach to relax.

On my last lesson, as I sat on the beach watching the waves, my instructor told me he was taking me beyond the whitewater. That freaked me out! The waves looked huge! A few years prior, those waves would’ve kept me on the beach doubting my abilities. But I trusted my instructor and I’d built up some confidence over the week that I could handle it. Nervously, I agreed.

Out we paddled. And paddled. And paddled. I felt like I was moving quickly and then he’d give me a big push from behind. Then a wave would come and knock me back to where I started. As big as those waves looked sitting safely on the sand, they were even bigger as they come crashing down on your head! Followed immediately by it’s friend.

I wanted to give up

To go back to the whitewater. My back was burning. My arms were tired. I felt like I was never going to make it out. Instead, I’d come up from under the water, snot running from my nose, hop back on the board and begin paddling again.

We finally made it past the breaking waves where I could finally catch my breath. As my instructor chatted with his local friends, it dawned on me that the only way to get back to the safety of the sand, was to surf. I started to freak out internally. What if I hit another surfer paddling out? I didn’t let my instructor know I was freaking out, because it didn’t matter. I had only one option. Although, in retrospect, perhaps I should have just asked for a minute. As, it was during this freak out, that my instructor told me the next wave was mine.

“Ok paddle!”

So, I start paddling with the fear of “what if I hit another surfer” fresh in my mind as another surfer is paddling toward me. I didn’t commit, I popped up half assed which meant the ocean handed it to me. I ate it so hard. When you’re under the water, getting tossed around, it feels like you’re never going to come up. Once the wave passes, you have to quickly figure out which way is up for some air. As I found my way up, my instructor was right there yelling to me,

“You broke your board!”

“No I didn’t, it’s still on my ankle!”

“The other half is at the beach”

“Oh shit…”

In the middle of the waves crashing, I swapped boards with my instructor. He surfed a shortboard and, as I struggled to even sit on it, he surfed my half of a board in to the beach. We made it back to the beach in one piece, and then he asked if I wanted to go back out. I was now safely on the beach, I’d just broken a board, and if I decided to go back out, I’d have to do the paddle all over again. I knew, that if I quit because I was scared of breaking another board or hurting myself, I’d leave that vacation wanting more.

The only answer, hell yes! I trusted that my instructor wouldn’t let me drown and I’d already done something incredibly scary. What else terrible could happen?! Ok, a lot, but I didn’t come all the way to Costa Rica to NOT ride a wave all the way to the beach!

We began the journey beyond the breakers, which was just as hard as the first. Except this time once we made it, instead of panic, I felt this calmness come over me. I felt as though I could sit out there on my board all day. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option as my instructor told me to paddle. As I laid down on the board to paddle I noticed another surfer, directly to my right. We locked eyes and he nodded.

Oddly enough, the thought that crossed my mind was “He sees me, I got this”. I paddled with my eyes on the beach, popped up and landed! I was standing on the surf board riding that wave! Behind me, I could hear my instructor and the other surfers cheering. I felt the wave begin breaking around me, but I kept my eyes trained on the beach, my stance low and didn’t falter. I rode that wave until it met the sandy beach!

It was exhilarating

My instructor was right behind me ready for high fives as I grinned from ear to ear I am forever grateful that I left the safety of the sand twice that morning.

Broken Surf Board

Everything looks overwhelmingly big from your comfort zone. When you make the decision to move beyond it, those obstacles feel like they constantly push you back. But if you keep moving forward, surround yourself with people who you trust and who support you, you’ll get past them. It will be scary the first time you get past it, you’ll want to retreat back to what you know. You’ll likely fail, return to your comfort zone and question whether it’s worth going back out. But you do. Because you know that if you’ve done it before, you can do it again, this time, better. As you move through the obstacles the second time, it’s not as hard, you’ve learned techniques to help you keep moving forward. This time, beyond the obstacles, you realize, it’s not so bad in this new comfort zone. The people are actually quite friendly, accepting, and supportive of your goals. You take what you learned from your previous blunder and you go for it. Laughing as you realize how the struggle, how facing your fears, makes the ride that much sweeter.

4 thoughts on “Conquering Fear Surfing in Costa Rica

  1. Daina says:

    What an amazing accomplishment and awesome feeling! You are giving me hope for my Nicaragua trip! Surfing and I are not the best of friends. I’m most comfortable out past the break where no waves can break on me ;).

    • justchasingsunsets says:

      I’ve heard great things about surfing in Nicaragua! Where will you be?! haha to get beyond the waves where it’s calm, you gotta get through the breaking waves…you can do it!! It’s so worth it!

  2. timtunnicliff2015 says:

    You’re a really great story-teller. I was thoroughly engrossed. It also makes me think that I should add to my single surfing session that i’ve achieved in life so far!

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