I’m writing this from San Diego, California, where I'm doing some work at one of my favourite places in the world, High Tech High.
On Sunday I caught a succession of buses to La Jolla (I was inspired to go because it’s mentioned in “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys). Conditions on the beach weren’t great for surfing, and surfing lessons were expensive, so instead I rented a sit-on-top ocean kayak from La Jolla Kayak.
At the shop, I was shown a map of the area, and told there was a rocky beach where the waves were treacherous, so I should stay at least 100 feet out. Then I went down to the beach, where they gave me a kayak. Once on the water, I paddled slowly along the coast, admiring La Jolla’s seafront architecture, and the mist clinging to the hill just behind the coastline. When I reached the rock beach I’d been warned about, I saw a solitary kayaker sitting still on the water (probably within the 100-foot perimeter). He looked like he was there with a purpose, and like he knew what he was doing, so I paddled over to him and said hello.
It turned out he was surfing on his kayak. He’d been board surfing since he was 16 (and he was now old enough to sport a bushy grey moustache) and had since become a serious kayaker (he had just returned from two weeks on the Colorado river). Rather than telling me to get lost and let him catch waves in peace, he started teaching me how to do it.
I’ll say now that I wasn’t great at it, but it was a lot of fun. The best wave I caught was my first, and it was accidental. I didn’t ride it elegantly (for one thing, my right leg was hanging out of the kayak for most of the journey) but I hung onto the wave, and stayed upright,
Having rode the wave, paddling back out turned out to be equally exciting. My new teacher had already told me to keep my kayak absolutely perpendicular when paddling head on into a wave, because any deviation from that would probably capsize the boat. I'd assumed he was exaggerating for effect, until the first time I paddled into a wave as it was cresting: I felt the kayak go vertical, then slap down onto the trough that the wave left behind it. He was right - had I not been perpendicular to it, I would have tipped out.
Subsequently, I was able to catch waves, but couldn’t hold onto them. Part of this was inexperience, and part was fear – especially because whenever my teacher caught a good wave he’d right it sideways, then sort of tip backwards through the foam, looking as if he was dragging himself out of the wave. This manoeuvre looked very difficult to me, and it also looked critical to the whole process.
Finally, I caught a wave and properly committed to it –
but before I go on, I want to mention something about catching waves. My relationship to a wave had a narrative: first I’d spot it, literally rising up out of a monotonous seascape. At this moment, I felt like a gold prospector who’s spotted shiny yellow in his sifting pan. Then, if the wave had started cresting at the right moment, and I was in the right position, there would be a sickening moment when I realised that I’d just put myself in the way of a wall of water that was not only rearing up behind me, but sucking the water from out from under me. At this moment, there is nothing to do except to ride the wave, which is an interesting characteristic of all types of surfing: once a wave is right behind you, there is no safer option than riding it:* if you decide “actually, I’d rather not catch this one”, and turn to the side, the wave will flip you over.
So what happened when I properly committed to a wave?
Well, I didn’t stay ahead of it enough, so the curl of the wave grabbed the back of the kayak, and jabbed its front into the water like a needle into fabric. Next thing I knew, I had tumbled into the water. After the wave passed me, I shouted “I’m all right!” to my teacher in a reassuring voice. “Don’t touch bottom!” he shouted back, “There are sea urchins!”
By now I was close to shore, floating in less than two feet of water on a rocky shore, trying to flip a capsized kayak and climb back into it, all without touching the ground. My teacher helped a lot – even so, it was not a straightforward recovery: first I was in the kayak but didn’t have my paddle. Then I lay down on my stomach and paddled with my hands to reach the paddle. When I got the paddle and tried to return to a sitting position, I went back in the water. Then I got helped into the kayak a second time.
I thought my teacher might be concerned by the potential danger that I clearly presented to both of us. Not in the slightest: “You’ve got to wipe out!” he told me encouragingly.
Not long after this, the waves stopped breaking far out enough for us to catch them. The tide had come in, which meant that the waves were no longer catching on the reef that was directly below us. It was time to move on, and the end of my impromptu lesson.
*Or, as my teacher did, back-paddling through it, staying motionless as if on a treadmill - though I didn't think I'd be able to manage that particular move.