What Learning To Surf At 30 Taught Me About Myself

A quarantine hobby takes a surprising turn.

Originally Published: 
Aemilia Madden
Aemilia Madden surfing
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“This is it,” I thought to myself. Icy seawater shoved its way into my nose as my body spun energetically under the water. I turned in circles trying to figure out where to stick my head just to be able to pull in a quick breath and reorient. The waves were tiny, a joke compared to Nazaré or even Mavericks just down the road from me. But, as a beginning surfer, each time I plopped or thunked ungracefully off the board and into the water, it felt like I was battling some sea titan. Growing up in Northern California, learning to surf probably should have been on my to-do list. I had boyfriends who surfed, and I often sat and soaked up rays at beaches where other people dove into the water headfirst. But, as someone who can’t stand the cold, the idea of voluntarily dipping my head into the Pacific felt like it went against my very nature.

So, why would I twist my own system of values upside down? It started with a breakup. Or actually, it started with a breakup in the midst of a pandemic. In January of this year, I found myself recently 30, living at home with my mom, and single again. I was lonely and listless, probably feeling a bit too sorry for myself (breakups do that to even the most self-aware of us). And so, I set the goal of doing something new that was just for me — it wasn’t contingent on anyone else’s schedule or interests. Knowing a few friends who had tested out surfing during the pandemic (it was one of the few activities that allowed for outdoor, socially distanced classes) I signed up for a two-day boot camp with Adventure Out in Pacifica, CA, rented a car, and set my alarm early day of.

Aemilia Madden
Aemilia Madden

You probably think the next chapter of this story involves me getting on a board, and by some stroke of divine fortune immediately hopping up, carving through my first baby waves. The reality was that it was something more like being thrown into an ice-cold washing machine and getting stuck on spin cycle. I wasn’t good, though I had a patient, kind instructor showing me the ropes. But, here’s the thing I’ve realized: I love being a beginner.

Surfing is a sport that is notoriously protected by its participants. The best local surf spots are fiercely guarded secrets, and beginners are expected to stay out of the way. But, times are changing — not only has the pandemic inspired those surf-curious to finally test the waters, but the new era of fledgling surfers is more diverse than ever. “Surfing has always been a hard sport for people to get into because you need to know how to swim, you need to have the equipment, you need to know which beach you can show up at and feel like you can get waves,” explains team Roxy’s Stephanie Gilmore, an Olympic surfer considered one of the best in the world (who graciously answered my beginner questions).

“It’s such a sensitive community,” she continues, explaining that the recent rise of more inclusive surf clubs has challenged the traditionally aggressive, male-dominated reputation of the sport. “I don’t ever think I’ve seen two women yelling at each other in a lineup,” she laughs, speaking about the surfers sitting at the break, waiting for their turn to take a wave. “I actually really believe having more women in the lineup is allowing that space to feel more welcoming.”

While taking up surfing may not be the ideal quarantine hobby for everyone, (it’s a harder workout than I ever imagined), to me it serves as just a singular example of the type of activity that can teach you more about yourself just by doing it. Sure, there’s the added benefit of exercise, but in the simple act of exploring something new — and admittedly, being terrible at it — I walked away with a better understanding of my own capabilities.

Let’s Just Be Bad

Look, in so-called normal life I’m a Type A. I like knowing my schedule, I am impatient, I reply to emails like the keyboard is on fire below my fingers. I’m also admittedly competitive ... friends who’ve played Settlers Of Catan with me know. But, that same everyday life doesn’t leave me with a lot of opportunities to try things with no expectation. I can’t fail upwards into a job, and even hobbies in New York are enjoyed by former experts. Juilliard graduates make up neighborhood choir groups and D1 athletes are peppered among the rec sports teams.

In surfing, there’s no team or audience, I’ve spilled off the board hundreds of times, but always there’s something useful that comes from a fall. If my weight is too far forward, I fall. If I hold onto the sides of my board too long, I fall. If I don’t watch the way the wave moves, I fall. With each little failure comes a grain of data, at some point to be melded together into both knowledge and just a fluid feel for the motions, and I love that.

Aemilia Madden

Why The Shred

First of all, nothing jolts you out of a long day in front of your computer (or just wakes you up in the morning) like the first big wave that crashes over you when you hit the water. But, the beauty of surfing is that there’s a zen-like quality to time in the water. First of all, there’s no cell phone made to survive an hour or two out in the water, so when I get out there, I’m blissfully unattached to social media, texting, or calling. But, the other thing I’ll say about getting out in the water is that it requires a focus and alertness that quiets racing thoughts about meetings, dates, or to-do lists. The ocean is powerful, and if you’re not watching the waves, paddling around an incoming swell, diving under a crest ... you’re at risk of getting thrashed. There’s no room to lose focus.

Challenge The Status Quo

There’s a reason that rules exist in surfing — it can be a dangerous sport. Knowing when to go (and when to get out of the way) is a necessary education if you’re going to get involved in the sport. But, having been warned by my instructor James about the old school mentality held by many seasoned surfers, closely guarding access to their local spots, I found myself challenged to question my own status quo. I’m by no means good enough to paddle for the same waves as a seasoned vet, but it also pushed me to question in what other areas of my life I was letting my internal narrative of my own qualifications (or lack thereof) keep me from trying. I’ve had many more supportive, positive interactions on the waves than I have had negative, so why not focus on building community rather than honing in on a singular loud, negative voice.

While I’m envious every time I get into the water and watch a kid pop onto a board and cruise down a wave, surfing is something that even picking up at a later age has its rewards. I may never be good enough to drop into a barrel like Keanu Reeves in Point Break, but even as a beginner, it has challenged my body (my arms have never felt so sore) and pushed me to be in the moment and to think reactively. At a time when interacting with the world still feels scary, and I can feel isolated and trapped by my own thoughts, surfing has been the way out.

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