As someone who grew up in southern California, it’s pretty embarrassing to admit that I had a great fear of the surf. Yes, I lived close to the beach, wore OP shorts and skateboarded every day of my life, but when I entered the ocean, a feeling of anxiety like no other entered my body.
I know the exact moment that fear was implanted in my psyche. From where I lived, you could take the bus or ride a bike to Newport Beach. When the boogie boarding craze hit California, I was in 7th grade, and it was around that time that my parents and the parents of my friends Scott Maginnis, Dave Jerome, Ed Caspers and Gary Herr decided that we were old enough to go to the beach by ourselves. Most of the time we rode our bikes, because we were broke. We would ride down the Santa Ana River Trail balancing our boogie boards and wearing backpacks containing a towel and maybe two dollars for some strips (beach nachos) and a corn dog. I think it was about 20 miles each way, which, by the way, sucked on the way home when you were sunburned and tired, heading uphill.
I remember how exhilarating it was to be allowed the freedom to go all that way with my friends, and it was the first time in my life that I felt like I was really on my own. There were girls, candy bars and all kinds of adult pleasures associated with a day at Newport Beach. And yes, there were waves.
When I was in 7th grade, I was the smallest kid in my school. I weighed about 75 pounds and was probably 4 feet, 8 inches tall. No lie. I was a shrimp, and puberty was still far in the distance. So when there were waves, even 3- or 4-foot surf, I was overmatched big time by the ocean. But up until then, I had never really had a bad experience with it. I loved the undulations of the ocean, and catching a little wave was a thrill I wanted over and over. I’d play in the surf and have a grand old time. But with boogie boarding, things changed. The idea was to actually catch the waves before they broke, which meant I had to go out in them. Well, things were going swimmingly (ha ha) on our first few bike trips to the beach; then came a day in mid-July of 1978 that changed all that. I was out in the surf with a few of my friends when a particularly big set came rolling in, and I got caught inside. The first wave pulled me under and I lost my board. I came up gasping right as the second wave broke over me. This was the wave that changed my relationship with the ocean. I was so little, and the wave was so big that I was in a washing machine, way past the point where I could hold my breath. I got so disoriented that I clawed my way to the surface only to find I was on the ocean floor, completely turned around. I took in a full breath of water and really panicked. I managed to surface, but almost immediately got pulled under again. I was completely powerless, and became pretty sure I was going to die.
Well dear reader, given that you are indeed reading this letter, obviously I didn’t die. After somehow making it to shore, I threw up and started to cry a little (to myself – no one saw me). I stayed out of the ocean for the rest of the day, and pretty much for the rest of the summer. And every time I did venture into the water, I was sure the next wave that came in was going to pull me under and hold me down against my will. The ocean lost all its joy for me. Then high school started and my embarrassment over my skinny, small body removed any desire to go to the beach with my peers and risk getting the proverbial sand kicked in my face.
That fear remained with me for many years. So long, in fact, that I would forget about it until I’d find myself at the ocean, only to see a big wave roll in, and start panicking and head to the shore. It was the kind of fear that Kennedy described; I was afraid of the fear itself, and it had become completely irrational. I was now 6 feet one inch tall, 180 pounds and a strong swimmer, yet in my mind I was still the little shrimp that got pulled under by a 3-foot wave. I didn’t see myself as the adult I had become.
Finally, at age 26, I made the decision to conquer this fear by learning to surf. I got a longboard and headed to Malibu. And after getting the board out into the lineup, I forced myself to sit where the other surfers were sitting, watch the horizon, and take a few deep breaths when a set started rolling in. By concentrating on trying to learn how to stand up and ride the wave, I was able to forget my fears. When I stood up on the board, the waves didn’t look as big. I started re-associating the power of the surf: when a big wave came in, it was a good thing because I might get a better ride. And of course when you learn to surf, you wipe out all the time. I found that the waves weren’t holding me under anymore. I was too strong for them. My new fear became the board nailing me in the face, which happened about a month into my surfing career. And that wasn’t so bad – the black eye gave me a pretty good story to tell.
My new passion culminated a few years later in the most perfect day I’ve ever experienced in the water. I was surfing with my friend Adam Olszewski at a place called Staircases, and these beautiful lefts (I am goofy footed) were coming through the kelp beds and rising up to perfect A frames. And I kid you not, we were the only ones there on this particular autumn Tuesday afternoon. The sky lit up pink and orange as the sun was setting, and I pulled into the best wave of my life. The water, glassed from the kelp, reflected every hue in the sky, and I was in heaven. I took the ride of my life.
Laird Hamilton’s childhood relationship to the sea was the polar opposite of mine. He had to be dragged from Pipeline at age five repeatedly by lifeguards. They couldn’t keep him out of the ocean. He conquered any fear of giant waves when I was still learning to ride a bike, but when I talk to him about surfing, I actually feel like we’re speaking the same language. Because surfing can produce that same feeling of exhilaration and freedom, no matter the size of the wave. And because I did what Laird recommends to everyone he meets: “Scare yourself a little bit every day. It’s good for you.” That was a lesson that took me a long time to learn, but it is one I live by to this day.
– Sam Jones, January 2015