It starts with the sound of an approaching train, and before I close my eyes, all I can see is white. White bubbles, white rage. I’m slammed with a force that feels rude, violent even. The train muffles and I throw my arms out, searching for gravity, or equilibrium, or whatever that thing is that tells me which way is up. I find nothing. I am caught in a tumble dry cycle, and this one is turbo-speed. Also, it’s not dry at all.
When I finally find that line between water and air, I pull my body to the surface and gasp for breath with the desperation of someone who hasn’t breathed in minutes. Geez Jenny…drama queen. I was probably underwater for no more than 10 seconds. A clip from the film Fishpeople comes to mind, the spearfisher Kimi Werner gliding gracefully underwater, showing zero signs of panic as she holds her breath for almost five minutes. I’m such a beginner, I think, feeling a hint of shame, even here with my audience of one.
As a rock climber, I know what competence feels like. Over the past six years, I’ve lived and breathed the sport. I know how to get myself to the top of most rocks, and I know how to stay safe doing it. I can talk the talk, debate gear and conditions, and jamming a hand crack is as casual as breathing. And with ten years under his belt, four summits of Fitz Roy, and success as a professional climbing photographer, my boyfriend Austin is pretty darn competent too. In short (and at the risk of tooting our horns), when it comes to rock climbing, we’re no gumbies.
Surfing? We are total surfing gumbies.
I finally grab a full breath of air and locate the leash around my left ankle. As I reel in my rental board—a purple soft-top that declares “Wave Bandit” in 80’s punk-style font across the top—I turn to gaze toward the ocean. Just as I have my board firmly in my grasp, another wave—waist-height this time—crashes right in front of me. Can somebody just turn off the wave machine? This is madness. My board drives into my stomach, pushing out a guttural groan. I bring my hand to my face and hastily wipe my mop of hair away to catch another breath. Another small rise of brine rolls and spits water straight into my mouth. The ocean has a way of adding insult to injury.
Austin and I had arrived that afternoon at the LOGE in Westport, WA. We would stay for a week, working remotely at the long, wooden table in the communal room each morning, surfing in the afternoons. It’s the first non-climbing related trip we’ve taken together, and we were ready for it. For both of us in its own way, climbing has become work, rife with pressure to perform, expectations to meet, trips to plan and execute. We’re trying to rediscover joy and lightness in outdoor adventure, and figure a week of surfing will help.
We quickly check in with the LOGE staff, explore the artfully crafted nooks and crannies of the property, and set up our home in a privately fenced tent site (complete with water and twinkly lights). Eager to hit the waves, we head to the office to rent gear. I fill out paperwork; Austin tries on a wetsuit. Emerging from the nearby bathroom, the zipper parting neoprene down his chest like an open button up shirt, he asks, “Can you help me do this up? It feels way too small.” Gumby move #1: Austin has put his wetsuit on backwards.
The woman at the front desk and I snicker, and Austin ducks back inside the bathroom to fix his blunder. Then, loading our boards into my old blue GMC Safari, we make the short commute through sleepy Westport. Wetsuits donned (correctly this time), the two of us saddle our boards and debate about whether or not to wear our flip flops to the beach. Austin decides yes, I decide no, and we head to the water. My longboard slips underneath my arm and I lift it to rest on my head. I must look ridiculous. I look around for someone to emulate, finding no one. Ridiculous, just like the newbies we love to poke fun at. The climbers who put their daisy chains between their legs, rack up with hexes, boulder in TC Pros—blatant signals to other climbers that they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s shameful, really, being new. I don’t want to be one of them.
Ahead of me, Austin stops short at the sight of the beach. Concerned with the dearth of my board-carrying skills, I nearly run into him. “What’s up?” I asked.
There is not a wave in sight.
We don’t even question the surf forecast or tide charts we’d perused that afternoon, in which a haze of knots, onshore, waist-high jargon led us to believe that there would be some sort of surfing happening today. No, we are quite sure if there are any mistakes to be made, we’ll be making them—and indeed, we’d driven to the wrong side of the jetty. “Gumby move #2,” Austin remarks. We are counting now.
Tucking our tails between our legs, we slink back to the van, and I continue to ponder how to carry my board that doesn’t completely give away my beginner status. I wonder why being new feels so shameful. Another minute down the dirt road, a large parking lot appears with about a dozen vehicles. A few older men, bare-chested with wetsuits dangling around their waists, load boards into their trucks. This is clearly where we’re supposed to be.
In the evening light, we head out into the waves. From the beach, I cannot discern one wave from another—some intersect, some fall on top of each other, others are just whitewash. I think it looks like bad conditions, but then again, what do I know? And what’s the surfer lingo for “bad conditions” anyway? There aren’t many others in the water, but it is a Sunday evening, after all.
And it’s here that I find myself, fresh out of the tumble [wet] cycle, shoving my mop of tangled hair out of my face and pushing past waves as I try to sneak further out into the ocean. My shoulders are sore, I’ve swallowed more water than I drink in a full day of alpine climbing, and I still haven’t caught a wave. I’m exhausted. As if declaring to the world that I’ve truly given up, I relax my entire body and at long last, I pee in my wetsuit.
Gumby move #3. Or was it? I’m still not sure, but at the moment, I couldn’t care less about right or wrong—all that matters is that I feel great. With a rush, it all leaves me. The pressure to be good, competent. The need to know the lingo, what type of boards the cool kids use, the right time to throw the cowabunga sign to a nearby surfer. My distaste for looking like a gumby—for feeling like a gumby. I don’t need to be anything. This can just be fun.
I leave the surf and collapse on the beach, just beyond the line of seaweed and shells where firm sand meets soft. My head perches on my surfboard and my legs sink into the soft white earth, heavy and content. Light catches on the top of each wave as it crashes to shore, illuminating tiny beads of water before they rejoin with the masses. Muted pastels twist and turn in horizontal layers before me: the sky, the clouds, ocean, surf, and beach. A woman jogs by, and her attire and fitness give her away as an athlete. A surfer. As she passes me, she remarks, “It’s pretty disorganized out there, huh?” I note her lingo—disorganized—and immediately understand what she’s getting at.
“Yeah, it’s shit!” I say in response. “I think.”
She—Heather—proceeds to tell me about the combination of tides, winds, and sand that lead to this sort of “chop.” I sit up and listen eagerly, intently. I am a sponge. In parting, she kindly assures me that better conditions are coming. Tomorrow will be a new day. Soon, Austin joins me on the sand, looking as battered and discouraged as I was just minutes ago. I relay everything Heather told me, realizing all that I’ve learned in one short evening. My newness suddenly feels exciting—full of possibility, the same way climbing felt all those years ago. I grasp a handful of dry sand and hold it tightly, watching small grains sneak between the gaps in my fingers. I want to bottle this feeling and keep it forever.
We soon head back to the van as the sky darkens: thirsty, hungry, and happy. I carry my board across the front of my body—not like they do in the movies, but the position that feels most comfortable for me. I wish I had brought my sandals as my feet move over sharp gravel near the parking lot. Tomorrow, I will. As I gather up my haphazardly wound sand-soaked leash, Austin pulls a piece of kelp from his hair. “Gumby move,” I chide, with a content chuckle. Proud to be one.