When Alvaro and I finish my Sunday morning surfing lessons, it’s 9:30 or 10:00 a.m., depending when we started.

At that time, more drivers covet spots in the Taco Hell parking lot than are available. So once I reach my car, there’s always someone waiting who was driving behind me as I walked over to it.

“Are you leaving?” they always ask. My answer is the same every week: “Yep! It’ll take me a couple minutes, but I’m going.”

Then the race begins: I remove my helmet and swimming cap, peel off my wetsuit, booties, and gloves, slink out of my onesie, don my flip flops, then throw my muumuu over my swimsuit at warp speed, so this person can park and get in the ocean as quickly as possible.

Afterward, my trunk always looks like some version of this photo I snapped today before closing it and yielding the spot.

Today’s waves were beautiful, and there were a lot of people out. I was the only one taking a lesson with Alvaro today. This is not a given, since my membership is for group lessons, and it’s a question of whether anyone else shows up at the time I’ve booked.

Today, Alvaro taught me to choose my own waves and decide for myself when to start paddling and when to pop up. He mostly held back from telling me which waves to take, and from pushing me into the waves as I paddled for them. Then we talked afterward about what worked and what didn’t.

I tried popping up a couple times. As usual, I could stand but did not stay up. Alvaro said I should catch the wave and then ride in on my knees, so I could have fun and experience surfing in. He said reading the waves is the most important part of surfing, and that he wants me to focus on getting comfortable in the ocean, not on staying upright.

He told me a story about a friend of his, a champion knee surfer. After taking up regular surfing, he was as good as Alvaro—who has been surfing for ten years—after one year. According to Alvaro, this is because, after becoming a master of riding in on his knees, he already had all the surfing essentials down, and the popup was easy after that.

I believe that. I don’t feel afraid of the ocean, but I can feel myself understanding its rhythms better with each passing lesson. I remain unworried about the popup; I trust that it will come. And I appreciate Alvaro’s patience and understanding that I am learning and growing in other aspects of surfing.

Earlier this morning, as I was waiting to leave for today’s lesson, I read a post in one of my women’s surfing pages. The poster said she was discouraged because she could not get to her feet after three lessons.

In the comments, someone wrote:

“The ocean is a powerful space to explore our fears, patterns, behaviors, places where we are being called to make a shift in our lives or areas of our life that may be out of balance. It acts as a mirror and guides us in pushing through any fears from a space of courage, trust, surrender, release and connection to both our body and mother nature.

“Through stepping out of our comfort zone, we are able to practice getting comfortable in the uncomfortable and shake up any stuck energy, allowing what is out of alignment to fall away, creating the space for what is truly calling.”

I agree. I’m getting to my feet, but I have a lot of fears about what will happen once I stay up. I think my challenges staying upright are about learning balance on the board, and that feels mostly physical. It’s something I will gradually improve on as I keep working on it.

But in the past month alone, I’ve noticed I am more excited about getting to my lessons than nervous about them. A feeling of adventure is replacing my previous sense of dread.

After lessons, I always feel the same: expansive, relaxed, and tired in a good way.

After today’s lesson, I conducted three interviews with three female surfers for my book. All three are around my age or older. One has surfed for only a year, the other for twenty, the third for thirty. The one who has surfed for three decades is a tandem surfer, which means she does acrobatics on a surfboard with a partner. Thirty years ago, it took her two years to pop up.

So we go at our own pace, and it’s all about timing. Sometimes the moment calls for speed-changing down to a swimsuit in a Taco Hell parking lot. Other times, you must figure out on your own when to paddle for and catch the wave, since your instructor decided you were ready.

And if you can wait two years to pop up, you just might find you’ve got thirty more years in you, which is all the time in the world to learn fancy surfboard tricks.
Whatever the case, just keep on going.

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About the Author: Katie Burke

Katie Burke
Katie Burke is an award-winning author, San Francisco attorney, journalist, and surfer. Her first book, Urban Playground: What Kids Say About Living in San Francisco, was critically acclaimed. Her next book, the forthcoming Sea Change: Women and Nonbinary People Reshaping Surfing Wave by Wave, is scheduled for publication in July 2023.

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