This morning, I confronted my two biggest surfing fears: other surfers and large waves.

Unfortunately, these two monsters travel in pairs. It’s easy to feel calm about surfing when both the ocean and your fellow surfers are even-tempered.

When the waves get excited, surfers do, too: They can get greedy about catching the beautiful waves and be hostile with anyone in the lineup encroaching on what they perceive to be their territory.

Last week, I thought a lot about surfer collisions and head injury. I scared myself into ordering a surfing helmet, which, after it arrives this week and I can wear it next Sunday, will scream, “Beginning surfer!” … or as we’re called in the surfing vernacular, “Kook!”

Call me Sea Dork; I don’t care. I’ll surf with far more confidence knowing I have head protection from flying surfboards (including, potentially, my own), oncoming surfers, and anything on the ocean floor, should the water choose to throw me down there when I’m on the shallow end.

My surf instructor was running a half hour late this morning. As usual, I had my phone ringer off, so I missed his calls and texts about this and headed to the beach at our appointed time. When he hadn’t arrived at 8:00 a.m., I checked my phone and saw all the communications he had sent me at 7:00.

So I had a half hour to play in the water until my surf instructor and rental surfboard arrived.

As if on cue with my fear of injury, a surfer walked by on the beach holding a paper towel between his eyes, at the top of his nose, indicating to me that something had hit him there.

Twenty minutes later, when I was back in the parking lot waiting for my instructor, I heard one surfer tell another that Surfer A had collided with another surfer moments ago, and that Surfer A’s board is now dented.

Notice he didn’t say the accident had taken place twenty minutes before. These appeared to be two separate incidents resulting in injury.

And no wonder: In just the small area of ocean surrounding Linda Mar Beach, there must have been at least fifty surfers waiting for the same waves. By my count, only two were wearing helmets.

When my instructor arrived, he affirmed my decision to wear a helmet once the one I bought arrives. He said it’s always a good idea, especially when I’m learning.

When I told him about my July 4th Weekend experience in Cayucos—that I didn’t know which waves to catch or where because he wasn’t there to tell me—he said I should tell him today which waves I think I should take, so he could teach me rather than telling me what to do.

Perhaps because I had shared with him that I’m afraid of other surfers, my instructor took us to an area where very few surfers were waiting for waves.

As if on cue with my fear of surfers being nasty, a surfer started in with my instructor as soon as he brought us over there. She asked which surf school he works for, then told him he shouldn’t bring students over to this area because it is too dangerous for us. Yet the water was still, and the only surfers competing with us for waves were this person and her two friends.

My instructor gave her a thumbs up and did not respond otherwise. When she kept talking and he continued not engaging, she paddled over to my fellow student and me and said, “You should know your instructor doesn’t care about your safety.” We both ignored her, then she added, “And he’s teaching you to disrespect more experienced surfers.”
When the waves continued not to come to that purportedly treacherous spot, we moved to the one that terrified me: where waves larger than any I’d yet seen on Linda Mar crashed in rapid succession, with at least a dozen surfers clustered at any given part of that section.

I got to practice my pop-up, which still needs lots of work. And I processed my fears. With my instructor by my side telling me where to be, I felt safe.

The most exciting part of today was that my instructor stopped telling me when to pop up. After he had refrained once from telling me to pop up, I asked why. He said, “I’ve decided to have you figure out when you should go up on the wave.”

Later, he told me my timing was perfect. But he didn’t have to say that: After all the times he has told me when to pop up, I could feel exactly when I should start popping up on all the waves I tried today.

After surfing, I put on some après surf apparel I had bought at a surf shop yesterday: a beach cover-up and loose pants. After weeks of slinking into jeans with my sandy legs and wet bathing suit, I couldn’t wait to wear something much easier to get into and more comfortable to wear after leaving the water.

Though the cover-up and pants are both from a top brand, make no mistake: When worn together, this is a muumuu of the highest order. And nothing screams, “Middle-aged, beginner surfer over here!” like a beach muumuu. Even without the helmet, Sea Dork has arrived. And just like I’ll feel when I am sporting a helmet on the waves, I don’t care.

After surfing, I stopped at Traveler, a community surf shop just up the road from Linda Mar. It’s a wonderful place where members can store surfboards, shower after surfing, use the sauna, sit on the heated bench in the garden, and buy surf supplies and apparel. I had someone snap my photo in front of the store so you could admire my muumuu.

Here’s to conquering our fears, repeatedly. The journey is endless, and it is joyful. Surf’s up.

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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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