We start with dryland practice and I check out the rest of the class. The instructor looks around 30, give or take, and has a slightly bored expression that suggests he’s been doing this for a while. I imagine he’d rather be on the North Shore catching the break, but teaching rank beginners on Waikiki Beach is what pays the rent, so here he is.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, all of them ending with a tumble into the surf.
The rest of the class is young. One might be in his early 20s, the other four in their teens, kids really, two Asian boys and a brother and sister. They’re on vacation in Hawaii, so of course they want to learn to surf.
And then there’s me, north of 50, hair thinning, beard streaked with gray. We live on Maui now, and I bodysurf often, but this is only my third time on a surfboard. The first was on this very beach, 48 years ago; the second a more recent lesson at a small break on Maui. Neither of them took, so I am still a beginner. I look like Walter Brennan among the McCoy clan.
We set our boards in the sand and the teacher shows us how to climb up, how to stand, how to balance, even how to fall. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, all of them ending with a tumble into the surf. We have a tether so we won’t lose our boards.
We carry our boards into the water and start paddling out through the long, rolling waves. The break is a few hundred yards out, which is why it’s ideal for beginners; once you’re up, you can get a nice long ride. I’m right behind the instructor, and I notice he keeps looking back toward shore. Finally I turn to see what he’s looking at. It’s the rest of our class, at least a hundred yards back, struggling to paddle through the waves.
I’m a swimmer. I’ve been swimming laps once or twice a week for most of my adult life. On Maui we built our own lap pool. Paddling a surfboard uses arm and shoulder muscles I’ve built up over years. Not so, apparently, my classmates, who apparently squandered their youth playing video games.
When we reach the break, the teacher talks me through the procedure one more time. A wave approaches. I orient my board toward the shore, looking back over my shoulder at the wave. He says “Now” and gives my board a shove as I kick furiously. The board catches the wave and I start pulling myself up. I reach a low crouch—I’m surfing!—and suddenly the board tips and I plunge into the water. I bob to the surface, retrieve my board, and paddle back to the instructor.
I wish I could say that the third time was the charm, that I mastered the art of surfing that afternoon and have been catching waves ever since. I did get a few decent rides of ten seconds or less—as much as any of my classmates—that gave me a sense of the power of the waves and why people get addicted to the sport. The next day I went back to Maui and bodysurfing. That was the last time I touched a surfboard.
Still, I learned that I can not only keep up with the teenagers, I can beat them. It’s not the years, it’s what you do with them.
Maybe I’ll try again in my 70s.
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.