I love the ocean; the colours, the waves, the underwater world full of fish and coral. The power of the waves amazes me, and the sound of them crashing relaxes me. Sadly, its churning motion, the ups and downs and rocking motion also have been known to make me sick. Nonetheless, I’ve taken surfing lessons, gone on a week-long sailing trip and been on countless boat rides for snorkelling, diving and transportation around the world without incident. Let’s not talk too much about the ‘with incident’ ones in St. Pierre & Miquelon, Koh Phi Phi and the Atlantic Ocean on my way to Bermuda.
It’s always a challenge for me to go anywhere on a boat as I know that I can get violently ill, and if I do, it is horrible. But, I keep the faith that I’ve been on far more rides where I have been fine than ill.
Other than seasickness, my second fear with surfing is getting pummeled by a big wave as it crashes and getting held under as it churns and throws you in every direction. It has happened to me twice; once in Lawrencetown Beach, Nova Scotia while swimming with my sister and once in Sosua, Dominican Republic while trying to get past the waves to go for a swim. Clearly, I survived both times, but those few seconds of confusion, no air and the pressure of the wave pounding you toward the sand were really disconcerting.
In 2015, when I was travelling in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I decided to take surfing lessons with a friend in a small town called Sayulita. It’s known for its calm waters and a great spot to learn to surf. After a one-hour land lesson and lots of practice getting into position, we were off to try our newfound skills on the water. We paddled out to where the water was just over my head, turned toward the beach and the instructor told us when to paddle and gave each of our boards a little push to help us get the speed we needed. I stood up on my very first try and rode the wave in.
I remember the feeling of power as the wave pushed me forward and I slowly took my time to get in the upright position. It was like a friend coming up from behind you and jokingly pushing you, causing you to rush forward, but not fall.
I purposely jumped off the board at the end as I was in fairly shallow water. I was super stoked that I had stood up on my very first wave!
The second, third and fourth waves … well … Let’s just say maybe I had beginner’s luck.
I did manage to stand up on five or six different waves that day in Sayulita before becoming exhausted from paddling and popping up on my board. And it seemed by the end when this next photo was taken that I hadn’t really improved that much, but I did have fun!
When I visited Bocas del Toro in Panama to study and volunteer, I signed up for one day of surfing lessons. I expected a very similar experience to what I had in Mexico. I hadn’t done any research, and oh how wrong I was!
I was greeted by Michelle at Mono Loco, one of the best surf schools in Bocas Town. She was incredibly friendly, welcoming and I immediately felt excited to be doing surf lessons with a girl! I very clearly remember my internal dialogue saying ‘Wow. It’s really awesome to have a girl-instructor. I bet she’s really good.’ Surfing is a male-dominated sport, so I expected to have a male instructor and be with a bunch of guys in a class. Instead, I had a female instructor and one other girl in my class from Portugal.
Michelle exclaimed ‘The waves are so great today! I just got back in.”
Me, ‘By great, you mean small and good for beginner’s right?’
She chuckled a bit and said ‘No, they are really good.’
I responded with a nervous chuckle.
We would be surfing an area behind Carenero Island called Black Rock. We had a great classroom lesson on how waves work and how to paddle properly. The importance of scooping under the board was stressed because of the strong current in the area we were going to. I also learned (much to my dismay) that we would be surfing over a reef.
All I could think of was being slammed by a wave and pummeled by the coral and then needing to contact my travel insurance on the way to the hospital with my open wounds.
Of course, Michelle quickly explained that the reef was 10 or 12 feet below and because of the type of waves, even if you got caught in the ‘foamball’, it wouldn’t push you far enough down to hit the coral. Somewhat reassuring I suppose.
She also explained that if we thought we were too late to catch the wave, we could wait for it and dive into it so that the power of the white water as it crashed would wash over us instead of taking us down with it.
I was really starting to wonder what I had signed up for. She was talking about three to five-foot waves, in the middle of the ocean. Thinking back though, the waves were taller than someone standing on their board, so they must have been at least six feet, right? They’d be coming in sets and if we missed the first one, we’d just have to position ourselves quickly and we could catch the next. (mmm quickly? How quickly?) She told us how hard we would have to paddle, but then when we needed a rest we could get to the channel and stay there or we could get to the boat and hold on for a bit if we needed to rest.
On the flip side, what’s really cool about the spot where we went surfing is that it is like a giant wave pool, except it’s the ocean! There’s a lull where the ocean goes nearly calm and then a set of four to eight waves come in. If you catch the first one, it regenerates itself and gives you a second and then a third chance all on the same wave. How cool is that?! I could understand it on the classroom board, but would I be able to do it in real life? I was trying really hard not to think about my two fears: being seasick and being in the wrong spot at the wrong time sending me into the foamball.
We quickly positioned ourselves on a demo board and practiced our ‘pop-up’. Easy-peasy on the super steady floor with no rushing wave behind us! And then we were off to catch our boat, grab our boards and catch some waves.
The boat ride was only about five or six minutes and our surf spot was just behind Carenero Island. I’ve zipped past here many times on my way to Bastimentos, Solarte and Popa Islands and admired the crashing waves in the distance. This time, as we approached I got a little (more) freaked out by the size of the waves. They looked pretty big from the front. Oh and when we came around and approached from the back, they looked pretty big from back there too!
Remember my first surf lesson when I jumped off the board at the end because it was shallow? Ya, that clearly wasn’t happening this time. Nor was there any chance to rest with your feet on the ground.
Our boat anchored and within moments I knew I couldn’t sit in the bobbing boat, so I hopped in the water and waited for my board. After waxing up the boards to help us grip better, we set off paddling into the channel (the easy part) where we would go one at a time with the instructor out on the waves. I knew I was in trouble as soon as everyone started paddling and I started falling behind. I was having a hard time just balancing on the board on my stomach. I didn’t remember this part being so difficult.
Finally, I caught up and we got the lowdown on where the safe zones were, what to watch for and where to “rest”. The other girl in my class has surfed a few times and was super excited, so off she went with Michelle to catch the first of the waves. Sure enough, she popped up and rode for a bit before paddling back to the safe zone.
I was off to give it a try. I very clearly remember Michelle telling me to get in position and yelling, ‘Get ready. Don’t look back. Just look forward. Start paddling…….. Now! Don’t look back!’ I followed orders and didn’t look back (thank goodness). I paddled as hard as I could until I felt the wave launch me forward like a javelin. I can remember feeling the water against my body, but somehow I was going the same speed, so it didn’t come over my head or take me down. I pushed into the cobra position and stayed there. I was too wrapped up in the speed and power of the wave to even think about getting to my feet. As the wave slowed, it regenerated and there was that thrust forward again. This time I thought about standing but couldn’t quite figure out how to make it happen. Cobra worked just fine for me. The wave slowed again, regenerated and one last push put me to the end of the wave area.
I hadn’t made it to my feet but I was super happy to have caught the wave, to begin with, to feel its incredible power and to have held my cobra position long enough to get me through all three waves.
High fives from Michelle as she had ridden the wave in with me and congratulated me for making it!
We started paddling toward the channel where we would be out of the wave zone and eventually Michelle kindly offered me a tow. I was tiring quickly and apparently despite my paddling, I wasn’t actually moving anywhere due to the current. How this tiny surfer girl who weighs about half of what I do could have enough strength to paddle herself and tow me out of this current was beyond me, but she did. She towed me as far into the safe zone as possible, made sure I was good and then took my classmate out on her next wave.
As I bobbed around in the channel, I was excited to watch each of the other students go out and stand up on the waves. I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t stood up but reminded myself each of them had previously had one week or more of practice whereas I had only ever had one, two-hour class. And I gave myself a break.
I skipped my next turn and Michelle took one of the other students out and then returned for me. By this time, bobbing in the water was starting to make my stomach churn. We had been out in the water for a total of about 30 – 40 minutes at this point. I was determined to get another run in. We paddled out to the wave zone (much easier to paddle WITH the current), Michelle yelled at me to paddle and suddenly I felt the wave shove me forward. I got into the cobra position and held for a second. I started to pop up, but feeling a little tipsy, put my feet back down on the back of the board and rode the regenerations in cobra position again. So, I didn’t stand up … Next time I would get it!
As I struggled against the current to get into the channel, again I was stuck, moving nowhere. I’ve never been so tired from moving nowhere. It was exhausting! Clearly, I needed to improve my paddling technique to make it effective. By the time I got back in the channel, the cold sweats were passing over my body. I knew there was no way around it. Soon, I would be sick. After Michelle congratulated me for my second run, I told her I wouldn’t be able to go again, I wasn’t feeling well. Disappointed, I headed back to the boat where she suggested I could at least hold on and not have to fight the current. Moments later, she was towing me toward the boat as I had no energy and was likely turning green.
We were within about two meters of the boat when I let go of Michelle’s line. As she turned to see why I had let go, I said, “I’m not going to make it to the boat.” A split second later I was in the water (instead of on my board), holding my board and ‘letting it all go’.
Vomiting while you are actually in the sea has benefits and downfalls. Downfalls, you can’t always keep your face out of the water, you might take in some saltwater and you have to tread water to keep yourself afloat. On the other hand, there’s no clean-up and relatively little smell, unlike being stuck with your face in a toilet.
Michelle tried to comfort me saying that I’m not the first one to get sick in these waves. That helped a little, but I was still disappointed.
While I was busy emptying my stomach, Michelle waved down a boat that would take me back to shore. She was concerned as she didn’t have any money to pay him, but I did! When they had recommended we leave whatever we could at the surf shop, I decided to take my wallet and cover-up in my dry bag. At this point even if it was going to cost me $20, I needed out of the waves and back on land.
Exhausted from paddling against the current for 45 – 60 minutes and weak from puking in the sea, I had to find the energy to lift myself into the little boat. There aren’t any ladders to climb up, no sand or rocks to push off of, just pure upper body strength with a scissor kick of the feet. Attempt number one was hilariously unsuccessful. Attempt number two was successful but far from graceful. I lifted myself up to boat level which was well above my head and struggled to push up far enough to tip my balance into, instead of out of the boat. Chin first, I tumbled into the boat like a beached whale and sprawled out on the hard wooden seat. And then I giggled again at the ridiculousness of it all.
Michelle gave me my water bottle, dry bag and sandals from our original boat and waved me on my way. I thanked her for all of her help and sped off into the rolling waves.
I’m sure we took the long way back as the boat captain was looking for other tired surfers to take back to Bocas Town, but none were to be found. Everyone else was bopping around in the waves or popping up and riding the big ones in. When we docked, the captain asked for a measly $2. (I was prepared to pay up to $20 if I had to) I gave him a little over $3 and thanked him for getting me out of the waves.
Despite having been seasick, I don’t for a second regret the adventure. I just wish that I had done my research. If I had known I was going to open water I would have:
- Taken Gravol
- Not eaten pineapple pancakes for breakfast
- Maybe chickened out and not gone at all. Ok, probably not. I would have been nervous for longer, but I still would have gone.
If you are planning to try surfing for the first time, find out what the location is like. Prepare yourself if you are prone to seasickness and enjoy every second of that pure natural energy behind you when you catch your first wave. Even for me, it is a feeling that I’ll never forget! I’ll give surfing another try one day. I think I’ll go back to the small, beach-break waves and maybe take some Gravol next time, but I’ll get the hang of it and you can too!