Olas de Miedo

January 2, 2022

Surfing can be scary.

Angry locals. Rips. Sharks. Drop-ins. Infected wounds.

And that’s before you even catch a wave!

My fears, when it comes to surfing, can be summarized with a few different scenarios.

Scenario A: A big wave rolls in. A surfer, deep on the inside, either gets on the wave and runs over me or has to swerve around me causing him to crash and hurt himself.

Scenario B: A big wave rolls in (you can see the theme already). I’m in the middle of a packed lineup, we’re all caught off guard. I paddle hard, but the wave breaks directly on me. I can’t dive enough and either my board flies away and hits someone, or someone lets their board fly into me. Some sort of group collision thing.

Scenario C: A big wave rolls through, picks me up and throws me into a rock. Death. Or grievous bodily harm.

These scenarios are vivid in my mind. A fin slicing through the water towards me. Water draining off an urchin covered rock. So, I react. I sit wider. I sit further away. I paddle earlier. I avoid. I talk myself off waves.

But thanks to spending A LOT of time in the water over the past month, like possibly more time than the past 3 years combined, these scenarios are fading in importance.

Here I posit a few solutions to what some might call over enthusiastic catastrophizing.

Exposure therapy

At one of the more famous and localized’ breaks in Central America, Punta Roca, I let go of my board. I know this is bad form, but sometimes unavoidable if your board is too big or you can’t get under the wave in time. When I came to the surface I was greeted by a silent crowd and a really pissed off local. I was shouted at and kicked out like a dog who ate something it shouldn’t. That smarted but I learnt a lesson and lived to surf another day. Big waves have sent me hurtling into sand and rocks, hard. I cut my feet, leg, fingers, hands, back. I’ve been in the way. I’ve paddled too slow. But the more diverse and challenging situations you experience, the more your competence builds. More importantly, you realize that your imagination can spin small things out of proportion.

Comrades, not competitors

Surfing is a solitary sport, but most surf spots are crowded, and lineups can get toxic and extremely hierarchal. The bigger the wave, the more pronounced the pecking order. What’s helpful, and healthy, is to reframe the competition into co-operation. Recognize that everyone around you has their own fears and concerns, likely more than you think. Rather than doubting the surfers around you, trust everyone and treat everyone equally. Put some good back into the system. One of the best stress relievers is cheering for a friend as they drop down a massive wall of water.

Let it go

Finally, come to terms with the fact that you will feel some fear or anxiety out there, it’s a given. Notice a negative thought or emotion but let it pass. Don’t react. Intrusive thoughts are simply a small part of the tapestry of your consciousness. Along with sounds, smells, sights and all the rest of your brain activity. We have thousands of these thoughts every day. Don’t let a couple of negative images get in the way of a good session.