The Surfer's Apprentice

By David Cogswell

The surfing lesson started with an explanation of the difference between point breaks and beach breaks. Roy Beers, the operator of El Salvador’s Cadejo Adventures, explained that beach breaks are better for learning how to surf because they are very consistent. The waves are mild and they last for a long time. If you can get up on your feet, you have a lot of time to ride the wave before it flattens out on the shore. Point breaks, on the other hand, are better for accomplished surfers. Roy drew a picture in the sand showing how when a wave breaks over the point of land, the break starts at the point and moves across the wave in a motion almost perpendicular to the direction of the wave. A really good surfer can catch that wave where it breaks and ride the break sideways for a long time. When the wave curls over the top and a surfer rides sideways through the tunnel, he’s in the pipeline. When you get a great wave and experience the euphoria of a long ride, you’re stoked. He kept using terms I knew from surf music. Roy’s lesson was evoking the songs of surf bands like the Ventures, the Beach Boys and Dick Dale and the Deltones, and making the music play in my head as a soundtrack superimposed over the roar of the waves.

We were standing on the beach at the resort Club Joya del Pacifico (Jewel of the Pacific) in El Salvador. The surf lesson was one component of a multi-sport adventure offered by Cadejo Adventures. First, like all good surfers, we had to wax the board. That was the penance you paid to earn the pleasure of spending a day at the beach riding waves. You would take a chunk of wax and rub it over the board, covering the parts that you would be trying to stand on, to give your feet traction. After getting the boards sufficiently waxed, we picked them up under our arms and started walking toward the beach. I pictured myself on the cover of the Beach Boys Surfer Girl album. “Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world…”

Next we had to learn about how to get up. Roy and his colleague Javier, a bronzed young Salvadoran surfer about six feet four inches tall, were going to tutor Matt and I, the novices, on the basics of surfing. We were going to try to get up on the board that day, if possible. Roy said ideally you would structure the program over a few days so you would have time to learn the lessons, develop some muscle memory, then sleep and heal and come back and start fresh the next day. In that time you might be able to get the feel of it and do some real surfing.

Roy was shorter than Javier, with a pencil thin waist and thick deltoid, pectoral and latissimus muscles that made his shoulders seem nearly as wide as he was tall. Roy and Javier have been surfing since they were teenagers. They had spent endless hours at it with the dedicated concentration of teenagers who have not yet been encroached upon by the necessities of earning a living. For these guys surfing was second nature. Roy decided he should instruct me and let Javier instruct Matt, because I was a goofy foot, like Roy. That means we naturally lead with our right foot, which puts us in the minority.

We put the board down on the beach, digging the fin into the sand, and Roy showed me the movement. It’s probably the hardest thing to learn about surfing, to go from lying down on the board paddling, to standing up and riding a wave. It had to be a quick, smooth motion, but in learning it you discovered that it was comprised of a number of smaller motions. You had to grab the board with both hands on the side, lift up your trunk, hurl your legs forward and try to get your feet into position, one in front of the other. He showed me and I tried it with the board dug solidly into the sand. It was exhausting. It was like doing sit-ups or leg lifts, pulling the feet up rapidly. My abdominal muscles felt like they were being torn to shreds. After practicing a while, and ending up in the same stance over and over, with my feet not quite in the right place, I was ready for a nap. The sun was scorching and I was sweating. But the coolness of the water was beckoning, and Roy suggested we go on to the next phase.

Roy guided me, showed me how to time your paddling with the approach of the wave so it will lift you. He was right, the surf breaks were mild waves, long-lasting and relatively easy to get in synch with. At first he wanted me to just try catching the wave and riding it, not trying to get up. That was fun, and pretty easy. The water was warm and had a yellow tinge. Roy said it was iodine, not pollution. I imagined hopefully that it would be the health potion I am always seeking, that which will cure all my ills, clear my sinuses, heal cuts and blemishes, reverse the aging process.

After several tries riding waves to the shore in a lying position, being overtaken luxuriantly by the foamy brine, I was ready to try getting up to my feet. I wished Roy or someone else would just lift me up, because that move of leaping to one’s feet does not get easier as the day goes on. But I did manage to get up onto my feet and ride a wave a couple of times. My feet were still landing in the not-quite-right position on the board in the water as they had on the beach. I was never in anything approaching control and never stayed up on the board for more than a few seconds. But I got just a taste of what it could be like. If I’d had the time to rest up and come back a couple more days to try again, I might have been able to ride a wave in a standing position to its conclusion. Maybe. It was a lot of fun, though, anyway, and a glimpse into that world, the culture of surfing.

For my efforts, I ended up with balls of wax stuck to my chest, a line of sunburn on my back where my fingers couldn’t reach with the sunscreen, and some seriously sore muscles. With the surfing, the mountain biking and horseback riding, I stimulated clusters of muscles that had been virtually dormant for years. I was so stiff when I left El Salvador I considered calling for a wheelchair at the airport.

At least at the airport I was back in familiar territory, an area of mastery. I was pleasantly surprised to find free Internet in both the Nicaragua and the El Salvador airports, and I as actually able to get some work done while waiting to board . But when I got to Miami International there was no free Internet and not even any electrical outlets for plugging in your computer. People were sitting around glumly in crowds on the floor waiting for delayed flights with nothing to do. Welcome back to the first world!

For more information about Cadejo Adventures, call 011 (503) 2208 3115 or see -- David Cogswell

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