Thats a Paddling

Photo by James BunoanNaked in my wetsuit (I had no idea), I walk into the water with my surf instructor Chris Barnum. Mysurfinstructor.If, 25 years ago, you would have told me that I would have a surf instructor and that I would do so with a pocket-sized telecommunications device that could not only take pictures but also play the "Girl from Ipanema," I would have called you a filthy lying dog . . . and asked if the phone would also play "What I Like About You."

For those of us of a certain age and ilk, teaching and surfing do not go together. Guys like me—43 going on 44—who grew up where I did—inland (Downey)—never really thought of surfers as mentors, unless it was to educate you on what it felt like to get your ass kicked, which I respected—surfers being that chosen people privy to a sport, culture and breed of woman I recognized as beyond my worth.

Of course, it's a different world now. Type in "Southern California surf camps" on Google and you'll get 925,000 hits—a lot for something not containing the word "naked." Icons (Corky Carroll) teach surfing, as do champions (four-time longboard title holder Kim "Danger Woman" Hamrock), current and former pros, soul surfers and hard chargers. There are camps for kids and lessons designed especially for women. My guy, Chris, is director of one of the best camps anywhere, the Billabong Summer Fun Surf Camp, which runs the length of the summer and is the only surf camp permitted at the mecca that is San Onofre State Beach. He also works with high school surf teams and kids who want to turn pro and does the private lesson thing for fortysomethings like me who still can't believe this is actually happening.

"You're doing great, bud! Wooo hooo!"

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That's Chris as I paddle out for the first time in the gentle San Onofre surf. As Chris had showed me to do on shore, I paddle, paddle, paddle, then lift my trunk from the board in a half-pushup, yoga-like move that raises my trunk off the board—allowing water to flow through—while keeping my man junk anchored. Then it's back down and paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle. There's a lot of paddling in surfing, my friends, perhaps more than you're aware since the surf videos and TV commercials and Bruce and Dana Brown films tend to gloss over it. But paddling is a big deal in surfing; a big, big, stomach-churning deal.

I get out to where I'm supposed to be and Chris shows me how to turn into the wave and I do and he pushes me and I'm off and moving forward and here's the key: the wave pushes me easy and straight; a gentle but firm shove—your dad's hand on the back of your bike. There is no roiling water or turmoil of any kind. Amid this, I have the time to think of what Chris told me to do and methodically get to my feet, straighten up and ride the board into shore.

"Yeeeeaaaa!" Chris says. Actually, Chris doesn't sayanything when he's in the water. He yells. It's a happy yell, like you're the first guy he ever saw get up on a surfboard, which you're not, since his camp has 14 sessions, each with 35 campers with an instructor for every three of them. They get up. A lot. And Chris yells. A lot.

"Yeah! You got it, buddy! YOU! GOT! IT!"

I love Chris. I met him an hour ago, and yet Chris is one of my favorite people ever. Magic Johnson and Chris.

I wonder if Chris was ever one of those surfers who stared you down for staring at their girlfriend for a few minutes/weekdays. He was a big wave surfer for a number of years on Hawaii's North Shore, but he also has a degree in psychology and, for a number of years, worked in marketing in the surfwear industry. He's a smart guy.

"Dude, you're one of the best students I've ever had!"


I paddle out again with Chris hooting and hollering and congratulating me on getting up on the first try.

"Some people have a hard time just sitting on the board!"

I know I'd have a problem with sitting if I were anywhere else: anywhere else where I wasn't only concerned with the water but who was in it hating me. For whatever reason, San Onofre is different from every other surfing beach in Southern California. Calm, mellow. The regulars say it's the closest a California beach gets to the aloha vibe of Hawaii. People are nice and welcoming. Though they very much feel an ownership of the place, manicuring the grounds, policing rude boys, attaching their own adjustable showerheads to the government-issue spigot—"San O!" Chris says as if in perpetual amazement, "Where else would someone bring their own showerhead?!"—that ownership doesn't translate into exclusion. Some say it's just always been that way. Others credit San Onofre's rocky bottom with producing the consistent, gentle wave ideal for beginners and generous spirits.

You know what you're going to get at San Onofre, which means everything to a novice. Though, as I paddle out the fourth time, I have no idea what will happen next. I'm having a great time and expect to vomit. So tired. I'm not bragging, but I've been an athlete all my life: trained for marathons, endured high school football hell weeks. Yet this may the most tired I've been in my life. Paddling. Dear God. My arms are shaking and barely able to lift me.

Chris is having a good laugh, not at my expense, more of a welcome to the brotherhood kinda deal. He tries to make me feel good by telling me that though the people who attend his overnight camp—Summer Fun has both day and overnight options—are offered games and movies back at San Clemente State Park, most are so tired after a day of surfing, all they want to do is go to bed. I guess I should take solace in the fact that I have the staying power of a 'tween girl, but, frankly, I'm listening to very little of what Chris is saying and concentrating more on making my appendages do stuff, while wondering if predatory marine life will be attracted to my puke.

One more push, and away I go again with what seems like all the time in the world to get up, which I do, and, this time, I actually maneuver the board. For that time—20 minutes? Four seconds?—all is well. Chris yells, and some of the old dudes on the shore have a look and nod. Uh huh.

Chris and I leave the water. I stagger up the shore and sit down, where my surf instructor and I talk surfing. How do I feel? I feel wonderful. I went surfing, and I didn't get beaten up, eaten or vomit. It's so much more than I could have ever expected.


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