Friday, December 15, 2017

Floating on the surface: one student’s experience overcoming more than just waves at Tofino

July 15, 2015 by Rebecca Davies, contributing writer

I have not been much of a risk taker in my 26 years of life.

Nothing I did was ever to the extreme, and like most sane people, I avoided putting my life in danger. For some reason, I did not classify surfers in the category of “adrenaline junkies.” It might have been because I had never felt the wrath of the ocean as it drives me into the sand at its bottom. It might have been because skilled surfers seem to glide over the surface of the water with a laid-back ease, carving in and out of the funnel as if the surfboard were cemented to their feet. When my friends John and Alex asked if I wanted to go surfing for the first time in Tofino this summer, I agreed. I was no professional surfer, but I was comfortable in the water and thought it would be easy enough to paddle hard and lift myself onto the board.

I was wrong. I was so very wrong.


We pulled up to the local surf shop on the Pacific Rim Highway about five minutes south from the eccentric town of Tofino. It was early on a Wednesday morning; we wanted to beat the rush. The forecast told us to expect seven-foot waves, and the beaches were expected to be packed. The three of us laid our rented surfboards across the bed in Alex’s 1985 Westfalia. I bounced around in the back of the van, unable to hang on as one hand kept the pile of boards from toppling over and the other grasped my hand-crafted cafŽ mocha from a local Tofino coffee shop.

A look at the ocean from the shores of Tofino (photo by Greg Pratt/Nexus).

A look at the ocean from the shores of Tofino (photo by Greg Pratt/Nexus).

Chesterman Beach is a common destination for beginner surfers. The islands scattered off the shore create a break for the waves, making them less intense than the 10-to-15-footers found down the road at Long Beach. The surfers there are exposed to the vastness of the open ocean. We unloaded our gear, and I squeezed my healthy curves into the neoprene wetsuit. We joked that we resembled stuffed sausages, and I watched the boys pick up their boards with ease and tuck them under one arm. I attempted this method and realized my arm was not quite long enough to reach around the edge. My biceps burned as I heaved the nine-foot board above my head and balanced it with a shaky hand on each side.

I watched the guys ahead of me and felt left out of their boy’s club. They had already reached the sandy beach that opens up at the end of the trail. A postcard picture was presented before me: two dark figures walking in the distance, with a background of blue skies and ocean, framed by the tall Sitka and fir trees that lined the trail. I reached them, already out of breath from carrying the 15-pound board above my head. (I could have sworn it was at least fifty, but maybe the long, awkward shape made it feel heavier, or maybe I just have no upper body strength.)

Alex asked me if I wanted a quick lesson. He was the only one who had surfed before and, being my stubborn, independent self, I declined. As I approached the water on my own, Alex was already paddling for his first wave, and John was too busy conquering his own fears to worry about me.

I took a deep breath and embraced the scenery I was submersed in. The air sent a sharp chill into my lungs, even in the depths of summer. To my right, miles of fine sand and small dunes rolled out before me. Scattered islands sat in the distance, covered in untouched trees that reached out for the light. The sky was quite clear for an area that is known for being blanketed in fog for most of the year. A few tufts of clouds blended with the white tops of the waves breaking. To my left, the beach ended at a forest line, and the rocks made a large wall of sharp edges that went out into the water for a few hundred yards, forming a large cove. I made a mental note to avoid that area altogether, as the idea of surfing near a cliff side was not my idea of fun.

Alone, I wandered into the frigid water. The tether to my surfboard was already tangled around my ankles, and it distracted me from the thousands of pounds of water headed my way. The force of the wave on my unprepared body had me swirling and contorting in cyclones of water, unable to swim, unable to find the surface. I was held under, and I felt the tether to my surfboard go taut. I curled up into the fetal position and covered my head as the board came springing back. I felt it hit the back of my neck and I gasped for air. I had never felt that my life was in danger more than I did at that moment. Both the boys might as well have been miles away. Without my glasses, everyone looked like seals swimming about. Even if they were within earshot, I don’t think I would have asked for help, even when salt water poured from my nose. I am much too proud for that.

At some point after having my body bashed into the ocean floor, I got angry. I was tired of being shoved around, and like a four-eyed kid standing up to the schoolyard bully, I decided to fight back. I sank my toes deep into the sand beneath me, like roots, and tightened my trunk, my core, in order to brace myself for impact. I pulled my board up close against my body, as an extension of myself, and dove nose-first into the base of the wall of water. A chaotic sense of calmness gave me the strength to force my body out the other side. I saw the surface break as my head breached and I erupted from the water.


I made it out past the breaks, where it was calm. I bobbed at the surface of the endless ocean with my legs suspended on each side of the surfboard. I took a moment to reflect. It didn’t matter that I was able to paddle fast enough to propel myself out over the break of a six-foot wave. It didn’t matter that I was able to put all of the energy I had into pushing myself up off the board and jumping up into an awkward standing position. It also didn’t matter that strangers waved and cheered as I glided past, high above them, until the wave died at the shore and I leaped into the shallow water.

What mattered is that for once, I did not listen to the nagging voice inside me that told me I was too weak, too inexperienced, too anxious to be able to achieve victory. I basked in the warmth of mother nature’s rays, and I understood why she had to push me to the edge of my own limits in order to show me true value. I am capable of more than I know, and it took a surfboard to the head to discover it. I thanked her, I thanked her out loud, and she responded with the cry of the seagull soaring high above my head.

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