CRASH! The Tale of a Surf Rookie.


Street lined with palm trees
I could see the beach at the end of the road, tall palm trees shimmering in the morning sunlight lined the sidewalks in front of houses. I turned off my engine and focused my eyes on the pale blue ocean as I sipped the coffee in my thermos, fear mixing with the buzz of the stimulant trickling into my body. Truly, though, what had I to be afraid of? Sharks, drowning, getting hurt? Millions of people went to the beach everyday, and a good number of people surf everyday. Compared to the amount of participants, how many people didn’t walk away from the beach alive, or hurt at the very least? If the percentage was, in fact, overwhelmingly high, then why did so many people do it?

Well, the percentage isn’t high. And, according to the show River Monsters, there are more reported incidents of humans biting humans in New York City alone than shark attacks all over the world. Most people surf their whole life and never get bit by sharks. And for the amount of times we do anything physical, our injury rate is rather low, don’t you think?

Still, butterflies danced in my stomach as I finished the last of my morning coffee.

Grabbing my towel, I opened the driver side door and exited my vehicle; and, proceeding towards the beach, jived with the nervous energy circulating in my body. I had always wanted to surf, and today was the day. I was going to ride that bull.

Approaching the beach, I could see a red canopy that said, “Surf School.” A man in his late twenties or early thirties stood next to the canopy, looking at something on his phone, scratching his long, shaggy brown hair. This must be it, I thought, as I I moved towards the man.

“Hey, man. You here for private lesson?” The tan instructor asked, shaking his long brown hair. His South American accent was apparent, but his English was very good.

“Yeah, nine o’clock,” I replied.

“Okay, man, we’re gonna get started right at nine, so just hang out for a little bit. The girl will be here with the waiver soon.” The instructor went back to his phone and walked away.

I turned away from the instructor – and the land – dropping into the squat position in order to loosen up while gazing out at the ocean. As I wiggled around in my squat, making room in my hips and ankles for the up and coming test of my athleticism, I watched the waves crash and a surfer lose it. Good thing they have a waiver, I thought. But, then I watched a surfer catch a wave beautifully, dropping in over the top, just barely staying ahead of the break that was trying to engulf him. Down the side and back up, the wave and he slowed as they approached the beach together. He ended the run with a 360 for kicks. Beauty and grace through movement, I thought.

A surfer catching big air: Copyright John Cocozza
Copyright John Cocozza:


I heard a girl’s voice call behind me. “What’s up, dude?”

I turned, rising from my squatted position. “Hey!”

“Nine o’clock private lesson?” She asked.

“Yeah!” I replied.



“Hi, I’m Annie! Just need you to sign this waiver.” I approached the girl, becoming more excited by the moment. “Ever been surfing before?” She asked.

I chuckled, “No, I’m from Michigan. The surfing isn’t too good there.”

Just then another male instructor approached. “What’s up, man? I’m Ryan.”

“Tyler. Nice to meet you, Ryan.” We shook hands

Annie showed me the waiver on her tablet. “Email there, phone number there, and then just sign the big white spot with your finger.” I followed the directions as she spoke to the other instructor. “Yeah, when the big earthquake hits LA we’re supposed to get hit with a sixty footer!”

“Yeah, I’m screwed. My place is on the point in Belmont near the roller coaster.” The other instructor commented.

I wasn’t sure if they were testing my fears, trying to mess with me, or just making casual conversation. So, I commented lightly. “I hope your not talking about today. If so, I want to reschedule my lesson.” We all had a good laugh.

“Alright, you are going to be with,” the girl scrolled on her tablet, trying to find the schedule, “Fernando!”

Fernando, the instructor whom I had first met, came around the red canopy, “Alright, yes! We are gonna have some fun out there, bro. We are gonna catch some waves, man. I’m gonna have you dropping in big by the end of the day, like…!” He wiggled his body like a surfer navigating the ocean on a big wave. We’ll see about that, I thought, but I am so down!

Fernando laughed and put his hand out for a “bro shake,” then he spoke again as we embraced each other, always talking fast with a great amount of energy. “What you think, buddy? You just need to take it to another level or something. What do you need for the lesson?”

“Actually, I’ve never been. I’m from Michigan.”

“Whoa, Michigan! We are gonna have some fun!” He had a wicked smile on his face. “I am from Brazil. Come, let’s get ready.”

I changed into the provided wet suit; Fernando said it would be good for me, but the water was too warm for him to wear one today. He slapped me on the back and jolted me, his shoulder and arm muscles apparent through his tight red surf shirt. “You ready?!”

I laughed, “Ready.”

“Okay…” Fernando continued talking as we walked away from the red canopy. We approached six or seven foam surf boards lying in the sand. He was talking so fast it was hard to keep up. Before I knew it, we were each laying on top of a board. “Keep your feet together, like this,” I followed his eyes and his arm as he pointed to his feet. “Stay balanced, in the middle, the center of the board. Okay?”

I was doing my best to download all of the information. In situations like these, I find it best to just let it happen and stay out of the way. “Got it,” I said. Fernando continued on, explaining balance and paddle basics.

“Okay, let’s pop-up.” Fernando explained that you should push up, arching your back first – “always!” – then, plant your back foot followed by your front foot. Apparently, you don’t actually “pop-up” like what is taught in the movies. I tried to mimic him. Fernando looked over at me as I popped-up. “Good!” he said, “Just keep your front foot a little bit more in the center and your great.” So, I quickly adjusted my feet. “Yes! Perfect!” He exclaimed.

Then, he turned his body towards the ocean. The sea was calling to him, and I thought, I think he’s ready to have some fun. “Ahh, do you see those waves, bro? C’mon lets go.” He hopped off the board. “Oh yeah, always stay back. Don’t let the nose dive down, or your gonna be chasing after it, you know what I mean?” He laughed. I shook my head yes, and we both smiled and had a chuckle.

Looking out at the ocean, we both took a minute to take in the seascape. Watching the white-capped waves crash, the tide moving out as the surf moved in, I thought to myself, Mother Nature is one powerful sum-bitch, ain’t she? We shared a brief moment of silence before Fernando said, “Hey, so do you think,” he turned back to me,” do you think it would be okay if I brought a board out there to surf with you?”

I knew the crazy bastard wanted to have some fun. “Hell yeah, man! Show me what’s up!”

Ah-ha! Yes!” Fernando put his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go have some fun, buddy.”

I was still playing monkey see monkey do as we dragged our boards across the sand, trying to keep up with the wild man from Brazil. Now, physically, I’m not a weak person. But this board was heavy, and I was soon to find out that, just because you’re strong in one sport or activity, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be strong in another. Strength is neuronal, and experience has lots to do with that. Sure, your body will change and you’ll get muscles; however, anatomical position and coordination have more to do with strength than muscle size. Fernando carried the board effortlessly, as I struggled to maintain an even stride.

“So, how do you feel? Are you comfortable, or do you need more instruction?” He asked.

“Honestly, I kind of just learn by doing. I just gotta get in the water, and, do it, you know?”

Fernando stopped and turned back to me with a sly look in his eyes. “Well, let’s get in the water then, bro.”

Image of a wave breaking: Copyright John Cocozza
Copyright John Cocozza:

We wrapped the surf leashes around our ankles, then Fernando headed for the surf. He set the board in the water, then spoke and illustrated to me as a wave approached. “When a wave come, you push down on the back of the board and let the nose go over top, like this.” Then he hopped on to the board, kneeling, and paddled away. Throwing an arm in the air, Fernando signaled and called to me, “Come!”

I walked into the water until it was knee deep, then set the board down; eager to see what the seas had in store, I tried to catch him. The first wave that smacked me was startling, like when you walk around the corner and someone is standing there, but you aren’t expecting them; or when you ask for a light slap from someone in order to wake yourself up. Smack. The water was cool, but Fernando was right, not cold. I continued to push the board forward.

Fernando raised his volume in order for me to hear over the waves. ” Okay, we’re gonna get paddling. This is hard part, but just keep paddling – fast, fast as you can! I will help you some.”

I looked at him, dumbfound. This was it. It was time to surf. “Okay.”

“Well, get on the board, man, c’mon! Paddle!”

Oh, yeah, shit!, I thought to myself. And hopped on the board. Steadying myself, I looked ahead to greet the seas. Smack. I was hit with another wave that almost knocked me off the board. I was awake now. Alert. Alive. And ready.

Fernando placed a hand on my shoulder, as if to let me know he would be there if I needed him. He lowered his face near mine and spoke over the waves. “If you end up seeing something too big, just bail. Feet first is always safest. And cover your head, too.”


“Go then, buddy!”

Fernando shoved the back of my board to get me started, and I was off, paddling hard, but trying to keep control. A wave approached. I arched my back like Fernando had instructed. Smack. My feet came off the board but I held on tightly with my hands. All I could hear was the drone of the ocean waves. I looked in front of myself, seeking the bright, morning horizon, but the waves rose above my line of sight. I could feel the oceans’s power.

Fernando called to me from what seemed like fifty yards back. “Yes! Perfect!” I continued my effort to steady myself. “Keep paddling!”  So, I paddled harder. Already I was becoming winded, though the water was only waist deep. Moving at a snails pace, I heard the call of my teacher, my sensei. “Keep paddling! Get passed this one and then turn around!” A few more paddles before I attempted to arch and pass over the wave. Smack! I said to myself, Alright, I definitely felt that one. I steadied myself and then began to turn. I could see Fernando out of the corner of my eye, on his knees, riding the board effortlessly. He paddled with grace over the wave that had just about put me under water. Two more strokes, one with each arm, and he was right beside me. Still talking over the ocean’s static sound, he said, “Good. You’re going to go for this one. Ready?” Do I even have a choice?, I thought. “Okay, Paddle!

I made the awkward attempt to look behind me, and, from what I saw, I didn’t have long, so I paddled as hard as I could. Then, something happened: It was like the wave gently picked me up from behind. Feeling like a plane about to take off, I sensed a soft nudge from behind me; it was Fernando – I must not have had enough speed. “Stand up!” I heard him call. I felt the board slide around on the ocean’s surface in slow motion beneath my feet as I put my left foot down. Still on my right knee – steady, I thought to myself – I quickly, I popped up, putting the weight on my back foot. And there it was: The indescribable ride of my first wave. Aliveness. An almost enlightened feeling took over my entire body as the world around me was lit up, gliding across the water with a huge smile across my face. I rode all the way to the beach, then stumbled off the board.

“Ah-ha ha!” Fernando came sliding in on a wave. I still had the ear-to-ear grin across my face. “Yeah, buddy! That is what I am talking about!” It was special, the empathy this stranger had for me. He was happy to see me ride the wave, and even happier to see me smile about it. It’s powerful when two human beings share an emotion about a single event. In that moment there was a great sense of connectedness; with Fernando, with the ocean, and with my body. But, just as soon as the feeling of success settled, Fernando made sure it was short-lived. I was about to be humbled by force of Mother Nature.

Before I knew it, we paddled out again, and I was already feeling my lack of endurance for this sport. Nonetheless, I rode another wave, although my exit from the board was less than graceful this time. Crash! I landed in the water with the grace of a hard belly flop. Then, leaping from beneath the water, and sucking a great amount of air, I saw Fernando give me the thumbs up and wave me out. Man, this guy doesn’t let ya rest!

He was standing in waist deep water, waiting for me as I paddled toward him and the open ocean, my shoulders beginning to burn. This is where I had turned to catch a wave the two rides before; so, I turned habitually, my board and I perpendicular to the impeding waves. Lesson number two came quick...don’t let your board turn…face the ocean or the shore….ALWAYS. Fernando’s eyes lit up as the breaker approached. “No, don’t! – ” But it was too late.

Flying sufrboard: Copyright John Cocozza
Copyright John Cocozza:

Crash! The force of the waves blow, combined with my off-balanced, haphazard position, sent me sailing…and, no, not on a boat. I rolled in the water like a leaf in a wind storm. When I finally surfaced I was a good ten yards from where the wave and I had danced, in what was now knee deep water. Fernando still stood in waist deep water, laughing heartily. I shook my head, not to rid my hair of the water, but more so to check myself back into my body. Seeing my board, I flipped it around and pointed the nose toward Fernando, trudging my way back to the breakers.

When I reached him, Fernando was still smiling and chuckling to himself. He comforted me with an apology while I regained my wits. “I’m sorry, bro,” he said, still laughing, “that was my bad. I should have warned you to keep your nose on the waves or the beach. Nothing in between or…well, now you know. Haha!”

I narrowed my eyes at him, then said lightly, “Yeah,” in good humor, “thanks for that.”

We laughed for another moment, and I took a deep breath. I was ready to go at it again. Paddle hard, stay centered, pop up, and keep your nose to the waves or the shore.

However, Fernando was beginning to feel ambitious – and ready to catch a larger wave himself, too 😉 “Okay,” he said,” You got these little waves. You can practice these on your own. Now It’s time to go out there.

I thought to myself, Huh? Wait, what? I’m fairly ambitious myself, but I wasn’t so sure I had the hang of the little waves just yet.

“Can you hang?” Fernando asked.

I could have said no. Define hang, I thought to myself. Hang on for dear life?

But, just then, a word – no, no, an expression; an acronym; pure genius came to my mind….. YOLO, Bro.

“Hell, yeah I can hang!”

“That’s right, buddy. I love it!”

It was time to meet my maker; to test my nerves; to check my manhood; and it would only take twenty minutes of paddling to get passed the break. We began the trek in waist deep water. I hopped on my board and Fernando grabbed the back of it. Before I had any time to steady myself he shoved me forward. Crash!  I hadn’t had much time to arch my back, but, somehow, I made it over the wave and stayed on my board. Water poured down my face, I grunted and gritted my teeth, centering myself on the board. Gut check time. I started paddling my ass off, as hard as I could – by now I knew the ocean had no remorse for a rookie, especially in passing the break – you have to earn that wave, son! Still, it felt as if I was paddling to no avail. A wave approached and I paddled harder yet; furiously, a look to kill on my face. Just before the wave and I met face to face, I arched my back, fighting the wave for real estate, trying to hit it harder than it was going to hit me. All I could see was blue meeting white – the white teeth of the ocean pressing into the skyline. Crash! Up and over the wave, clinging to my board that almost flew behind me.

Great Wave of Kanagawa - Hokusai
Great Wave of Kanagawa – Hokusai

Then, everything was calm for a moment; the distance between the crashing waves had become greater. Fernando paddled to where I could see him, approximately three of four board lengths away; he cheered for me. “Yeah, baby! Perfect! That’s how you do it! Perfect!”  I gave him a thumbs up, and took a deep breath, trying to recover as fast as possible. I could see a wave approaching in the distance; I didn’t have long before it was time for another round. “Get passed this one and your golden buddy!” One more deep breath before I turned on the jets again. Fernando paddle to me. My arms and shoulders burned, as I became noticeably more tired with every stroke. I felt Fernando grab my board as the wave closed in on me – apparently my “jets” weren’t enough, because as the wave came closer, trying to humble me, and put me in my place, back on the beach where rookies belong, I felt Fernando shove me forward. Crash! My hands slipped off my board and I kissed the wave intimately, succumbing to the tough love of the ocean. (Oh yeah, she slipped some tongue in there.)

I came to the surface for air, choking on the saltwater that plunged down my esophagus like third floor plumbing. I coughed and floated in the water, exhausted, holding onto my board. I had made it past the break; the storm had passed…for now. Bobbing up and down, to and fro, slow dancing with the ocean, my sensei moved passed me, proud, like a father witnessing his son’s first home run. I struggled to sit on my board as my teacher gave me a smile and a thumbs up. “You earned that, bro.” Then he pointed to the horizon. “Look.”

The abyss. There it was, infinity. The sun beamed from behind us, and I was reminded of one of my favorite movies, Forrest Gump. There’s a scene where the main character, Forrest, is asked about fear by his wife, Jenny. She asks him if he was scared during the war in Vietnam:

“Yes. Well, I-I don’t know. Sometimes it would stop raining long enough for the stars to come out… and then it was nice. It was like just before the sun goes to bed down on the bayou. There was always a million sparkles on the water… like that mountain lake. It was so clear, Jenny, it looked like there were two skies one on top of the other. And then in the desert, when the sun comes up, I couldn’t tell where heaven stopped and the earth began. It’s so beautiful.”

Desert Sunrise
Image taken from Creative Commons

With action my fears had fled. I wasn’t worrying about sharks or getting hurt or how sore I would be the next day. I was living. Experiencing! Using my body, my vessel, in order to navigate and intimately explore a part of the world I hadn’t yet been to. I wasn’t watching it happen on the television or internet. Sure, those are great ways to find inspiration. However, isn’t it useless if we never use that inspiration to cultivate our own expression? To learn and to grow, to challenge ourselves, isn’t that a major purpose of life? We don’t all have to climb Mt. Everest, or swim with sharks; still, our fears are telling us something. The edge of our comfort zone is where life begins!

Fernando didn’t have to say anything – his wisdom was right there, where heaven met earth, where the sky came down to greet the ocean – but when he finally did speak, my feet were back in the ocean, and my head out of the clouds. “It’s a little trickier out here. Want me to show you how to ride one?”

I forced a tired reply with what little breath I had left. “Yeah, sure.”

“Okay, let me see a wave. When you decide, you are going to turn, then take three or so, maybe five paddles at the most, and then pop-up.”

I nodded my head. I don’t know if I have the energy to pop-up anymore. But, there was something in me that wanted the glory of riding a big wave today.

“Here, watch, I go for this one.” Like the water bug he clearly was, Fernando smoothly turned and positioned his board. “See, watch! One,” he paddled to his count, “two, three.”

Just as the man said, three paddles and he was up on his board riding the wave beautifully, like a “duck in water,” like Tarzan in the trees.

Only now, it was my turn. However, the waves roll in a rhythm that you can’t really count, but can only feel after years of practice. Which one do I take? I did not feel very ready to take a big wave, bobbing alone in the ocean like that. Nonetheless, I had just paddled my ass off to get here, and I certainly wasn’t paddling my ass back in. No, come hell or high water, on top of the wave or underneath it, I had paid to ride the roller coaster, waited in line, and now it was time ride dammit.

Simultaneously, I saw and felt the wave I was about to ride. Unsure of my decision, I paddled, one, two, three. Then I paused for a moment, trying to find myself. But, like the plug being pulled from the bath tub, I felt the water drop, and the wave I had in my sights rose to great heights behind me. Four, five? I paddled again, not knowing whether to abort the mission or stay home. The only thing I could see was the jaws of the ocean closing in on me. I was resting on the waves tongue, and it gently pulled at me. Slowly slithering, I came closer and closer to the mouth of the wave. I realized there was nothing I could do. As I watched the wave show it’s teeth, I succumbed to the mouth of the wave, my last thought being the wise words of my instructor, Fernando… cover your head. A dark shadow was over me. The temperature had dropped. Then, CRASH!

Image taken from Creative Commons

It was like being in a car accident; followed by a deafening silence you could only hear in space. The force of the ocean hurled me forward, spinning, and I put my hands out in front of me, using them and my feet as if I were a newborn mer-man. I had no idea where I would end up. For all I knew, I was headed to deeper waters. Soon enough, though, I heard the static roar of the ocean break once again. My hands broke through the surface, and the sun began to warm them; my feet hit the sand, and my momentum slowed. After what seemed like a lifetime, the ocean had released me.

“After fighting, everything else in life got the volume turned down. You could deal with anything.” – Fight Club

I felt strange when I stood up. It was as though my fears and anxieties had been engulfed by the ocean; I had been released by the wave, yet my troublesome worries had remained with the sea. Although I was tired – exhausted, actually – I felt calm and relaxed, light. I stood in the knee deep water for a moment, simply gazing out toward the horizon and experiencing the moment viscerally; it was like I was vibrating.

Fernando was jogging toward me. “You alright, buddy?” He asked once he had reached me.

This time I looked at him with a sly look. “Yeah, man. I’m great.”

He laughed his great laugh and slapped me on the back.  “C’mon, let’s take five.”

After a short break I went back in the water and caught two more small waves. At this point, I had nothing left. I needed rest and recovery. And a shower. I thanked Fernando and we “bro-shaked” again. He gave me his number and said if I had any questions or need some help to contact him.

I trudged back to my car triumphantly, exhausted, as if I had just won a battle – though I think the battle was with myself. It always is, isn’t it? The volume had been turned down, yet life was now turned up.


“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your f***ing khakis.” – Fight Club

Experience. Live. What matters is what’s on the inside, and what you do about it.

Until next time.