Stoked on Surfing

While one day of surf lessons may not make a pro, it can definitely get you hooked.
Story by Melissa Jones

Walking down a wooded path to Oswald West State Park with a surfboard at my hip, my thoughts are not of sharks or sneaker waves. They’re of cold.

I’ve lived in Oregon long enough to know that even in summer, the beach is not always a hospitable place for a bikini.

Oregon Surf Adventures has armed me with a wetsuit, booties, and gloves for my first surf lesson in Oregon, but when my class reaches the beach, I notice our instructors have hoods on their wetsuits and we students don’t. I worry for my ears.

On the shore, my group lesson gets started. Four women and I practice what we need to know to try to catch a wave and be on top of the world. “Our goal is to get everyone to stand up,” says Rebecca Johnston, owner of Oregon Surf Adventures. (503-436-1481)

The scene is beautiful: Short Sands Beach at Oswald West State Park, about 10 miles south of Cannon Beach, is a U-shaped cove with tree-lined cliffs at both ends. Even at 10 A.M., the beach is full of activity. The smell of campfires creates a cozy feeling as dogs run the beach and photographers zoom in on the seasoned surfers who are already riding the crests.

Under a thin gray sky, we line our boards up on the sand, facing the ocean. Rebecca, a veteran surfer, shows us how to lie on our bellies and pop up when a wave comes under us. We’ve been briefed on rip currents and told not to let the board get between us and the incoming waves.

We’re ready to go out into the big blue.

My first step in and I’m not cold yet. Second step, still not cold. I’m up to my knees and still okay—maybe this won’t be so bad. I wade out until I’m waist deep.

Lauren Ahlgren, another instructor, tells me to get on my board. I turn and face the shore. Lauren holds the back of my surfboard while she watches the waves for a good one. “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” she yells.

I start swimming forward with my board and then glide with a wave. I’ve caught it, or maybe it’s caught me. I can’t figure out how to get my feet underneath me to stand, but I’m moving forward toward the beach. I glide to the shore on my belly in an unintentional body surf. My hair’s not even wet. It won’t last.

I head back out to sea, careful to keep the tip of my board up so it can stay on top of the waves that keep coming at me.

Surfer in the Water

Surfing Lessons on the Beach

Surfing Lessons on the Beach

I feel cold water creep into an air pocket in the back of my wetsuit and let out a “Whoo!” But during an hour in the water, I never feel cold or shake loose a shiver.

The bigger challenge of Oregon surfing is tackling the waves when I’m not on the board. Most of my energy is spent fighting the waves to get to the right place, staying out of the way of other surfers, and keeping the current from pulling me south.

I’ve taken a surfing lesson once before, as a younger, sprier person on a trip to San Diego. There, the beach was sunny, the water was tamer, and we never left the foamy part of the beach.

Here, the ocean is more aggressive and so are we.

We turn to avoid waves in our faces, talk loudly over the breaks, and eat the Pacific Ocean for breakfast.
In my second attempt, I make the move to stand up. I move from my belly to my knees, then my knees to my feet, when whoosh—my wave pushes me over and my board smacks me in the head. Rebecca was right when she told us the padded boards don’t really hurt.

Undeterred, I turn around and head back out. It’s a bit of a fight with the incoming waves, and after a couple of trips in and out to sea, I feel like I should have eaten a better breakfast or had a third cup of coffee.
Sailing in on my knees is not too hard; I glide in like a gravity-challenged surfer. It’s easier to balance with my body closer to the board. By my fourth or fifth trip in, I’m accustomed to the ebb of the ocean and feel invigorated by the push and pull of the sea.

With all the swimming and board hauling, I’m definitely not cold, and the crash of the waves is less of a concern than trying to get on top of one.

This is normal for Oregon surfers, including Rebecca, who first started surfing 12 years ago on Vancouver Island. The first time she went out, it was hailing and the water was 40-something degrees. She got beaten up and ended up on the beach coughing up salt water, and she loved it. “It’s addictive,” she says.

Surfer carrying boardRebecca moved to Hawaii for four years to get warmer waves but now lives in Seaside with her husband, running Oregon Surf Adventures out of a Cannon Beach storefront. Now in their second year, business is strong. “Surfing in warm water is definitely more enjoyable, but it’s more crowded. Oregon is incredibly beautiful. We have forest right up to the ocean,” she says. “A lot of people are pretty stoked to be surfing in Oregon.”

Like my group—a group of high school and college friends from Redmond, Washington, who rented a house in Cannon Beach for a long weekend. They surf well for beginners; with every crash, I see someone standing up, even if for a couple seconds.

In the end, two of the five of us get on our feet. The rest—we’ve gotten a salty taste of surfing and we like the flavor. I agree with Rebecca; this could be addictive. No one else with a surfboard seems to mind that this is the rugged Oregon Coast, not a tame, sunny San Diego. We’re still wearing bikinis; they’re just under our wetsuits.

Oregon Coast July/August 2007

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