Surfing A Wave Of Youth In Waikiki

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It’s never too late … after a few (dozen) years break, Jim Byers discovers happiness is getting to hang ten again.

Each morning, I would scan the ocean from my hotel balcony. And there they were: the surfers, out to catch a wave at glorious Waikiki Beach. I felt envy. I wanted to get out there so much. I felt unease. I was scared to get out there again.

I first came to Hawaii when I was 12. I took to the waves nicely. Surfing, at least at relatively easy Waikiki, became a regular part of my trips to Hawaii. I surfed with my kids on Kauai maybe eight years ago and a couple times on Maui. But it was nothing like Waikiki, where a good ride can go on for 20 or 30 seconds on long, consistent, rolling, perfect waves.

In Honolulu a few years back, I took a surfing lesson but I didn’t like the instructor. I had maybe one decent ride in an hour, scraped my knee and went home dejected. Which was the backdrop to my recent trip, when I was staring down the idea of turning 58 and gazing out at the surfers and thinking about Jimmy Buffett’s line where he’s “an over-40 victim of fate.”

Part of me desperately wanted to get back out there. Part of me told me my surfing days were over. After two days in Waikiki, I had pretty much talked myself out of another try and was bemoaning the seeming fact that I might never ride again.

Canadian sports psychologist Peter Jensen, who has worked extensively with Canada’s top Olympic athletes, told me there’s a highly technical term for my indecision. “It’s called the chicken shit gene.” Jensen said it’s natural for someone older to think twice about certain activities.

“Part of your brain picks up that you might get injured. It’s something you haven’t done for a long time and you don’t have the balance you used to have. That’s simply a fact.” Jensen said imagery is the language of performance.

“Once you tell those stories to yourself (about maybe getting hurt), the feelings they generate will keep you off that board.”

Back at Waikiki, I met up with a colleague and revealed my crisis of confidence. She recommended a friend who she insisted was an amazing teacher. I looked down at my waistline and thought, Maybe you’re not that out of shape.

I started to recreate that feeling of being one with the waves, imagining the salt water and sun on my face. I felt shamed that I had thought of giving up so easily at a relatively young age.

The next morning, Jojo Howard of Go Surfing Hawaii greeted me on the sand of Waikiki. She had a big smile and put me at ease. Out in the water (fairly far out where there are fewer hacks like me and better waves), she gave me tips about getting on and off my board, where to level my gaze and how to spread my feet and get into a baseball hitter’s crouch. Howard was a joy. She quickly had me believing I could actually do this again.

I was sitting on my butt a few hundred yards offshore when Howard saw a wave she liked. She gave me a push and yelled, “Paddle, padde, paddle!” I caught the wave, but my feet fell out from under me before I could properly stand up. “Almost had it,” she said.

The next try was no better. My legs weren’t far enough apart, my gaze wasn’t focused on the horizon and I wasn’t doing the crouch.

My arms were already feeling the pain. I don’t think there’s much we city folks do on a regular basis that mimics the way our muscles work when we lie flat on a fairly wide surfboard and reach our arms out and down and paddle like hell. Similarly, the necessity of being prone on a board moving at a fast rate of speed and suddenly (but not too suddenly) clambering to your feet to reach a balanced, crouching position requires the use of stomach, leg and back muscles I don’t remember having.

“Surfing provides many physical benefits, particularly core stability and balance,” says Amanda Stanec, head of Move Live Learn, LLC in St. Louis, Mo. “These two components of skill-related physical fitness are far too often avoided in day-to-day working out.” [Apart from] the strength and endurance attained through the paddling and swimming phases, surfing, Stanec explains, like many action sports, allows participants to tune out daily stressors as surfers are very present in their activity. “Thus, surfing aids emotional health as well as physical health.”

Back at Waikiki, I finally managed to pop up and get into position. The sea was spraying my face, and I was feeling the flush of a long-lost excitement for about a 10-second ride.

“Look at you!” Howard yelled.

Another wave. Howard gave me a head-start push, and I started paddling. I remembered the drill. My legs were spread, I was down low and my eyes were on the hotels, not on my knobby knees. I felt the board knifing through the water and felt the warm sun on my face. I felt like I was 12 again, out here without a care in the world. I was exhilarated.

After 8 seconds (purely a guess), I found myself heading toward a group of surfers. A guy in front looked panicked. “I got it,” I yelled. I shifted my weight slightly, and the board responded just the way it should. I slid four feet to his left, toward the beach.

“Now you’re just showing off!” said Howard. I think she was overstating it. A lot. But I took it in the spirit it was intended and smiled a smile bigger than Pearl Harbor.

I got one more really good ride. I was exhausted. My arms and my upper chest muscles were spent, and it was time for Howard to go. Yes, she helped me choose the waves and gave me a push to get started. But I know a good wave when I see one, and I’m not weak enough that I can’t catch one on my own next time. It was an amazing experience that had me re-engaged with a sport I used to love. I felt more confident and perhaps a bit stronger.

An hour later, The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” came on the car radio as I cruised past towering palms along Waikiki Beach. The surfers were out in force. I checked my look in the mirror. I was still grinning like an idiot.

Can’t get to Hawaii? You can learn to surf at a number of places in Canada. Go west with your board, newbie or wannabe surfer. Or go east. Or stay put. All over this land of bountiful lakes, rivers and oceans discover waves for riding and dudes and dudettes to teach you how to catch them. Most also teach the more stable sport of stand-up paddle surfing, using a paddle to propel the board and control movement, great for strengthening your core. Call before lessons for current conditions because Mother Nature is always in charge, and check whether all gear is included. —Judy Gerstel

Point Michaud Beach Provincial Park, Cape Breton Island Richmond County Surf School offers lessons on weekends from July 5 to Aug. 17 and weekdays from July 21 to Aug. 29. 902-345-0741; 902-227-1230

Lawrencetown Beach, N.S. Located 30 minutes from Halifax, East Coast Surf School offers lessons June 15 to Oct. 1. [email protected], 902-449-9488; onelifesurf, 902-449-9488

Old Port of Montreal Habitat 67 in the St. Lawrence is said to be ideal for beginner and novice surfers. KSF School of River Surfing and Kayaking offers a three-hour introductory course, May 10 to Sept. 19., 514-595-7873

Ashbridge’s Bay, Toronto, and other Great Lakes locations Surf Ontario’s Mike Sandusky offers revolving lessons: Ashbridge’s Bay near downtown Toronto and Bond Head on Lake Ontario; Grand Bend and Bayfield area on Lake Huron; Wyldewood Beach and Port Stanley on Lake Erie., 416-906-5793

Kananaskis County, Calgary Kananaskis River’s The Green Tongue is said to be safest for beginners. RMRS (Rocky Mountain River Surfing) offers lessons year round or through the University of Calgary: Intro River Surfing. www.rocky

Tofino, Vancouver Island, B.C. The surfing capital of Canada; Chesterman Beach is best for beginners.

250-725-4464;, 1-877-724-SURF;, 1-888-777-9961; www.westside, 250-725-2404