Breaking The Surface: The Journey of a Beginner


What is it like to try surfing for the first time at age 52? Charlotte Slivka decided to find out.

The author


Surfing? I would never admit to this secret passion, not even to myself. Buried down so deep I even have to question is this a passion at all or am I just making it all up? But every time I look at a big swell my blood surges and my heart races. I’m fascinated by the roll; in wonder and awe of the structure, the miracle and beauty of curve and I want to be in it. Of course I’m terrified. No I have never surfed. Just in my mind, surfed my fantasies about surfing. That’s me shooting across a wave as it’s cresting, yes that’s me being spit out of the tube. That’s me rolling in again and again and again, falling backwards, diving, cartwheeling off my board and being absorbed into a wall of water fifteen feet high. That’s me just hanging out on my board legs dangled on either side not worried about sharks at all.

I grew up urban in New York City, but my artist parents had strong connections to the East End of Long Island so we were there every summer. It’s through my father I learned to love the sea. As young man during the early 1930’s in San Francisco he was a nature loving beach bum and would hike by himself through the Redwoods to those stretches of beach only accessible by trail. In those days, the way he told it, so many immigrants lived on the beach. It was not at all unusual to build a shack and hang out for a few weeks, and being an aspiring sculptor and carpenter he made his own surfboard. Eventually he joined the Merchant Marines during World War II and sailed as the ship’s carpenter. This would land him in Greenwich Village, New York City to begin his artists’ life with my mother.

When my brother and I were very small we were in the ocean with our father and as soon as we were able, he taught us to body surf. I say we, but really it was my older brother getting the surf lessons with me the nagging, annoying, copying and competitive younger sister tagging along. It was so I could stay in the water and not be ordered back to shore that I learned body surfing pretty quick. I caught waves that scrambled me like eggs, threw me down and scraped me along the bottom until eventually I learned how to relax and flow with the curve and shape my body to float on top of the crashed and churning water and not get hurt. I spent hours out there watching for waves, getting my body ready for just the right moment to launch myself forward and swim like hell, my goal, to be washed up as far as the last lip of foam on the sand.

How was it that we never took the surfing thing to the next level?

As a little girl in the 1970’s, I never even thought that surfing was an option for me. What I knew of surfing was that was something The Beach Boys did in California. I knew of no surfing girls in New York. My artist parents knew people who surfed ideas and words; surfed with brushes on paint and canvas; carved waves of wood, stone, clay and glass; but we didn’t know anyone who actually surfed surf. After they split up my brother took his love of the sea to the deep and became a scuba diver. I added holding my breath under water for as long as I could to my repertoire.

No I have never surfed. Just in my mind, surfed my fantasies about surfing.

I think what finally ended any possibility of me surfing was the summer when I turned 12 and read the book Jaws. The book, with its fictional monster (fictional monsters being my number one criteria for any book I read) never kept me away from the ocean. The movie—another thing entirely— brought the book to life. In our small summer beach town there was only one movie-theater that played only one movie and when a new one came it was a pretty big deal. I had to go see it partly because I had just read the book and partly because all my friends were going (mostly because all my friends were going). I ignored my mother.  She—who knew a thing or two about me—begged me not to go. What was she so afraid of, the poster with the big teeth? Did she read the book? It’s just a movie mom get over it! Ones parents are never right so I went. The very next day in the water, shadows became sharks. The sharks knew I was afraid so naturally I would be the one they would go for. It took me years to get into the ocean further than my middle. If I needed a wave I shrank to my knees in water no deeper than my upper thigh. I thought about the Lilliputians of Gulliver’s Travels and how to them, the baby waves would seem gigantic. I would take my love of the sea to science and become a marine biologist. I studied seaweed and hermit crabs and anything a lot smaller than me.

But then I grew up into a city teenager, became a punk rocker and joined a band. I surfed the urban decay that was the downtown art and music scene, subways and clubs. Unwilling to budge from what I believed was my calling, I put all my marine dreams away and filed them under: The Other Me – someday.

Photo: Chris Hamlet

And they would have stayed like half sunken treasure in the bottom of my consciousness, covered by the carcasses and exoskeletons of other old dreams had it not been for the movies resurrecting those lost and forgotten parts; nudged from sleep into the imagination as if from a one hundred year dream.

A Room In A Dream I Never Knew Was There

As the mother of a young child, I watched a lot of movies with my little one. These were the days before streaming on our laptops so we would go to the library and the video store to get the best animation in the kid’s section we could find. Sometimes it was rough. The kid’s section could often be a wasteland of pink ponies and talking dump trucks. I tried to avoid the princesses as much as possible and tended toward films with oddball characters like The Addams Family or anything by the great Japanese animation genius Hayo Miyazaki and if it had to be Disney then the single parent and orphan films like Finding Nemo and Lilo & Stitch. It was probably Lilo & Stitch that got us—me— started with the surf movies. I saw them on the library shelf one day next to the kid’s section, Action and Adventure. It was like finding a secret jeweled cavern, or a room in a dream I never knew was there.

At first my little one didn’t object to my obsession with Lords of Dogtown and the accompanying documentary by Stacy Peralta, Dogtown and Z Boys, and maybe I took advantage of her momentary curiosity. I harbored a huge crush on my favorite Zephyr boy Jay Adams and pretended not to notice when she was bored. I was dazzled by the magical shot of Stacy Peralta’s head from above the lip of a drained swimming pool spinning at the bottom on his skateboard, the top of his head so much like the eye of a hurricane surrounded by the whirling cosmos of his hair. This image of Peralta’s head as a hurricane became symbolic to my perception of skateboarding and surfing. Inside is the calm and quiet center of the boarder, while on the outside is the whirling chaos of the elements in which the navigation and union of inner with outer is what the art of the ride is all about.

I think most people carry collections of secrets. Secrets they don’t even know they have.

I followed with Riding Giants, a surf movie for surfers. I was all in. I wanted the history; I wanted to know who was first and what compelled them to do it. What kind of person was driven to wait in the freezing rocky waters of Mavericks all by themselves, to ride the giants there that can not only crush you, but throw you down on sharp rocks and shred you to pieces? Who are these crazy people?

Anyway, it was a little boring for my six year-old, so much talking and all they do is surf.

The 1987 cult classic North Shore triggered other questions altogether. It is set in Hawaii, the cradle of surfing, and the footage is true to the sport. But here are three things the 2018 viewer has to forgive North Shore for:

1. Hot pink surf boards and shorts

2. The sweep of the hand over the top of the head as a meaningful gesture and a show of profound inner thoughts and reflection.

3. No female surfers. None.

How could North Shore ignore the existence of any females in the line up? Even in my total ignorance of who’s who, I know there are some very accomplished women moving plenty of water in the sport but it seems the women in this film are only there to move the plot (a young, male U.S. surfer from mainland tests his skills in Hawaii).  If I were from another planet come down to earth to learn about surfing and I chose North Shore as my resource, I would learn that women typically wear bikinis and although sometimes they get wet for fashion shoots they don’t go in the water.

I needed to know: where are they? Online research was turning up ladies from the 1960’s and the 70’s but when it came to the 1980s I really had to dig. This would have been my decade and alternate surfer me would clearly have had a very hard time. Freida Zamba (four-time world champion from 1984 – 1988), Mary Lou Drummy, Lynn Boyer, Brenda Scott, Debbie Beacham, Simone Reddingius, Dina De Meo, Cher Pendarvis, Jericho Poppler, Terry Eselun, Pam Burridge, Kim Mearig and Rell Sunn would be like mythological creatures; constellations in the night sky that float with a form that can only be guessed at, and alien me would never know that surfing females ever existed.

Pam Burridge at age 53. Photo: WSL

Frieda Zamba at age 53. Photo: WSL

Where North Shore succeeded was the way it portrayed opposites and contrasts. Greed vs. gratitude; inner strength vs. outer brutality; connection vs. disconnection; showmanship vs. higher calling; surface glamour vs. real art. Nothing is how it seems: what looks bad turns out to be good; what seems good could be your downfall.

And my takeaway: Be your own hero.

Why The F Not

I think most people carry collections of secrets. Secrets they don’t even know they have. Secrets like favorite trinkets in a box from childhood, or secrets like an old shame woven into the fabric of the personality. Some things should be secret. But some secrets are just waiting below the surface of consciousness to emerge, waiting for environmental conditions to be just right.

So what if the 2 and the 5 in my age are in the wrong order and I’ve never been on anything bigger than a boogie board.

The author receiving her instructions before her first ever surf session. Photo: Chris Hamlet

It was a bar conversation one night in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn that got me to admit that I even thought about surfing. Before this, I had never even formed words that had me and surfing in the same sentence.

Oh you’re a writer? Do you surf?

It didn’t seem like the thing I should say no to, so I admitted to being a surfer in dreams only.

Then an inspired suggestion: “You can take surf lessons in the summer!

I would totally do that!” the Guinness replied.

Sometimes I talk to myself in my head, have whole conversations with groups that consist of me, myself and I. During these conversations, I refer to myself as she or even we (since we are a group) and everybody had a lot to say.

You idiot! What are you f’ing kidding me?

She’s going to find the only riptide.

She’s going to find the only shark.

OMG, can you see her in a in a wetsuit? OMG don’t look!

Excuse me lady have you checked your drivers license, the time, the mirror, the AARP junk mail that’s been showing up recently?

Why not? Why the F not!  I tell my selves.

So what if the 2 and the 5 in my age are in the wrong order and I’ve never been on anything bigger than a boogie board. So what if I had shoulder surgery last summer. So what if my right knee seems to be painfully clicking these days. So what if I’m 25 pounds’ overweight. So what if I’m a lunatic.

It’s just bar talk right?

What The Hell Is Going To Happen Out There?

There is so much to laugh about as I face the prospect of trying to surf I don’t even know where to start. I’m thinking I have to lose weight; I need to be fit to take this on. Isn’t there some swimming involved? What the hell do I expect when I get out there?

I return to the movies for some guidance. In Helen Hunt’s surf movie Ride, she is a successful but arrogant and stressed out New York editor who is challenged to change through the rejection of her values by her college bound surf riding son.  She secretly follows him to California when she finds out he has declined his prestigious offer to NYU and discovers he is a surfer. She decides to try it so she can understand what she is missing as their connection begins to fray. The first thing she learns is she knows nothing; scenes of her being dumped off her board roll in one after the other and she is a fictional wreck after her first day.

This movie is strangely reminiscent of what I’m about to do and the proximity of this scenario is very close to home minus the great legs, career and buckets of money. But still I’m relating and there is a happy ending with a clever little twist and that’s all I’ll say about the plot but—spoiler alert—she did get something like a fictional week to learn. In reality I get one lesson one day; what the hell do I expect is going to happen out there?

Without a doubt I’m going to be a mess. No miracle of balance, no innate latent talent will emerge and shine through at a critical moment. I’m facing it. This may be my fantasy plunge but the fantasy will shed the moment I try to shred and what will replace this immortal surf goddess (suddenly 30 pounds lighter, all limbs miraculously tighter) will be an average middle-aged woman who is not very flexible. I will morph from the skin of my size 6 wetsuit to emerge into a men’s size L, the loose flesh of my upper arm waddle flapping in the breeze. It’s going to be amazing. What the hell do I expect is going to happen out there?

Putting my fears aside, I’m going to do it anyway.

Practicing the “Pop Up.” Photo: Chris Hamlet

 I told myself when I began to hatch this plan: Train. Go swimming at the Y, go the gym, you can do this! You can be in shape by game time!

What my days actually look like: I live in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn and I work at my boyfriend’s music store, Rock and Roll Supplies. I sit at a counter and make sales. Sometimes I rearrange the amps on the floor or the guitars on the hooks. My commute from home is two blocks. Sometimes I go out on my bike to see bands play in our neighborhood. That’s as physical as I get.

Ten days before my first surf lesson, I sign up at the Metropolitan Pool to start swimming. I hear there’s a lot of paddling in surfing? I’m heavier than I’ve ever been in my life, my right shoulder is at 85% mobility after surgery and I don’t exactly feel ready. In fact, I feel anti ready. Like if I were training to be in the worst possible shape for this day, I’m totally ready!

But putting my fears aside, I’m going to do it anyway. Why? Because I have no doubt in my mind something good is going to happen and that the good will be a surprise. I love surprises.

I decide to do more research. This time some reading from Matt Warshaw’s The History of Surfing. I start in the part about Hawaii at the turn of the century and I’m reading about Jack London. Wait what?

I thought Jack London wrote books about adventures in the woods: White Fang, The Call of the Wild. Apparently Jack was also a surfer. In his essay, Surfing: A Royal Sport, he recalls his own first encounter with surfing in Hawaii after arriving in 1907. He is watching the waves from the shore when he sees the miracle of a “stand up surfer”: 

“Where but the moment before was only the wide desolation and invincible roar, is now a man, erect, full-statured, not struggling frantically in that wild movement, not buried and crushed and buffeted by those mighty monsters, but standing above them all, calm and superb, poised on the giddy summit, his feet buried in the churning foam, the salt smoke rising to his knees, and all the rest of him in the free air and flashing sunlight, and he is flying through the air, flying forward, flying fast as the surge on which he stands. He is a Mercury — a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea.”  

The author. Photo: Chris Hamlet

Now I face my own call to the wild. 

The Lesson

On the morning of my lesson I see a young man walking barefoot as I drive up East Broadway toward Long Beach Boulevard past blocks of suburban houses on my left and a chain link fence on my right. It’s early June and he’s tan already. Long blonde hair that is ropey and textured and in lively conversation with itself, he looks how I imagine a surfer would look and feel reassured I’m in the right place. The day is a little cloudy and a little chilly but I felt energized by the ten-song rock block on the classic rock radio station built for commuters and I too felt like I was going to work.

I made Lily come with me. I felt it was important that my daughter witness this madness. As a two year old she screamed when I took her to the beach; as an eighteen year old she explained it simply as she doesn’t like sand. I also know that once in the surf she transforms into a fish, so I thought the fish part of her would appreciate this day.

We followed balloons and Skudin signs to the boardwalk in Long Beach, N.Y. and admired the clear calm morning. I promised myself in another life, in an alternate reality, I would be a morning person. The Skudin shack at the Hurley Surf Club has a wide-open entrance that faces the beach. No doors just smiles greet me on my way in. I am nervous but am immediately put at ease by the three young guys inside. Even before I speak they know who I am.

I meet Chris Hamlet, my photographer for the day and unofficial ambassador to Skudin Surf school. Chris is soft spoken and confident; he radiates calm good will. It’s then, as part of my nerves dissolve, I realize I am expecting to be judged. I’m doing my best to act naturally and behave confidently but I feel way out on a limb here. In a parade of insecurities all my selves shout in a chorus: you look homeless and they think you’re nuts! But Chris is magical. Pure professional with a job to do and he knows putting me at ease and into a frame of mind that will help me perform my best is going to get him the best pictures. It works. By the time I have suited up into my vintage men’s zip front wetsuit, I start to feel a little more like I too have a job to do.

I then meet my instructor Eric and I shake hands with the young man from the road.

“Niiiice vintage! Looks like a ski jacket,” says O.C., the third of my welcoming committee. I was thinking Raquel Welch in Fantastic Voyage and I do have a thing for vintage ski jackets. “Yeah that’s why I bought it,” I mumble.

In retrospect the wetsuit thing could have gone better. I should have borrowed one of the new and beautiful Hurley wetsuits that hung on the rack and was available for students. The one Eric was wearing was super cool, sleek and modern. Note to self: there is a time and place for vintage.

It was the pop up that was the learning curve for me.

Paddle! Photo: Chris Hamlet

When I look back on the pictures of myself (Chris took 48) I look like I’m in pain. I recall the frustration of trying to get up and falling over every single wave. I see Eric’s blonde head peeking out of the waves behind me; what the camera has not captured is the push he had just given my board to get me going.

This is not at all how I thought it would be but I should have known it would be. Even after reading about the great Jack London trying to learn with kindergarteners in the baby waves of Hawaii and about him not even able to catch a single one while the five and six year olds shot on ahead of him every single time. I should have known.

It was the pop up that was the learning curve for me. You’re supposed to do just that: pop up. But instead I slid my knees forward and then worked on getting my feet into position. A lot of thought was going into the process and by the time I was ready, the ride was over. I tried a little faster and fell forwards mostly; then I fell backwards and then when I started getting tired and felt all I learned unravel I switched my feet without even realizing. Apparently this is going goofy (I’ll say!). Eric, through all this, pushed me again and again. I began to feel sorry for this sweet, patient and supportive guy unfailing in his goal to get me up.

I think I need to mention at this point, the surf was probably .5 – 1 foot.

Yeah this is not sounding like a great heroic day I know; such an anti climax to all my dreams and wishes. I guess underneath it all I did have a lot of expectation and there seemed to be a lot of unconscious mind clutter to work through before I could connect me to my board and the constantly changing sea.

It was not just letting go of fear, but fear of failure and then the magic can begin.

And I do. Photo: Chris Hamlet

I’m not falling! Photo: Chris Hamlet

Photo: Chris Hamlet

We had reached the end of our hour-long lesson. I tried, I really did. If the goal was to do everything wrong in popping up, I succeeded in spades. But even so, I felt good. There was something redeeming and cleansing about putting my best effort into a losing battle and Eric had a smile for me every time. As we started to exit the water, me dragging my board, ready to fall over and really tired, he looked back at the surf.

Want to try one more time?”

I didn’t even have to think about it.


Why not? I asked my selves. The chorus was silent.

The surf had really flattened out. Poor Eric out here with me out of the goodness of his heart and now he has to wait for it. No good deed ever goes unpunished. We made small talk. That’s when I found out Eric is 21 and has been teaching for seven years. He had done a winter season teaching at the Skudin Surf Shack in Rincon, Puerto Rico. Occasionally I’d peer over my shoulder to watch for potential riders. We discussed why ones that look ok turn out to be no good: they lose momentum, one is right on top of the other, a bigger one is coming. Eric has grown up in the water and has learned to read the sea like a language. Then a wave comes. If I did learn something from this lesson, it was how to paddle and go. I learned to listen for Eric’s voice: “stand up!” It all happens very fast and like all the last times I’m scrambling to get my feet in the right place and stand.

And I do.

I’m standing on the water and I’m moving and I’m thinking: I’m not falling! And for a moment more I don’t. I’m up long enough for Chris to get the shot and I don’t know how I did it. Somehow my body knew what to do. When looking back to the decisive moment, I’m not sure if there was one. Maybe it was the moment I let go, so tired I just didn’t care anymore. It was not just letting go of fear, but fear of failure and then the magic can begin. I guess it’s a process because how can you let go and discover the magic without holding onto something you shouldn’t in the first place? It’s as if coming face to face with whatever holds you back is a necessary part of the connection that is made. There is a greater intelligence going on and to be at one with it is to be connected to a faith not practiced in everyday life. Maybe this is the freedom that is known in surfing, a murky knowing that is submerged in the body as the water is under the surface; resistant to ordinary definition because we can’t know in ordinary terms. Good stuff for a Monday morning.

But for sure I was worn out. I left it all in the ocean. There was a spongy mass inside my brain that felt a little rubbery and a little ache in my neck and my shoulders where they meet. The backs of my arms (site of the infamous waddle) ached. Yes a lot of paddling was involved, also a willingness to GO! I can understand how people can spend years doing this. Even Eric and Chris say they are always learning. The sea is always changing, you will never surf the same wave twice. I wonder how this applies to life. It doesn’t make sense that this rule stops at the sand. The energy from the wave, where does it go? What if it just keeps going?

Palms To The Sky

On Independence Day I woke up and wanted to do it again. What would a second lesson be like? Would I be able to stand up? I couldn’t believe it but Skudin was open for business on the 4th of July.

Why the hell not? The chorus inside my head was silent.

I booked my lesson and jumped in the car. On the beach at the Skudin tent I met up with my teacher who happened to be Eric again and we picked up where I left off. Well not exactly, because where I left off was standing up on my last wave and it seems the pick up point for this lesson was more falling off my board. I reminded myself not to overthink and that a big part of my learning curve was going over the basics of falling and an important part of learning to stand up. And I fell a lot; learned that part really well. Amid sets of unspectacular wipeouts I had the occasional stand and would immediately lose it to one side or the other. By this time Eric had no more tips, he had told me everything he could — “straighten your back, look at the beach, get you feet sideways, lean on your front foot” — so many times all that was left to say was “Hey you’re doing good!”

“Really?” I said. There was nothing left to do but to keep going. I listened for “Paddle!” and paddled like hell, conscious of the fact I still needed that big push and wondered what it would be like when Eric was not there to send me forward. At least the order to stand up was gone.

And then it happened: I stood up and I stayed stood up. And I was still standing when I saw the beach approach and still standing when the board met sand and I stepped off my board onto the shoreline. I turned toward the sea and Eric’s blonde head in the waves and raised my palms to the sky. The sky did not part, balloons and confetti did not fall through but I did feel a tiny bit magical. Then it was back to falling off my board and the reassertion of my brain overthinking the process. “It’s all about the repetition,” Eric said. I wanted another magic ride but it didn’t happen. What happened instead was the realization that I lacked the confidence to stand up and hesitated in the critical moment. Now to me, this is a whopping good metaphor for life.

The sky did not part, balloons and confetti did not fall through but I did feel a tiny bit magical.

I was ready for the lesson to be done when it was time. I had some pretty good moments and I was tired. But instead of crashing out on the sand I followed my instinct to get back out there and body surf. As I let my body go with the curl of the waves and let them wash me to shore all my frustration and anxiety unwound.

I stayed until my fingers pruned.