I often remember the time when I started surfing, and I realise now what a crucial moment it is.
It was summertime; seems to me like it was yesterday, but since then plenty of time has passed.
I lived in the city, and as much as I loved the ocean, it was still a once-a-year thing. Each year, the first thing I would do when we arrived at our beach house was run to the attic and pull out my old plywood plank. After we had settled in, my father would drive us to the beach – if I was really lucky, surf was up.
I remember I was fearless. I almost drowned on a few occasions, but I loved to be pounded by the waves, right on the impact zone. My thing was to swim there on purpose, with my plank, and try to make the drop without being crushed on the sandbar. And I would do that again and again, until I was too cold to stay any longer in the water, or until my father would shout at me to get out of there and ground me on the beach for my dangerous behaviour.
Things wouldn’t change much from one summer to another. Somewhere in the 80s, I asked for a bodyboard after seeing them on TV. But what I got was a lousy copy of Tom Morey’s invention. It was so bad; it had a pair of plastic fins underneath that made it as useless as a car with no tires. So again, I hauled my plank out of the dust and kept on doing my thing.
The swell was always quite heavy on that North Atlantic shore. We were small and not very strong, so the sensations were extraordinary. When I saw the first surfer, I was amazed. But he was a grown-up; I didn’t know him, and it was out of the question to go and ask him anything in case he would treat me like the older guys at school did… you know? Eventually other surfers started to join him on the peak, and a small crew of maybe 10 or 15 guys would gather at the same spot every year with their boards, their smokes and their hot girlfriends.
Some time later I realised that I knew a guy who knew a guy… and I finally had the chance to be introduced to that hot local surfer. He was kind of rough: covered with tattoos, independent and bad tempered. But he was fair and if you talked surf he would talk back and even smile. I was bold enough to say I wanted to learn. He looked at me like “yeah sure”, but I insisted and so he told me to drop by his place the next morning.
With few words, I followed him up a staircase. From underneath a pile of discarded junk, he pulled out an old blue surfboard. It was fat with a single yellow fin glassed in, and dinged all over. It wasn’t too big for me but, as I discovered later, it wouldn’t duck dive. Lying on the grass, side-by-side with his light thruster, it looked ugly as hell. “You can learn on that board,” he said. I knew he thought I would play around and give up quickly. But I thanked him and headed home with that thing under my arm.
That year was the most pumping summer swell I can recall. It was at least head-high and glassy, every single day. I was on the beach all the time, with my blue singlefin.
I waited for my mentor on the first day, and when I saw him paddling into the line-up, I followed and got there myself after a huge effort. I sat on my board near the peak, completely unbalanced, and observed. Then I tried to paddle, and little by little, started to get used to the volume, the glide, and the new sliding sensations.
I remember my first wave as if it were engraved in my cortex. I made the take off, dropped, followed the line and got wiped out. It was breath taking. When I got back to the line-up with a smile stuck on my face, everybody greeted me. My surfing years had just begun.
Apart from an old friend who was riding an orange longboard at the time, I was the only guy with a singlefin that year. At the end of the summer, I knew how to take off, carve, and follow the line. My bottom turns were not fully controlled, and I almost killed people at least once when I tried to make the drop on closing sections, but I was stoked as any surfer can be. I had no wetsuit, no surf trunks – my legs were covered in rashes but I would surf at least four hours a day.
I remember one day I forgot my towel and waxed the leather seats of my mum’s car. I remember the first time my leash broke on a heavy day, in the line-up, and I had to swim back to shore. I remember my cracked rib from a clean wipe-out on this perfect hollow day. I remember sharing my own stories on the beach with the other surfers, now that I had some. I remember the first time I surfed an easier spot and was amazed I could surf like I did. I remember learning to read the swell from the cliff and identifying the best spots. I think I remember everything.
I didn’t realise at the time what an opportunity it had been to learn on a classic singlefin. The board was heavy, and it wasn’t easy to get through the closing sets, but I managed and got used to it. On the other hand, when I paddled for a wave, the weight and the volume helped me take off, and even if I couldn’t explain it at the time, I didn’t have to pump like a madman to get speed and cruise on the wall of the wave, standing still and effortless.
I looked at it without understanding. I wanted a shortboard like everybody else. The following year, I ordered a 6’6 thruster. It was the biggest mistake I have ever made when choosing a new board. Apart from the fact the board wouldn’t glide anymore, it also stopped my progression just about immediately. It was beautiful lying on the sand – white, custom-made with a blue star on the deck. But when I paddled out it suddenly turned into a piece of foam with no innate fun.
After two years of putting up with that thing, I turned my back on it. I bought a singlefin longboard, sold that dingless piece of junk so I wouldn’t have to look at it any more, and started evolving again as a surfer.
Years later, and I understand what shaping is all about. I have surfed all kind of craft, shaped some of my own boards; some I bought. But that first training year has been the key to my understanding of what surfing is.
It’s not about how your board looks on the beach; it’s not about how cool you are when you surf. It’s about speed, glide, and curves. It’s about the thrill you get when you suddenly start flying on the wall, as if defying the laws of gravity. For that matter, a board that enables you to accelerate without moving a finger or carve with a slight foot pressure is what I have always been looking for. Like a drug addict trying to get back the feeling of his first fix, all my life I have been seeking the stoke of that first surf with that old singlefin.
That ugly duckling taught me how to surf, and I turned my back on it. It will be an eternal and bitter regret. Some day maybe, I will ask if I can keep it in my quiver. Then again, maybe not, because when I think about it, I always hope I wasn’t the last one to learn on it…