Surfing for science

Solo day for me

One might think the sport of surfing would be natural for someone who works in the ocean. But when you are at eye level with a powerful surge of water that’s about to crash onto your head and send you into a drowning vortex, I feel no connection to marine biology whatsoever. Marine biology is all the shit below the waves—that’s my comfort zone.

However, surfing does feel similar to launching a science communication career mid-life after years of terrible writing habits, and virtually no practice or stamina at sitting hours behind a computer. Science writing sounds glamorous and looks easy until you try it…. just like surfing. I am extremely athletic, so I was good at sports I got into when I was younger, if not really good. But I never focused on one sport exclusively so I could become great at it. I shot for being well-rounded: try all the sports. Just like with science communication: a little writing, a little radio, video, and photography…

So when trying something new and not being a natural at it, such as with surfing and science writing, I found some parallels:

At a much older stage in life, self-preservation screams louder than courage (“don’t put yourself out there and get hurt!”); myths about our abilities (and sharks) can overrun us (“you’d be better if you’d started younger”, and “you’ll never hang with the big dogs”); and physically it feels impossible to acquire the upper body endurance (oh, my back!…see my last post). Not to mention there’s a multitude of things to consider: position, timing, board length, swell, tide, who’s in the way, do I go right or go left or don’t go at all?…. Pretty darn similar to considering an angle to a story, who to pitch to, when to pitch, word length, who pays more, how do I start, how much can I take on, and can I really freaking do this?

At the end of the day- I am super happy I am trying both, but the steep learning curve works me mentally and physically. Some days I get these little waves of inspiration and feel good about my abilities (good feedback from an editor or reader, an article gets published), and then you have a bad day and feel like I suck (didn’t catch a single wave). Plus, neither are fun doing alone, but if I want to get better at surfing (because I think it’s something I should naturally be really good at and would enjoy), I can’t always wait for a buddy. And if I want to be a freelance writer, I better get used to being self-inspired and working primarily solo.

The parallels don’t really stop there; both ultimately feel like a lesson in overcoming a fear of failure and getting beyond survival mode, so that the activity become enjoyable. When you are not making progress, it can be really tempting to try a different sport.

Today I went surfing solo for the first time, and in a spot I had never been (no thanks to the crazy cat in the parking lot goading me on). I had been looking at the conditions, feeling chilled since I forgotten some of my gear, and with only a 3:2 wetsuit for the chilly Central California coast, just didn’t have the oomph to do this alone. But I was also pissed at myself for thinking about it, actually driving out there, and not donning the wetsuit, knowing that this was my only chance for outdoor exercise today. Thank goodness for Paul the surfer/now kneeboarder standing nearby. Apparently, all I needed was a cheerleader, just a little boost to prove that I am not as uncourageous as my thoughts.

Now I look forward to when I can write and surf in a smooth, long uninterrupted ride, and I’m actually smiling the whole way. Such as today. I surfed all the way to the beach. Rad.

Scott Johnston and I at Shell Beach, January 2016. Photo by Elena

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