Taiwan · Travel Tips

Learning to Surf: A Love-Hate Relationship

In my last post, I talked about traveling from Manila to Dulan—where we have been doing two weeks of WorkAway at a surf hostel. Besides exploring this singular town and surrounding sights such as the beautiful Sanxiantai, the highlight of our stay has certainly been surfing.

So here are some of the things I’ve learned from picking up surfing again:

  • Surfing is an excellent workout.
  • Surfing can be amazingly fun.
  • Surfing can be pretty terrifying.
  • Having a beer helps (liquid courage).

There’s this paradox when you go out into the water.

When you miss the good waves or the sea is too calm to offer much of a thrill, you feel pretty disappointed. But when a big, beautiful wave comes in behind you just have to go for it, you can suddenly get cold feet.

Because you remember that last big wipe out. Your body tenses up and you’re not ready to get on the wave, making your chances of another wipeout all the greater. If it’s going to work, you can’t think.

That’s where a beer can come in handy. The two surf lessons I took in Baler each came with a free beer. It was quite ideal: take a lesson first thing in the morning, have a beer, and go back out on your own.

Waves at Dulan’s beach break

This time around in Dulan, I got into overthinking.

The first day out in the water, a girl lent me her board. I hopped on, paddled out, caught the very first wave and rode it for a nice little spell.

Maybe it was beginner’s luck. It had been over a year and a half since my first surf experience in Baler and I had only been on a board once since then.

An early morning at the reef break near Cape Cafe

The only time I went surfing in Australia, the experience ended prematurely when bluebottle jellyfish staged an attack on the beach. (Aussies do love giving dangerous things cute names; elsewhere in the world we call them the Pacific Man ‘o War.)

So after that one good ride on Dulan beach, I couldn’t catch another like it. On some days the board wasn’t right, on other days the waves were too choppy, and sometimes the waves were too mean.

For waves that are more manageable than Dulan’s unpredictable beach break, head south to the point near Cape Cafe and paddle out a couple hundred meters. Just watch out for the reef below your feet.

Once I wiped out so hard that my back slammed against the sand. Fortunately, it was only sand—it felt a bit like a take-down on the mats. But then my leg got twisted in the rope, the board hit me in the head, and my arm got bruised by the fins.

Maybe it was the water, maybe it was the board, maybe it was me.

It made me think about how learning to surf is like getting into a bad romance.

Your first encounter has you hooked. You get out on a board and by some miracle manage to catch a wave. It’s amazing and you want more. You keep going, spending hours on end in the water to feel that thrill again.

But the ocean changes. Instead of letting you ride her waves she batters you, one volley after the next. Waves sweep you under and toss you about. Some of them even try to undress you against your will. What is going on here?

The ocean starts to look cold and uninviting and you’ve begun to hate it at times; still, you return. Then she gives you another taste: a wave comes in just right and it’s yours. You’re on top of the world. Just enough of a taste to keep you coming back for more abuse.

But eventually you feel the time you’ve put in is paying off. You’re getting better at working your way through the waves and out to the right spot. You’re starting to figure out ones to let pass and which swells to go for.

You’ve found a board that suits you and a good position on it. You maneuver more comfortably and efficiently so that it no longer feels like a constant struggle between you, your board, and the crashing waves. Granted, the ocean still packs a punch and throws curve balls at will but when you walk away from a day with her you feel high. You feel in love.

That’s a bit of how I felt after yesterday’s surf. I’d gone out with a different board that was a much better fit. Waves were easier to catch and I wasn’t nose-diving incessantly anymore. Only this board was smoother and my feet kept slipping off the top. Even though I struggled to get up for a good ride, I enjoyed myself immensely.

That’s been my taste of the Dulan surf and my second shot at learning this remarkable sport. To anyone curious to give surfing a try, I highly recommend it!

When clouds cover the sky, bring your own sunshine

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