For about 30 years I never really went into the ocean at all.
I might wade out to my knees or perhaps to my chest when I was feeling truly brave, but I would usually never venture much further than that because I was bone-deep scared.
When I was a kid I wasn’t fearful of the waves. I remember frolicking in the ocean whenever it was warm enough to do so on the South Island of New Zealand, which admittedly may have not been that often.
Then when I was about 12 or so I stopped.
It wasn’t until more than a decade later that my step-mother suggested that my rapid retreat from the water most likely coincided with a traumatic childhood event that until then I thought hadn’t affected me at all.
I was about 12 when some gymnastic friends of mine were killed in a small plane crash over the Cook Strait. They were flying to a competition in Wellington but never made it. Instead the plane crashed into the heaving swells between the North and South islands. Only one person survived and was left an orphan in the process.
A gymnast friend of mine, and her parents, who had also lived around the corner from me for many years, weren’t so lucky. They never found their bodies such is the deepness of that volatile body of water.
I remember having nightmares in which they were skeletons still strapped into their seats in the cold dark abyss so far from any lightness whatsoever.
I’ve been on many a beach holiday since those days, but mostly stayed on shore. If I went for a dip it was quick and mostly unpleasant.
Two weeks ago, at the start of my “writing from home while in Sri Lanka” trip, one of my best mates took me into the water. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t petrified. He’s a long-time surfer, as well as a former gymnast, too, so he calmly taught me how to duck under the waves, how to read them, and how to slowly start letting go of my fear. I think our shared connection to that grief of the past allowed me to finally move on and back into the water. I will be forever grateful to him for it.
Over the next few days, I went out by myself a few times, got dumped more than once, but strangely the waves no longer held the same fear and loathing for me.
A few days later, I arranged a surf lesson, given we’re chilling in a surfing mecca for three weeks. The instructor forgot about me and I was quietly relieved, thinking that perhaps my newfound ocean bravado was a little premature.
In hindsight, I think I would’ve been quite happy to sneak back to the waters and just benignly float around some more, but then something rather magical happened. An Aussie surfer we’d befriended offered to take me out instead. He’s been surfing for more than 30 years and is fit and strong and kind.
He is also gorgeous so half an hour later when I kept falling off the board when attempting to just simply paddle on it, my ego was washing down the beach along with any shred of my rapidly diminishing dignity and my ill-timed attempts at flirtation.
But he persevered and took me out again that same afternoon, where my improvement was miniscule at best. A few days later, with a better board for an absolute beginner like me, I started making a tiny amount of progress and by that stage, my surfing teacher had become something a little more than that, too. Who knew that my astounding surfing incompetence could ever be attractive?
That was 10 days ago and I’ve been out on the waves every day since. I’m also covered in bruises and scrapes from a number of unfortunate instances where I decided to face- and body-plant the beach, my board, someone else’s board, my fins, someone else’s fins and been dumped by a massive wave which held me under for eight seconds. And through it all, while respecting the ocean, my fear has mostly disappeared.
Today I managed to surf for about 40 or 50 metres a few times and each time I looked happily back at the best (and most handsome) surfing teacher in the world and he was just as stoked as I was.
I don’t really understand how or why my fear of the waves washed away. Perhaps I just decided that there was no place for any more irrational anxiety in my life.
And then once I did that, it’s almost like the universe (or perhaps the waves themselves), sent its congratulations to me in a human form who, one year on from me leaving a toxic relationship, has restarted my heart. And someone who has gently guided me towards a surfing journey that I know is only just beginning.