Hello, my name is Graham Averill, I’m 45 years old, and I’m not good at surfing.
It feels good to get that off my chest. To say it out loud. It’s taken me a long time to come to that conclusion, but admitting it feels like a weight off my shoulders. I’ve been surfing for almost 20 years now, and I suck at it. I’ve been obsessed with the sport since I was a kid. I would draw surfboard designs in my notebook at school instead of doing math. I devoured surf movies, from “Point Break” to “North Shore.” At one point, I moved to Southern California specifically to learn how to surf. It didn’t go well.
My wife and I took lessons the first week we arrived in San Diego. The lessons started with some very encouraging words from the instructor who told us he, “never had any student who couldn’t catch a wave.” I appreciated his confidence and my wife proved him right; she caught the first wave she paddled into and stood up as easily as getting out of a chair. She was a natural. I was a natural anchor. Toward the end of the lesson, our instructor was getting frantic. “I can’t explain it,” he said. “I’ve never had any student who couldn’t catch a wave.”
It was the exact same sentence he uttered earlier in the lesson, but carried a completely different meaning because his voice was full of despair and doubt. Language is fun like that.
Fast forward two decades and I can say with authority that I know how to surf: I can paddle out to the break, catch a wave, and ride it without falling. But it needs to be the perfect wave—not too steep, but not too mushy either. If it could break to the right, that would be ideal because I have a hard time turning left. Like “Zoolander,” I’m not an ambi-turner.
What’s my level of proficiency, you ask? OK, imagine I’m at one of those surf camps that you can send your 10-year-old kid to. I’m probably the second or third best surfer in that group of 10-year-olds who have never surfed a day in their lives. I’m 45 and have been surfing for 20 years, and there are 10-year-old beginners who are better than me. But I can buy beer, so it evens out.
For years I kept trying to get better. I’d watch video tutorials and ask other surfers for tips. I’d give myself goals with every session: don’t drag your back knee when you’re popping up, or try to stand up sooner on the wave. I’d paddle out into bigger waves, getting in way over my head because I felt like I should be able to surf powerful breaks. And I’d get frustrated when I failed, slapping at the water, cursing Keanu Reeves and the other gods of surf movies.
I’m a firm believer that athletes can improve as they age into their 40s and beyond. I’m a better mountain biker at 45 than I was at 35. I’m stronger and in better shape now than I was when I was 25. But surfing well continues to elude me, which is incredibly frustrating because it looks so effortless. Watch someone who actually knows what they’re doing and you can easily convince yourself that you could also surf that well. It all looks so simple. I’m out there in the lineup with a dozen dudes and dudettes and everyone’s moving around so effortlessly on their boards. One paddle stroke and they’ve moved 10 feet to their right, the perfect position to catch the peak of the wave. Two casual paddle strokes and they’re on the face of the thing. And then they’re just standing, like a damn magic trick. It’s all so graceful. When I paddle into a wave, it looks like I’m trying to splash around to get someone’s attention on the beach. On the rare occasion I actually catch a wave, my pop-up is more geriatric than graceful—a series of slow, painful micro-adjustments until I’m on my feet just before the wave has died out. Picture your grandfather getting up off the floor. That’s my pop-up.
In recent years, I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly why I’m so bad at surfing. I’m tall and top heavy with twigs for legs and just enough core strength to keep me upright in a strong breeze. My center of gravity is somewhere near my ears. I’m built for reaching things on high shelves, not sports that require balance. Also, my body is falling apart; my hip hurts when I stand in a long check-out line at Target, so the stress that surfing causes might be too much for my frail bones and muscles. But the biggest problem is I only get to surf one or two weeks a year, and there’s no way you can get better at something without consistent practice.
I could make excuses, but the result is the same: I’m bad and I’m not getting better. So, this year, on our annual surf trip, I gave up. Not surfing, but I gave up trying to get better at surfing. I stopped forcing myself into bigger waves and stopped giving myself to-do lists in an attempt to improve my performance. I decided to catch the easy waves and just try to ride them to the best of my ability. I focused almost exclusively on right handers because, if I can’t turn left, then there’s no reason to torture myself. I relaxed. I laughed when I got worked by a wave. I told myself it’s OK to be bad at this sport. And the craziest thing happened: I started getting better. Not a lot better, but a little. I started catching waves in the right spot, and riding those waves for longer, working the board into the meat of the hump and letting the energy of the ocean push me along. I started having wonderful, extended rides that made me excited to paddle out for more. I even started turning left, and loving the backwards-ass experience that going the other direction on a wave offers.
It was like some weird Zen experiment where I could only achieve the thing I wanted after giving up the desire for that thing entirely. It was straight out of Point Break. I’m not saying I’m good at surfing now. I still suck. I’m still the third best kid at summer surf camp, dragging his right knee on pop-ups and flailing like an idiot, but now I’m happy in my mediocrity. And on the rare occasion, when the wind is just right, I can even go left.
Cover photo: The author’s children, on a family surfing trip.