It’s an April Saturday, glorious sunshine and I have to say – despite being ten degrees celsius – the water looks beautiful and I can’t wait to get in. Winter wetsuits are more forgiving than I had remembered, and easier to get into. Topped off with hawaiian shirt style rash vests, and after lugging the huge foamies down to the beach, the day has arrived and we are ready to take the plunge!
The sun sparkles on the sea and there are perfect little white breakers. By the time we’re waist deep we all have huge smiles and are thanking the neoprene Gods for amazing winter wetsuits, gloves and booties; we can barely feel the cold. Awesome. We’ve been guided through the anatomy of our boards, the timing of catching a wave and how to give a little push forward into the water before we jump on to ride the wave lying down. I’m exhilarated to catch the first wave I try and get a surprisingly fast ride in towards the shore. It fools me for a moment into thinking this is going to be easy!
About halfway into the lesson I notice some writing on our instructor’s rash vest – the mind unshackled; let it be free – and this phrase really stays with me through the weekend as I start to come up against my body’s limitations. Surfing is the most physically demanding sport I have ever tried, and by the end of our first two hours I feel a glorious ache of effort in my arms, shoulders and core. We have learned to ‘pop up’ on dry land but I find my muscles just won’t do that in the water! Similarly sliding to my knees from the press-up position feels smooth and eminently possible on land, but combining it with catching a wave, getting my body balanced and keeping momentum is so difficult! By the end of the lesson I have made it up to my knees although standing up remains elusive. There’s a twinge of disappointment.
We celebrate with Kelly’s ice creams and zoom back to the cottage and the hot tub. It feels amazing to look up at the sunset-streaked sky and soak in the peace of the countryside as day one ends.
Day two begins bleary eyed for me. I’m frustrated that my mind had raced through the night. I can feel that my body is sore and exhausted. I think about that phrase again, about unshackling my mind and being free. I know that it’s really important to encourage myself to enjoy the time in the water, regardless of outcome. It’s a really hard thing for a perfectionist I realise, to accept the uncertainty that I might get to stand up today, and I might not. There’s a pinch more trepidation this time as I zip up my wetsuit, adjust the gloves and head out. As soon as we get into the water I know this is not going to be ‘my time to shine’ as our instructor might say. It’s messy, big and windy. The power of the waves takes me aback and I’m getting beaten up by the board. I am struggling to get onto the deck of the board in the right position, our instructor holds the board for me and encourages me that there are no mistakes here; only practice. I can feel my body is reaching its limits. Let it be free.
A couple of tears are beginning to prick in my eyes. I swallow my pride and ask our instructor if it’s okay to get out of the water for a few minutes. He asks if I want a bodyboard and honestly, relief washes over me like one of those messy waves! I spend a wonderful half an hour regaining my confidence with the waves, getting one fantastic ride where I manage to steer the bodyboard left and right. My aching body says thank you for the smaller, lighter board to manoeuvre in the water and I have space to reflect on letting that feeling of failure go.
I head back to the lesson without a board. It’s an opportunity for a bit of conversation with our instructor about the gap year, why I’m doing it and some of the too familiar sense of failure that has come before with my history of mental illness. But the beautiful thing – in between snippets of conversation he teaches me to bodysurf. When two waves arrive close together I go for it, diving head first into the water and I suddenly feel an incredible sense of the wave’s power pulling me forward and icy cold bubbles rushing across my face. Incredible. Humbling. Peaceful.
I know it’s going to be a process of unshackling my mind, but that Sunday I think I made a step in the right direction.