Awakened by Waves

by Heather Edmiston Ernst

It’s 15 minutes before first light. I sit in my little Mini Cooper that I love, and will never sell despite his faults. My coffee is hot and the cars coming towards me on the PCH scare the hell out of me as I sit and stare at the blackness, a couple lonely cars asleep with their owners passed out at the wheel. Sunset Beach, between Santa Monica and Malibu is my favorite surf spot, my home. The waves are soft, well-shaped, and most of the time, inviting. Once in a while, usually in the winter Sunset can be icy and have a temper, but for the most part, we are friends.

On this morning, and any dawn patrol morning my hope is for just one other person, who I lovingly call “My Best Friend” to show up to surf at first light. I love surfing without people around, but to be the Only one out at 6:05 (SurfLine is my “first light” guide), is a bit of a courageous stretch for me. I consider myself to be a strong, independent woman, but Me and the Ocean and Whatever is beneath me at dawn…is just a tiny bit out of my wheelhouse, although I’ve done it.

Luckily, as the blackness fades like magic, and a curtain is lifted on the deep, dark, majestic, waters, I see “My Best Friend” jump into the waters and paddle out. My mind at ease, I pull my damp wetsuit on, wax Roxie Rose (my gorgeous aqua 8’ Torq) and head down. I always hope for low tide, 2–3 ft waves, but will take anything because in my mind, “paddling out in anything is better than not paddling out.” Surfing, and the water and the ritual has become my “Church”… no matter what is on my mind or what is plaguing my soul, paddling out, getting clobbered by a big wave, catching a perfect right , or just sitting past the break and watching is the perfect medicine for what ails me.

I’ll never be a “ripper” surfer, nor do I strive to be. As a tennis player, skier, gymnast, or any other sport I’ve ever done, competition just never mattered. With surfing it’s even less… in fact I prefer to be alone, I prefer to not talk to anyone out there, and I prefer to keep my sessions to myself. Each time I progress: carve right and left like a ski run, drop in on a steep peak, ride a wave all the way down the line, or catch a bigger wave than I expected,, it’s my own checklist. No one else cares, and I couldn’t care less about that.

I didn’t start surfing until I was 40. I grew up in Reno Nevada, close to Tahoe (Reno is not Vegas…I’ve had to make that correction a billion times living in So Cal), so I skied and backpacked. I did however go to San Diego State, putting me in the heart of great waves, but for whatever reason it never occurred to me to learn to surf. I think I thought it was a sport for guys, as I only knew guys who did it. I’m not proud of being that blind and ignorant while living so close to great waves, but it was what it was.

I had lived in Santa Monica for 9 years before it occurred to me to learn to surf. I told my husband that I wanted to take ONE surf lesson once in my life. It was a “Bucket List” item. After I had our second daughter he surprised me with a lesson at Venice Beach. I was scared, anxious, had huge (uncomfortable) boobs because I was nursing, and was totally unsure about the whole experience. He pushed me to go, something I love about him, so I did. Looking back as a more experienced surfer, the first day was too big for a “first day” lesson, but how would I know? I got beat up, thrown around, but I trusted my coach because what the hell else did I have to do? All in all it was fun; I caught a few waves that he pushed me into, and I was up. I also got tumbled and twisted, and didn’t know what the hell was happening, but that’s how it goes. For me the learning curve is steep and intense. There’s nothing more frightening than being slammed onto the bottom of the dark ocean and not being sure when I will be taking another breath, but like everything else, I learned from it.

Afterwards, and what my husband expected, I told him that I needed to take more lessons and I think I wanted to buy a board. He laughed and said, “I knew it.” Thus, began my midlife affair with the water and the wax under my feet. I was smitten.

Five years later and I’ve had a very very slow learning curve. Never in my life have I had to work so hard, so alone, without a lot of learning tools to get better at something I want so badly. I wanted and will always want to be more comfortable, be stronger as a paddler ,and an all-around surfer in general. It’s an obsession that keeps me getting up at 4:45 A.M. day after day, despite my fears and desire to sleep. I continually have to face my fears of bigger swells or getting clobbered by my board or a wave. One of my past students, and sometimes surf coach, Cole Sweeney said to me once, “Sack up and paddle out woman.” These are the words that remind me constantly to not be afraid, and to get out there and get better.

It’s only been until recently, since I can surf almost every day now instead of twice a week (The ONLY benefit to COVID quarantine) that heading out to surf doesn’t make me so nervous that my adrenaline makes me nauseous. If you asked me why? 90% of the time I don’t have a logical answer. The other 10% is because of a big swell, icy-empty waters and sometimes a new spot I’ve never been to. I know that most surfers surf alone, and being a woman isn’t an excuse, and I do ALL of my other sports alone, but for some reason being alone on this gigantic learning curve of surfing creates extra anxiety. Regardless, I’ve only ditched my surfing plans and gone home once. And believe me, I was more upset and embarrassed with myself for that drive-off than any tumble I’ve ever taken in the water.

Even as I write this I’m thinking about the fact that tomorrow Venice is a bit bigger than I like, and I am heading out at dawn no matter what…it’s a constant “push” that feeds me, and plagues me. My fears, against my drive to explore and improve. And the worst part is (and what people never tell you when you’re a kid-“No one gives a f*&^ what you do or don’t do as an adult, it’s ALL ON YOU!” So; with that realization, when I contemplate my next session, if I have any reserve because of time, swell or whatever…no one cares but me, and no one will be disappointed if I don’t- except me. THAT in itself has become the voice inside my soul that pushes me out the door, pushes me into that damp wetsuit, pushes me into the water and pushes me to paddle my ass off until I feel the glide of the “caught-wave”…the payoff that’s better than any drug (even the drugs at Burning Man). You can only understand the high of catching a wave if you’ve caught one. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt. No smooth mogul-line, no down-the-line tennis point, no summit of a mountain, NOTHING! And the best and worst part is, once you’ve felt it you can’t get enough!! Every time I leave the water and take my leash off, I’m thinking about the next time I get out.

As my surfing education continued I took several more lessons from my coach Aaron, who helped me with a lot of the basics and gave me the courage to buy my first foamie and get out there without his help. I was only surfing once a week, if that. I would leave the beach frequently without even getting past the break because the waves were too big. I would also cry a lot because I was disappointed in myself and didn’t understand why this sport was so damn hard! Why did I feel so inept and not in control of my abilities? Fear was controlling a lot of how I acted out there and it pissed me off to no end. As time passed, I was able to read the water a bit better, pick my moments to paddle out (ahh, wait until the set passes, there’s an idea Heather), and actually catch some waves. It was a long time until I was going right or left (left took a lot longer than right), and not until recently have I been carving and sticking bigger drop-ins.

My husband and I travel separately every summer because we have different interests when it comes to travel. In the past few years I decided to take some surf camp trips with Barefootsurftravel (an incredible surf company). I went to Nicaragua and Bali with Barefoot and learned a lot about the waters. I also learned that Nica and Bali have incredible waves…shit just thinking about some of those breaks makes me want to check out and get on a plane. While in Nicaragua I learned to slow down and connect to my waves (they aren’t there to just ride, they are there to be part of and enjoy). In Bali I had a big ass wave hold me down so long that I thought I was going to die. On top of that my board slammed my head, and my coach (as he was paddling safely out of the way) told me to “ditch my board and swim”…that was the last thing I heard before I was under. And of course, the second I got a breath another wave slammed me back down. The fear of that day in Bali stayed with me for a long time, but my coach kept reminding me that I was under way less time than I thought I was, and that I need to learn to relax, and know that the water will spit me out eventually. It did spit me out, and I did throw up afterwards for a bit, but I lived and I got right back into the water the next day. I knew if I didn’t, I would be lost to my fears. I do however prefer smaller waves and I’m pretty sure I always will.

After Bali I went to Sri Lanka to Arugam Bay, A-Bay. It was a solo trip, and I didn’t have a camp to join. What I did was I hired a surf guide from Dylan’s Surf Shop for several days to take me to spots and be my “best friend”. My coach was the coolest guy ever. He quickly learned that I didn’t want to be pushed into big ass waves and I was there to have fun. I surfed at Elephant Rock, Baby Bay and Pottuvil. On my last day at Pottuvil I got a little barrel and it felt so good! Sri Lanka is the undiscovered surf spot, it’s Bali 30 years ago. I loved every second of that trip. Side note, Sri Lanka also has great hiking, food, Southern surf spots (Hiriketiya & Weligama) and the people are incredible. I can’t wait to go back! I’ve really enjoy traveling for surfing , or hiking rather than just traveling just to travel. It has enhanced my journeys a lot.

I mentioned earlier that surfing has become my “Church”. I am not part of an organized religion. Growing up my dad always told me that his religion was nature: the mountains, the rivers, the fly fishing, the quiet. My dad has always been my best friend, my hero. He lived to be 96, a general surgeon for 64 years and the wisest, kindest person I’ll ever know. The day he died I found out when I was on duty at school (I’m an 8th grade teacher). It was early in the morning and I was supposed to be going to visit him in Reno four days later with my girls. I thought that I had time to say goodbye, to see him again, but that morning April 8th (my husband’s birthday) 2019 was the morning I realized I would never be able to talk to him again. So of course, I had to go surfing.

I left my school in a haze, drove home and told my husband he had passed and grabbed my board. My husband knows me very well, and he knows that I know what I need when I need it. I left the house and drove to Sunset. It was a beautiful, clear, crisp morning. I parked and saw that it was low tide and the waves looked kind and present. I got ready and paddled out. I just floated for a while, but with surfing I can’t just float for long. I have to pay attention and be alert because the waves don’t stop for me to pontificate, and sets will start and break where they want to, whether I’m paying attention or not. This fact is another element about surfing that I honor. Whatever is on my mind, I can’t wallow in it out there. Out there, surfing is what needs to be in my head. On this day, I caught wave after wave. They were perfectly shaped and beautiful. I felt that my dad was out there with me. If that sounds corny, then it does, but I felt enveloped in all that was good in that session. When I was tired, I paddled back to the beach and sat down on my board and cried for a very long time. I felt grateful that I had my dad in my life for 45 years, and that I had spent so much time with him. I was also grateful that I felt him with me, now that he was gone. And even today, over a year after he has passed, I frequently feel him out there in the water with me. It may sound crazy, but before I get into the ocean I ask two things (in my head), I say “Good morning big beautiful ocean, do you mind if I am a humble visitor today? And I also ask, “Pops, are you out here with me?” Ritual, church, peace and education- this is what surfing has become to me. I just hope that I can take care of my body, and be strong long enough to surf until I am very, very, very, very old.