Confessions of a Barney: 7 Life Lessons From Surfing (Badly)


Surfer in Playa Arenillas, Spain

Salt water is gushing out my nose like a geyser while I search for my contact lens in my brain cavity. I regain my vision just in time to see another wall of white water barreling towards me. Too exhausted to turtle roll, I hurl my body and my board over the top and lose precious, hard-fought ground.

Even though I’ve been paddling for 20 demoralizing minutes, the beach is still only 10 feet behind me where a family observes my slow progress. I wish they’d build a sand castle or something. I climb on my board and start paddling back out.

I went to Costa Rica to learn to surf. I didn’t want to just stand up on a board and go home but really learn. After a few uninspired lessons with some well-meaning sixteen year old telling me to “feel the wave,” I was determined to demystify and this elusive and exclusive sport.


Post-surf sunset in Nosara, Costa Rica

I signed up with Surf Simply, a technical surf school disguised as a boutique resort in Nosara, Costa Rica, and spent a heavenly week learning the fundamentals of surfing. Two years later I was back in Nosara, confident that a month on a board would turn me into a Billabong queen. Son of a beach, was I wrong.

Still, the time I spent trying was exhilarating and exhausting, freeing and frustrating, beautiful and, at times, bloody. It was also eye opening. While I didn’t turn pro, what I learned in those four weeks could easily be applied to my terrestrial life. Inspired by Emma Thieme’s awesome post on dirt biking, here are my 7 life lessons learned from surfing badly.

Surf Schedule

Surf Simply Daily Schedule

It’s Okay to Look Like an Ass

Johann Sebastian Bach said, “If I decide to be an idiot, then I’ll be an idiot on my accord.” Learning to surf means embracing your inner clod. When I’m catching a wave, I usually resemble a short, spastic Gumby doll taking a giant shit but, like anything in life, taking a risk means risk looking like a moron. I promise you the juice is worth the squeeze.

Dress For Success

There are bathing suits and there are bathing suits. The former is for sitting poolside with a Mai Tai and the latter is for washing up on shore like a piece of driftwood with a shred of your dignity still intact. You’ve heard the expression don’t bring a knife to a gunfight? Well, don’t wear a string bikini to ride giants. Trust me, wearing your bikini top as a belt is not nearly as sexy as it sounds.

Don’t Be A Douche

Dropping in on someone else’s wave, snaking to better position yourself for every wave or just generally being a wave hog is lame. Nobody likes that guy. Don’t do it.

Sunset surfer in Costa Rica

Local surfing spot in Nosara, Costa Rica. 

Take the Plunge

After a particularly humiliating surf session getting pounded in the break zone, I finally safety’d up on to the beach like a bag of wet laundry. I sat down in the sand and promptly burst into tears. I was shaky, embarrassed, defeated, exhausted and depressed. I had zero plans to try again when Surf Simply’s founder, Ru, told me that if I was too tired to go back out, that was one thing but if I was too scared, that was a different thing altogether. I was terrified but we paddled back out together and even though I took another beating, the one thing I don’t have is regret.

But Know Your Limits

Surfing is about pushing the limits but learning to surf is also about knowing them. As newbie surfer, I was like an eager puppy running around and peeing all over everything. Practicing good surfing etiquette, like not paddling into a packed lineup or hanging around in the drop zone, means you’re less likely to get injured or get your ass kicked.

Beach sunset in Costa Rica

Enjoying the sunset on Playa Guiones in Nosara, Costa Rica.

Ditching is for Dicks

When a wave that looks like it could take out the S.S. Poseidon is rolling your way, you don’t have permission to ditch your board to save your own skin. At least not when there are other surfers floating around who could be scalped, blinded or otherwise maimed by your flyaway board. You do, however, have permission to pee your swimsuit. Before you bail on a giant wave, just make sure no one else is going to lose their front teeth while you make your exit.

Lend a Hand

While surfing can feel so right, it’s amazing how much can go wrong, and fast. There are rip currents, stingrays, giant swells, wipeouts, collisions, jelly fish, sharp reefs, tangled leashes, aggressive locals, klutzy newbies and my worst fear thanks to Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg: sharks. That’s why it’s best not to surf alone. At the very least someone can report you missing. The point is, if you can help someone out, do it. If you can’t, all I ask is that you don’t just pass out on the beach in a drunken stupor while a twenty-five foot man-eating fish is eating me.

Post-surfing nap in Costa Rica.

Sleeping beauty passed out after a morning of surfing in Costa Rica.


6 Comments on “Confessions of a Barney: 7 Life Lessons From Surfing (Badly)

  1. An entire month of Surf Simply sounds like heaven! Glad you got to go back and I bet you had your fair share of fun waves. Enjoyed reading your Life Lessons 🙂

    • Thanks, lady! I didn’t do Surf Simply, though I did see Ru. I just nabbed a casita for the month and rented a board. It wasn’t pretty but it was definitely fun.

  2. This is inspiring. I’ve always said I would never learn to surf because I have no sense of balance and I’m bad at pretty much all sports, which is why I run. Maybe there is hope for me! “The juice is worth the squeeze.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard this before, but I love it!

  3. I’m a klutz who loves to run so if I can learn so can you! I definitely won’t be starring in Blue Crush 3 anytime soon but I had a blast. Check out Surf Simply for a great week.

  4. Abby! WordPress is really giving me the shakedown to leave a comment. This is my 3rd attempt! But I just wanted to say I was catching up on your adventures and I am loving what you are doing and I love reading about it. Miss you! xo

    • So glad WordPress is making people work for it. It’s a bold engagement strategy, let’s see if it pays off. Thanks for reading! I’m now state-side and experiencing severe travel withdrawal so definitely due for an NYC visit soon. Miss you too!

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