Surfing with the Boys

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As I straddle my board in the warm Caribbean waters about 100 yards from the Bathsheba shoreline on the east coast of Barbados, my attention is divided between the surf rolling in and the area’s lush, green coastline dotted with brightly painted, colorful homes. Prior to taking this 8-day surfing and paddling trip with  Matt Hite, Connor Bonham, and Jimmy Blakeney, I knew I would likely fall in love with Barbados and the different types of surf opportunities it would provide. Now that I’m here, I want to rip up my plane ticket home.

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I return my gaze to the waves coming in and spot an opportunity. In only a few seconds, I’m up on my board, surfing down the line with my paddle skimming the surface. Experiences like these are what bring me peace. Soon, my moments of zen are interrupted with whitewater chasing me down. Outrunning whitewater is a skill that I have yet mastered, and it seems I am about to recieve some more schooling.

Once my body stops twisting and tumbling underneath the wave’s powerful downward forces, I fight my way to the top through the froth. As the underwater chaos subsides, I make my way to the surface, but the familiar tug on my left leg is missing. The power of the last wave snapped off the leash that tethered my board to my ankle, and that board is now floating in the boiling impact zone over a precariously sharp coral reef. Swallowing my pride, I ask one of the guys in the group if he can retrieve it for me. As the only woman on the trip and someone with far less experience and surfing prowess I’m not surprised that such a scenario has presented itself. In fact, it’s a moral victory that I almost made it to the trip’s halfway point before playing the girl card.

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Truth be told, when the prospect of such a trip came up, I struggled with the idea. The chance to surf and paddle the world-renowned waters of Barbados was enticing, but I didn’t want to misrepresent my skill level, and I certainly didn’t want the guys to feel like they needed to babysit me. This was a trip for serious surfers, and I had only three years of experience. Surfing is a perfect-storm kind of sport, one that requires many factors to fall into place. Tides, swells, winds, and general locations must all come together, and a surfer’s schedule must be flexible enough to take advantage of those perfect-storm moments when they come along. The guys on this trip, each of whom enjoys a surfing and/or paddling profession, practically live on the beach and can easily access the ocean’s surf almost anytime that they want or anytime the conditions are right. I, on the other hand, am a mother of three, a personal trainer, a paddleboard instructor, and someone who lives an hour and half from the coast. I can recall treks made to the ocean when wave forecasts were strong only to be skunked, and I’ve missed “sessions of a lifetime” due to parental responsibilities or training sessions with clients. And then there’s the challenge of making progress when infrequent practice sessions are strewn so far apart. Eight straight days of surfing in Barbados was an opportunity of a lifetime. In the end, I decided that I wasn’t going to miss it.

Losing my board and requesting help to retrieve it is humbling, but it’s not the first time on this trip that I’ve been reminded of the skill-level gap between me and my fellow surfers. On the very first day, I watched as the guys nonchalantly paddled out either prone or on their knees through a bubbling cauldron of white water on the Northwest coast of the island. Such a feat is no easy task for me, and it was at that moment that I realized just what I had gotten myself into.

Moments before, we had stood among tall grasses on a bluff that looked out over the sea and, listening to the monkeys scampering in the nearby Bearded Fig tree, we evaluated the surf conditions. They looked perfect mostly rights, and if you were in the right spot you could grab a few lefts. A perfectly placed rip current also helped you easily get back out. The guys suggested that I stay right to avoid getting caught on the inside.

“What about the reef?” I asked, trying to conceal my concern. I’d heard stories of bodies and faces slashed by sharp pieces of coral and the painful stings of sea urchins.

“You can always wear shoes or booties if you’re worried,” Jimmy replied.
Surf shoes aren’t sexy, but I wasn’t going to take any chances, at least not on the first day.

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Though I wanted to absorb as much knowledge from the guys as possible, I knew that I needed to give them their time on the water, and so I stuck to the edge of the main break by myself and learned from my own mistakes on the 3- to 5-foot sets that rolled in toward the shore. I took more chances and surfed more aggressively as the day passed, with my fear of the reef slowly diminishing largely due to a few major wipeouts. But wiping out in warm turquoise water was a pleasure; winter spills in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in New England don’t encourage greater risk-taking. On the hike up the cliff at the end of the session I considered ditching the shoes on the following day, until I saw Matt limp to the car a casu- alty of a sea urchin encounter. The shoes, I decided, would stay.

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As it turned out, I never made it into the water on the trip’s second day. Appropriately named, North Point is the northernmost tip of Barbados, and it was there that we found head-high, choppy swell that back washed off a dark coral cliff and pounded the shore below, with giant mushroom-shaped rocks scattered throughout the turquoise waters. The cliff created a tomb around the surf spot, and at its edge perched the abandoned and crumbling ruins of a surf hotel from the 1960s. Somehow, Barbados has a way of trans- forming the derelict into the beautiful. Yet something at this location was telling me not to go out. The guys went anyway. They caught a few waves, but struggled on many. In the end, they got to say that they surfed North Point, and I got to say that I watched.

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Day four returns to Bathsheba, the scene of the crime where I sheepishly played my girl card. The village, on the east coast of the island, lives up to its reputation as a tropical surf paradise. No frill bars and restau- rants, some of which feature only four concrete walls with bar stools scattered about, line the road near the coast.

Our surf spot this morning requires that I first battle my way through the white water while avoiding the reef that looms just below the surface. Once out into the deeper water, my anxiety dissipates and my confidence grows. Soon, I’m riding waves aggressively, which prompts Connor to cheer me on from the beach. At the end of one such wave, I get tripped up by some white water, tumble into the sea and then, all of a sudden, my world is consumed by a giant “crack!” that echoes in my head. I pop up to the surface, a bit disoriented, and touch my face to assess the damage as blood drips down my cheek. My board smacked my nose when I tumbled over the falls, so I paddle into shore to have the guys evaluate the wound.

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It’s an unnerving endeavor watching Jimmy, Matt, and Connor assess an injury that I can’t see. I find myself trying to read into any “Ohhhh” that is uttered or scrunched up look that appears on their faces. For a guy, the correct course of action would be to rub some dirt in it and head back out to surf. But I don’t want to look like Frankenstein for the rest of my life. In the end, the prescribed method of treatment is two Steri-Strips, some Neosporin, a bag of ice, and four Advil washed down with a beer. This is surf triage.

I take the fifth day off in hopes that a little rest, combined with that surf triage, gets me back to 100 percent. I’m back in the water the next day, and the conditions are just what I need knee-high waves and double-over-toe. They’re not the extreme waves that we saw earlier in the trip, but they’re perfect for building up my confidence again.

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On the second-to-last day of the trip, I stray from the guys and meet up with Sarah Cole, co-owner of Paddle Barbados, a surf shop located in Bridgetown. Together we venture to the southern portion of the island, where the prime surfing location is just offshore from a residential neighborhood. This is very different from the wild, ostracized spots that we had surfed earlier in the trip. From the bluff overlooking the ocean, the surf spot, with its sandy bottom sprinkled with occasional clumps of coral, looks friendly and inviting. Even better, the surf rolls in offering long lefts my favorite. Joining a pod of locals, Sarah and I spend the evening laughing, surfing, and mingling among the group of laidback surfers. There is nothing intimidating about this spot; it’s the type of surf location that I want to see out my back window, the type of location that could hook any newbie surfer. When I see the guys later that night, I brag about the slice of heaven I found on the water. They listen intently, then rifle off a series of questions.

“How many people were out?” ”Did any big sets roll in?” “Were the waves hallow?”

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After a week spent on the water with these guys, I know their favorite surf break characteristics; and the location where Sarah and I just surfed has the ingredients to please each of them. I think I know where we’ll be surfing on our final day in Barbados.

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Squeeze in one last session before your flight. As I learn, it’s what any serious surfer does, no matter what time they need to be at the airport. Back at my favorite surf spot on the island, I’m squeezing in as many runs as I can. With the tide getting low, I catch one last wave to end this surfing adventure. But as I stand up to walk my board in, I slip on a rock and slam my foot down on a section of the reef, gouging out a startlingly deep heart-shaped chunk of flesh from the arch of my foot. It hurts a heck of a lot more than the crack to the nose from day four, but I can’t help but smile. I survived eight days of surfing with the guys, and also gained their respect for stepping outside my comfort zone. Now if only I avoided stepping on that reef.

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