It was 2 weeks before my 40th birthday, in October 2016, and I would carry the grief, confusion and previous ocean traumas I’d endured into the cold Pacific with me, shaken to the bone, but determined to overcome whatever I could, if anything at all.
I’d always wanted to surf. Growing up in Pacific Palisades, California, many of my friends (all dudes), drifted into home period at Pali High with wet hair having set their alarms before dawn to hit the waves before class. I found the guys alluring, charming, and perfectly portrayed by Sean Penn’s performance as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
But I didn’t want to date these boys… I wanted to be one of them. I just hadn’t worked up the nerve.
As a girl I’d been spooked when my neighbor on Northfield St. -an older teenage boy named Chris- was spiked in the neck by a surfer cruising down the line on his short board at a point break in Malibu. The board pierced his main artery, filleted his neck like a fish, and the lifeguard pulled him out and he was helicoptered to the E.R. where he required several blood transfusions and over 70 stitches. He was in a coma for 3 days. Not only did he survive, after his recovery, he went right back out into the waves. (As a mother of a 6 year old son, I hate to think of the trauma his own mother endured as this unfolded.) It’s a miracle he didn’t die, but I know in his mind, it was a miracle he lived to surf again.
This seemed insane to me. I think about it sometimes when I paddle out in the rain, my feet as cold as concrete blocks. How once you’ve felt the thrill of the waves, almost nothing will keep you away…
As a surface swimmer, my crawl has always been sloppy, and I tire quickly. This is not ideal surfing marrow. At 5’7”, and a lithe 112 lbs, the friendly breast stroke is my favorite surface style of swimming, and as any lifeguard will tell you, it’s not much of a life-saver out there. But deep in the water column, I had learned to hold my breath as a free diver in my 20's, and somewhere a wild woman inside me was waiting for me to be brave enough to find her.
I’d seen the silent churning darkness at the bottom of the sea, twice. And lived.
In my early 20’s I’d gone surfing with ex boyfriends lacking in good judgement (in retrospect, it was only my ex-girlfriends who had good judgement, but I digress as the B in LGBTQ). The first one took me out at Davenport Beach, California, in October, in double overhead conditions. I’d never been on a surfboard before. (Trust me, this was clearly conveyed to him.) When I made it in to shore, the broken board washed up on the beach behind me and I fell to my knees on the sand and sobbed for my life, then hitchhiked home back to Santa Cruz, abandoning the entire situation, even my bag of clothes in his car, just grateful to be alive.
The second time I’d gone out on a surfboard, 8 years later, a new boyfriend took me out to Venice Pier, California, on a day he was certain the waves would be small. We must have paddled out between sets, because as soon as we thought we were past the shore break, the south swell came crushing in, and I froze, staring at the wall of water careening towards me with no clue what to do. I was knocked off my board by that first wave and my leash broke instantly. The set interval was so tight that after being pinned underwater for a short eternity, when I came up for a breath the next wave was already crashing on my face and all I swallowed was water.
Another face of water, desperate for breath… pinned, tumbled, disoriented, desperate to breathe…
…Under the third wave drowning seemed like a stark possibility to me, and through the panic I could think only of my mother, seeing her in my mind’s eye, beautiful and smiling at me as I prayed the last thing I’d told her was that I loved her. And I felt so sorry to her for going this way. Mom, I’m so sorry…
I don’t remember my boyfriend pulling me from the water. He’d been on the swim team at Harvard. Did he risk my life… or save it? Either way, he was now an ex boyfriend.
Trembling on the sand, I feared the sea, and refused to step even a toe into the waves for over a decade.
So how did I become a surfer?
“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” ~ Isak Denisen, (whose real name was Karen Blixen)
In 2011, I had an emergency C-section with my son, Atticus, in what was a transfer to the hospital from a home birth. It had taken several years to feel my stomach properly again, and to find strength in my limbs. I barely had confidence my body could run a mile, or get through a whole yoga class, and yet, surfing was the thought that came to me?
Was I crazy? No, I think the sea was calling me.
Out of the need to find solace somewhere to cry my tears where they would be welcome, and as I was never someone who felt comfortable crying in front of people, the sea seemed so natural a place to bring my grief.
So ironically, and strangely, after my dad died the first thing I wanted to do was abandon my safe shore, and climb on a surfboard. It was this unfinished thing inside me, to see the shore looking back from the waves. I didn’t know what I wanted. Only that the thought of surfing kept returning to me as I watched the other surfers from the beach, admiring their graceful turns.
It was a longing…
At night I dreamed of the sea.
I dreamed of a lilting mad woman scraping barnacles off the bottom of a pier and singing to herself in Gaelic. And I dreamed of the maw of waves, pulling me under, then waking, gasping for breath. I dreamed of losing my son somewhere in the water, and awoke to kiss him, and pull him close.
But like a silkie, the sea called to me, and all I wanted was to shed my human skin, and dive in, disappear, forget the pain that haunted me endlessly.
The deep has always felt like home to me.
I tried a few different surf instructors in north county San Diego where I live, but they mostly pushed me into waves with no explanation, or worse, abandoned me beyond the shore break so they could go catch some rides for themselves while I shivered alone, in a wetsuit 3 sizes too big for me, waiting not to die.
Not only were these uncharted waters, they were waters filled with traumatic memories. The closer I got to the waves, the memories would wash over me, and I would shake in terror more than cold.
I decided to try one last time.
Enter Christian Marcher
I set up a lesson with a coach named Christian Marcher, the owner of Progressive Surf Academy. Though 10 years my junior, he would become like the father I never had: he would take charge of my safety, praise my progress, and challenge my comfort zone expertly.
Where there was a daddy shaped hole in my heart, I would find the sea, and a coach to guide me.
Christian became my eyes in a world of incomprehensible, petrifying and shifting shades of blue. I was ocean-blind, like a little pink newborn thing: a grown woman grom.
That first day, he gave me a solid lesson on the sand on paddling and popping up. Then he put me on a 11 ft. long board and paddled out towing my board with his right foot on the nose.
And I got up more than once. I actually got up! And for a few exhilarating, wobbly moments, I stood perched above a tiny wave on sparkling California waters shimmering with flecks of gold, gliding toward the spinning ferris wheel of the Del Mar Fairgrounds as the sun warmed my face.
Maybe I would never be good, or ever go alone, but it seemed I could make discoveries out there about myself in the waves that I would never make on land.
And there was Christian there beside me, encouraging me, keeping me safe.
“Look up. Just go straight. Do it again. Nice.” ~ Christian
His simple instructions would always be forgotten the instant I caught a wave, and tumbled. But the ocean is generous, if dangerous. She sends wave after wave after wave to practice on. There is no final exam. There is nothing but the Tao of the moment, the shifting conditions, the tide rising or falling, and the moon spinning silently somewhere above you, below you.
And then the dolphins appear, shiny, black bodies, the spurt of warm breath from their blowholes close enough to hear, and you forget… somewhere there are emails to return, or bills to pay, and you forget anything but the energy of life itself surging through your veins, in glee, in a thrilling happiness that courses through you like theHallelujah chorus of a gospel choir.
This is the beginning of the Surf Cowgirl Chronicles, the chronicles to the wild woman I found inside myself who was once this comfortable riding horses bareback through the hills, now dancing on those waves after heartbreak, deaths, emergency surgery, and ocean trauma.
(Hey, surfboards don’t eat or need new shoes like horses, so you gotta embrace the pocketbook tradeoff.)
It is an ode to the sea, which has brought me more ecstasy than my wildest dreams.
I’m happy to be your resident surf cowgirl.
~ Kaia Alexander
Cowgirl Surf Chronicles is proudly brought to you by filmmaker, novelist, entrepreneur Kaia Alexander.
You can find Kaia at www.kaiaalexander.com
Watch the trailer of my new documentary short, Chalice: Wise Women Rise here: www.chalicemovie.com