Surf Cowgirl Chronicles 5: The Not-So-Sexy Impact Zone

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Big wave wipeout Jaws, Maui (photo CNN- Brian Beilmann)

“The cure for anything is saltwater: sweat, tears, or the sea.” — Karen Blixen, novelist (Otherwise known by her penname Isaac Denisen)

Surfing is sexy.

A quick scroll through images of waves on Instagram lulls you into a dreamy quixotic dream of magical blue liquid, curling in slow motion, plunging a nimble surfer down the line, easy as breathing.

Just stroll down the street of my local surf town, Encinitas, CA, and you’ll be met with compelling glimpses behind curtains of water as young (always young, btw) men and women poised on billboards and in shop windows showcase the appealing and easy grace of ocean board life.

There’s always a healthy looking salty crew unloading and loading boards out of their cars on Hwy 101 at the break of dawn. And at Cardiff, you’re bound to see Joel Tudor cutting a stylish line, making it all look so easy.

Deceptively easy.

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Wipeout with style: Christian Marcher- Progressive Surf Academy

My coach Christian Marcher of Progressive Surf Academy is a yeller. He’s loud (which will save your life), and loves to explain everything (man thrives on caffeine), and thank God, because his voice reaches me over the boom of the waves to point out how I just about killed myself. Again. Awesomesauce.

Having dealt with ocean trauma and near drowning, (ahem, twice) the impact zone is my strongest point of resistance in the water.

So what’s the “impact zone”?

It’s the length of space where the waves break. Standing on the beach you’ll recognize it because of the strip of whitewash foam. (We also call it “the inside” or the “surf zone”.)

If you can paddle out past the impact zone, you’re on the “outside” which is where you’re safe from breaking waves, and can position yourself to catch one. You can also take a rest if you’ve battled the surf to get out there.

Bigger waves break farther out. Smaller waves break farther in. If you have a mix swell, you’re going to get both, and the impact zone is defined by where the waves are breaking.

The impact zone can break your board, by the way. If you’re on a shortboard you can duck dive these waves. But on a longboard you’re forced to turtle (flip upside down under a wave while holding your board), shove your board aside and dive under (risk of leash breaking- never good in a line up), or paddle like hell to try and get over the lip before the wall comes down.

Surfers have to “cat and mouse” the impact zone. Sometimes the waves you want are medium sized, and you have to catch them farther in, but risk taking a big wave on the head if a set rolls in. Always risk. Sometimes just the sound of the waves, like bombs exploding, is enough to flip me out.

The impact zone is where my mental game snaps. I sometimes panic and make terrible choices: I reach for my board, get hit sideways, or struggle to climb on top just as another wave crushes through. I have to consciously remember the strategies Christian has taught me or the PTSD takes over. So I talk to myself. Often out loud and sometimes screaming as if I have Tourette’s.

It’s astounding how when you don’t know the sea, or have an acquaintance of only a few years as in my case, it will just work you over and spit you out.

Christian says even when you know the sea all your life, it will still work you over and spit you out.

The repeat lesson: humility.

Any poor choice in the moment makes the impact zone experience worse because it lasts longer, pushes you to the brink of your stamina and sometimes breath capacity, too.

But the impact zone isn’t just out there in the water. Sometimes life just hits you. You don’t even need to be a surfer to know where life has you uncomfortably wedged or has given you a humbling crack on the head.

I’m writing this coming out of a life impact zone so I’m keenly in touch with how bad it sucks, and how sometimes you just don’t have control of your circumstances. Sometimes you just get “caught in the wrong place at the wrong time”, as Christian would say, “Happens to the best of us out here.” It’s the natural ebb and flow. It might be your health, your finances, your business, a betrayal. Impact zones abound.

When do the rides we dream of in our careers- in our relationships, and of course out in the lineup- require that we navigate some tough waters? Fuckin’ always. But they’re worth it. Because if you’re not out there paddling, you on the shore watching, a bystander, and that’s never where the action is.

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The boss throwing a fan — Christian Marcher (Progressive Surf Academy)

It’s the price for what you want, for the glory and the triumph of making a wave, and it waits for you like a chasm from out of a Homeric epic- monsters hidden in the deeps- seducing you to dare to cross.

Fail to navigate the impact zone at your peril. But if you strategize correctly, and make the right moves that the moment calls for, you’re safe and ready to snake a ride, even on the inside.

So let’s talk about those strategies, because they’re life-saving, energy conserving and smart to employ as much in your business as in your surf game.

The secret: Quick recovery.

You can sometimes turn a near wipeout in the impact zone into a new ride.As a moon-worshipping surf nerd, I totally geek out on this aspect of surfing.

It’s not sexy. It’s wet hair in your face, desperate confusion and often really fucking disconcerting flailing that if you’re lucky leads to another wave and not the E.R. (Ask any surfer about their scars and stories, and holy Moses, you’ll be amazed: broken backs, broken ankles, concussions, fin to head, fin to nose, fin to lip, gashes, stitches, surgeries, and more stitches… and some laughter and beer.)

But the impact zone is what you pay for sexy rides! Some of my best waves I’ve caught while recovering from getting smacked.

Recovery is key. Turn a mess into a sleek performance. I watch Christian do it every time we’re out.

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Longboard Goddess Kelia Moniz Hanging 10 (courtesy Surfer Today)

Here are 5 safety tips for navigating the impact zone in the water (from a longboarder):

1. Timing is everything.

If you’re caught on the inside as a set rolls in and you still have a toe on the bottom, stay put. Don’t progress yet. Hold your ground and just dive beneath the waves, or push your board over the top of them as you wait out the worst. When the set passes, you’ll have a window to jump on and paddle like mad for the outside.

If you’re on the beach making your way out, watch the sets before you paddle. You don’t ever want to paddle against the sets. There’s always an opening. Wait for it.

2. Turn around and surf the white water.

If it’s too much trouble to fight the waves, flow with them! Who cares if you didn’t drop into the pocket on the face. Not you, you’ve let go of your ego a long time ago, right? Just turn around and take off. When you paddle back out you might catch a better window of calm.

3. Don’t lose ground.

This is Christian’s sacred code of battling the impact zone. If you’re stuck on the inside try to hold your ground and progress toward the outside. You might ditch your board altogether and swim toward the outside, diving under the waves. But just aim your intention to get outside.

You have to swim first to get a lookout over the next wave. That’s how you’ll see what’s coming — or not coming- for you next.

This is sheer determination and willpower sometimes. Did I mention I’m a weak crawl swimmer? My dentist tells me I clench my jaw. Yeah, no shit.

Sometimes you will fail. That’s okay. The waves will push you back. You’ll have time to recover and return.

4. Don’t panic.

Easier said than done sometimes, especially for me when the waves get over head and barrel, or the wave shape is wide below like a pyramid so they drag you for what feels like 24,000 seconds but is probably only 4. Get some air, stay present, and remember tips 1–3.

There have been days I let myself take a breather on the sand before attempting the paddle back out. I’m on a 9’2” NSP coconut fiber longboard- so it’s super light with a deep rocker. I’m also 5’7” and weigh in at about 115 before breakfast, so there’s just not much weight to propel me over the waves. I have the advantage on the face, with glide. But paddling out, I can be tugged and throttled pretty easily.

More than once I’ve been sucked back over the falls when I miscalculated a thrust through the lip instead of a turtle roll. I’ve taken plenty of smacks to the face by testy waves when I failed to duck or turn my head in time, and it’s astounding how much force can be in one of those slaps.

If you go under, relax. Just be weightless and let go, and allow the elegance of the wave below the surface just to turn your body. Sometimes I tuck and roll, for the fun of it. Wait for your board to land if you can see or sense it. To be safe, emerge to the surface with your arm (or arms) over your face to protect it from a flying surfboard fin. Better a gash to the forearm than your nose or eye.

5. Respect the sea.

She is our first mother. She is the great teacher. She is the grandmother, the goddess, the lover. I say a prayer to honor her before I enter the water. A prayer for safety, for good waves, for good winds, for the happiness of all the creatures that swim in her life blood. I pray for her health and joy. And I pray I survive to reach the shore again. When I do, I take a moment to wrap up my leash, and bow to the sea in gratitude.

This little ritual reminds me to stay present, to remember what I love, to really soak in the beauty and admire the world around me. It’s a practice, and a way of being out there that feeds your soul.

So stay safe, and have fun out there!

It’s what surfing’s all about.

~ Kaia Alexander

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Cowgirl Surf Chronicles is proudly brought to you by filmmaker, novelist, entrepreneur Kaia Alexander.

You can find Kaia at

Watch the trailer of my new documentary short, Chalice: Wise Women Rise here:

Welcome to the Surf Cowgirl Chronicles! How I started surfing at age 40 after ocean traumas. California native. Mom. Moon worshipper.

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