Learning to Surf in Bali

The Adventure of Learning to Surf in Bali

As I cruised up to Batu Bolong Beach I could feel the butterflies fluttering in my stomach.  It had been about 7 years since I’d even tried to step on a surfboard. Even then, that board was a gigantic foam thing that did whatever it wanted.  Calling it a “surfboard” would be a stretch.  Despite the prior failed attempt, here we were standing on Batu Bolong beach in Canggu Bali. Like we planned.  Steps away from learning to surf.

Learning to Surf in Bali

Two months before this moment I was sitting in Croatia, planning the next phases of this year around the world.  In each “phase” I had things on my bucket list that I wanted to accomplish.  Each of the items on the list was some thing I wanted to accomplish or experience before kicking the bucket. In total, it was list of things I wanted to experience to calm the restless adventurer in me and build a set of adventure sports skills that would add new purpose to my travels in the future…but that’s a post for another day. (Read about that new project here: The Adventure 8)

There I was, pining over going to Sri Lanka or Costa Rica to learn the art of riding waves. 

At just around the same time, my buddy Aaron reaches out.

“Let’s go to Bali, man!  I found this freediving and spearfishing course out there that looks interesting.”

Bali wasn’t even on my radar but Aaron was selling up this Canggu in place in Bali.  Thanks to a warm ocean with beginner friendly beach breaks and burgeoning bohemian restaurant and café scene, the  things to do in Canggu made it the perfect stop off I never would have considered.  Just show up, and live a good life in an island paradise between adventures and get a lot of surfing in during the stay.

There was only one way to solve this. A coin flip.

Tails, I head for Costa Rica, moving slowly closer to home in North America, and languages I was familiar with, English and Spanish

Heads, I head for Bali and more of the unknown aiming for the full package of surfing, freediving and spearfishing.

I flip the coin…

Heads it was.

I was going to Bai. 

We agreed to meet in Canggu and bought tickets to Bali the next day.

Two months later here we were, steps away from knocking out item #1 on my bucket list.  Learning to surf.  Batu Bolong Beach.  Brothers Surf Rental right next to Old Man’s Bar. 

“You guys need surf lessons,” the young Balinese guy said as he gave me a handshake truly fit for a “brotha”.  I’ve got to admit, the Balinese people have a lot of soul.  I like ‘em.

Canggu Surf Brothers Board Rental
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“Nah, but I’ll take the longest board you’ve got.”

“Haha, really?” The Balinese kid laughed. “You want the monster?”  He said as he brought a 9’6 fiberglass log.

“She’s perfect.” I responded with a fist bump. 

With a good luck high five from the Balinese kid, Aaron and I, and my log in hand I headed past the stone Balinese temple and down the beach toward the water.

My crucible of the sea began.

The Plan: Teach Myself to Surf…or Drown Trying

Before arriving to Bali I had passed through Cairo, to see the pyramids on a quick layover and making Egypt the 50th country I visited. 

Visit the Pyramids - A Self Guided Egypt Pyramids Tour (Feature Image)

On the plane ride leaving Cairo I thought about how grateful I was to have seen so many places and experienced so many cultures and adventures.  In the reflection, I realized the memories that stood out the most revolved around connecting deeply with nature.

Walking alone through the Himalayas toward Everest with a couple of stags by my side

Hiking through Yosemite and the meadows and stumbling upon a bear along the way

Staring at an endless glacier in Patagonia, such a beautiful blue that I couldn’t tell where it ended.  It seemed like a carpeted walkway into the sky.

These were the experiences that stood out from my adventures.  These were the adventures I was most thankful for.  I wanted more experiences like these.  I wanted more adventures like these…but more.  As my brain churned through the memories, I decided to build my travels around these kinds of experiences going forward.

I picked 8 adventure sports that I would work to master, that would allow me to travel higher, further, and deeper.

Skydiving.  Skiing. Mountain Biking. Rock Climbing. Wingsuiting.  Freediving.

And surfing.

With such lofty list, I wouldn’t have the time or budget for formal classes (with the exception of skydiving and wingsuiting).  I would have to teach myself. 

Surfing would be the first test of whether it would really be possible to master any of these feats own, so I put together a plan to test the idea.

I would teach myself to surf on Bali.

Learn How to Surf: A Bootleg Guide Carlos Style

I scoured the Internet for every surf concept I could find, and then found a tutorial video and article to pair with the concept.  I organized all of this info into a process based on the question ‘what do I need to master first?’  What was “the one thing” I would need to know to progress to the net level?

The result was a list of surfing “one things”.  A list structured so that at any one time, I was only focusing on learning one thing, executing that one technique over and over and over until it was natural and instinctive.  Then, I would move on to the next “one thing”.

The most meaningful piece of advice came from a tutorial out of Australia. Right or wrong, it put a goal in my sights.

According to these guys, 25 was the magic number. It usually takes 25 sessions to be a competent surfer. 25 sessions to ride a wall of water that stands over your head.  25 sessions to make the right move and cut to the side riding the length of the wave as long as possible. 25 sessions to learn how to surf.

My magic number to reach before leaving Bali was 25 sessions.

Today, on day one, the “one thing” was just getting out there.  That’s it.  Anything beyond that was gravy.

 (If surfing is on your list, you can follow my bootleg surfcamp in this “Learn to Surf for $100” tutorial.)

Day 1 in the Water

Aaron and I cheated (smartly) following an instructor and his minions to get from the ocean to past where the waves were crashing.  Entering where they entered and following their line was a great cheat. We paddled behind them past the waves and into an area where we could ride to some nice, foamy, whitewash

Just like the log of a surfboard I was on, it was perfect.  The water was nearly body temperature warm and the sun shined on us perfectly.  There wasn’t a touch of wind in the air.  I couldn’t believe how great the conditions were.

As we peeled off from our unwitting surf instructor a wave crashed behind us sending a wall of whitewater rushing towards us.

“I’m getting after it!” I yelled back to Aaron as I paddled sloppily yet furiously.  I felt back of the board rise as it picked up speed, pushed by the wave. I grabbed the board’s rails, partly out of shock and partly to stabilize myself, and then popped up.

 Holy shit.

I was surfing.

As the mushy wave stormed in towards shore and the golden sun bathed me, I was on top of the world.  The first time I had even paddled for anything in Bali.

I knew right then that I would fall in love with surfing.

I didn’t know, that that was the last time any progress would come that easily.

I paddled back out towards Aaron, arms feeling like jelly and we rode the whitewater a bit more before calling it quits. 

I thought to myself, “today was a good day.”

Bad weather hits…and a decision

I had been blessed with perfect conditions and experiences on arrival but my luck was quickly starting to change.  I had managed to show up at the beginning of the rainy season, and the rain really started just after we arrived.

This meant that most days were going to start or end with rain, making the ocean murky and dirty. On those days that there wasn’t rain, the ocean would likely be choppy as the wind rolled through.  Paddling out, through and past the choppy waves with the wind at my face would be brutal and demoralizing.  Even worse, once I finally got past the waves, arms feeling like jelly, I’d have to muster the energy to paddle fast enough to catch the waves.

As an experienced surfer, this is just part of the passion.  As a newbie teaching himself and surfing alone most days, this was a game changer…and not in a good way.

I was posed with a dilemma. 

I realized that the more I surfed, daily ideally with shorter rest periods between sessions, the better I would get and more quickly too.  The only way to get better was time in the water.

But.

The water didn’t want me.  To be honest, up until recently I’ve always had a fear of the ocean.  The idea that I can’t see what’s below the surface, what’s swimming around me, definitely left me feeling uneasy.  The idea that once I run out of energy, if I cant float, the ocean is taking me.  On land, I’m good.  I’ve run marathons impromptu and hiked tens of miles in a day easily.  In the ocean, I’m vulnerable.  In a choppy ocean doing a sport I’m a novice at, I’m asking for trouble…unless…

Unless I didn’t stay a novice for long.  If, instead, I take on the worst that the ocean has to offer and survive it, with bumps, bruises, and lessons of course, then I’ll be much stronger in a calm sea.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right?

The Latin phrase “Amor fati” captured my situation perfectly. “Love of fate.”

I decided to push through.  If the locals were out there, I’d go.

A humbling Experience

The first choppy day I hit the ocean was a memorable one.  The waves must have been shoulder level and it seemed like the rest of the ocean was churning just as high.  Paddling out, I spent more time trying to stabilize myself on my board and avoid falling off than I did paddling, trying not to get thrown off into the rough waters.  I was still determined to get out there though, so I fought and fought and fought until 30 minutes later, 30 minutes of fighting with the ocean, I finally made it passed the breaking waves.  I was in the clear…I thought.

As I turned for shore, sitting there and trying to catch my breath, I laid my head on the board, rethinking my decisions.  My arms felt like rubber.  I didn’t even know if I had the energy to paddle back.

Just then, as I was distracted, an off wave that was bigger than the others was feet away and about to crash right on top of me.  I was in the impact zone and couldn’t do much about it.  Either the board was going to crash on top of me or flip the board, with me on it, into the choppy waters.

My arms felt like jelly from paddling out so I knew I couldn’t maneuver the board in time.  No way to go over it and too tired to roll under, I dove into the wave, trying to pierce it and swim through to the surface. Just as I felt myself going up towards the little sunlight showing and feeling a slight bit of relief, my leash pulled me back under the water.  My board was getting dragged forward by the wave and I was being pulled underwater behind it.

I started to panic.  Already burnt out and breathing hard before the panic, I wasn’t sure how long I could stay under or how far from the surface I was.  I had to get control of my board.

I grabbed my leashed ankle and followed the line underwater trying to pull myself to my board.  As I did, I felt my surfboard pop free of the wave that was pushing it.  I followed my line to my board, flipped it over, and dragged myself atop.  I had nothing left. I wasn’t sure I had enough energy to fight through the waves to back to shore if I lost my board, or another experience like that, so I just grabbed my board and held on.

I heard a wave crashing behind me and gripped the sides of the board and hoped I wouldn’t get flipped again.  Luckily, the water rolled over me and began pushing me  sand the board to shore.  I let it.  As I got close to the sand, I rolled off and ran up the beach, board in hand, with what little energy I had left trying to get clear of the waves dumping on the steep shore, then sat down trying my hardest not to collapse on the beach.

I had gotten my ass kicked today and damn near drowned.  What the hell was I thinking?

As I cruised home wondering if I would be able to make it 25 sessions if the ocean continued this way, I shuddered.  In a way, the day was miserable.  That feeling of being underwater and almost running out of air, slowly losing more and more control is hellish for someone that’s already weary of the ocean.

But, it “almost” happened.  It didn’t happen.

I didn’t drown.  I didn’t run out of air.  I didn’t lose control.  When the situation went haywire, after the panic ran its course, the situation slowed and I relaxed, working through it, crawling my leash to my board.  Once I stopped thinking about how crappy the situation was getting and just let instincts take over, even if I was instinctively weary of the ocean, things were fine.

What if the cure for my bad form and my fears was to work on them in the worst of conditions?  What if the best way to learn how to move in the ocean was move in the ocean when it was at its nastiest?

I had my new outlook. I had a new plan.

The weather and ocean conditions weren’t an obstacle that would slow me down.  The conditions were a concentrated environment for me to improve quickly thanks to constant adversity.  The crappy conditions were an opportunity – to take risks, but better plan how to deal with risks.  I could push it closer and closer to the limit to become aware of my limits and better learn how to push those limits without a safety net.

That night, I went home and bought travelers insurance that would cover injuries and a medevac to a country that could injuries beyond Balinese capabilities (this isn’t a plug for travel insurance…I legitimately did this).  That would be my safety net.  Aside from fear, I had no other excuses now.

I pinpointed what I failed at the day before. Clearly my stamina paddling wasn’t enough, I couldn’t go long enough or hard enough, and I didn’t have enough gas left in the tank. That made me lose focus and get pummeled by a sneak wave.  The cure: paddle more.  Focus on my point of failure until it wasn’t a point of failure anymore, but a point of strength.

The next day I showed up again, but with a new goal.  I wasn’t going to surf anything.  I was just going to paddle out and not die.

If any waves came for me to ride back, I would.  If not, I would paddle back.

That second day I paddled for an hour straight.  I had nearly nothing left when I got out to the waves.  This time, however, I remembered to position myself out of the impact zone of the wave.  This time, I was just in front, letting the onslaught of whitewater push me back to shore.  I got back to shore, ran out, sat down, caught my breath, and turned in my board.

The next day, I did the same.  I repeated it again and again.  Paddling out and positioning myself in the choppy, windy conditions.  Turning around.  Clinging to the rails of the board as the crashing whitewater pushed me back. 

After a few sessions I started to think…was this fruitless?  I was barely seeing any progress, the weather was horrible, and I was doing this out of pure grit with none of the enjoyment I anticipated.  Risking drowning out here solo, and for what? Was it worth it?

But then, I started chatting with the locals.

I remember one day, one of the locals I’d seen over and over was on the beach.  He was a surf instructor. A Balinese guy that I’d see often ripping on the waves after his lessons.  He always smiled and waved and I kindly returned it each time.  This is the first actual time that we chatted though.

“You come everyday man, even when the weather is bad.  I see you here.” He said.

“Yeah, I try to come every day. It’s probably not the best idea but I only have so much time here.  I want to use it all.”

“No, this is the best time.  Sunny days are good for having fun. Paddling out on days like this makes you better.”

He had a point.  You don’t set the stage for growth when you’re comfortable.  You set it when you’re navigating obstacles, when you’re working through adversity.  When you’re overcoming pain. That’s when we stimulate growth.  In life.  As a person.  And in surfing too…as I learned from Bahar.

Bahar’s Story: Never too late

Bahar was his name, and he had an interesting story. “I’ve only been teaching for 4 years, and I only surfed for 2 years before that.  I used to live far away from the ocean, so I never had a chance to surf, but I liked visiting and I wanted to surf someday.  So I moved here, just outside of Canggu.  I got a job renting out surfboards.  I had never surfed before so every day after work, I took a board and just tried to paddle out to catch a wave.

“I did that for an hour every day.  I couldn’t catch anything.  I was too tired and paddling too slowly to get a single wave, but I still did it every day. For the first year, I couldn’t catch anything but whitewater and tiny waves on a longboard.  Until one day, I did.  It felt great. I’m 41, and I started surfing when I was 35.  For most people that old they quit, because it’s too hard for them.  People this old only try new things that are easy.  Actually most people quit because its too hard…people of any age.  Stay with it.  This is the right time to be here, when it’s hardest.  Keep coming.”

Considering that was legitimately our first conversation, Bahar delivered some potent advice that definitely related to my current situation.

Right then, I decided.  I would keep at it.  I would keep strong to hit my goal of 25 sessions.

A few days later, on another crappy day, I paddled out to where I normally did and got ready to turn, but I saw that a little further out there was a larger wave.  Cleaner, with a smoother face, and it rolled like something perfect enough for a painting.

I didn’t know if I had enough juice to catch it but I figured, why not.  I had the insurance. I could always bail, crawl my leash back to my board, and let the follow on waves push me in to shore.

I waited for a lull between sets and paddled as fast as my tired arms would allow, getting in position and past the break before another wave crashed. My arms were on fire and I was out of breath as I got into place.  I could see a lump in the distance cruise up, so I turned my board to shore.  As the lump started to rise higher and crest I started paddling, to get my speed up, until I felt the tail of the board rise up behind me and my board start to slide down the wave… that was taller than I was. 

With the last bit of energy I could muster, I pushed myself up and pulled my feet underneath me, standing upright on the board as it skimmed down the face of the wave, and continued.  The whitewater forming caught up behind me, and I just stood there as I was pushed along, past the choppy waters with the wind blowing at my back and no sun shining down watching me.  That was definitely a shitty day to surf…but I owned it.  It was my shitty day.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing through anything

That day, that crappy day when I fought the odds and conditions to surf a real wave was the motivation I needed.  My fire was rekindled.  As long as the locals were out and my body wasn’t destroyed, I showed up.  I paddled out.  I got pummeled.  I got myself straight.  I crawled my leash back to my board. I got back on. I did it again.

Every day after my session, I would ride over to a tiny gym, completely empty, and use the last strength I had on a gymnastics workout, then waste the rest of my energy on kettlebell swings and burpees.

Despite this abuse, every day I woke up stronger.  I woke up better.  Paddling out was easier.  Reading the waves became easier.

Just like I was progressing, so was the weather.  The waves were smaller, chest high or head high at times, but the sun shined and the wind forgot to come.  In between sets, while I waited for waves, I’d turnover onto my back and enjoy. 

As I laid there between the spaced out sets of waves, the ocean was like glass, lulling me nearly to sleep.  This felt perfect.  Once afraid of the ocean, now, I felt at home on it.  If only the waves were larger though.

…be careful what you wish for… 

The Big Day.

I woke up to a notification on my phone.  It was my “day off” from surfing and I wanted to fully recover before going again.  My next session would be session 25 and I would test myself to see if the tutorial video online was right – If I was really able to surf.

But the test came earlier than planned.

The notification said there was a storm out at sea that sent in a huge swell.  At my beach, 7ft to 10ft waves on average were rolling in.  I checked the forecast for the following days and things would be back to normal, 3 foot conditions.  It was now or never.  It was now.

Session 25.

Since the month before I had progressed from log of a longboard to a something just taller than me…and I would need it today. 

I grabbed my board and walked down to the beach staring at the walls of water rolling in and the carnage of tossed boards and flailing surfers they were leaving in their wake. 

Honestly, I was nervous.

Right then, Bahar showed up.

“Teaching today?” I said.

“No, I took the day off,” Bahar said as he stood there with his tiny fish board as he motioned toward the ocean. “The waves are too good.”

I nodded in agreement.

“I’ll see you out there.”  He said.

“See ya out there.” I said.

And we ran into the ocean, trying to get out past the surf before another wave dumped onto the shore rolling us with it.

I followed his line out, the same line I would have taken, riding a rip current between the two sets of crashing waves to our right and left.

The difference was so apparent from a month before.  As I paddled, I dug deep into the water, my strokes feeling powerful, my board effortlessly skimming the water.  The water felt…helpful, almost even comforting.  The anxiety and fear was nonexistent.  For now.

The Wall of Water

We arrived.  A few hundred meters offshore, beyond the last break.  Where the largest waves were hitting.  We turned to face the open ocean, and wait.

Within minutes, a lump formed on the ocean almost too far out to see but it grew quickly.  I checked to the right to see which surfer would take it as I paddled forward to get over the wave.  It felt like crawling up a wall of a house, aiming to get over it before the wall fell on me.

Out there in the water, surfers take turns and respect who’s catching the wave next.  Bahar and I just showed up minutes earlier so the right thing to do was let one of the other surfers take it…which we did.  But no one went for it.  I was confused. Bahar saw the look on my face.

“They were scared,” he said with a smile.

I smiled in response as I realized.

Another head high wave began to roll up, as I started to turn and take it Bahar started paddling and said, “No, too small.  Come on.” Bahar said as he paddle forward over the wave and I followed.

 We let two more roll by until it was time.

“This one! Take it!” Bahar yelled as he paddled like hell toward the wave.

I paddled towards the wave to position just right before turning in toward the shore and as I did, the gravity of what I was doing hit me.  This wave was well over my head, nearly twice as tall as me.  There were only two options left: I was going to ride this wave or it was going to ride me.

I dug my arms into the water, paddling as hard as I could. Paddling for my life, it felt like. I saw the wave crashing on the far left and quickly veered right.  The wave moved fast, lifting the board’s tail up.  Now or never. 

Now. 

I pushed myself up and planted my feet underneath me, just in time to catch my board sliding down the monstrous wave with a rush of an adrenaline.  It was so much faster than anything I had experienced before.  The longer I stayed on, the faster I went. I cut harder to the right, crawling back up the liquid wall slightly, then hard left, aiming for the shore ahead.

I could hear the sound of the wave crashing behind me as I felt the spray and its power die.

I survived it. I passed the test. 

As the crashing wave subsided into whitewater, I enjoyed the feeling, hopping back down onto my board and letting the smaller waves push me into shore. 

I walked onto shore, board tucked under my arm and then sat down and laid back.  Listening to the waves.  Staring at the sky.  Completely in peace.

Session 25.  Complete.

My adventure of surfing had begun…

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