Surf Love: Troncones Lesson Number One


Intrepid Miriam and our college fridge-sized waves

To the immense embarrassment of my brother and sister-in-law, with whom I share a lifelong love of and skill in downhill skiing, I learned how to snowboard, about ten years ago.

It’s what you do when you’re a skier who grew up skiing in Washington State, Oregon and Idaho but who now lives in Minnesota.  If that doesn’t explain it well enough for you, well let’s just say you can’t complain about the lift lines, for a variety of reasons.

All insults to alpine skiing in Minnesota aside, the reason I stopped racing on 2 sticks a few times each winter to sign up for an inexpensive board lesson was this: I’d just seen Dogtown and Z-Boys. And, while the skateboarding aspect of it was a great story, I dug the surf part even more. The culture of surfing depicted therein was appealing, to a degree but what I gathered to be the feeling of the surfing itself, the zen of it, was what turned me on. It tapped into what I loved about carving gigantic snakes into sky-high mountain bowls of the previous night’s fluffy delivery from above. The tricks that seem to be a big part of skateboarding were fun to watch, but didn’t interest me in terms of what I wanted to experience.

Plus: ocean. I miss living near it. Also: surfing on ocean seemed less likely to break my wrists than surfing on pavement.

Alas, I live in the midwest.

And I love gliding on snow, fast, though I prefer days when the ambient temperature is above 10 (positive) degrees Fahrenheit. We usually have -and make- a fair amount of the white stuff here in the winter. Also, I still exhibited a general unwillingness (even considering the puny, often icy hills) to sacrifice a good downhill day to even try nordic skiing, which is something you can do even within city limits here in Saint Paul, more winters.


Mmmm, Monday’s surf crew: Miriam, Miah, Mike and Me

So, I heeded the advice of people who survived the decision to try snowboarding: I prepared to suffer three bruising days of learning before emerging with sufficient skills and enthusiasm to enjoy the sport. It proved true.

Thus, I did my brain a favor and also had something new to do outside during the long season in Minnesota, if I could find anyone to do it with. This proved to be a challenge, but  for a few years I had access to cheap or free lift tickets, so going out for a morning alone was both reasonable and restorative.  A couple years into it I dared to take my board & boots with me on a ski trip at Whitefish in Montana. I promptly separated a shoulder trying to turn to get onto cat-track, so on day two I rented some sweet demo skis, which I adored for the last two days of the trip.

I still use the board in Minnesota. However, during January’s surf lessons I discovered I’m goofy-foot, rather than regular-foot. I’ll need to either change the mount of the binding or get a new board – and then, as Mike said, I’m bound to get a lot better on that board.

January’s surf lessons in Troncones. Yes! I am now inspired to talk a little more at length about them, thanks to a terrific book I’ve just finished reading: William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days.

I likely have tenuous strands of connections to Finnegan’s experiences on the water and yet I can relate to part of his story. If I think about things I’ve done, mostly up until I was about 30 … choices I made that seemed to have been powered by some other force, I too was taken by an obsession, a feeling of empowerment and yet also smallness in comparison to the thing that captivated me, be it The Mountains or The (Best) Game (Ever).

My lifelong love of skiing , and perhaps also my 11 years playing rugby felt out of my control. This lack of control was relative for me, as I stayed on track with school and mostly held down jobs (but hadn’t yet figured out what to do when I grew up) at the same time. These provided enormous reasons to appreciate this life, to love all the people I knew because of them, and to stay healthy enough to keep tapping into them for more. They were reasons to get a torn ACL fixed, and in a manner I felt promised more enjoyment in the long term, rather than a quicker return to competition.

So, skiing and rugby are for me what surfing is for Finnegan. Maybe.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever surf enough to have it be an energy source for me, but the idea of trying it anyway appealed. The new, the challenging, the not-freezing, the sun, the beach. The salt water. And the waves: the breathing ocean.

Late last year, I signed up to go on yoga retreat in a place that had warm and surfable waves, plus instruction available.

I spent the next few months making sure I had a swimsuit that would stay on, reading up on what to expect from a first surfing lesson, and then getting/staying fit enough that springing up to standing from lying flat on my belly was a likelihood. I swam less than I’d been advised to. However, I felt I was a strong enough swimmer to handle a day or two of surf lessons, though I secretly hoped the weather and my enthusiasm might get me out to work on it every day.

The luck of weather allowed me to get out for a lesson early in the week. On a grey morning, instructor Mike picked up my bungalow-mate Miah and I, then swung by another address to pickup a third student, Miriam before we headed north to our beach for the morning.


My board had the red fin

We spent about an hour on the beach, learning the vocabulary – i.e. for various items (board rails, deck, nose, tail, rocker, etc.) and the actions we’d be taking while out on the water (i.e. walking the board out, paddling, popping up, turning on frontside or heelside, etc.) on this first day. While still on the sand, on the boards we practiced paddling, then popping up, and also the techniques for turning the board.

Regarding the popping up, which seems to be a typical fear of adults heading into a surfing lesson: I was thrilled and a little embarrassed to discover that all my months of concern that I wouldn’t be able to get both feet to the ground (board) directly under my chest  – or even between where my hands were – were a waste of worry. One foot had to go forward!

And, as mentioned above, the foot that I naturally put forward was my right foot: not the foot I’ve got forward in my snowboard rig. Mike’s response: “Congratulations! Your snowboarding is about to improve a ton!” Anyone who knows me can probably guess that I’m glad that I’m in the goofy club, when it comes to foot arrangement on a surfboard. I’m in a few other goofy clubs, so why not?

I learned this week from the Finnegan book that waves coming from the left are going to be a bit more visible to me as a goofy-foot, and as such, probably more appealing.

Then, we got into the water. It was in the shallows, which has its own risks (i.e. if you can touch bottom, you may be able to hit bottom in a dangerous way) but it was a good training ground. We went out to where the water was deep enough to give us a little time on the waves, but also shallow enough that bellying up onto the board wasn’t difficult. Mike would help me get positioned in front of a curling (i.e. white) wave, to set a focal point on the shore (often the tallest tree) then indicate when to get onto the board and paddle, and then, finally, when to jump up onto my feet. And this I repeated, for a few hours.

Most of the time, I got up onto my feet. There were several instances when I didn’t read the approaching wave correctly to time my set up well. Most of the times I got up, I wasn’t on my feet very long. I think a few times later in the day I was up long enough to steer the board, just a little before losing my balance and falling off the board. I was so pleased with these results that we weren’t even finished when I decided to sign up for another lesson, that week. We wrapped things up in the early afternoon, and loaded up Mike’s truck and headed back to our starting place.

The next day was more practice in the shallows, and then we paddled out deeper to learn a few deep water skills. None of which were getting up on the board! I was a-ok with that, even though I’m pretty sure that beach didn’t have waves that I should fear much. The deep water was warm and the surface was gentle, not even curling yet. It was great.

We learned how to sit on the boards: to wait, talk, and watch. We learned how to turn the board while sitting on it, and also how to duck dive and turtle roll (this page covers a few of those) while heading out, away from shore. And that was my second long morning of surf instruction. I likely could have committed at least one more day that week, but I figured the week would end soon no matter what, so I might as well end on a happy, pleased-with-my-progress note. I got back to our group at the yoga treat and I couldn’t stop smiling.

I found I really liked paddling. Which is a good thing, as it sounds like you do plenty of it whenever you surf.

Beach north of Troncones

Farewell, kind waves

I hope to do more paddling. And surfing! It’s made me a little more interested in stand-up paddle boarding, something that is pretty popular in Minnesota.

I am so grateful for the time I spend practicing yoga! I’m sure it helped give me the strength and focus to handle that board -and my body- well enough to enjoy my experiences, early that week in Troncones. I plan to go again next winter. I may even try surfing some other place; perhaps I’ll get the nerve (and a very good wetsuit, with feet) to try a beginner beach in Oregon, the next time I’m out there.

I’m even more grateful for Mike’s care and knowledge. He was a great teacher and I highly recommend him! Reach out here, to Instructional Surf Adventures if you’re looking for good surf instruction near Troncones. I set my lesson up with him through Present Moment Retreat, where I was staying.

Back to the skiing, and to the book: I do admit to making funny sounds when describing some awesome times or features on the snow. Kind of like this:

While I’m betting that the sounds made above aren’t what he was talking about, I was pleased to read Finnegan’s anecdote about his wife’s reaction to the special language spoken -and also the special resignation felt- by his fellow surf devotees, here:

One of the many splendid things about Caroline was her skepticism about surfing. The first time we ever looked at waves together, somewhere south of Cape Town, a few months after we met, she was appalled to hear me start jabbering in a language that she didn’t know I knew.   “It wasn’t just the vocabulary, all those words I had never heard you use—‘gnarly’ and ‘suckout’ and ‘funkdog,’” she said, once she had recovered. “It was the sounds—the grunts and roars and horrible snarls.” She had since grown used to some of the insular codes and cryptic slang of surfers, even the grunts and roars and horrible snarls, but she still didn’t understand why, after spending hours studying the waves from shore, we often announced our intention to paddle out by saying things like, “Let’s get it over with.” She could see the reluctance—clammy wetsuit, icy water, rough, lousy surf. She just couldn’t see the grim compunction.


Finnegan, William. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2015 (pp. 250). E-book.

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