Every year, I take a trip to Costa Rica. I’d heard it was a country that values the environment, and in January 2016, when I went for the first time, I found it was a place where I could spiritually and physically recharge. It’s my annual gift to myself, a commitment to my well-being. This winter, as I made my plans, I decided 2019 would be the year I learned how to surf. I can’t say where the idea came from. It’s not like there’s a ton of advertising or promotion done to attract middle-aged Black women to the sport. Something in my mind just clicked, and as I researched the details of my getaway I threw myself into the goal of riding a wave.
For years, I’ve watched men (and a few young women) navigate the ocean. I’d peer at them from under my straw hat, comfortably nestled in my spot on the sand, and wonder if I had what it took to do it too. I grew up in central Florida and Southern California, where surf culture was always on the periphery. I never found it particularly appealing. It’s very, very white and very, very male. When I think of surfers, I think of guys with tousled, sun-bleached hair and bodies sculpted by the gods.
More than anything, what stopped me from surfing was the belief that it was just too difficult. It looked like pure athleticism, an intricate dance between a man and a wave that dwarfed his body, a harnessing of one of the most dangerous and life-affirming elements in the world. My place wasn’t in the water — it turned my carefully styled hair into an unruly, frizzy mess. I preferred lying on a beach towel, slathered in baby oil and poured into the smallest bikini possible.
Fast-forward to my late 40s. I’ve traded the bikinis of my youth for one-piece suits and the baby oil has been replaced with SPF 30 sunscreen. I still love the beach and I still worship the sun.
I arrived at the first town on my Costa Rican itinerary and immediately rode my bike to a local surf shop. The owner gave me tips on the best board to rent, and we scheduled my very first surfing class for 8 a.m. the next day. It was just $30 for a group class that turned out to consist of me and Sabrina, a young woman from Toronto. I was super excited and eager to enter the clear, crystal blue ocean water.
Once we got to the beach, our instructor, JJ, spent 30 minutes reviewing water safety protocols before we practiced moving from paddle position on our hands and knees to standing upright on our boards. Sabrina struggled a bit with her foot positioning, but I was set after a couple of tries. Thirty minutes later, JJ felt comfortable with our ability to follow his on-the-sand instruction and we waded out into the water to take turns paddling to small waves, then riding them back to shore.
As we moved into waist-deep water, JJ helped both of us get into position. When he said “Go!” we started paddling. He stood behind me and held onto the back of my board, and I waited for the exact moment when he told me to jump into position. “Get up, get up, get up!” he yelled.
I fell on 80 percent of my attempts to stand, but each time I got back up I focused on trying to stay on the board longer and longer. By the end of my first lesson, I’d gone from being upright for just a few heartbeats to actually riding a wave for a little more than 10 seconds. That may seem short, but it feels a lot longer in actuality.
At the end of our two-hour lesson, I was officially a surfer. For the remaining week of my trip, I spent at least three or four hours in the water every day. I took four lessons, advancing from beginner to intermediate level. In just a few days, I graduated from riding white water to taking on green water waves that were 3 to 4 feet tall. I sent my friends daily videos of my progress.
There are a lot of wonderful things about surfing that I didn’t know before I did it. It uses every muscle in your body, a fact you realize the next morning when you wake up. Still, whatever soreness you have is eclipsed by the anticipation of going back out onto the water and catching your next wave. Recently, I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and found that surfing eased the stiffness in my hands and knees. Aerobically, it’s great as well because it gets your heart pumping when you’re paddling into and away from the shore.
The mental benefits surprised me more than anything. Surfers are known for having a laid-back attitude, a disposition I always thought was the result of the widespread cannabis use in the community. I don’t drink or do drugs, but I felt my type A personality calming down. At night, I fell into a sound, content sleep and woke up early with a joyfulness that had been missing for a long time. My eating habits were clean and minimal, and I drank water all day. I love rich foods, but something about the culture and sun exposure decreased my appetite. The sunshine and my contentment kept me focused more on being in the water than finding a place to eat.
The best vacations tend to be relaxing, but this was more than that. Studies have found that surfing can improve mood levels and even combat the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans.I was being rewired and I didn’t even know it.
Surfing is still dominated by men. During my stay, I only saw a handful of women surfing and most were under 30. I also only saw one other Black person. Being in spaces with a lack of Black people generally makes me nervous. Everyone was welcoming but, by simply participating in the sport, I changed the racial and gender landscape.
More than anything, surfing gave me mental and physical freedom and a profound sense of pride. At a time in life when many women are reluctant to take on new physical challenges, I’ve been liberated from my fears about what aging can be like in a society that valorizes the young. My body and mind have found an outlet that allows me to be present in the moment and, at the same time, challenges me to push my limits. When I’m out on the water, I’m no longer Sil Lai. I’m truly just spirit.
July 12, 2019