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[Essay] Surfing

By Madison Head

Every single aspect of surfing is the worst and hardest part of surfing.


Ever since I was a child, my dad has been trying to teach me how to surf. In the last decade, I started to take it more seriously and try harder to surf and do it well.


The problem is all my trying can only get me so far. Every aspect of the sport frustrates me to no end. It doesn’t matter if it’s getting to the water, being in the water, or the actual surfing itself, every aspect of surfing is awful. My recent trip to Carlsbad was no exception.     


Every November my family drives over two hours to Carlsbad in our RV for the weekend. We go as a part of a group trip, with multiple families all driving down to hang out together. A big part of the trip is when all of us kids go out to surf together, which I both adore and loathe. This year, however, there was an added obstacle: rocks. Sometime in the past six months, the beach got completely covered in rocks. Those at the top of the beach had been smoothed over and were bearable, but the closer you get to the water, the sharper they become and the more cautious you have to be when stepping. So, in order to make the trek to the water to surf, we have to walk barefoot through smooth and sharp rocks.


It takes me 15 minutes of forcing my wetsuit on to be able to grab my bright red surfboard and join my friends. There are three flights of wooden stairs to walk down before walking along the (now) rocky beach. My surfboard is 10 feet long and weighs a million pounds. Carrying my surfboard on the beach, rocks or not, is the worst part of surfing. 


We set up base camp, right below our families’ campsites. Our parents are all gathered up there to watch us. I want to prove that I could surf well, but nothing would go unnoticed. Having an audience is the worst part of surfing.


I throw my surfboard on the ground as others set up chairs to sit in. I sit down to strap my leash onto my ankle when I catch sight of the waves. “Those are bigger than they looked from up top,” I say to no one in particular.


“It’ll be fine,” someone replies.


Maybe for them, but I have never surfed waves quite so big before. Even though I have been learning to surf for years, I am just finally at the point where I can stand up on small waves, and these are not small waves. But I have already trekked all this way. I couldn’t turn back now. Maybe it would be okay. I pick up my board and walk into the water. Having anxiety is the worst part of surfing.


As soon as we step foot into the ocean, I immediately see a stingray. Now, if this was before November of 2020, I would have just been careful and moved on with my day. However, this was after November 2020, and I remembered what happened to Emma and the stingray. Haunting memories of past trips are the worst part of surfing.



It was a totally normal surfing trip. We were camping then just like we were now, and Emma and I were paddling around together. We had been surfing for a while before it happened. We both caught a small wave, just trying to get closer to shore, and neither of us stood up. Her foot was gliding along the top of the water when she suddenly cried out, “I think I just got stung by a stingray!” The two of us jumped into action immediately. We paddled our way to the shore where she hurriedly explained what had happened as we picked up our boards. “I didn’t even step on it or anything. I felt something glide and slice in between my toes, which were barely in the water.” The two of us ran up the three flights of stairs, her panic growing with each step. Halfway up she said, “this really hurts.” I looked up, saw one of the parents with us, and yelled, “She got stung by a stingray!” We made it to the top where the Henry’s campsite happened to be. Emma sat down as Mr. and Mrs. Henry jumped into action. They boiled water as I found Emma’s parents in a campsite a few spaces over. By the time I returned, Emma’s foot was in boiling water as she was crying in pain. I had never seen Emma cry in pain before. I decided I hated stingrays even more than I did before. They were the silent threat lurking beneath the surface. Injuries are the worst part of surfing.



Seeing a stingray within seconds of getting in the ocean wasn’t great. I haven’t even gotten onto my board yet, and I am already nervous about everything. Vicious sea creatures are the worst part of surfing.


I climb on my board, deciding I would not put my feet down till I got out of the water because of the stingray, and begin to paddle out. The problem is I’m not very good at paddling out on my surfboard with small waves, and these are huge. As my friends paddle out ahead of me, I struggle behind. I watch them get farther and farther ahead of me. I have to stop multiple times because my arms are burning so badly, almost crying out of frustration. Paddling out is the worst part of surfing.


I eventually make it out to them, but I have no time to relax. Instead of coasting over the unformed waves, these are so powerful they begin crashing over us while we wait to catch the perfect wave. These are the biggest waves I have ever been in the ocean with. The closest I had ever gotten was at Huntington Beach when I was a child. It was before I even knew how to surf and was just boogie boarding. But I had my dad to help me then; we were on our own this time. Being on your own is the worst part of surfing.


We get thrashed. There is even an instance where two waves crash over us back-to-back, and we all have to ditch our boards to try not to drown. That’s  when I inhale the most saltwater ever, my lungs burning as if they are on fire. Big waves trying to drown surfers is the worst part of surfing.


After we don’t drown, I try to catch wave after wave and catch none. Each time, I  have to paddle back out, far, far out in the ocean, where all my friends are, my arms  burning, I  try to catch a wave again, and fail. Only once did I stand up the whole day. Trying and failing and failing and trying is the worst part of surfing.


The next day, I wake up early with the rest of my friends. We eat a quick breakfast before deciding to go out again. I have to put on my soaking-wet swimsuit and wetsuit just to be able to go back into the water. My parents put on sweatshirts to sit and watch while I almost freeze walking from my campsite to the stairs. I grab my board and join my friends on the walk to the beach to do it all again. Wet gear is the worst part of surfing.


We get down to the beach, we walk on more rocks, I panic about stingrays again, we paddle out, and my arms burn. Today, the water decides it really wants to pull us to the left. This means every time we stop paying attention to where we are we  end up a mile left from where we set up camp. We have to keep paddling to the right to stay in the same place. Dealing with the tide is the worst part of surfing.


The waves are smaller, and I can actually catch a few, but I have yet to stand up successfully. I sit on my board, watching the coming waves, and see a bigger one forming on the horizon.


One of my friends yells a short, “Watch out,” as a warning to not drown.


I had just caught my breath, so instead of ditching my board and going under I decide to ride the wave. I have nothing to lose. I figure it will be fine. I  already dealt with the rocks, the sea creatures, the thrashing waves, the cold, and the tide; falling from a large wave couldn’t be the worst part.


I turn my board around and paddle into the wave with as much energy as my burning arms can handle. I feel the wave hit my feet, and I am pushed forward with the rolling wave. I grip my board with a death grip and try to stabilize myself inside of it. My board jumps up and down continuously, but I remain stable. 


I throw my legs under me, getting to my knees. I feel good. Then, I get my feet under me and stand up on the board. The board continuously drops down under me, but I stay up, strong and stable. A smile finds its way onto my face.


I’ve never felt so alive.


It is the biggest, wildest wave I’ve ever ridden, and it is still going.


It is insane.


I am surfing successfully, a buzzing energy filling my body from head to toe.


As I get about halfway back to the beach, I jump off my board, hoping to save myself from doing the entire paddle out again. I dive under the wave and resituate myself. I begin to paddle back out to where everyone is, arms burning, fighting against the opinionated tide, but this time, I have a smile on my face.


I did it.


I surfed.




I didn’t know it felt like that.


The next hour passes with joy and adrenaline pumping through my veins. I catch two other waves, not nearly as good as the first, but I still stand up. Then, I walk through all the rocks once again to get back to our campsite.


Everything about surfing is the worst part about surfing, without a doubt. That makes it that much better when you finally catch a good wave. I’ve been learning how to surf my whole life, and 21 years into it, I think I finally figured it out. It’s a lot of work, a lot of waiting, and some days it doesn’t work out. However, sometimes, the stars align, and you feel like you’re on top of the world. I might as well have been John John Florence surfing in a meet. 


And honestly, I can’t wait for our next trip down to surf. I know it’ll be hard, but there’s a chance I could catch a perfect wave again, and I am so excited about that. 


Do you know what the best part about surfing is?


All of it. 



Madison Head is an emerging author who tries to share her love of the world through her poetry and prose writing. She has been locally published in her college’s literary journal, The Dazed Starling, multiple times, but she looks forward to one day publishing a novel of her own and sharing her voice with more people. She writes to show others how beautiful the world can be if you only choose to look.




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