Surfs Up, or, What I Learnt From Being Hit In The Face With My Own Surf Board

SOriginally, my plan was to write about how everyone can learn to surf. I learnt in Bali, September 2017, and while I’d at first thought I would be lucky to stand by the end of the week, was pleasantly surprised at how… well, easy it was. And it was easy, but I also got hit in the face with a surfboard, which I think is sort of important to mention.

Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I magically turned into a lanky, golden-haired Aussie dude, skimming waves and hanging-loose after a week of lessons, but when I learnt to surf, my expectations were far exceeded. I took five lessons over four days with Barlon of the Bali Surf School, with one-to-one or two-to-one private tuition which ensured I got plenty of practice, great advice and a lot of personal attention on improving my surfing. I was standing in lesson one, surfed my first wave in lesson two, and could confidently control the board by lesson five. My starts were still a little hairy, and Barlon helped massively with timings, but still: I was eager to try again, and confident I could improve. I wasn’t too worried about being hit in the face with my surfboard, despite having spent a lot of my lessons being run through the waves like a sock in a tumble drier. But I like swimming, and the water is my happy place. Surfing seemed a good sporting fit.

Me and Barlon, my surf instructor at the Bali Surf School

Fast forward six months to my stay at Talalla Wellness Retreat. I was reviewing the resort for Compare Retreats, and had been excited to try out their six-day programme which included a varied and active schedule of yoga, pilates, boxing and surfing. I hadn’t had a chance to surf since Bali, and was keen to get back on the board.

The waves on Sri Lanka’s southern coast were fierce, which may have been a seasonal thing but I suspect they’re always like that. The beaches didn’t really strike me as a place you went to relax, or frolic lightly in the waves: at more than one point, my beachside strolls became waist-high wades when I was surprised by the incoming tide.

The point is, it was a different kettle of fish—or more accurately, a more brutal body of water—but given that I was five lessons ahead of some of my wellness retreat peers, I wasn’t too worried about being thrown in the deep end, so to speak. I’d surfed in Bali, and I didn’t really think about how that would vary from shore to shore. Also, what kind of idiot gets hit in the face with their own surfboard?

In Bali, we’d swum for maybe a hundred metres before stopping and catching waves; in Sri Lanka, we went maybe 40 or 50. We were close to shore, and the ferocity of the tide meant we were constantly trying to stop ourselves ending up to close to the sand. I found the number of us surfing and the lack of space difficult to manage, but I was pleased (and, well, a little smug) when I stood up on my first try and rode the wave all the way to the not-so-distant shore.

Maybe it would have been better if I’d fallen off. Maybe it would have been better if I’d struggled a bit. Maybe then I would have recognised how different these waves were, how completely changed the circumstance was from when I’d learnt to surf. Maybe then I wouldn’t have been hit in the face with my own surfboard.

What happened is still a bit of a blur, but something in the chain of my evaluation of the wave and my actions went wrong. I remember seeing the wave approaching: a wave that didn’t look dissimilar to the ones I’d been putting my board against for the past ten minutes. I remember realising, a little too late, that this wave was bigger than I’d first thought. Stronger. Faster. That’s when I decided to duck. And that’s when my surfboard hit me in the face.

It is, to date, the hardest thing that has ever hit me in the face, and fingers crossed, it’s the hardest thing that will ever hit me in the face. Propelled by the force of the wave, the horizontal edge of the board rammed into my lower jaw, chin and mouth. I covered my head with my arms.

My first thought: “I better still have all my teeth.” My tongue did a quick check, but my entire mouth was numb. I ran my finger along by front teeth and sighed in relief. All present. But my hand was now covered with blood. I spat out a mouthful of salty water and crimson froth and began paddling back to shore, collecting my offending board and trying to avoid the waves as I went.

Long story short, my teeth were ok: so ok, in fact, the top two had bitten through the skin under my chin, and the bottom two had bitten into the inside of my mouth. There was a brief talk of stitches, but one of my wonderful co-retreaters, an extremely skilled emergency doctor who is more used to dealing with situations in disaster-struck areas than a little self-inflicted cut from someone who had been hit in the face with their own surfboard, took a look and helped me find antiseptic and sterile strips to close the wound and save me a trip to the local hospital. I spent the next two days with a standard plaster across my chin, and the next three weeks swilling salt water to avoid an infection in my mouth.

The aftermath — yes, those are my own teeth marks in my chin

While the experience has by no means put me off surfing (I swear it’s a coincidence I haven’t been back on the waves since), it’s definitely made me more cautious about how I approach it—and other adventurous sports. When you’re dealing with nature, there is always an element of unpredictability: no two situations, regardless of similarities, will ever be exactly the same, and even the same location under different weather circumstances could be an entirely new experience. Lesson one: respect the waves. Lesson two: you’re not a surfing pro after five lessons. Lesson three: duck, duck, DUCK.

So, like I said, the original post was going to be how anyone can surf. And you can: it isn’t difficult, in the right place with the right teacher. But then I remembered the surfboard in my face. And I think it’s maybe more important to give you a little warning about that, instead.

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