Different sports have different learning curves.
Take Skiing for example.
Not that I ski, I snowboard (because I am cool). But looking at skiing and how ski tech has evolved, skiing has become a sport that is easy to pick up – most people can go down most hills after a few days of instructions. It is certainly hard to master and become an expert, but the initial phase provides a constant sense of progression and success. People reach a decent level of ability that will allow them to enjoy skiing for the rest of their lives. They may lack style and finesse, and we may make fun of them when we see them going down the hill while we are lifting, but they don’t know that and really they shouldn’t care (unless of course they endanger others with their bad skiing, but I digress).
Snow is also a more or less predictable form of water.
I am going out there and say there are 4 types of snow:
The 4 types of snow
- Powder – deep, fluffy, fresh snow, generally experienced off-piste / in the backcountry. The reason snowboarding was invented – since riding powder on skis sucks and looks awful. New ski technology has changed nothing about this. I will not argue this point with you.
- Groomers – freshly prepared pistes using new (organic) snow. Provide great grip and allow bombing down the piste. Generally turn into -> slush at around 1200 to 1pm.
- Slush – warmed up snow on pistes, often artificially made. Falling in this stuff doesn’t hurt necessarily. Mostly found on valley runs, and created by hammered tourists. Best experienced by surfing the shoulders. (of course only possible on a snowboard)
- Ice – if you remove the slush from a piste, generally you are left with plates of ice. Skiing these fast requires skill. Skiing these slow is not recommended.
The point is (and I am not sure why I take so much time in making it), the possible conditions you are ever skiing in are relatively clear cut. Or to put it differently:
The possible permutations of the variable „snow“ are very limited.
In summary, skiing is easy to pick up and continue to do for a long time, since current ski technology makes turning and therefore skiing easy, and because your environment is pretty much predictable.
Now compare this to surfing.
Surfing lures you in easily. You learn to surf on huge softfoam surfboards. Generally, you will succeed in catching your first white-water wave and standing up on the board while riding the wave within the first few hours of surfing. (If you don’t it may be time to look for another sport) Catching your first broken wave is thrilling. You will come out of the water with a huge grin on your face.
You will do this another day or two and then move on to try to catch green (as in „unbroken“) waves.
Catching green waves is like starting again from scratch. Suddenly paddling power becomes relevant. You will need to get that gigantic foamie board moving fast enough so that the wave doesn’t just pass you by but rather takes you and the board along.
Once that has happened, you will need to pop up in a fluid motion, land on the board with feet centered and in a surfing stance (which btw is completely different to a snowboarding stance…). You will need to look where you want to go, compress your body once you hit the flat and want to turn etc etc.
You will be frustrated. A lot. During your first days of catching white-water waves you thought surfing is piece of cake and you are a surfing god. Now you are re-evaluating.
Eventually you will catch waves, and generally, you will at first just go straight. Once mastered, you will parallel-surf waves (ie following the trajectory of the wave). This is the first time you are actually allowed to say you are „riding“ a wave.
Nonetheless, you are still riding the BFB (big foamie board… what did you think that means? 🙂 ), and turning one of those is like trying to turn the Titanic.
So you need to switch to a hardtop board. Those are lighter, have a lot less volume and are, as the name indicates, not made of foam. Their fins are stronger. Overall, getting hit by one is less pleasant than being hit by a foamie.
So a hardtop it is.
And boom – it’s like starting a new sport, yet again. You need to increase paddle power, you have a lot less time to do your pop-up. The whole thing is a lot harder to balance. On the upside, at least it is easier to carry and you don’t feel like a loser on the beach anymore.
Once you’re back where you stopped with the foamie, you can now begin trying to turn. This suddenly requires a good stance and the right position on the board (it’s hard to turn if you’re back foot is not at the back of the board). Your snowboard stance will have to be unlearned.
Anyway, I think you get the picture.
Now: Add to that the fact that pretty much every spot has a different type of wave. From mellow waves, that allow slower pop-ups but require paddle power if you have a shorter board, to steep waves that are less forgiving, to small waves, big waves, mushy water due to onshore-, offshore- or sideshore-winds…. take your pick, the variables are endless.
When breaking, a wave has the most power at its peak. Consequently, you need to anticipate where the peak of the wave will be, and then paddle to it before the wave breaks.
This is is more challenging depending on where you surf: waves break over beaches, rocks and reefs. Breaks are generally classified into beach, point and reef-breaks.
Reef breaks are often very predictable with waves more or less braking in the same spot. However, as the name indicates, you have a reef underneath you and it may well be quite shallow, meaning if you fall, you come out as a bloody mess.
Therefore you start surfing on beach breaks. Yet here you are constantly trying to understand where the wave will break. Being able to „read“ a wave is a skill all by itself and learning it is never finished. You have to be able to anticipate both longitude and latitude of the wave breaking and constantly move around. Paddling to the peak is more important than paddling hard into the wave, due to the fact that if you take a wave at the peak less paddle power is needed to take the wave.
Assuming you have mastered this skill as well and are now graduating away from a long hardtop board to a shorter board or even an actual shortboard, again not all the lessons you learned previously are applicable.
For one, you can or should now duck-dive your board when paddling out as opposed to turtle-rolling it. Another skill you can improve for the rest of your life. Also, when you begin practicing it, you will look like a complete muppet.
John John Florence can duck dive through an entire pool. You should be able to do that, too.
As Mark Manson said:
‚If someone is better than you at something, then it’s likely because they have failed at it more than you have.‘
So what I am trying to get across is that surfing has an incredible range of required skills to master. And we haven’t even begun.
But it doesn’t end here! Stick with me.
The wonderful thing is, surfing can help you get injured really quickly, too!
Here is an assortment of injuries I have had in the last 8 weeks:
Type 1 injuries:
- hit a reef with my shin, puncturing skin up to the shinbone, requiring stitches
- surfer’s elbow
- bruised ribs
Type 2 injuries:
- blocked ears
- have someone hit me with his board in the knee
- cuts and bruises from fins, rocks and reef on feet and legs
My classification system is as follows:
Type 1 injury: Takes you out for several weeks to heal completely (surfers elbow can be alleviated with stretches and painkillers to some extent)
Type 2 injury: Takes you out for a few days.
Now why would anyone do that to themselves?
I believe surfing teaches valuable life lessons. Seriously.
Your character and all your character flaws show in the way you surf. The coaches at Sri Lanka Surf School told me constantly to relax. I was forcing things to happen. I was too intense on the board. I wanted to control everything. I initiated turns too early.
It was exactly the advice I needed. I am still way too unrelaxed on the board, but at least my pop-up is now relaxed (or it is in my head, and it wasn’t before).
Surfing will let you take one step forward and then push you two steps backwards. On one day you will feel like you got it. The next day, nothing works. To progress, you need to keep going, and never give up. You need to suffer through injuries, setbacks, and you need to assert yourself against other people in the line-up.
The reward is difficult to put into words. The connection to a force of nature, the chance to be in touch, albeit for a few seconds, with this primal power – it is very unique.
Captain James Cook allegedly said when seeing Hawaiians surf:
I could not help concluding this man had the most supreme pleasure while he was driven so fast and so smoothly by the sea.