When my husband and I traveled to Portugal for a surf trip, I hadn’t surfed a wave in over a year.
We were living in Sicily, which is amazing, but let’s just say is not a surf mecca. Every now and then, the Mediterranean would kick up some good swell, but it was fickle, and if you blinked, you’d miss it. At that point, our daughter was 9 months old, and though I loved my new job as a mama, I missed my freedom. And I missed my home in the beautiful NW: big, green trees, clean rivers, snowy mountains, rugged, wild coasts. The summers in Sicily are hotter than Hell’s Kitchen and my thermostat begged for mercy for months.
The Algarve region of Portugal offers miles of empty coastline, quaint coastal towns, and free camping. By day seven of our ten-day trip, we had explored coastline nooks and coves, sampled many different waves, enjoyed blissful sleeps atop cliffside road pullouts, tasted great cuisine (and some not so great), and were thrilled that our daughter seemed to thrive on the life of a gypsy.
But we hadn’t scored great surf. And I needed to. I felt like a part of me would shrivel up and die if I didn’t reconnect with my surfer self, the self that could take on double overhead waves with eagerness, the self that was strong and fit and free. So when we stumbled onto the wave at a nondescript river mouth, I knew this was it.
I paddled out to this pumping point break feeling electrified. This was my moment! I moved into position and sat up, watching and waiting for my turn. I knew nothing about this wave, and there were only a few other surfers to watch. The azure-blue walls of overhead waves peeled perfectly, surfers were getting long rides. Finally, I paddled for my first wave.
I missed it. And the next one. And the one after that.
Anxiety churned in my gut. This was my big moment, the experience that would help me reclaim the part of myself I feared would soon be dead. Had I lost my groove forever?
I decided to paddle deeper towards the takeoff. Sometimes, I remembered, certain waves have very specific take-off zones, and sitting just a few feet away from it can spell disaster. It turns out that this no-name wave was one of those spots. But how much longer did I have? My mama alarm was ringing somewhere in the back of my mind. My husband wasn’t used to being with our baby solo for so long. But I couldn’t go in, not yet.
So, with my heart in my throat, I turned and paddled for the next wave. The blue wall sheeted out in front of me, the lip feathering behind me, making that ruffly ffffftttt sound that can prickle the hairs on the back of my neck. I dropped in and sped down the line, barely daring to breathe. My body remembered the movements, my feet danced with the wave’s pace. And I smiled.
So I did it again, and again, and again.
When I finally did come in, my daughter was howling and my arms were so tired I couldn’t even lift her. Quickly, I rinsed off and pried myself out of my wetsuit. Once in my arms, my daughter quieted. Shortly thereafter, my husband and I engaged in one of our biggest fights.
“You were out there for like five hours!” he cried.
“More like three,” I replied. Meanwhile, my heart pleaded with him. Don’t you know how important that was? it cried. Haven’t I earned this?
After he surfed, he of course felt better and we laughed about it. Meanwhile I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave. How could I go back to Sicily with the heat and the dead Mediterranean and the long days of being alone with a baby? How would I survive without consistent waves? Without my freedom to surf them when they appeared?
The ways I came to find peace are detailed in my book, Chasing Waves, A Surfer’s Tale of Obsessive Wandering. The short version is that a part of me is still in Portugal, and Morocco, and Baja, surfing waves when I please, abandoning my responsibilities when it suits me. But I’m stronger now because of the challenges I’ve faced finding balance, and my life as a whole is lot more interesting. I wouldn’t trade my role as a parent for anything, and my hard work has paid off because my daughters are the light of my life. They’re also surfers, love adventure, and care about our natural world. it’s a win that came from sacrifice, and it’s made the rewards all the sweeter.
In fact, next week we’re headed to a favorite spot in Mexico. My daughters will be surfing warm water for the first time. We’re also bringing our posse—surf buddies and family, and besides sore pecs and sunburned noses and plenty of mayhem, I expect it to be the trip of a lifetime.
Until then, stay salty!