Surfing Gives Me Social Anxiety Now

Sunde White Illustrates a crowded day at Linda Mar

As I’ve gotten older I’ve lost my fire and believe me, that’s a good thing generally.  It allows me to have better social skills and not be bothered by someone cutting in line at the grocery store.  It helps me to hold my tongue and just move on so I don’t have public experiences of me getting all wound up unnecessarily.  It saves me from a lot of embarrassment, keeps me calm in moments that I would have reacted more explosively when I was younger.  Probably it is the reason I’m still married, if we’re being honest.

But my short tempered smoldering rage used to help me with a lot of things.  It gave me courage and focus.  It blocked out people around me and gave me tunnel vision and eye of the tiger.  It allowed me to walk into stores to hustle my card line over and over again no matter how many no’s I heard.  It pushed me to skateboard in the 90’s when hardly any girls or women did.  In the surf lineup it helped me to turn the feeling of being intimidated by the crowd into an angry sense of purpose to surf all the waves.  It allowed me to take off nice and calmly on a set wave and prove to those old guys in the water that would gang up on me, call me a c word and tell me to go back to Sacramento, that I should be out there too and they should shut their fucking pie holes.

But these days I pull up to check a crowded line up and that fire is gone.  It is replaced with trepidation, exhaustion and social anxiety.  What a lot of non surfers don’t realize about surfing is how much of the sport involves interpersonal interaction.  Unless you live on an isolated break, hundreds of miles from people, you have to deal with the lineup.

The lineup is the group of people sitting all around you in the water that are starving for waves and will do anything to get them.  All surfers are like this.  Once you paddle out and you see those perfect waves coming through, we can all get very aggressive about getting them.  After all, it is a limited resource.  They are not evenly doled out based on who’s been out the longest.  If the rules are followed then the strongest, most confident surfers that can read the wave the best will get the most waves.

Yes, there are rules.  The person paddling closest to the peak is supposed to get the wave.  If someone is already surfing the wave, you aren’t supposed take off in front of them, dropping in on them and ruining their ride.  You aren’t supposed to be a dick and as someone in the perfect position turns to get a wave coming right at them, paddle around to the outside of them and snag their wave.

The rule of the person closest to the peak getting the wave does not always apply when it comes to beginners.  If the whole line up watches a beginner paddle into and then wipe out on one of their waves, wasting a perfectly good one, then that rule is out the window.  Once a beginner is identified, the entire line up will not allow them to waste any more of their waves.  Everyone will sit on top of them and out paddle them into waves so that no more preciouses get wasted.

When you paddle out and turn for your fist wave, all eyes are on you.  Everyone is evaluating if you should be allowed to get another wave or if you should be smothered out of the line up and relegated to measly slop on the inside.  It’s a lot of pressure.  I do this too and it’s only fair because everyone at some point goes through this as they learn to surf.  But now that I’m older and not so zoned in I actually find the line up to be a suffocating experience because of this pressure.

It’s like, you’re surrounded by 19 year old alpha males, 50 year old  alpha males on longboards, hotshot kids, retro too cool guys that are desperate to be stylish and mediocre surfers that don’t know enough to know they’re mediocre.  There are a lot of crews out there too.  The crews that went to high school together, the couples, the family groups, the work acquaintances that talked up their surfing over Zoom and now they’re gonna have to back up all that talk.  They’re all trying to prove themselves, sure that they invented surfing and are the best that have ever lived at it.  Usually I can rely on experience, good board choice and consistency so that I can get my waves every time but lately a dread comes over me at the thought of even trying.

I didn’t surf for a couple of months last winter because of having Covid and the holiday season at my shop being super busy.  Right after the holidays the thought of pulling my wetsuit on and competing with a hundred people for some freezing cold waves when I had lost my paddle fitness and bigger wave confidence just filled me with anxiety.

During my surf vacation down south after the holiday season, I wasn’t my usual thirsty self, willing to go out no matter what waves or how many people were out.  It was worse than being trepidatious or nervous…I had lost my nerve.  My fight was gone.  I just wanted to lie in the sun and read and drink ice cold cokes.  Who was I???

But I knew how great surfing is so I peeled myself off the couch and stuffed my bloated holiday body into my wetsuit.  I paddled out and was in the waves for two hours and I got absolutely nothing.  No waves.  I felt nothing when I went to paddle for a wave.  No thrill, no adrenaline.  I wasn’t willing to paddle battle everyone.  I wasn’t willing to wipe out and then be relegated to the part of the lineup that just gets scraps.  I just went on auto pilot, did my duck diving and stare off at the horizon until I was tired and then, with a shrug, I came in.

I was disappointed in my new self.  “That was just a warm up.”  I told myself.  I didn’t recognize this new person.  “Is this why old people stop surfing?”  I wondered. “ They just lose the fire to compete and to take risks?”  The thought of becoming this and not having surfing to enjoy into my old age, made my stomach tighten and flip over.  “Tomorrow is another day, Sunde.”  I resolved. “Get out there and go for it tomorrow.  Forget about today.”

The next morning the waves were pumping again.  I went out first thing…and got nothing.  I’m not going to make excuses about how the wave is slower down south and I wasn’t doing the extra paddles to get into them and the tide was too high blah blah blah.  The bottom line is, I lacked the focus and fire to pull myself into the waves.

I paddled in for the second day in a row and consoled my low surfing self esteem by cracking open an ice cold coke and lay down on the deck to tan.  As the sun warmed my body and the corn syrup entered my veins, I knew I had a choice to make.  Give up surfing now and forever or get back out there and Get. A. Wave. No. Matter. What.

Not surfing for a while is a slippery slope.  The longer you don’t surf the harder it is to get back into surfing—especially as you get older.  Your fitness leaves you and your confidence disappears along with it.  Your eyes lose their wave memory, you start to not be able to “see” the wave and where it’s going to break and how to paddle your way into it.  The crowd senses your insecurity and circles you like vultures.  Once they start to notice that you’re letting waves go by, they’ll sit outside of you to take your waves the same way they would if you were wiping out on them.  The more bad surf sessions you have, the harder it is to motivate to ever go out again.

Ultimately you’ll just end up being a parking lot surfer.  Someone that looks like a surfer, talks like a surfer, stands around in beach parking lots talking a lot of talk but you can’t for the life of you ever remember seeing them actually paddle out.

“Oh my god,”  I thought to myself while sipping my Coke. “I’m going to end up a Parking Lot Surfer.”  I resolved to go back out in the afternoon and get a wave no matter what it took.

As the sun dipped down in the horizon that day, I pulled on my damp wetsuit, paddled out and found the calm center in myself where there is no anxiety, no noise.  There were only the waves and me and my years of experience surfing them.  The right wave came to me and I turned for it and this time, when its chubby slowness almost passed me by, I gritted my teeth and gave it two more paddles until I started to accelerate down the face.  The wave was mine.  I was back.

But for how long?