Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.
Until recently, those Beach Boys lyrics were absolutely lost on me. Ironically, it took crappy waves in Massachusetts to make them ring true. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. After all, I grew up in Southern California, wore my share of bikinis, even paid visits to Rincon, the Wedge, and Waikiki. Surfing culture was all around me: a given, like smog and traffic, but one whose allure I chose to ignore. Diss, more like it.
Little did I know.
It took a sweet summer day on a Boston beach, in unremarkable, but nonetheless thrilling waves, for this third-generation Californian to get back in touch with her inner Surfer Girl. The clincher: I saw the sport through my sons’ eyes.
Between Little Nahant and Big Nahant, two, weird, but beguiling peninsulas of land jutting out from Massachusetts about a half-hour North of Logan Airport, sits a pristine spit of sand known as Short Beach. There’s no sign, no parking lot, no lifeguards; just a ho-hum chain slung across the entrance to an abandoned-looking Coast Guard station. Nothing much, in short, to recommend itself.
Yet even the local nine-year-olds know otherwise.
Thanks to its East-facing orientation, and the fact that it is nestled in cove-like fashion between the outcroppings of Little and Big Nahant, Short Beach is a peaceful, non-threatening place. Its waves are numerous but gentle, coming in sets that leave just enough time for recovery from a ride or a fall; and if you’re in the mood, allow a surfer to ride them all the way in to shore. Best of all for the under five-foot set, the water depth is ridiculously shallow, approximately 3 ½ feet deep out to 100 or so yards, which makes it easy to stand around, wait for your wave, and hop aboard for the perfect ride. Did I mention the beach is sandy underfoot? This is another almost unheard of bonus in New England, which liberally applies the term “beach” to any shore-hugging stretch of rocks.
In short, rockless Short Beach rocks.
I learned this firsthand when I crashed my kids’ surf camp one July. Initially I merely intended to spy on my sons and their fellow campers. After just the first day, they had come home with a new swagger in their step, raving about their new favorite sport. Tanned, toned, and confidant, they suddenly seemed older than their 9 and 11 years. Were my New England boys going California on me?
I decide to investigate.
I pack a lunch and bicycle the eight or so miles from our house. Hunched over my cucumber and cream cheese sandwich, I try to be inconspicuous. Alas, with my pink bike shorts and helmet, I don’t exactly blend in. Within minutes, surfer dude Mark, the manager of our local surf shop and director of the camp, saunters over, his Patagonia wetsuit halfway off his body. Did I mention sandy-haired, blue-eyed Mark is ripped, hunky, and charming in a shy, unassuming way?
Watching and marveling as my sons catch wave after wave, I congratulate Mark on his teaching prowess, and mention how fired up the boys are about the camp.
Waving away my compliments, charming, ripped Mark hollars, “Hey Mom, we’ve got plenty of extra boards and wetsuits. Time to go surfing.”
“Who … me?” I manage between frantic swallows of sandwich. “I wouldn’t want to be uncool. What would the kids think?”
“Who cares what’s cool?” Mark coolly reassures me.
“But, I don’t have a bathing suit,” I protest.
“No biggie, neither do I,” he says with a wink, and a slightly self-conscious nod toward his groin.
“Commando, is the only way to go,” he commands.
After expertly eyeing my physique, he passes me a wetsuit. It fit me like a glove, but one that took 20 minutes to wedge myself into back in the Coast Guard bathroom. I prayed that there wasn’t a hidden camera. I could see it now: everyone at my sons’ school tuned in to YouTube to watch the hops and gyrations of “Pathetic Surfer Mom.” From there it would only be a hop and a gyration to David Letterman’s “Top 10 Reasons Not to Let Your Mom Wear a Wetsuit.”
I emerge from the bathroom convinced hunky Mark will be waiting impatiently for me. Thankfully, he is nowhere in sight. After squinting at the horizon, I spy him navigating through the waves, astride a paddle board, looking like he’s just out for fun, but in reality keeping precise track of the campers, and dispensing brief but well-chosen words of encouragement and advice.
Getting from the changing room to the shoreline will require deft handling of the bulky surfboard. In the unlikely event that Mark looks my way, I want to seem nonchalant, as if this is something that 40-ish moms do all the time when not carpooling. I tuck the 14-pound rental board under an armpit and stride purposefully across the sand, fighting back waves of self-consciousness. My wrist, which suffers from perennial 40-something tendonitis, begins to throb. I wonder how many surfers need to bind their wrists with sports tape, just to carry their boards? Who cares about cool, I remind myself, then nearly lose my footing as I manhandle the 8-foot long board down into the gently lapping waves at the water’s edge.
I quickly compose myself. If Mark didn’t care about cool, neither would I.
Once I’m out in the waves, Mark cruises over on his board and asks whether I’ve surfed before and need a push-off.
“I’m from Southern California; I’d better remember something from my childhood,” I coolly reply.
Should I fess up and tell him I never spent much time surfing because I didn’t think much of the sport’s devotees? Surfer dudes at my high school were the deadbeats—cute with the telltale mops of bleached blonde hair, yes, but academically speaking, not the brightest bulbs in the class. Many were blatant and proud stoners. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s” Jeff Spicolli wasn’t exactly my idea of a teenage crush.
Still, I like to think that had I wanted to, I could have made a pretty decent Surfer Girl. I had some serious surfer cred, after all. I was “there” in an Oceanside, CA, beach community, for example, when Bob McKnight started throwing brightly colored surf trunks out of the back of his wood-paneled station wagon circa 1975, and Quiksilver was just a glimmer in his sunglass-shaded eye. Some of my first kisses were to boys who went on to become executives in McKnight’s now global empire. Who knows, had I continued to kiss these guys (or vice versa), perhaps today I might be enjoying routine surfing business trips with Kelly Slater.
As it turns out, for better or for worse, for richer and for poorer, I marry a Vermont-born, sun-averse MIT engineer. True, his hair used to be blonde, and he did propose to me on a windsurfer, but he’s a far cry from a surfer dude. And after nearly 25 years of living in New England, it’s becoming more of a stretch on many counts to even call myself a California Girl.
Until I crash surf camp, that is.
After spurning Mark’s offer for help, I quickly execute a perfect nosedive, followed by a fairly decent Maytag (imagine being inside a washing machine). Mark tactfully doesn’t look my way.
No biggie, I tell myself. I shake the sand and surf out of my hair and gamely, if a bit awkwardly, hop-stride out into the waves.
The next wave, soft and slow and wonderfully non-threatening, effortlessly begins to carry my board and me toward shore. Using my best forearm muscles, I push my chest up, momentarily hang out in this vaguely familiar cobra yoga pose, and then, white-water now whooshing along the sides of the board, manage to stand up and turn sideways. Which foot forward? I can’t remember if I am goofy-foot or not, or even which foot forward means goofy-foot. I am later reminded that “regular” is left foot forward, goofy right, and that I am a genuine goofy-foot.
What a rush! In my mind’s eye I strike a killer pose, enter the Green Room, and descend the Mother of All Waves, “Hawaii-5-0” theme music blaring appropriately in the background. In reality I am a middle-age mom squatting tentatively on an unstable slippery surface, arms a little too enthusiastically outstretched, on a puny bulge of water that would generously be called a wave.
But no matter. The sun is shining; it’s a gorgeous day in New England; I am flush with nostalgia; and my sons are beaming at me.
“All right Mom!” one cries out, not hiding his surprise.
“Way to go!” the other chimes in.
I paddle over to them. “Are you boys OK with me being here at your camp?” I ask, hesitantly.
“Sure, why not?” they both agree.
Why not, indeed? Better late than never.
– Bianchi writes about entrepreneurial, lifestyle and cultural adventures from Marblehead, MA. She recently bought a new wetsuit and booties, and is still scoping out boards.
Ocean wave painting by water wizard and artist Forrest Rodts