Surfing in Sobriety

Surfing and Sobriety

Surfing and sobriety go hand-in-hand, whether the lull of gentle waves or the crashing ferocity of a huge swell, surfing each requires patience, maintaining presence, practicing forgiveness and having faith in something uncontrollable, a symbiosis with life on life’s terms. Nowhere is the power of recovery demonstrated so beautifully as it is in the water between the ocean’s waves and a surfer.

California’s surf breaks are packed with surfers, paddle boarders, kayakers, boogie boarders, wave skis and body surfers, you name it, someone will try to ride a wave with it. It has become one of the most popular sports and everyone wants to be a surfer. The problem is that for every good wave there are 20 people trying to catch it. Depending on how a surfer approaches the situation, it can either be a dangerous and frustrating proposition or a sweet salvation.

The philosophy of “letting go,” being a worker amongst workers, ceasing fighting anyone or anything, not stepping on the toes of our fellows, restraint of pen and tongue and live and let live applies to surfing as much as it does to living a sober life.

Here’s a mindset of mine sometimes when the waves are small: I paddle out begrudgingly, already having made my mind up that it’s too small and I won’t have any fun. I wait and wait and wait, getting frustrated. My head is telling me, “I’m better than this, I don’t look good on a small wave, there’s no force, I’ll have to work too hard, it won’t be worth it, I could be hiking, I’m hungry, why isn’t it big?” But while I’m waiting I look off in the distance and see a pod of dolphin playing, I smile inside. “OK, I’ll stick it out a bit longer,” I tell myself. A small set comes and I take off on a wave, I have to paddle super hard to catch it, but I find that because it’s slow I can practice stepping way back on the tail of my board and practicing a maneuver which I‘ve been wanting to perfect. I paddle back out and on my way I look down the coast. I see the line of traffic that I am not in and I begin to feel a little more grateful. A friend paddles up and says hello. We chat for a while, a set comes and we take the wave together, goofing around. I move into acceptance and the session ends in laughter.

Here’s a sometimes mindset when the waves are huge: Surfing in big waves can be extremely dangerous and also brings out the selfishness and the fear in some surfers, especially me. I think, “I really want a huge wave but I don’t know if I’m good enough, what if I fall in front of everyone? They’ll laugh and I’ll be embarrassed.” Then I paddle for an enormous wave, I make it and a couple of guys give me the “Whoop-whoop.” I’m stoked and proud of myself for taking a risk and I think, “Wow! Look what I did! Super cool.” But before you know it my thinking changes again, (thank you ego) and I want more and I don’t want to share. “I should have more because it’s my beach, I’m from here, I’m local, that person’s just a beginner, they shouldn’t be surfing here, they’d better not get in my way, I’m going to cut them off.” And before you know it, I’m not paying attention and I get smacked down hard and held under. I fight to get to the surface and gasp for air. I think about how lucky I am and I get back on my board. I am sober and some people who want to be – aren’t. I suddenly feel small, and remember that I am one of many and it’s not the Martha show. I reflect on the other day, when I complained because the waves were small and I had to paddle hard to catch them. That made me stronger and more resilient today. “What a blessing,” I think. And it’s good because I’ll have to use all my strength and focus to stay present. I make a concerted effort to think of the others in the water. I stay aware of the line-up, who has the right of way, and other people’s safety. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should be a wave hog.

Waves can’t be controlled or conquered, we must take what we get and be grateful or we’re going to have a crappy go out and probably a crappy day. I can’t force the ocean and the people in it to produce my perfect set of circumstances the same way I cannot force life to give me exactly what I think I want. My well-being is not dependent on the size of the surf or the crowd in the water; it’s dependent upon my perception. In both surfing and recovery, practicing acceptance for what is yields grace. Approaching the sport of surfing as I would my recovery has transformed my experience.

When I enter the water softly, instead of the way I used to when I was drinking and using (like the leader of the band, the one who’s in charge) I am humbled. When I take one wave and let two go, so that someone else can have a good time too, I have a little more self-esteem. When I let another surfer know, “Great ride, that was the wave of the day!” I feel joy for my fellow man. When I face my fears and risk looking stupid in order to live my dreams, I find freedom and a deeper connection with the divine.

Surfing and sobriety are energetically spiritual in and of themselves, there are parallels in each and they compliment each other beautifully, but the combination is mind blowing. To stand on top of a wave in the blue water, look out over the horizon and enjoy the ride sober, well…it just doesn’t get much better than that!

4 Comments
  • Mike
    Posted at 19:25h, 04 March Reply

    46yo who started surfing 2 years ago but has started sobriety today! I can’t wait to have a session sober! Very motivating post, THANK YOU!

  • Holly Massey
    Posted at 18:25h, 12 June Reply

    Go mike! I started at 38 years old in El Porto Cali. 14 years ago!! 1 year sober much better

  • Bill Wilson
    Posted at 04:27h, 07 September Reply

    Whoopp whoop. I enjoyed reading this! I experienced the small wave scenario today and it ended in the dropping of my ego and laughs. Glad to read about someone on the same frequencies making surfing a way to live and learn about life.

    • Derek Free
      Posted at 19:35h, 10 September Reply

      Thanks for reading! We’re all about enjoying life, sober.

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