surf’s up in raglan: day four on the north island.

I have a habit of expecting a lot from myself.

It began in high school, I suppose, this self-enforced pressure. While friends faced the gauntlet of their parents to achieve and succeed, I answered to no one but my own high standards. I was the one pushing myself into college admissions meetings and AP classes, SAT study sessions and community service. Now that that time of my life is oh-so-gratefully done with, I’ve started to see that pressure crop up in a new area – namely, that I often expect a high degree of physical capability from myself.

In recent history, I’ve signed up for things like a city-wide 5k race barely running at all in the month leading up to the event, or a ten-day snowboarding trip – in the French Alps, of all places – having never snowboarded successfully before, all without giving my actions a second thought…until, that is, the night before when I am suddenly gripped by the fear that I have made a grave mistake. This tendency might stem from a lack of satisfaction with just being an observer. That “insider’s knowledge” gained from experience and participation is just too valuable. My hands simply beg to get dirty. If the thing to do in the Abel Tasman National Park is kayak, then I will, too. And if they surf in Raglan, so will I.

Raglan, its population hovering somewhere around 2,500, is the perfect seaside town. With the center of its main street lined with palm trees and its colorful art-deco Municipal Chambers building, it’s another place that exists without trying, letting the sunsets and the surf and the string of beaches and bays speak for themselves. The number of surf breaks lining its coastline have built up a name for the town, so much so that Raglan’s Manu Bay was even featured in the 1966 documentary, The Endless Summer.  Raglan lives for the perfect wave.

And so it was that I found myself there on a bright Thursday morning, being picked up at my hostel by a bus from the Raglan Surfing School. It was – no surprise – myself and three Germans and we were brought to the school’s office at Karori Lodge, set just across from Whale Bay in an explosion of ferns and dense foliage. Our instructor for the day, with a permanent tan and bleached blond hair, introduces himself as Ryan and leads us to a building mysteriously called “the Barn.” We’re told to have a seat and Ryan kneels before us, addressing us like a general before his troops…a chilled-out, kick-your-shoes-off-and-stay-a-while general.  We practice “dry surfing” on boards that are nine feet long and made of extra-wide, extra-thick foam – more of a raft than a surfboard, really. It’s a four-step process. With our bellies on the board, we push up, arching our backs, pulling our right knee to the center of the board, planting our left foot at a 45-degree angle in the center and our back foot at a 90-degree angle further back. In theory, this is to be quite the seamless motion.

Like I said, in theory.

Apparently, though, we’re doing “really well” and Ryan promises we’ll all get up in the water. We load back into the van and hit the waves. Another guy from the surfing school has set up a small station on the beach where anyone can rent boards or wet suits. We gear up and grab a board. Once we’ve paddled out a fair distance, Ryan comes to my board, gives it a pat and tells me to hop on. As a wave approaches behind me, he moves out of my way and says far too nonchalantly, “Up you go.” And however it happened, up I went. I couldn’t help but smile, loving the feeling of that wave propelling me forward. Maybe my qualms about this whole surfing thing were unfounded after all.

My second attempt wasn’t nearly as successful. I went to push with my arms and they just…wouldn’t. They gave way beneath me and my board flew out to the side. Whether it was just my appalling lack of upper body strength or if my arms were simply sore from spelunking around the day before, I soon realized it was going to take some real effort and determination to be any good at this. It was hit-or-miss from that point on. I either got up…or I didn’t. This pattern of success was noted by Ryan, as well. “It’s like you either stand up perfectly or you wipe out,” he said, swimming over to set me straight. Exactly – I either rode the wave all the way to the shore…or I didn’t ride it at all.

But on the other hand, my performance was not a top priority in and of itself. I was out there, I had stood up, I had “surfed” in Raglan – however sketchy a statement that may be. As far as I was concerned, I’d accomplished what I had come to do. My passions in life aren’t generally physical pursuits, although I do enjoy them from time to time. Be it snowboarding, kayaking or surfing, they will never be something I live or die by. Experience, not proficiency, is my aim.

In another way, though, my simple introductory forays give me an enormous amount of respect for the experts in each field. From this point on, watching surfers rip twenty to thirty feet waves with crests curling over into a barrel will awe me even further, just as the sight of a snowboarder headed down a near-vertical cliff never fails to impress and astound me. My dabbling augments their daring.

And when I did manage to get up, surfing was fun. It echoed the same feeling of carving down a slope properly, of having the general hang of it and glimpsing what the attraction of it all is. It’s that sense of soaring, of slicing through the surface, whether it be snow or a wave. Maybe it’s that weightlessness I’ve always wanted to feel from flying, or maybe just the motion of it that holds the magic.

Back on the beach after the lesson, another instructor on her way out to the water asked Ryan how it went. “Great,” he said, “I knew they’d all get up.”

The instructor smiled in agreement. “Yeah, you can tell in the Barn, can’t you?”

Photo courtesy of Raglan Surfing School.

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