"There are a million ways to surf, and as long as you're smiling, you're doing it right." ~
I grew up on James Island, near Charleston, South Carolina. Folly is an adjacent island with a great beach for surfing. As a little kid, I loved body surfing at Folly but I never learned to use a surfboard. The Folly Beach surfers were my hippie heroes. At 14, about the time when my friends were buying boards and learning to surf, my family moved away from the coast to the midlands of North Carolina. Years later, when I returned to James Island my surfing ship had sailed. I felt too old and too intimidated to go to Folly and compete for waves with younger people who knew what they were doing.
In popular culture, surfers are often depicted as slackers and stoners but the surfing ethos is much broader than getting high and lacking ambition in life. Identifying as a surfer suggests a commitment to preserving nature, living freely, being humble, looking out for others, and staying true to one’s self. The prototypical surfer rejects materialism and embraces living in the moment. Surfers have much in common with Aging Heroes!
For ancient Hawaiians, surfing was a component of their spirituality. Hawaiian holy men said prayers and performed religious rituals for trees that were to be used to make surfboards. Before the 1830s, Hawaiian men, women, and children all enjoyed surfing. Subsequently, Christian missionaries taught Hawaiian women that it was inappropriate for them to surf. Hawaiian women rejoined the ranks of surfers in the late 1800s. Around the turn of the century, in response to British colonials who tried to usurp surfing as a tourist draw and segregate native Hawaiians from surfing resorts, natives George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku organized their own surfing clubs in Hawaii. Both Freeth and Kahanamoku traveled the world demonstrating the sport of surfing. Consequently, surfing communities popped up all over the globe.
Fast forward to 2021. Erica and I were planning our second trip to Bocas Del Toro, Panama for December. Bocas is our favorite place on earth. It is a collection of 9 islands near the northern Caribbean coast of Panama. We plan on relocating there in 2025 when we retire. Bocas Del Toro is below the hurricane zone, so it has all of the benefits of island life with fewer risks. The outer perimeter of the islands are mostly white, sandy beaches surrounded by azure seas. The inner part of the islands are mostly undeveloped, tropical rainforests inhabited by sloths, monkeys, toucans, parrots, anteaters, bats, red frogs, and an insane variety of rare birds. The red frogs are famous for being the most poisonous in the world. They were used by natives to make poison blow darts. The frogs are only dangerous if you ingest the poison excreted by their skin (or, I suppose, if you are on the receiving end of one of those blow darts).
Several indigenous tribes are also located in undeveloped areas of the islands. Tribal folks still use primitive, dugout canoes for transportation, fishing, and business. On Tuesday mornings, an elderly indigenous man and his grandson paddle a dugout canoe piled high with fruits, vegetables, and fish across Saigon Bay to sell their wares door to door. Most waterfront homes in Bocas are built over the water.
The main island, Colon, has a lively little town that attracts adventure tourists from all over the world. Lots of young people visit the islands to surf, backpack, sail, snorkel, party, bird watch, and scuba dive. The beaches of Bocas are a world-class surfing destination.
I will be turning 60 in September, 2022. Running a marathon and learning to surf were on my bucket list to do before my birthday. I hit the gym in June 2021 and slammed my body through four workouts per week all summer long. My workouts consisted of about 30 minutes of weight lifting, 20 minutes on the elliptical machine, and 20 minutes of yoga. For my strength training, I did nothing but drop sets. Drop sets are a particularly intense weight lifting strategy that builds muscle quickly. For each exercise, you start with enough weight to allow you to do around 12 reps on the first set. Then, without rest, you drop the weight a few pounds and do as many reps as you can at the lower weight. I would continue this process until I had dropped the weight 5 times per exercise. On the elliptical, I set it up for interval training. In interval training, you work at your regular pace, then four times during the workout, you push yourself to your maximum pace for 1-minute intervals. It is said that 20 minutes of interval training can produce the same results as a full hour of training at a steady pace. In September 2021, I decreased my gym workouts to once a week so that I could train for the marathon.
I am a dreamer. Erica is a doer. She is the fairy godmother that turns my pipe dreams into realities. Erica signed us up for the Charleston Marathon, which was to take place in January 2022. She also scheduled us for surfing lessons in Bocas for our upcoming December trip. Erica has been a distance runner for years and agreed to train with me. I know my way around a gym, but training for a marathon was a whole other animal. I had to learn about hill work, hydration, nutrition, stretching, recovery periods, speed work, the long run, and base mileage. We trained hard right up to our Bocas trip. Our long training runs were up to 18 miles!
The week before our Bocas trip, I got sick with a respiratory infection. Fortunately, I was on the mend when we departed on Saturday. We flew into Panama City, and stayed overnight, then made the hop to Bocas Del Toro the next morning. We met our friend and Bocas landlord, Filiberto, at the airport and he transported us to our favorite over-the-water, Airbnb, cottage on Saigon Bay. Erica and I spent the day bouncing around Colon, enjoying the, now familiar, sights and sounds. We had an excellent meal at the Om Cafe Indian restaurant and checked in with La Buga Dive and Surf Center. We were scheduled for a surfing lesson early the next morning. I was excited, but Erica was apprehensive. To reserve a surfing lesson, you had to have at least two participants. Erica is a good swimmer but has seen one too many movies about shark attacks and people lost at sea. The idea of being in the ocean far from land is pretty terrifying for her. She signed up for the lesson with me, but she did not intend to follow through with it.
We showed up bright and early at La Buga and met our instructor. He gave us the low down on where we would be surfing, then provided instruction and demonstrations on the dock. There was a lot more to surfing than I had realized. I was feeling a little overwhelmed and I kept glancing over at Erica and waiting for her to bail on participating. She never did.
Bocas is always warm. The temperatures typically dip to around 70 at night and rise to around 90 during the day. On the morning of our surfing adventure, it was pouring rain. Our instructor loaded us on a Panga boat to transport us to our surfing destination off the coast of Carenero Island. The wind and rain made the boat ride freezing. Our teeth were chattering by the time we reached Carenero.
When we arrived and the instructor said, “We’re here. Throw your surfboard overboard and jump in.” Erica and I looked at each other with confusion. We were in the middle of the ocean, far from shore. What the hell? This was not what we signed up for! This place was Erica’s worst nightmare. We had assumed we would be taken to a beach, then wade out into the water to surf. The waves in this place didn’t break towards the shoreline. They broke parallel to the shoreline. The positioning of coral reefs had created a wave machine. The waves were HUGE and traveled in a straight line down the middle of the channel created by the reefs.
We were instructed to paddle our boards to the outside of the channel where the waves began. Erica was “volunteered” to go first. The instructor led her to the middle of the channel to catch a wave while I sat on my board and waited my turn. Paddling a surfboard was much more challenging than I had imagined. The work was incredibly strenuous and keeping balanced was a constant issue. Surfers always make it look easy. Sitting on the board and paddling against the current to stay in place was also extremely difficult. I lost my balance repeatedly and toppled over. I tried to keep my eyes on Erica. This was dangerous and she was only there because of me. She didn’t stand on her first wave, but she caught it and rode it to the end of the channel like a champ. She and the instructor then had to paddle against the current all the way up the edge of the channel to where I was waiting. The work was beyond taxing. Paddling up that channel was like trying to run a sprint uphill while dragging a tractor tire behind you.
I gave Erica a high five and then followed the instructor out to the middle of the channel for my turn. Erica took my spot waiting for her next chance. I watched and listened to the instructor. I never once looked behind me. I didn't see the wave that crashed down on me and sent me spinning down through the depths of the sea. I drank a quart of seawater as I struggled to find the surface. When I emerged, another wave hit struck and washed me to the end of the channel. As we did the paddling sprint back to Erica, the instructor was giving me feedback. I didn’t hear him because I was vomiting seawater.
Erica and I took three turns each with varying degrees of success. I puked after every try. We were both in fantastic shape from marathon training but neither of us could have physically handled a fourth trip up that channel. Just paddling back to the boat felt like too much for me. My takeaways from our surfing adventure? Surfing is freakin hard and Erica is a total badass!
As soon as we returned to the States, Erica and I both contracted Covid and had to stop training for the marathon. I guess it was meant to be as the Charleston Marathon was canceled for 2022 due to the epidemic.
I didn't stand up on a surfboard and I didn't run a marathon, but I still count them as wins. I will never forget that surfing expedition and we will definitely give it another go on our next visit to Bocas. Also, I am not eliminating the possibility of training for another marathon next year. Even though I never competed, I feel good about the training. How many 59-year-olds with lung disease can say they have run 18 miles?
Aloha to all you Aging Heroes out there. Until next time, latronic dudes and dudettes!