Learning to Surf Also Taught Me a Lot About Myself

Wendy Altschuler surfing in El Salvador
Wendy Altschuler, surfing in El Salvador.

Wendy Altschuler


As a Montana native, I had little to no experience with swimming in the ocean during my childhood. I was a teenager, in fact, before I even caught sight of the ocean, an indelible visual and audible experience I’ll never forget. While I have since traveled to countless beach destinations where I enjoyed many adventures—swimming with whale sharks in Mexico, snorkeling in the Dominican Republic, kayaking in Turks and Caicos, stand-up paddleboarding in Costa Rica, and scuba diving in the Bahamas—there was one aquatic skill I had yet to learn: surfing.

I've always felt that it’s important to live a life of persistent learning, growth, and adventure, and also by doing so, lead by example for my three boys. I carve out time to pursue my own goals and curiosities, hopefully inspiring my children to do the same. Whether it’s testing my grit through the sport of roller derby, backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim, competing in half-marathons, or experiencing new heights through skydiving, paragliding, and rappelling, the older I get, the more acutely aware I am that life is short. Thus was the ever-nagging impetus for learning to surf, an item that was still on my bucket list; the idea of doing so was one that brought me much excitement and, to be honest, a healthy dose of trepidation.

Should I be worried about sharks? What happens if I get pinned under a wave? Am I a strong enough swimmer to contend with paddling out far away from the shore? Is this what responsible mothers do? What if I simply can’t do it, and I’ve traveled all this way only to fail? These were the questions that ran through my mind when I woke up before sunrise in El Salvador, and headed out across the black sands of Playa Las Flores to meet my surfing instructor.

Jeppi, a short and squat man, was puffing on a cigarette when I met him by the surf boards. I first noticed that Jeppi was missing a toe, the result of a macabre biking accident he had suffered in the past. I was told, however, that this stout, middle-aged man was once a longboard surfing champion, and I'd learned long ago not to judge a book by its cover. People are able to overcome adversity and demonstrate greatness when given the chance.

Jeppi, my El Salvadorian surf instructor
Wendy Altschuler

I nervously waved and communicated through hand signals that I had no idea what I was doing. I was unable to speak Spanish and Jeppi’s English was just below the conversational level. After picking out a board that he thought would fit my size and greenhorn ability, we practiced the motions of paddling and popping up on a board while still on land. I was surprised to learn that all of my previous yoga training would indeed help me in this new endeavor. Once the initial tutorial was over, it was time to move the lesson into the water. We paddled out into the open ocean, the farthest I had ever been from the shore without a boat. The light was still just peeking out above the horizon, rising into a gunmetal-gray sky, and little silvery fish were flipping on and over my board, inches from my face. I closed my mouth and breathed through my nose, wondering what else swam in the warm water below that I couldn’t see. Something bigger surely wanted to eat those fish, right? Never mind that, I needed to focus—hackles up, eyes wide open, firing on all cylinders, I put my trust in a stranger and challenged myself to not only get over my fears but also open myself up to learning something new.

Jeppi, with flippers on his feet, was treading water while holding on to the tail of my board. I was positioned on my stomach, in a semi-upward dog asana, waiting for the ideal wave. I could see the gargantuan round black boulders to my left, which shouldered the violent crash of the waves. The natural and dense tropical cove was barely in view, as was the black-as-ink beach, its sand created by prehistoric volcanic discharge.

This serene, beautiful landscape, however, is often sadly left out of the country's image portrayed in the news. El Salvador holds the title of the smallest yet most densely populated country in all of Central America with 6.4 million people. Bordered by Honduras and Guatemala, this area of the world has struggled with crime, economic instability, and civil conflict and violence. Tourism, however, has helped the country, with surfing as a main draw. Now, travelers and athletes are learning about the surf culture and the campaign to recognize El Salvador’s coast as "Surf City." Through hosted international surfing competitions and a changing global image, El Salvador shines brightly as a destination worthy of your bucket list.

Every few seconds I would look over my shoulder, at Jeppii, still holding onto my board, and at the waves, trying to determine when exactly I should go—learning the timing of it all and how to immediately place your feet and weight correctly on the board is extremely difficult and it takes lots of practice. The ocean would swell, a wave would rise, and Jeppi would yell “Go! Go now!” I’d start paddling like my life depended on it, waiting for the moment I would feel my board rise under my mid-section, then I’d pop up on my feet, positioning my body over the stringer down the middle.

Surfing is difficult and takes patience.
Wendy Altschuler 

By the end of that first day, my elbows were shredded from digging them into the board too much, my skin was sunburned, and I could tell I was dehydrated. Swallowing mouthfuls of ocean water isn't exactly thirst-quenching. I also fell so many times that I didn’t think I could summon the energy each time to paddle out again. But I had traveled to El Salvador to learn how to surf, and I wasn’t going to leave until I did just that. When would I have this opportunity again?

For the entire week I was there, I surfed every day, sometimes twice a day in the early morning and late afternoon when tides were just right. And I tell you this: It only takes one time of doing it right, or nearly right, when you feel the wind whip your face and blow through your salty hair, to keep you coming back for more. By mid-week, I was able to ride the waves and push myself into harder challenges, like turning on my board or trying to grab the rail.

There’s something about challenging yourself in nature, testing your mental resolve and grit, that emboldens your sense of self. If you can travel to a new country alone, learn how to paddle out into the ocean, spring up onto a surfboard, and ride a big wave, what else can you do? Surfing gave me a light that I couldn't wait to share with my little boys back at home. I wanted to show them that if their mom can do hard things, push herself out of her comfort zone, and color outside the lines of the expectations put on mothers, then they can too. The biggest and best adventures and accomplishments are usually ones that don’t come easily. 

While I’m still a novice, I have surfed in many destinations since that first time—Costa Rica, Florida, and Indonesia. I traveled solo to Bali, the Island of the Gods, where I surfed at Kuta Beach. Bali is great to visit year-round for ocean fun. There’s a wet season, November through March, and a dry season, May through September, but the tropical and warm weather stays constant no matter when you visit. Bali is also a relatively safe destination, transportation is inexpensive, and it’s simple to get around the island to explore the culture, temples, rice fields, and sites outside of the touristy beach and shopping areas.

Surfing in Bali
Wendy Altschuler

In Bali, I joined a surf school, which met every day for a week, and I received excellent in-depth instruction tailored for a beginner surfer. We practiced popping up on our boards while still in the sand, as the instructor also educated the group about ocean safety, how to carefully paddle out past the break, and what to do when you fall off your board. It’s helpful, even if you’ve surfed previously, to hear it from a different leader. You might be more perceptive to the instruction the second time around, tips and suggestions might be more applicable based on your prior experience, and learning about the waves and culture of a new destination is always a good idea. Hearing the same thing at a different time in your practice can give you an aha moment, a breakthrough. 

There are also social rules that one must know when learning how to surf. It’s important to know where specifically to go—beginners have no business surfing where professional and experienced surfers go, for example. There’s also a lineup in certain busy spots, and you’ll need to take turns or be respectful and aware of people in front of or beside you. Accidents and collisions can happen if you’re not careful. You should be informed about what the waves and weather will be like, paying attention to the tide, before you head out as well. Because it’s a lot to navigate when you’re first setting out, enlisting the help of a surf school or qualified instructor to fill you in on all of these important details is an absolute must.

In my Bali surfer’s group, I met a wonderful group of people. An interesting byproduct of doing something new or scary is that you’ll bond with strangers, supporting and encouraging one another more readily. I felt invested in my peers, and I was genuinely happy and proud when I saw them successfully ride a wave to the beach. Surfing, in many ways, shows the best of our humanity.

After a long morning of surfing in Bali, I wrote this passage in my journal: "The waves were insane today. I got knocked off my board and thrown around quite a bit. I've probably swallowed a gallon of ocean water. But, even though it was a bit scary and unpredictable, I got back up, again and again. I'm learning to drop any expectations because every ride is different. I have a newfound respect for the ocean's power, shown through her breaks, rips, and tides. I exist, post-surf, tired, sore, and happy."

Things I Learned Along the Way

  • Practice popping up on your board and paddling while still in the sand before hitting the waves.
  • Wear long-sleeved rash guards and one-piece swimsuits to avoid sun burn, chafing, and rashes.
  • Use high-quality reef-safe and water-resistant sunscreen and apply often.
  • Find a qualified surf school or certified instructor to educate you on how to surf, where to go, and how to be safe.
  • If you’re a beginner, only surf at beginner spots.
  • Watch the waves before heading out to determine how the waves are breaking, what the aptitude levels are of the other surfers in the water, and if there are areas to avoid (be aware of rip tides).
  • Be respectful of locals and other surfers, taking turns and learning the social dynamics.
  • Consider board size and girth, as well as the number of fins when starting out. The sleeker, shorter boards can be quite difficult to learn on at first, even though they look really cool.
  • Use a leash that will Velcro around your back ankle and stay attached to your board.
  • Wax your board so that you’ll have some extra grip when riding.
  • Practice yoga before or after to warm up and stretch out your muscles.
  • Stay hydrated.

Surfing 101

  • When you see a wave that you want to catch, turn the nose of your board toward the shore, perpendicular to the wave, and begin paddling until you feel the wave roll under your board. When you notice the momentum increasing, and feel the wave’s power, you’ll want to paddle harder and pop up on your board in one smooth motion.
  • It’s helpful to have an instructor out in the waves with you so that you can learn when exactly to pop up, but you’ll need to learn the timing on your own at some point. To pop up, you’ll have to have your hands placed on either side of your chest, with your elbows up, while your legs are stretched out behind you. In one quick burst, pop up into your surfer’s stance. Most people have a regular foot, which means that their left foot is in front and their right foot is in the back. 
  • Once up on your board, riding the wave, keep your eyes forward, in the direction you want to be traveling. Use your arms for stability by stretching them out and keep a slight bend in the knees, with more pressure on the back foot.

Safety First

  • Be careful when holding onto your board in the water. Never put your board between you and a wave.
  • Never turn your back to a wave, until you're ready to ride it.
  • Be mindful of the ocean’s floor. Fall flat, rather than straight down, so you don’t come into contact with sharp or solid objects.
  • When you fall off your board, always protect your head with your arms before resurfacing—sometimes your board might be right over your head.
  • Don’t use your leash cord to hold onto your board or reel it in.
  • Don’t surf when in pain or if you’re too tired. Give your body ample breaks.