A Beginner Gets His Legs by Mike Kentz

“Agachate!”

The Spanish command is coming from over the back of my right shoulder, just over the top of a wave I am about to drop in on. I’m surfing at Mizata Point, a smooth right-breaking El Salvadorian wave that points towards a large cliff to its right—one that kind of forms the shape of a human face, if you cock your head to one side and squint. The sun is rising behind the cliff and there are only about 4–5 surfers out—most of which are employees of the adjacent Mizata Point Resort. It’s about 7 a.m. and everyone is trying to get a few waves before heading in to start their workday. For me, this is my workday. I came here to El Salvador from New York City for my week off from work as a middle school teacher to surf, or to practice surfing, I should say. I’m tired of sucking and want to get my s—t right, once and for all.

Hence the Spanish command over my back shoulder. It’s coming from my surf instructor, Erick, a local surfer and one of those Mizata Point employees. He is prodding me in his native language as I paddle into a wave. He has been drilling me to “Get lower! (Agachate!)” since we started practicing together three days ago. This is the number one most important piece of feedback I am getting on my surfing fundamentals, and he will not let go.

 “Agachate, Mike! Agachate!” He continues to yell, as I plant my hands on the board and begin to pop-up.

I hear him, but my muscle memory is not quite there. I get my feet on the board, but before I can gain my balance, I slip backwards as if I’ve just stepped on an over-sized banana peel. The board shoots out in front of me and my feet fly up sky-high like a character in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. As my head and back fall into the breaking wave I brace myself by covering my head; I am worried I am going to slam face-first into the skegs of my own board. This would not be a fun way to end the trip—with a bloody face and stitches to boot.

The wave is not terribly powerful though, and I am able to emerge unscathed. This is one of the benefits of the Mizata wave—not only is it uncrowded, but I am learning that I can handle several of these wipeouts without getting too shook. The wave still flips and tosses me side-to-side a few times just for good measure, as if the ocean is letting me know what it could do, if it really wanted to.

“Ahhhh! Haha, almost, man! But you need to get lower!” Erick says with a smile on his face, as I paddle back out.

I am beginning to get frustrated, but he is as positive as ever. He doles out feedback in bite-sized pieces and is sure to include a bit of praise to keep me going. “Your paddle is getting much stronger,” he says with sincerity.

~~~

My surfing experience is shoddy, at best. I grew up as a “Benny” along the New Jersey coastline. For the uninitiated, this means I visited the Shore from Northern New Jersey or New York (‘up North’) during the summertime and annoyed the locals by crowding their beaches and bars, stealing their waves, and sometimes stealing their women.

(‘BENNY’ stands for Bergen, Essex, and North of New York. It represents the northern counties of tourists who are most annoying to Jersey Shore locals. Think of the MTV show Jersey Shore, except this name originated decades before the TV show ever existed. I’m from Morris County, which means we have not-as-spiky hair and are generally less annoying than others. My family spent three months down there every summer, so I was not a Weekend Warrior but the rule still applies, generally.)

I body-boarded and body-surfed a ton. I got to be a decent swimmer. But when it came to surfing, I was terrified. It was too hard, and I was too afraid of getting hurt. Beyond that, the best waves came in the hurricane season of September and October, after I had already left to go back ‘up North’ for school.

Later, at age 27, I took a trip to Costa Rica with friends. Not a surf trip per se, but a chance to take a lesson and practice anyway. I took out a softie and dominated the slow-rolling two-footers that came in at the main Tamarindo beach. I felt like a king. This was it, I thought. I can do this now.

I came home and bought a wetsuit and a board—a 7’3″ sniper with not a lot of float, which I was told would be great for hurricane season. My plan was to head out to Rockaway Beach in Queens throughout the September–November season and practice that way. Easy as pie, I thought.

Not so fast. Over the next five years, I went out as much as humanly possible. I had some moments—the type that keep you going when you’re on the verge of quitting—but on the whole, I was a shoddy mess. And on top of that, I found myself battling with super-experienced locals, amidst crowds of 40–50 surfers on the regular, whenever the swell picked up. Sometimes I angered people with my inexperience, other times I just wasted waves. I was beginning to think the whole gambit was a mistake.

Fast-forward: December 2019. I’m sitting in my apartment on a Saturday morning, scrolling through social media. I am becoming increasingly alarmed at how well Instagram seems to know me. My advertisements are bizarrely catered to the things I care about—or even more creepily, the things I talk about with friends. Lately, I’ve been talking about a vacation with my girlfriend. We are considering Belize for some sun and surfing.

This morning though, Instagram has other plans. It has placed an advert for a surf trip from an account called visitmizata. The pictures are absurd, but the deal is even absurd-er: a week-long stay that includes daily surf lessons and photography, unlimited horseback rides, all-inclusive meals, and a choice of three different breaks right in front of the hotel (and two others nearby, if necessary).

I’m pretty sure this is too good to be true, but I soon find out it’s not. Shon, a rep from the hotel who works with me on my package and later surfs with me in the same Point line-up, lays out the terms. It’s real, and I’m going, even if my girlfriend has to bail at the last minute and I have to go solo, à la Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I’m going to practice and learn. I’m going to get my s—t right, and with the included daily surf photography, I’m stoked on getting a damn good photo to boot.

~~~

It’s now day 3 of my trip, and I do not have that damn good photo, or anything even close to it. It’s not Mizata’s fault, I just suck worse than I thought. Erick, and Josh, the owner, propose that I should practice my pop-up on the beach first. At first, I bristle at the thought. I’m not in the mood to go back to square one. I did that already, even if there is something clearly wrong with my style and fundamentals.

Eventually, I realize they are right and walk to the beach where Erick traces out my board in the sand and demonstrates the fundamentals of a good pop-up. I take a deep breath and mimic everything Erick does, asking questions and pushing myself to get past my ever-present ego.

Things start to click. It begins to make sense why I fall every time. Obviously, if I don’t swing my front-leg through with speed—and actually “pop” up, as opposed to “meandering” up—I’m going to fall. Obviously, if I’m just casually standing tall with my feet close together, hands at my side, and knees locked straight, I’m going to fall! I begin to see what Erick is talking about.

But it’s not enough just to know, you’ve also gotta “do.” He and I work for 20–30 minutes on a traced-out board on the sand and with old boards on the grass before we paddle out together. We stay in the water for 3+ hours at a time (thank god for multiple breaks!), working to get it right. Each day, I’m logging 4–5 hours or surfing “work,” and I’m beginning to see results.

I start to catch the small ones. I start to catch them on my own and, even though the pop-up is ugly, I stay up and hang through the whole wave. I’m feeling good (“better” is probably a better word) and enjoy celebrating with Erick every time a new success arises. His teaching is working, and I’m starting to fall into a groove.

“Esta surfeando con mucha mas consistencia, mas confidencia, Mike,” Erick tells me. It’s times like these I’m glad I paid attention in high school Spanish. Who wants to miss a compliment like that?

~~~

It’s Friday morning, the last day of my trip. In front of the hotel are arguably the best waves of the week. My body is sore. My knees are scabby. My face is sunburnt. I bend my knees on the traced-out board on the sand, as Erick says “lower” in Spanish, and feel my entire body holler in pain.

No matter, this is why I came. I’ve essentially got 3 more hours of surfing left in my trip, and at the rate I’ve been catching waves, we might only be talking about 10 good ones before the wind switches on-shore and sends us packing. I still don’t have my photo. It’s time to buckle down.

We paddle out over the top of the rocky ocean-bottom and find our spot. Erick is like a wizard—a nephew of Poseidon himself. He sees currents that no one else seems to see, calls waves that others think are nothing (and vice versa), and generally gives me the confidence that I won’t be wasting my time out there if I have him at my side. He knows this break better than anyone, having grown up and surfed here all his life.

He keeps me a little inside for various reasons, one being that the steep faces of the bigger waves have been giving me problems all week. Slightly smaller will be better for my confidence and practice.

A wave comes. It’s good, but not mind-bendingly good. It’s not “gordita” like some of the other fake-out waves that I have wasted my paddling strength on. It’s got a decent-sized face, and I’m in the perfect spot. I begin to paddle.

“Vale! Vale! Vale, Mike!” Erick will not let me miss this wave.

A few others watch on and offer encouragement. Soon, I feel the momentum of the wave start to pick me up and I know it’s time. I pop up. It takes me a second to get my bearings, but luckily this wave is gentle at the start. I drop in backside (I’m a goofy-foot) and peer down the line. Plenty of wave. Let’s go.

I get low. As low as I can, at 6’3″. I feel the difference immediately. I have a lot more control and feel myself picking up speed. My feet are planted, and I feel the wind blowing across my face. My eyebrows furrow as I concentrate and get serious.

I hit a bump after a few seconds and feel a little shaky, but I hold on, and as I do, I see a little barrel forming. Time to get lower, I think to myself.

I am under no illusion that I will make it through this barrel—not with my lack of experience and know-how. I’ve tried before, and I know that this is not within my stage of development, not just yet. But I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try.

I crouch as low as humanly possible and see it shape up in front of me. I dip my shoulders and lean in. In front of me, the wave begins to purl. I drop my hands down to my ankles. The sunlight on my head is suddenly shaded out as the wave creates a small canopy over my head. I am devastatingly close to being “in” the barrel. So this is what they’ve been talking about all this time, I think to myself.

Suddenly, I’m under water. It was a small barrel, and unfortunately, I didn’t get high enough on the face. The wave has landed on the back of my head and taken me down. When I emerge from the water though, Erick is hooting and hollering. “Yeahhhhh, Mike!” A couple of employees give me a shout, too. As I paddle back out, a fellow hotel visitor tosses me a compliment.

I’m feeling pretty damn good, especially for the first wave of the day. But it is nothing compared to how I will feel when I see the photos later on. The wave did not feel that big to me. It was fun, yes, but it felt medium-sized. When I check the tape though, I am shocked to see the wave jack up overhead as I moved through the first section, making me look like a pea. I’ve never surfed a wave that big, and I am as stoked as stoked can be.

Then, in the second section, I catch a nice look on what the difference is when I “agachate” as opposed to standing straight up like a stick figure. (Hint: it makes a world of difference.) I also get a chance to see how close I was to attaining that barrel. Really good stuff for future goals.

I surf for 2 more hours that day and catch several small “olas” but nothing compared to that wave. In the end, I have experienced legit improvement from Day 1 to Day 6. Erick fixed my bad habits and helped me build a foundation of strong fundamentals for the future. I know I’ve gotten better, but I can’t even quantify how gratifying it is to have the photo evidence. Without it, I would go home and only have my word. This way, there can be no dispute!

Afterwards, I lie on the hammock on the front porch of my bungalow, overlooking all three breaks that first humbled me and then later gave me so much that week. I’m exhausted, but I can’t fall asleep. Electricity is still runs through my veins, and I catch myself involuntarily smiling a handful of times. I get what I came for, in more ways than one. Mizata has delivered.

I can go home now, I think to myself. I can go home.

Mizata_Photo_1

BIO: Mike Kentz is a former financial journalist and a current writing teacher in Brooklyn, NY. He has coached basketball in Tibet, surfed in El Salvador, and bungee jumped in Africa. He loves basketball and writing more than anything else, and is learning to love cats.


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