I’m a Lifelong Oregonian Who Was Scared to Surf Along Our Shore. Turns Out, It’s Pretty Awesome.

For a split second, I was Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush. Obviously.

(Charlie Rath)

I didn't want to go surfing.

I was fully convinced that I was going to die. When you grow up in Portland, the idea of surfing on the Oregon Coast is laughable. The water is between 40 and 50 degrees. Rip tides are especially unpredictable here. And there are sharks. Could I even carry a surfboard? Why would anyone who really likes surfing live in Oregon?

"We'll examine your anxieties about surfing," said my instructor, Lexie Hallahan, who runs NW Women's Surf Camps, after I sent her a huge email about how terrified I was. I felt a little better.

After talking with friends from Southern California, who took surf lessons like Oregonians take indoor swimming lessons, I realized it wasn't that big of a deal. Surfing is as common for Californians as composting is here.

So I did it.

What I learned is that surfing isn't about adrenaline. It's about waiting. It's about gut instincts and about paying attention to the water. It's meditative. At least, it is when you're surfing 4-foot waves in water that's only 5 feet deep. I'm sure there's adrenaline involved in Rocket Power-style waves.

I planned to meet Hallahan at Cleanline Surf in Cannon Beach at 1 pm on a spring day when the "swells" were supposed to be good. I arrived 30 minutes early and downed a pint at nearby Pelican Brewing to calm my nerves.

At the shop, I was immediately greeted by a dog and three tan men. Within five minutes, there was a board tied to the soft rack they had put on my car and I was wearing a full wetsuit, with gloves, shoes and a cap. The 8-foot board looked comical on my tiny Toyota Corolla.

I followed Lexie in her yellow Jeep to Short Sands, the kind of spot that everyone knows about but gets angry when you tell someone about it, as if it's a big secret. We hiked 15 minutes down to the beach, while she explained why she started her business, which leads weekend retreats in the summer and offers summer camps, group lessons and private lessons.

(Charlie Rath)
(Charlie Rath)

"Surfing on the coast really changed in the last 10 years," she said. "The millennials are way more down to do active things, I've found."

They're posing for their Instagram, I thought—but decided not to tell her that.

Hallahan surfs nearly every day. She's also a yoga instructor, small-business owner and nutritionist. She's like a cool surf mom, always making sure you're comfortable and excited while generously filling any silences. I felt calm just being around her.

(Charlie Rath)

We sat on a bench overlooking the beach and she began to teach me the recipe for a perfect wave, which is basically the perfect combination of wind, swells and tide. Then we moved down to the beach, where we practiced carrying the board, paddling out, standing up and dismounting.

(Charlie Rath)
(Charlie Rath)

Finally, it was time to get in the water. I pulled on the thick wetsuit, which took actually 15 entire minutes, and waddled out to the water like a seal. Plunging into the Oregon Coast ocean is against every instinct I have, but with the wetsuit, it felt only slightly colder than a swimming pool.

(Charlie Rath)
(Charlie Rath)
(Charlie Rath)

Paddling out is exhausting, as you crash against each wave and hold on to the board and bend into the cobra position to avoid getting knocked down. Once I made it out to Lexie, she held my board, then let go and yelled at me to pop up as the wave caught the board.

I popped up, and for a split second, I was Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush, only with a heavy wetsuit and a helmet and on a tiny wave. I let out an audible laugh. I was doing it, and beaming! It felt like I was on a treadmill made of the ocean. I fell down below the waterline half a second later—the scariest part of the entire day. In rock climbing, you know logically that a rope will catch you. In surfing, it's all unpredictable.

(Charlie Rath)
(Charlie Rath)

I surfaced and went back toward her, each wave crashing against me and spilling salt into my contacts. I did this 20 or so times. As I kept walking my board, I felt like I was meditating. I have never been so in tune with the rhythm of the ocean, or aware of how unpredictable it is. After what felt like 15 minutes, I called for time-out—but the lesson was over. We'd been in the water for an hour and a half.

It was totally tubular.

Cleanline Surf: 171 Sunset Blvd., Cannon Beach, 503-436-9726, cleanlinesurf.com. If you take a lesson with NW Women's Surf Camps, Cleanline gives you a major discount on rental gear.


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