Re-Learning to Surf: Costa Rica Edition

Can I surf after a 30 year absence? Could you?

I surfed regularly when I was in my 20s. Now I'm in my 50s. So almost three decades later, can I still surf? Could you? A month ago I traveled to Tamarindo, Costa Rica with a new surfboard (this one) to find out.

I'll break down my experience into four skills: paddling, positioning/catching, standing, and riding. Is surfing like riding a bike or do you forget? Do the basics transcend time, or do we need to re-learn?

Let me set the stage. I went to Tamarindo on purpose. It's easy to get to Tamarindo from Denver (where I live), it's cheap-ish, and I knew the waves were mostly good for beginners. Lastly there would be other beginners in the lineup so I wouldn't feel too goofy. My quiver consisted of a single 8' soft top longboard with lots of volume. I'm about 6' 185 lbs (okay 5'11" and 192 lbs), can swim a mile (if my life depended on it), and have spent a combined total of 10 hours catching waves (bodyboarding, SUPing and surfing with my girls) since moving from Hawaii.

I wish I was able to bring one of our 9' longboards instead of the 8'. Airline adventures prevented the 9' surfboard from coming. That said, the 8' seemed fine and I was able to find my paddling groove on my very first attempt. It's not a long paddle to get into the lineup at Tamarindo and by the time I reached the surf, I was comfortable paddling. And I got better quickly. So I think it's fair to say, paddling is something that has some muscle memory. The balance, pace, and movement was something that seemed to transcend time.

You need a feel for where the waves are breaking to know where to start your attempt to paddle into a wave. That may be an acquired skill. In fact, I’m sure it changes depending on where you're surfing, the size of the break, the wind, and other factors. But that too seemed to be something that I picked up rather quickly. Like muscle memory, there may be a mental memory to positioning. It took me longer to get comfortable with positioning than it did for paddling, but that too seemed to come fairly naturally.

It was like starting over - like I had never surfed. The comedy of errors included falling off immediately, only getting to my knees, pearling over the top, being too far back, standing too early, standing too late... The list goes on. I was no better and debatably worse than the people taking their first lessons next to me. TBH I was never outstanding at this movement in my 20s but I am much worse now in my 50s. In part, I blame my flexibility or lack thereof. My front foot just never wanted to get in the correct position. This improved over the week as I practiced and stretched (my wife recommended the Happy Baby stretch that seemed to help), but I left Costa Rica knowing that standing consistently would require much more practice.

This too did not come back to me as quickly as paddling or positioning, but it was easier than standing. Toward the end of the week, I was able to ride some waves all the way to shore even working up and down the face to some degree.

So is surfing like riding a bike? Can you pick it up after a 30 year absence? In a word, no. Like most things it takes practice. The good news is practice is a lot of fun. So as the sun sets can I expect to spend more time surfing? Unquestionably yes. It made me feel young (and old) and as my wife can attest, I enjoyed every minute of it. I hope to see you in the lineup.

Warm regards,
Adam C. Swiecki

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