My First Wave

Words by Hollis Baley. Photo by Jarett Juarez

I was working on the south coast that summer. I had been going to school in Newport the previous semester and that’s where I met Gabriel. He was the barista at the coffee shop where I went to bury my nose in books. I love that coffee shop, and I love Gabe. If it weren’t for the discovery of the two, I might not have found surfing.

Gabe is one of the most beautifully animated people I know. He would greet everyone who walked in the door of that coffee shop with an endearing, “Well hello there (insert name), and how are you on this lovely morning”. He would talk to me about surfing. Everyday he had something new to report on the swell, on the waves he had caught and how much fun it was to be in the water. It all sounded exciting but the thing I picked up on through those stories weren’t about the waves and swell, and to be quite honest I had no idea what in the hell “set waves”, “overhead” and “swell” even meant at the time. What stuck with me from all those stories was that surfing had and was helping him cope with some pretty heavy “life” stuff.

His life was changing in a lot of ways, and surfing was giving him the sustenance he needed. Without ever having surfed I was really inspired by the representation of this intriguing sport in his life. In some of our deeper conversations he would tell me how surfing was helping him get through this transitory period. He mentioned how surfing was helping him hold it together. It made him feel stronger, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. He would speak in metaphors comparing his time in the water to the lessons he was learning about himself, his relationships, and life in general.

He kept insisting that I come surfing with him.

One day in late June 2008 I was travelling up the coast on a work break and stopped in the coffee shop to say hi to Gabe. He reminded me of the extra wetsuit and board he could scrape up if I wanted to try out surfing. Said that the next day would be peeeeerfect for my first day. I finally took him up on the offer…

The alarm went off at 5am the next morning and we went to check surf. I will never forget that day. It was as if I were looking into a mystical photograph on someone’s wall. It was one of the most stunning scenes I’d ever bared witness to. The fog layer was thick and hovered just a few feet over the dark glassy water. The small ripples were coming into the cove and all that was audible were the gentle splashes of the waves as they broke. It was peaceful, serene, absolutely magical.

I stood up on my first wave that day. Gabe was right on in that the day couldn’t have been more perfect for an absolute beginner. I haven’t surfed a more perfect user-friendly, gentle scene like that on the Oregon Coast since that day. Maybe I never will. It was Mother Ocean’s generous invitation, which I amiably accepted.

I will be forever grateful for that first wave, on that perfect day. It was a pretty special. I left the water invigorated. I felt alive. I felt present. I felt inspired. I felt free.

I am still a beginner. I don’t know if I’ll ever be “great” at it but I will continue to push myself and see where She takes me. Surfing has turned into something far more than a fun sport or hobby for me, just like it had for my friend. It has turned into a series of metaphors that have helped me enjoy life with a sense of humor, in the good times of course, but in the hard times too. I’ll leave you with some of those metaphors…

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The same energy that can hurt you is the same energy that propels you. If you don’t get sore or hurt yourself once in a while you’re not doing it right. Life has its risks. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve taken my chances on love. Looking back on it all, even though it hurt, I don’t regret a damn bit of it. If I wouldn’t have taken the risks I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.

The greatest risks reap the greatest rewards. Life is constantly changing and it never gets easier, but it does get more ‘worth it’. It’s the same with surfing.

A big ego is not your amigo. I actually learned that phrase from this kiwi guy while on a surf trip in Mexico when I was telling him how much I’d been humbled by the ocean that day. I think he could see the humility in my eyes. He didn’t even surf but as he was listening to me tell my story he just blurted that out and I laughed so hard! I still hear that in my head when I find myself tumbling head over bum in the white wash, at the hands of the wave. We are all powerless. Let go, enjoy the ride even when it’s not smooth, have faith, stop trying to control everything and you will get to breathe in a great big breathe of fresh air soon enough!

The only way to overcome fear is by meeting it head-on. I get butterflies in my stomach almost every time I suit up, I don’t know if that will ever go away. I wish I could go back to the fearless days of being a kid when fear wasn’t such a factor in life. Surfing gives me motivation though. Surfing is challenging physically and mentally. It helps strengthen my resolve with the challenges life presents. If I can paddle into overhead waves on a dark and stormy day without another human in sight, in a sea full of wild creatures who know this world far better than I do, I can do anything, right…