Learning to Surf at Age 40 Isn't for the Faint of Heart

Rene Cizio

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It was 6:30 a.m. in Costa Rica, and I was struggling to carry my oversized surfboard across a footbridge in the middle of the rain forest. I was slipping in the early morning mud as I slapped at mosquitos large enough to carry a small child.

I was in my mid-40s, didn’t know anyone I was with, couldn’t speak the language, and had never surfed before in my life. How, I wondered, did I up here?

Technically, we ended up here because of a shortcut gone bad. Then we had to take the boards off our van’s top to cross below the bridge’s upper guard rails.

We strapped the boards back on top of the van, and all 10 of us piled in. We bounced through the rainforest and sang along in Spanish with Pedro Capó about going to the beach. I didn’t know most of the words, but I could sing the entire song with conviction by day five.

Little did I know then that in a few hours, I would have lost my shoes, bloodied my tongue, and nearly drowned.

No refunds, of course

I booked the trip online and, in my haste, thought “yoga and surfing” meant “paddleboard yoga.” The difference, I would come to learn, could not be more profound.

I tried canceling the trip. There was no way that I, in my mid-40s and about 30 pounds overweight, was going to a surf camp. I wasn’t going to embarrass myself or the country of Costa Rica, even trying.

I made multiple calls and begged profusely, but this was before the pandemic struck and it was non-refundable. Thank you, universe. I decided I would go, but only to do yoga and not take part in surfing.

Hi ho, hi ho, surfing we will go

A few weeks later, I found myself in Costa Rica in a 10-seater plane gouging my nails into the seat as we began our descent into what looked like nothing but a jungle. The airport – I use the term “airport” very loosely here – was made up of a long concrete driveway and a parking lot big enough for two small planes.

Safely back on the ground, I found my driver. After bumping around about an hour on dirt roads with potholes the size of craters. He dropped me off at my hotel, which turned out to be a hostel on a strip of jungle in the middle of nowhere.

He left me standing there holding my bags while two girls in G-string bikinis ran past with squirt guns and water balloons.

Through a blend of Spanish, English, and the patience of several saints, I determined that, yes, I was in the right place. Yes, it was a surf hostel predominantly catering to foreign 20-somethings.

10-seat airplane, small plane

How I became a middle-aged surfer

After I paid for a lock and put my belongings in the locker, I was hanging out poolside watching a group of hostel dwellers do body shots. There I met up with my host, Victor. In my shabby Spanish, I explained to him that I’d booked the trip on accident, haha, and I’d only be doing yoga, not surfing.

Victor wore a backward baseball cap covering his long dreadlocks, a pair of red swim trunks, and some flip flops. On his wrist and neck were an assortment of puka shell bracelets and necklaces.

“Ok,” he said in barely discernable English. “You first surf lesson 7 am. You come here,” he said, pointing at the precise spot I was standing, “in morning and Antonio show you how do surf position and find you board. Tomorrow, you surf!” He patted me on the back and smiled broadly, showing me his big, white teeth.

We definitely weren’t speaking the same language.

I just want to torture myself

There wasn’t any air conditioning in the hostel, and at about two in the morning, my room was overtaken by three Nicaraguan men. The men, combined with the music that played by the pool all night, meant I was up before the sun.

I watched from a nearby palm tree as a bare-chested, dark-skinned and broad smiling Antonio began instructing two French women, Sophie and Marie, who were also surfing for the first time. They were practicing board positions that looked a lot like yoga, so I joined them.

After learning how to lay on the board, stand on the board, and proper positioning for going from prone to upright, we were ready to take it to the water.

White water will surf

When I said I’d just swim, Antonio reacted like I was an actual crazy person. His facial expressions said, “You have board, and there’s water; what’s the problem?”

What his mouth said, after making me carry that heavy, oversized board down to the water anyway, was: “We only go white water, not green. You ok.”

“Ok?” I agreed, not knowing what he meant at all.

White water, I learned later, is the little waves that break near the shore. Green waves are the big rolling mothers out deeper. We were only practicing how to stand on the boards in the white water. Because I was only in water up to my chest and didn’t want to disappoint Antonio, I agreed to play along.

It is, I realize now, this series of small, inconsequential decisions that lead you to a muddy footbridge in the early morning rain forest, wondering just how in the world you got there.

The waves, repeatedly breaking right in our faces, kept us alert while Antonio screamed, “chicken leg!” at Sophie. Chicken leg was how he explained the proper way to bend your leg while rising to stand. Sophie, for God's sake, could not figure it out.

Go green or go home, just kidding, you’re going green

It turns out my wide feet and low center of gravity made me a solid surfer. While the French girls, much younger, thinner and you would think nimbler than I, struggled and blundered their way through the water, I was able to stand on my second attempt and thereafter every time like a champion.

On day two, Victor, hearing that I did well during my first lesson, decided I was ready to hit the green waves at another beach with the Costa Rica big kids.

“Oh, no way.”

“Yes, grab you board.” He was chewing on a plastic straw and had the thing worked down to nearly paste. I wondered if he was trying to quit smoking. Where did he even get a straw at this time of the morning? I decided not to press him.

Thus, I found myself at 6:30 a.m. in a van heading across the island where the waves were bigger and better, whatever that meant. I was about to find out.

Boards on and off the van to get across the bridge. This is our warmup exercise

This is how you surf: Lesson 1

Surfing is easy, in theory. Basically, you paddle out into the ocean, fighting the waves smashing you in the face until you feel like your arms are going to break off, and your neck is paralyzed. You know you’ve gone far enough when you are hoping a shark will come along and put you out of your misery.

Once you get out of the surf break, you can rest and sit on your board. That’s what I was doing when Victor taught me my first green wave lesson.

A few of us were sitting on our boards, not thinking about surfing at all, enjoying the novelty of breathing. I was staring back toward the beach, admiring how far I’d come, when Victor shouted at me.

“Where you looking? There’s nothing for you look there, you watch wave.” On cue, a big wave came from behind and knocked me off my board.

This is how you surf: Lesson 2

I learn better the hard way. After a few minutes, while trying to catch a wave, I was tumbled in the ocean like facing the WWF’s Macho Man Randy Savage. I struggled to the surface, gasping for breath and totally disoriented. My surfboard, attached by a cord to my ankle, came rifling toward my face and blasted me in the jaw.

In a blur, I hear Victor yelling and motioning. I’m dizzy, about to be sick, and wish he would just shut up. I needed a minute. Then I realize he’s probably saying something important.

He’s telling me to swim away from the surf line, but I’m too late, and another wave is on top of me. It was about five years later when I surfaced. I swam like a bat out of Hell and hopped back on my board to relative safety. This is surfing.

Lesson three: As soon as you fall, swim away from the board, or at least know where it is. Also, get out of the wave.

Wait, wasn’t I wearing shoes?

Do you know that phrase “knocked your socks off?” It’s real. One minute I had awesome octopus-themed water shoes on my feet; the next, I didn’t. Victor shook his head at me. I was clearly the most pathetic surfer to ever grace the Costa Rica waves.

“I hope I find them. The rocks hurt my feet.”

Again, Victor, with his soles of steel, shook his head and rolled his eyes. And no, I didn’t find them.

This is my life now

Five early mornings later, we’re still surfing. Victor won’t take no for an answer, so this is my life now. I’d wanted to do other things in Costa Rica, but after a full morning of surfing, what else is there? I no longer remember.

After a few hours in the water each morning, we hang out under some palm trees, and Victor or Antonio chop up melons while we all share our war stories about that day’s waves.

“Tomorrow, I’m going to work on my bottom turn, so I’m not caught inside,” I said to Victor as I grab a piece of watermelon.

Grinning, he finishes carving a hole in a coconut and gives it to me to drink. I take it like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

I’m living “Pura Vida” in Costa Rica now. The simple life. Surf life. Somehow, I became an overweight, middle-aged surfer—what a wild world.

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Digital nomad, solo road tripping through the USA in my van. I write about travel, adventure, culture, and self-improvement. Pictures on Instagram @renecizio

Chicago, IL
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