Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learning how

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Instructor Nate steadies the board while Janet Urquhart gets to her feet. (Tomi Tsuda)

LAHAINA, Maui ” They ought to call it paddling, but surfing sounds cooler. Way cooler.

Still, all that paddling reminded me of an old adage ” that’s why they call it fishing, not catching ” which basically means one can do a whole lot of fishing without actually catching anything.

Similarly, when I say I went surfing, what I really mean is I did a lot of paddling. Much to my surprise and delight, I also did a little surfing.

I’ve wanted to surf since I first watched bronzed athletes catching big waves on my family’s tiny TV screen as a little kid. Footage of guys popping out from behind a wall of water at Pipeline with a Dick Dale soundtrack could glue me to the sofa on weekend afternoons better suited to my own outdoor pursuits.

I was a teen by the time I actually tried it once ” handing $25 or so to a guy who rented me a giant, red board, rubbed some sand in the wax for traction and mumbled something I took for confirmation when I said, “So, I just paddle in front of the wave and it’ll pick me up, right?”

All I did was paddle.

Surfing was back on my itinerary on a recent trip to Maui, but this time, I was determined to seek out qualified instruction, if not literal hand-holding, to get me upright on a wave. My affable instructor, Nate, did everything but hold my hand to ensure success, finally giving me what he called “training wheels” ” riding prone on his board behind me and holding mine steady until I was on my feet.

That was after the on-shore preparation, which began with Nate selecting the equivalent of a barge on which I would ride the ripples breaking at the Lahaina breakwall ” a rock wall around the harbor that I managed to successfully avoid by miraculously turning the board on one occasion. On another, I simply sat down rather than crash into it.

He handed me a long-sleeved shirt, a.k.a. rash guard, and a pair of pliable shoes ” protection from a shallow, rocky bottom ” and advised me to splat flat on the water, not dive, in the event of a fall.

Then I leashed the board to my ankle, ensuring I’d worry about pulling it down on top of me every time I fell. That took my mind off the whole man-eating shark thing that tends to trouble me whenever I set foot in the ocean.

As it turned out, the biggest danger was failing to get out of the way of other beginner surfers ” wave riders with skills every bit as marginal as my own. Still, we cheered each other on, hooting appreciatively whenever one of us wobbled apprehensively to an upright position.

I opted for a private lesson with a companion ” a far pricier arrangement that actually turned out to be worth the additional cost. We each had far more chances at catching a wave than the participants in a small-group lesson taking place concurrently. Those students paddled out one by one for a shot at the surf, while everyone else in the group sat on their boards, awaiting their turn.

Plus, we hit the water while the group was still on the beach. They remained parked in the sand, practicing standing up on their boards, while I was making such spectacular splashes in the real surf, I was afraid I’d attract the attention of one of the many whale-watching expeditions based in Lahaina.

Each time I paddled back to Nate’s position where the waves were breaking, it was typically time to try again ” paddling with all the power I could muster at his command. He still had to give my board a final shove to give it the necessary speed to match the wave’s ” the key to actually catching one.

I paddled enough to render my arms useless for two days afterward, but by the end of the two-hour lesson, I stood up and surfed more often than not, and sat down rather than fell off more often than not when the wave petered out.

And surfing is way better than paddling.

There are no shortage of shops offering board rentals and surf lessons in Lahaina in West Maui. We went with Goofy Foot Surf School after Girls Gone Surfing failed to answer their phone (probably out living up to their name).

Goofy Foot, 505 Front St. ( guarantees you’ll ride a wave in one two-hour lesson or it’s free, but success costs $65 per person for group lessons and $150 per person or $250 for two people in a private lesson.

For another $20, a guy with a camera will stand on the beach and snap a multitude of digital photos and hand them to you on a disc, capturing both your memorable rides and your wipeouts.