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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Learning to Surf in Nicaragua

I thought sand in your bathing suit, the somewhat uncomfortable side effect of building sand castles on the water's edge was a thing of the past. I was wrong. I had yet to try surfing...

Why Nicaragua?
A sequence of random events had landed me with a house sitting gig in San Diego, a very sleepy little community a mile or so from the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, south of El Transito and north of Montelimar. The local gathering place for local expats and surfers is Los Cardones, a surf/yoga ecolodge, named after a local cactus. Very secluded and located right on the beach, a bumpy half hour away from the motorway, there is not much to do, other than surf and swing in one of the hammocks with a book. And that's just what people come here to do: The surf is consistent and excellent for everything from beginners like myself, and experts like my friends who moved here or come down to surf for months at a time.  

I had surfed once before - on a wintery day in December off the coast north of Boston about eighteen months prior to this trip. Small stuff, one breaking point but enough for the bug to bite, and I was eagerly awaiting my next opportunity. Little did I know it would be in Nicaragua.

Conditions at Los Cardones and Surrounding Area (in layman's terms):

1. The crowds: There aren't any. In fact, it's so desolate that I usually told someone on shore that I was going out, just in case my board came back without me.  

2. Surf: steady, consistent and great for beginners and long boarders right in front of the lodge. Within a fifteen minute drive (there’s a pick-up truck on site to rent for this purpose) there are several other points for more advanced surfers including Asuchillo, Hemmies, and Chiggas offering everything from fast and hollow and A-frames all day to long, fast rights.

3. The ocean: Almighty. Need I say more?      

4. Critters: Stingrays are common and should be avoided. This can be accomplished by shuffling your feet upon entering the water. Upon landing after a ride, it's luck...

5. The weather: The water temperature is around 80 degrees Fahrenheit; the air between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. Sunny and windy, especially in the afternoon. For the week I spent there, we had strong onshore winds starting around 9 am. Experts get sulky as it blows apart the waves, but to a beginner who's just having fun figuring it all out, it doesn't matter at all...

6. The Sun: The sun is high in the sky by 7:15 am and strong. Use sunscreen and a white, longsleeved rashguard. I brought a hoodie down for my friend and he thanked me all week. I'm thankful for the friend who recommended me to bring one.

7. Boards: It's expensive to fly with surfboards on planes and there are loaners to rent at Los Cardones. If you want your Board, bring it (most surfers).

8. Wetsuits: The water temps are in the 80s. I brought a short-sleeved, short-legged wetsuit and never used it, but if the wind is strong onshore and you are out for hours, a shortie is nice to have. Even if you get cold easily, you will absolutely not need anything more on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua.

9. The season: Rainy season runs from May - October and IF you can make it to the beach in September or October you'll be in the company of logs and dead cows. Don't bother.

Time to Surf
On my second day in Nicaragua, the phone rang. "Are you ready for your surf lesson?" he said in a way that left room for only one answer. After a basic safety briefing on land (avoid contact with the fins at all times, and cover your face when you come off the board), and a push in the back to determine based on which leg I moved forward to brace myself if I was a leftie or a rightie, we went to work. With a long blue foam board leashed to my ankle we entered the ocean, shuffling our feet to avoid getting stung by an unsuspecting sting ray. Having swam out way too far the day before I was slightly weary of the powerful waves towering ahead. But the board is a flotation device and attached to your leg, and with that, I was totally back in my element and confidently took the waves head-on, or in many cases, head under or straight through.

I'm a strong swimmer and somewhere along the way got gifted with a natural paddling technique so I easily slid over the top of, or ducked through waves on the way out to deeper water. I suddenly caught myself with a big smile, feeling thankful for so many things and just in a general state of happiness. Life is pretty darn good. My only wish was for an elastic band to tie my hair back as it hung over my eyes like a blinding curtain each time I emerged from having ducked a wave.

Los Cardones Ecolodge
Once in deeper water, it was time to turn the board around and catch some waves! I was told to start with the whitewash, which is when the wave has already broken, and after less than ten minutes' worth of pointers, I was on my own. My instructor went to watch me from the comforts of a lounge chair up at the lodge, a cold drink in hand.

Catching waves isn't rocket science, especially if you already know how to read the ocean. Before long I caught wave after wave, riding laying down on my belly, steering along the wave using my arms and feet. What a great feeling it was, being able to control your board playing with such massive forces of nature. And then totally lose control and get washed up on the beach, sand everywhere. After a few fun filled rides it was time to take the next step - to learn how to stand up on the board, which is where balance and confidence is everything. The first few times I didn't make it up all the way but caught an awesome wave which I rode all the way into the beach on my knees. I decided that with that, I would glide into shore like a pro and call it a day. Just as I was about to gracefully disembark, the wave following my ride caught me from behind, and made me take a chunk out of the beach where I was deposited like a wet rag. I laughed and cursed her at the same time. I couldn't wait to go for another round.

Day two: With no pointers from my instructor other than "Keep going - you are doing great!" I shuffled back in the ocean for round two. This time I was able to get up, wobbly at first, but quickly gained the confidence necessary to just pop up off the board. And I did. After almost three hours I came back in, beaming. But my knees looked like they belonged to a rough and tumble five-year old, scraped up and various shades of black and blue. I needed to start popping up straight to my feet, instead of getting there by the way of my knees.
Day three: "Try to catch some more green water (just as the wave is about to break) and angle your board slightly as you pick up the wave." was today's instructions. This was more difficult than it sounded and I spent hours following a distinct pattern: Getting up on the board for a split second, falling, getting washed, going back out for another one, getting up on the board for a split second, falling, getting washed, going back...
By day four I had lost control. I was driven by a somewhat manic pull to go back into deeper water and catch another one. And another one. And another one. Just one more...  But alas, my time had come to return home to colder waters and to buy my own board.

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