What I Learned In the Water

Lessons from a Surf Safari in North Carolina

Giovan J. Michael
16 min readOct 13, 2019

“NICE AND EASY!”

He screams this at me from a few waves back. I’ve missed the lull in the set. I was too slow. Now, the mushy waves are growing in size and hostility, coming at me with their whitewater mouths. I still haven’t mastered the duck-dive. Instead, I have to peak each wave before it breaks. That, or get knocked off of my board as a thousand-gallon wall of water hits me like a truck. All while making sure I don’t break my skull on the boardwalk. The latter happens a lot. I’m winded, gasping for air as I swallow water. My right shoulder’s about to blow out from all the paddling. This is my first day in the Atlantic, and I’m having the time of my life.

After seven forevers the set ends and I make it into the lineup. My uncle rows in from his SUP, which he rides deep in the set. “You look like an inbred seal. Stop swimmin’ with your legs over the side of the board!”

He tells me this, and a laundry list of other critiques. I need to keep my ankles together. I need to pull longer and harder, not with a thousand little strokes that get me nowhere. Nice and Easy. When I’m on the wave I need to lean into it like I’m about to nosedive or it will just wash over me. Don’t Hesitate. Every time he tells me something I reply with one of three things in a gasp: yes, okay, deal. I try not to question or overcomplicate what he says. It’s a bad habit of mine. Just listen. Do better. Given my current performance, doing better should be easy to do.

When there are lulls in the wave he’ll start conversations with whoever is nearby. “Gio! You look like a goddamned three-legged table the way you wobble around on your board. Find your center! Oh, this is my nephew, Gio. He’s from California, I’m teaching him how to surf.”

With each set that comes in, I get a little better. First, I fix my balance. Then I lengthen my strokes. After that, he teaches me to throw my feet up to dip the board into the wave. Every once in awhile I catch something, but usually, a wave will just push me out of the set as I paddle my heart out. Then it just washes over me. Now I’m a couple of hundred feet closer to shore, swimming back out for the next set. Every time I get tired or slow down he turns back to me and yells “KEEP PADDLIN’!” This repeats and repeats and I don’t want it to stop, despite how tired I am. But eventually, it does.

He tells me we’re done for the day, and to catch one last wave into shore, which he does shortly after. I can see his years of experience in the way he turns on the wave and rides it. He says he only paddle-boards now. Says surfing is too easy for him. As I paddle aching arms to catch my wave, I have to laugh a little.

This is not my first time surfing. I’ve been learning intermittently for years. However, at the moment I live in the Mojave Desert, and my ‘hours-logged’ is significantly lower than it was at Santa Cruz. But even then I could only ever surf on a foam Costco board. A board I specifically bought to beat the shit out of. And when I catch a wave on that thing I ride it all the way to the sand, get my money’s worth out of the wave. But I don’t stop to think that the board I am riding on now is not made out of foam, but fiberglass. And I’ve already hit the sandbar when I realize what I’ve done.

An orange fin is hanging from the board like a limb connected only by skin. “Ummm, Michael. I’m gonna need to buy you a new set of fins,” I tell him sheepishly. And all he can do is laugh. Laugh at his klutzy, off-balance, bull-in-a-china-shop nephew, who really does appear to be doing his best.

“NOW, LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THE BOARD YOU BROKE.”

It’s evening. We’ve washed our suits and boards, loaded them into the truck to go back out again tomorrow morning, had dinner, and researched the fins I need to buy. We are en route to the Surf City surf shop, Wilmington, N.C. as he tells me this story:

“It was custom-made for my friend Luke in Baja, Mexico. I surfed once on it and just about fell in love with the thing. I said ‘Luke, how much you want for that little fun board?’

He says ‘What, this? I can’t sell this board, it was made literally made for me.’ But I wasn’t gonna give up that easy. I knew he had been eyeing this cherry-red wood board every time we went into the store together.

So I told him, ‘Luke, that board is $500, let me give you $500 for the fun board and you can buy the cherry board.’

Same reply: ‘But this board was made for me!’ So here’s what I did. I told him to meet me in the water one morning to surf. I got up early, bought the board, and swam it out to him. Didn’t even put wax on it. At this point he’s looking at the board like he wants to fuck the Goddamned thing. ‘Is that the cherry board!?’

‘Oh this old thing? Yeah. I’ll trade you for the fun board if you want.’ And he said ‘But this board was — Oh Goddamnit!’ and we shook on it right there in the water and swapped boards.”

We arrive at the shop, I have the amputated fin in my hand for reference. “This is my nephew from California. I took him out surfing, and on the first wave, he breaks the goddamned fins off. We need replacements.” Both of the employees laugh, a boy and a girl around my age. He keeps up the momentum with joke after joke, not even giving them a moment to tell us that we walked in about 30 seconds before closing.

My uncle is chatting the boy’s ear off about the discount boards. I’ve already bought my fins, so I start a conversation with the girl, Olivia, who is looking at the counter and seems like she is just waiting for us to leave. I ask her what board she surfs on and she says she doesn’t. She’s really pretty and so I try to make a joke about her working at a surf shop and not surfing, but she doesn’t laugh. Right about this time I hear “Gio! Don’t you think your aunt would just love this board!?” Michael’s head is peeking over from a pile of surfboards twice the size of his body. He’s gone through nearly every board on the wall to find the perfect deal. Olivia starts cracking up.

We’ve loaded the board Michael bought and are on our way back home. “Two things:” he tells me. “One, I think you should fuck that girl.” I agree but sheepishly say nothing. “And more importantly, two, that board may or may not have already been purchased,” I ask him what he means. “Well, It may or may not have been in a pile of boards that had “sold” stickers on them. And that kid may or may not get his ass kicked tomorrow morning for selling it to me. But if I clean this thing up I could flip it and get double what I paid for it by the end of the week. ”

Now we’re back home, across the street at a bonfire with some of the neighbors. They’re wonderful folk. I play some basketball with a couple of the neighborhood kids before sitting at the fire to have a beer with their parents. Bowdy didn’t make the team at St. Matthew’s but practices his shot next door every day like a goddamned champ. Kate did make the team at Saint Mary’s, but she still comes over from across the street to practice. Her shot needs work. I like the age I’m at. Young enough to be silly with kids and old enough to share stories over a beer. I hope I stay this age forever.

When I sit at the fire Michael regales us with the tale of how he had to drive all the way from Willmington to Raleigh twice in one day to pick me up because I said I was arriving on the first instead of that I was leaving on the first. This is about the seventh time I’ve heard him tell the story, and the actual details get sacrificed for comedic or dramatic effect more and more each time. But I don’t mind, this is his way of normalizing our mutual fuck-up, just like him joking about the fins.

The fire is almost as nice as the conversation, I don’t want to leave. But soon Michael tells me “Alright G, it’s time for you to go out and play.” He’s going to drop me off at the beach bars to go meet some kids my age. My heart is pounding faster than any near-death experience I’ve had with a wave.

“DON’T BE SO FUCKING HEADY.”

He tells me this in the truck on our way to the beach bars. “Don’t try to talk to these girls about poetry, you fucking writer, they don’t know what it is. These are not Santa Cruz girls. These girls are not woke, they’re drunk. Keep it really shallow, don’t overthink it.” I do a cool guy nod as if everything he’s saying makes perfect sense, and in a way it does. I know we’re in a college town and these girls are more educated than he’s letting on, but the problem isn’t them, it’s me. Getting too in my head. Not moving, not going for what I want. It’s the reason I’m not catching many waves and the reason I feel so stuck at this point in my life. That thought plays on repeat in my head while he’s talking.

“It’s not like you have to worry too much,” he tells me. “These girls are going to be so excited your from California anyway.” He starts talking in his southern belle accent. “‘Hey y’all he’s from California!’ ‘What? Did you say California? Can I suck his dick?’”

I don’t believe him but I laugh anyway. But maybe that’s the issue, that I don’t believe him. I believe so many terrible things about myself and they all seem to come true. Maybe, I think as I get out of the van, if I believe something amazing about myself then that will become true too. “Have fun,” I hear him say as he slams the door shut, and I am immediately paralyzed with fear.

I’m not going to bore you with the details of that night. If you’ve read my Córdoba story then you know how I can be at bars. Let’s just suffice it to say that it goes just as well. There are no belles fighting for my attention.

I do see Olivia once, at Vito’s Pizza after the bars close. We smile at each other, but I am in that familiar depressed stupor I tend to put myself in when I go out. Don’t talk to her, I tell myself. Don’t waste her time. And the wave washes over me.

The walk home is cold and quiet. Uber won’t take a picture of my fucking card and so I’m walking, hearing the ocean winds at my back. That, and a faint whimper. I turn and hear a drunk girl crying behind me. She can’t catch a ride either and so we walk together quietly until an Uber pulls up right in front of us. The driver, a thirty-something woman, gives us a ride for free since the kid she’s been calling says he’s too high to know where he is. I become very grateful to the universe for looking out for me. That is until the drunk girl starts to throw a fit and the driver has to pull over. I roll out of the back seat, wish her luck and opt to walk the rest of the way home. At this point its a straight shot through the small forest and over a creek, but I make it.

When I get there Michael is still awake in his garage. He’s using a tool called the pickle to take the wax off of his new treasure. He pauses La Casa De Papel on Netflix and takes off his dust mask. “So, did you talk to a lot of girls?” I shake my head no, too sad to speak. I feel like a shy little boy looking at his shoes. When he asks me why not, I respond with something to the effect of “Because –you know how I get. I get really depressed.”

That’s not a good enough answer for him. I could turn his following speech into its own story, but I’m too drunk to commit all the details to memory. The gist is this: That there isn’t anybody in this life that hasn’t thought about killing themselves, and if they say they haven’t they’re lying. That if going out really does make me that sad then I should stop doing it. That I’ve let people tell me I’m depressed, and that I need to be treated delicately, but it’s not true. That as long as I keep defining myself as a depressed person, then that’s exactly what I’ll be.

He turns La Casa de Papel back on. “Have you seen this show, “Money Heist”? The story is so addicting but the actors are fucking terrible.” I tell him that they seem terrible because he’s watching the English-dub. “Oh, I never noticed that. See there you go again, Einstien, being so fucking heady.”

Detail of “Josh” by Sulani Lawley

“THE WATER DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU”.

We go surfing as often as we can for the next few days, and every time he reminds me of this. He does his best to beat the bad habits I’ve built on that foam board out of me, but I’m a slow learner. I rock back and forth with each stroke. No center. My legs naturally splay across the board when my body should form one singular beam. I forget to throw my legs up. To lean into the nose. But mostly, my body seems to be under the impression that I can make the ocean do what I want.

But after that first accident, there are no more broken boards on my end. I do force a duck-dive so hard that I slam my head on the camera mount. I look out at the ocean through a filter of blood running down my face. I still have the scar, a smart little X above my eye. It suits me well. Michael however, breaks one of his SUPs. The post-hurricane winds blow him right off his board and slam his shin into the side.

After several rendezvous with the Ocean at Wrightsville Beach, I start to get it. I align myself with the board. I move with the water. Nice and easy. I’m starting to get the duck-dive, I’m no longer pummeled with each set before I get out. And finally, it all comes together.

I can feel the gentle pull of the wave coming for me. The right wave. I paddle. Slow at first, but building to match the waves speed. The wave starts to lift me and I give it everything I’ve got. When I think I’ve lost the wave I throw my feet up and lean into the nose, dropping toward the sand.

Sand! The wave is so big that it’s sucked up all the water beneath it and all I can see is sand, and I’m heading straight towards it. But I stay on. I move like a cat, in three separate but fluid motions and I ride the fucking thing. Maybe from shore, it looks like a kook barely hanging on. It doesn’t matter to me, I’ve finally dropped in. As he paddles back out to the horizon on his second SUP he says “That was tight. Now keep paddling!”

I’ve always felt at home in the ocean, even though surfing is a relatively new passion of mine. When I’m wet I never seem to be anxious. The constant dialogue and all the worries that follow me throughout the day seem to stay on shore. But now, not only am I back on shore, I’m on a college campus.

I’m here trying to find some way to talk to somebody, to make a friend, but I never do. I walk from location to location like I’m watching the UNCW campus through a VR headset. I find my way to the study abroad fair, thinking that this must be some kind of sign. But I don’t talk to anybody and I don’t know what to say.

Later, I’m sitting on the porch of the ancient brick library and I’m on the phone with my big sister. I’m trying to express to her how disappointed I am in myself, how lost I feel after graduating college. Not knowing what to do next. Always feeling like I should be more than I am now. How after everything I’ve been through, you’d think I would be less shy.”

“This reminds me of something I was reading recently. What’s the most important step a man can take?”

“That’s easy, the first step.”

“No. It’s the next step.

“THIS WATER WILL FUCKING KILL YOU.”

We’re on the shore on Masonboro Island looking east. An ocean away is West Sahara, Africa. A straight line from us. Michael tells me he has a piece of fossilized vertebrae that must have come from a gazelle. He says people sometimes find megalodon teeth out here. I keep my eye out for the huge black triangles but I never find one.

We’re looking at the choppy surf in front of us and he says it again. “Yep, this water will kill you. It almost took this tourist and her kid a month ago. I was out on the jet-ski when I saw them heading out toward Africa. I picked the son up but had to kick his dumb mom in the chest to keep her off and from capsizing us. I took him to shore and had the Coast Guard go out and get her. Stupid.”

Normally, the Coast Guard won’t go anywhere near the island. He says this place is kind of a no-mans-land, which is great for the fourth of July. Apparently, it’s “crawling in babes.” But the downside is that if you get too drunk and cut your leg on a rock, you have to hop on your boat and get to the mainland before anyone can help you.

As cruel as it sounds, it makes sense. The surf on this side of the island is brutal. There’s almost no blue, just huge swells of white water, never resting. We’re standing on the huge stone jetty they’ve built to calm the waves on the other side of the island. Mainland appears just a stone’s throw away, but he assures me that it’s not.

He tells that he lost someone out here when he was in high school. A bunch of his friends got drunk and swam out to the island and back again. He says he was so tired when he got back he went straight to sleep. In the morning one of their friends was dead. They found his body pinned against the jetty a few weeks later.

Now we’re at Figure-Eight island. Apparently, Ophrah and Will Smith have houses here. The house from Weekend at Bernie’s is here. We’ve parked his boat in a small alcove between several mansions. Construction workers are roofing a house but they don’t look down at us. There are giant white cranes staring emotionlessly from the deck.

Standing up on a paddleboard is simple enough, but getting it to move is another beast entirely. When I remember what I’m told I do fine, but when I lose my focus and start to move out of habit I fall into the water.

And that’s when I realize that the way I’ve been surfing is the way I’ve been living my life. Trying to brute force my dreams into existence. Trying to fit square blocks into circle holes. Trying to punch an ocean.

It’s been two weeks now in North Carolina and it’s my final day at the ocean. I feel the same melancholy I tend to feel at the end of all of my adventures. Spain, Norway, Brazil, it’s always the same feeling. I’m not sad that it’s over, but I am sad that I didn’t do more. There is an adventurer inside of me, always waiting for the chance to do something crazy. But when the universe answers my prayers and hands me scary opportunities, I choke more times than I leap into the unknown.

But that’s why I keep writing these stories. To learn from that deep feeling of regret I feel as I stare at this new ocean. To remember that the universe won’t stop giving me opportunities to test myself and that it doesn’t help to regret, so all I can do is learn and get ready to go out again. But also to remember that there are infinite could-have-beens, and if I focus on them then I’ll live a life full of regret.

And that’s not why I travel. I travel to push myself, to learn, and live a life well lived. As I catch wave after wave I make a decision. I decide that instead of focusing on the fact that I didn’t make any friends my age while I was out here, I’m going to focus on how much better I got at surfing, and on the fact that I kept trying despite how terrified I was.

My uncle waves me in to talk to me. He tells me that I’m doing good, but he can tell that I’m bailing out early on each wave. I tell him that I can see the sand and I don’t want to break his fins again.

“Boy, would you stop worrying yourself to death? You only got thirty more minutes left in North Carolina before we have to get ready for your flight. Go have fun.” So I go back out into the chop and let a big one take me in. But I’m still a kook. I slip off my board and fall into the wave. It has its way with me but I eventually flop onto the shore. I look at the board laying there in the sand. Below the inscription that reads “Para Luke, El Pato” (For Luke, the Duck) the same fin has broken off again.

“Oh, Goddamnit! I didn’t want you to have that much fun!”

NOTE: All photos were taken by the lovely Sulani Lawley and edited by me. They were not taken in North Carolina but they are so great and I wanted to take the chance to brag on my friend.

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