Story & Photos by Meredith McEntee
My legs drape over the sides of the board, body restful and waiting in warm waters. At the 11th parallel north, I look out at the Pacific Ocean, eyes scanning for dark lines on the horizon. It’s calm now, but the sets are coming.
I learned to surf barely six months ago, on those warm-ish summer days on the Oregon coast. There the waves are rough and freezing and they teach you to mind your ego. But with some coaching (from the ocean and friends) you take each wave in stride, one paddle at a time, and enjoy the immersive beauty around you. This kind of adventure had it all—the thrill, the challenge, the opportunity—and I was instantly hooked. I bought a used board after that first time out, pumped to practice.
Not long after that and before I knew what I was doing, I had booked a ticket to Nicaragua with a bunch of strangers on an All Good expedition to kick it in the surf for a few days. And why not? I had no ambitious goals in surfing—I wasn’t delusional. Just grateful for an opportunity to spend more time in the water and on a board. I was a beginner with the bug.
So this past December, in the intimate cove of Playa Maderas, Nicaragua I found my home for the week. The small shorefront was sprinkled with relaxed beach bars jockeying for position. Scores of palm fronds added the classic tropical touch. A low cliff protected the cove to the south and, to the north, a shark fin-like monolith sat off the coast. The ocean horizon went on and on.
I met my eight new (mostly) skater-folk comrades there and we dove into the itinerary of surf and sand. That first day we selected our boards. My trusted steed for the week was an 8’10 triple fin longboard decked out in rasta-colored stripes. I felt my cool factor bump up a few points.
Each morning we would come to the beach by way of an it’s-too-early-for-this-shit mini mountain trek, our surfboards in tow. We’d start with yoga to limber up our novice surfing muscles. Alex gracefully led us in down dog, cobra, plank. Then we pried ourselves off our mats as the tide came up. We strapped on our leashes to hit the water, feeling fresh and excited. It was time to surf.
Since I was still learning the motions of the sport, I took cues from the more experienced surfers around me. Jason seemed to know what he was doing. Ben, too. I felt no need to be competitive, but was intent on learning as much as I could. All of us were in it for the fun. Board at my side in waist-deep water, I sloshed through the whitewash, then paddled out just past the break. Our crew spread out like a game of Red Rover, welcoming, teasing the arriving waves. I sat up straight and scanned for my first wave. Which would it be?
A dark line appeared on the horizon and my heart fluttered in my chest. This one, maybe? I swung my board around 90 degrees in preparation and waited, watching the wave grow, trying to gage my position and timing. I turned another 90 degrees and laid prone, deciding to go for it. I paddled, digging in and checking the wave behind me. I popped up to my feet, but I was too early and the wave swallowed me whole. I launched sideways off my board and plunged into the surf.
Back at the break and taking a breather, I surveyed the scene around me. Hannah was riding off to the left, a huge smile on her face. Mark waited patiently and poised, eyes intent on his chosen oncoming wave. There was a friendly and eager buzz in the air, all surfers at play.
On the next wave I deemed suitable, I positioned myself and paddled hard. The wave was small, but speedy and I felt it slipping away. I paddled harder and, remembering some recent advice, I pushed my board down in front of me as a last-ditch effort, for a bit of oomph. My board—and me along with it—locked into the wave and accelerated, as if I had dropped onto a submerged conveyor belt. I popped to my feet before I could fall again and centered my weight, surprised that I was staying upright. It worked?? Woooo!! I stayed low and headed straight for shore. It was a kook move, but that was plenty fun. My body and spirit were riding high.
The week’s surf sessions churned with moments like these. You miss a wave, you catch one, you catch part of another, you take a break. Surfing is this wonderful and frustrating mix of stops and starts. I struggled most often with reading the waves. Is that the right one? Or is the one behind it better? It’s important to observe, then just give it a go. Forget about the looming water giants. How else will you learn?
When our arms wore out, we broke for tacos and ceviche and beer. I dozed on the beach. I read Barbarian Days. We hit the surf again. Repeat on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday... The sun barely showed its face that week, but that didn’t stop us. The rain came, and came again, but what’s the difference in surfing? You’re wet anyway.
When we weren’t surfing, our crew toured the town by quad and tore up neighboring beaches with donuts. We leapt off gritty rock cliffs and guzzled spirits aboard a catamaran. We rode as cargo into San Juan del Sur, bumping along dirt roads in the back of a pickup. We cozied up by a beach bonfire, more tacos in hand.
The final morning of our trip, I woke early and trekked up and over the big hill to the waves. I was the first in the ocean at low tide. I knew the conditions weren’t great, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be in the water and on my board, soaking up the last minutes of it all. The sun stretched through the clouds, the gentle waves rolled through, dolphins--no joke--swam nearby. It was lovely, just sitting there in the cove, but I eagerly waited for waves to come. A week on the western shores of Nicaragua had me begging for even more.