Everything I Know About Dating I Learned From Surfing

Watching for Waves

Photo by Kit Haselden

As a kid, I used to watch the surfers riding the curls on the other side of the checkered flag with such envy; they made it seem so effortless. These days I look at my friends in long-term relationships with the same jealousy. Yet, ask a skilled surfer to teach you to surf or a blissful couple how to date, and their instructions tend to be vague and unhelpful. They started young and have been at it for so long, they don’t really think about what they are doing, they just do it.

Having started surfing in my early 20s and dating in my late 20s, I’ve really had to concentrate on the learning process of these two challenging activities. The processes of going from that first date to being in a bona fide relationship and going from catching that first wave to being recognized as a surfer have a lot in common.

Learning with Another Rookie

The first time I attempted surfing, my older brother borrowed his friend’s longboard, and we spent the day taking turns out on the waves. I watched him keel over, he watched me take multiple nose dives, and at the end of the day I wasn’t any closer to learning to surf than I had been at the beginning.

My first relationship attempt was similar.

My long-time guy friend made Steve Carell’s “40-year-old Virgin” look like Casanova. He loved the idea of dating another novice; it gave him a sense of security. Unfortunately, a month into it, I felt I needed more excitement in a relationship. I hadn’t learned yet that excitement isn’t exactly one of the key elements of a successful relationship. Communication is. At that early stage, neither of us communicated our desires, worries or goals very well. Although learning with another rookie wasn’t my style, I’ve witnessed it work for many others who cherish their first loves for the experience.

The More the Merrier?

When I finally bought my own board, I got so eager to learn, I’d try to catch every wave I could, no matter how weak or small, just to get the practice in. Sometimes, I’d exhaust myself attempting to surf a wave only to find myself standing up in six inches of water. Then, when the really good waves came along, I’d either be stuck with my fin in the sand, or my arms would be too tired from all the extraneous paddling to pop up. The more waves I rode, I justified, the better I’d get.

This “the-more-the-merrier” approach isn’t unlike one of my guy friend’s recent approach to dating. After what he explains has been years of being seen as a friend rather than a lover, he’s determined to gain confidence and raise his sexual appeal by dating and bedding as many women as possible. On a recent night at the club, he went home with four women’s phone numbers and followed up with every one of the women. Each experience, he says, boosts his social and sexual confidence, but I wonder:  Surfing the bubbling white foam of 100 waves after they’ve broken never prepared me for dropping in on a five-foot wave as it was breaking. So, if my friend’s goal is to have the confidence to win the heart of the woman he chooses, how well does jumping from one woman to another prepare him for a long-term relationship?

Waiting for the Perfect Wave

Some beginning surfers take the opposite approach to surfing. They paddle out past the breakers to where the experienced surfers lounge on their boards to wait for the perfect wave. They wait and wait and wait. Finally, when they sight that choice rise of water on the horizon, they turn their boards and begin to paddle. The wave lifts them. It’s now or never. The wave breaks. Whoosh! They find themselves under a four-foot wall of water flailing for the surface.

The first time I fell in love left me feeling just as helpless. Brainwashed by fairy tales to expect that when two people fall in love, they are bound to live happily ever after, I didn’t realize that patience wasn’t just required while waiting for “the one” to come along; it’s also a huge factor in developing a relationship. Since I’d never attempted to turn dating into something more meaningful, I didn’t know how to do it. If I’d had more practice with less at stake, I might have had more success.

Riding it out

One of the toughest lessons I’ve striven to master both surfing and dating is discernment. An essential step in improving wave-riding skills is deciphering which surges of water are worth the effort and which I should paddle over. As a beginner, I would start to paddle out on a wave, hesitate because it was too weak or big or slow or the timing was off.

When I look for reasons to fail, I find them. In my dating life, I was so busy trying to foresee whether I was “meant to be” with that particular guy, I never really gave the romance a chance. So, along with discovering that successful relationships take practice, patience and communication, I’ve also found that even when I’m not in a committed relationship I can still benefit by riding it out to see where it takes me.

The beauty and challenge of surfing is facing a new ocean every day. A new surf spot, a different tide, low winds or high winds, strong currents, flat water or giant curling beasts – each time I take out one of my boards, the experience is thrilling and novel. The same is true for dating and relationships, but the real phenomenon is that each time I’m bringing a new element and strength to the experience too.

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