Words Michèle Dams

I throw my board in the water, jump off the boat myself, grab my leash and paddle nervously from the channel towards the shoulder of the wave. It’s my first trip to the Mentawais, it’s the second day of the trip and it’s 7-11 feet SW swell, 18 second period. I am nervous. As I am paddling through anchored speedboats and charter boats I can feel the eyes of the passengers burning on me. Somehow I am attracting a lot of attention, more so than the boys that are paddling in front of me. Why are they looking at me? I check if I have my bikini bottom’s in place. Everything seems ok.
Once passed the onlookers, I approach the wave. There she is. Roaring over the reef. I call her The Beast. Before going on this trip I had watched endless videos of this wave. I thought it looked powerful but easy with a clear line and I was sure I was going to like it, being a perfect right hander, and I had ripped it apart and got barrelled many times in my vivid imagination where I surf like Steph and where my bikini bottoms stay in place no matter what. How hard can it be? Right?
My mouth drops open as a gigantic sets rolls through, a massive wall of water standing up and crashing down merciless on the reef. I see a rather courageous man paddling for the second wave, he just missed it but he was too late to pull back and the lip sent him down fishing for urchins. I am trying to see if his head pops up, but all I can see is half of his board rolling down the foam into the lagoon and a local kid waiting patiently onshore to collect the debris.
I swallow hard while my ego shrinks to the size of a peanut: Should I just paddle back to the boat and pretend I never paddled out in the first place? Should I just sit here in the channel pretending to be a cheerleader instead of a surfer? None of the ideas were appealing.
Meanwhile the courageous paddler had arrived safely to the channel, he didn’t seem to have a scratch and looked motivated to grab another board and go back out. Mustn’t be that bad then? I reckoned. I gather all the courage I have and paddle towards the peak and take my place in between the crowd. Not too far on the inside, not too far on the outside. There are about 40 guys out there. Every single one of them turns around and looks at me with a smirky ‘what the hell does a girl do out here’ smile on their face. I am the only woman.

It makes me feel more uncomfortable than I already was and I automatically paddle back a couple of meters towards the shoulder. Why though? Another set comes through, it’s gigantic by my standards and I see many surfers paddle, but few really paddling for it. I start to analyse where the wave breaks, how it bends and what about that sketchy inside section?!

I allow myself to sit back and look at a few more sets before even trying to paddle for a wave.

I decide to take a smaller one that breaks a bit more on the inside, if I screw it up I will be close to the channel for people to rescue me from drowning. There comes a wave, it bends straight towards me I have five guys telling me to go go goooooooo….and so I go. I airdrop, make it, then freeze as I didn’t think I would make it so I miss the section and get my head ripped off by the lip. It is a rather violent wipeout. I have no control over my body being pulled under and tumbled around…but it is really only a mere second and before I know it I am down the lagoon, board, leash and body intact.

I paddle back out.

Usually after my first wipe out, I feel more secure because knowing that I survived a hit, everything seems less complicated. But somehow, at this very instant, it has the reverse effect on me. I paddle back out with my tail between my legs.

The guys are smiling even more. Are they actually having fun at this? Do they actually want to see me struggle and get hurt?

I feel out of place. I try to paddle a few more waves, although I am obviously too far down the shoulder to be actually catching it. I just don’t really want to catch one do I? This is not how it went in my imagination.

The rest of the session I just stay on the shoulder watching the same five surfers catch all the waves and the same thirty five others paddling but not going for it, the exact same way I had paddled about six waves without wanting to go for it. A beauty of a wave starts to form on the horizon, you can just tell what a gem it is, a surfer close to me tries to paddle for it, he is in such a good position, and then when the wave is lifting him up and he should pop up on his feet, he pulls back his board, drops his head and screams a loud ‘fuuuck’ and paddles out, head down, defeated by the beast.

It was then that I saw my own reflection all over his face. The look of insecurity. The look of not believing in yourself. The look of feeling inferior. It was then that I knew who the real beast was.

I realised the people watching me as I jumped off the boat and paddled out, were giving me looks of amazement, looks of encouragement. The look of, ‘yeah, you go girl’ rather than staring at my butt. It was then that I realised that the guys at the peak were smiling at me cause they were happy to see a girl eager to charge a bigger wave rather than laughing at me.

It was then that I realised that when they told me to go, they really wanted me to catch a wave and enjoy myself rather than wanting me to fall flat on my face. If there was one person laughing at me, it was myself, the very own beast inside of me. The beast that held me back every time I tried to get out of my comfort zone.

I take a deep breath, say goodbye to the guys, paddle back to the boat and smile. I probably just took the biggest step forward in my surfing.

I am happy.