Image: Surf camp, Costa Rica
Rob Howard
Katherine leads her fellow surfers through a mangrove forest en route to the beach.
updated 10/1/2008 1:25:14 PM ET 2008-10-01T17:25:14

I'm sitting on the side of a dirt road in a small surfing village in Costa Rica when I meet the Oracle of Beach Town. He's your stereotypical surfer dude, shuffling by in baggy board shorts and an untucked madras shirt, his beard bleached blond by the sun. I'm pale and encased in an industrial-strength tankini, my nose deep in a book on surfing. It's true, most people don't learn to surf by reading, but my first lesson has left me crabby—you try to jump from a prone position to a regal stance on a moving wave. In anticipation of my afternoon tutorial, I've decided to pick up a few pointers.

The Oracle squints at me and then shakes his head.

"You should work on not being so stressed out," he says in tones of blissed-out benediction. "You look really stressed."

As he ambles on, I have to admit he's right. I'm in this tiny, unpaved town as part of a seven-day surf camp for women run by the Surf Divas, twin sisters Izzy and Coco Tihanyi, who founded an all-girls surf school in their hometown of La Jolla, Calif., in 1996. Four years ago, they added the camp in Costa Rica, picking a laid-back surfer's haven on the country's northwestern shore, about five hours from San José. To keep other surfers away, the Divas won't reveal the exact locale until you've plunked down a deposit. The motto at both camps is the same: The best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun.

That would be my pal Elaine Giffen. We're new friends, both daughters of the landlocked Midwest who lived in St. Paul at the same time but didn't meet until we discovered each other in a New York City boutique a few years ago. She's a purse designer who names her creations—which is how I acquired a handbag called Edith and a friend nicknamed Lainey. We each decided to leave the small pool of our former lives for the rougher waters of Manhattan in our 40s; after taking on the big waves of a midlife move, surf camp didn't seem like much of a stretch.

What I never knew about my good friend Lainey was that she had a secret crush on Laird Hamilton, billed as the world's best big-wave surfer. One day, she was watching TV at my house when she saw him tackling a 60-foot wave. "That's more insane than climbing Everest," she said. "I wish I could do that." So when I mentioned surf camp, her immediate response was, "Holy smokes, let's go!"

That's why Lainey's in Costa Rica. I'm here because of the same recurring impulse that recently led me to a hike in Machu Picchu and a boat trip down the Nile: The older I get, the more I don't want to miss a single adventure. No wonder I look stressed.

CEOs, moms, and lawyers on surfboards
Even before we arrive at camp, I know how the week will go. Lainey will ride the waves like a goddess, and I'll pick seashells out of my swimsuit and worry about stepping on a stingray. When we show up for our first lesson, I learn that there's something else to fear—becoming a kook.

A kook is a beginner so hapless that she puts her leash on the wrong foot and hits her head on her own surfboard. Rather than carry it, a kook drags her surfboard along, using her leash as if she's towing a wagon. This is the surf gospel according to Christy Baker. The 24-year-old head instructor of the camp gathers our group of seven for breakfast at an open-air restaurant, which serves as camp headquarters.

"You don't want to be a kook!" she says, as I glance around to see if anyone else feels the onset of kook-dom.

It's safe to say that Christy lives to surf. She taught herself to get up on a board at the age of 10, practicing for hours off the coast of Rhode Island. When it came time for college, she chose San Diego—in part for the waves. Surfing has since taken her to Fiji, Australia, Mexico, and now Costa Rica.

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Christy's second in command is Jennifer Sadoski, 37, another self-taught surfer, who's getting ready to leave her job at the San Diego Zoo to become a veterinary assistant in San Francisco. She usually teaches at the Stateside surf camp. Of her two jobs, working with people is harder, she jokes, because "animals don't talk back."

Our collection of campers makes for an eclectic menagerie of single women, ranging in age from twentysomething to fortysomething (that would be Lainey and me). And we all have different goals. Paloma Nunziata, 32, is a social worker who's surfed before but wants to learn to ride the larger waves farther offshore. Christina Waters, 42, has taken lessons in San Diego, where she just quit her job as the head of a pharmaceutical firm to go back to school. Caryn O'Mara, 34, is a hedge-fund research coordinator who makes us laugh when she confesses that she hates sand—"it gets into everything"—but has a list of life goals that includes surfing. I'm instantly fond of Lori Lang, 26, who grew up in the surf capital of Huntington Beach, Calif., but never got around to trying it, and we quickly find that we have to carry our boards together because we're too short to handle them by ourselves. Last—but certainly not least—there's Nicole Skalla, an adventuresome attorney who just turned 30; her last endeavor was white-water rafting in Patagonia.

More than a few of us are accustomed to telling people what to do, but Christy knows a thing or two about instructing women who might have, uh, control issues. "We get CEOs, moms, and lawyers who are used to being in charge," she says. "For them, letting go for a week is a big deal."

Letting go—that is, learning how to fall off a board properly—turns out to be one of our first lessons. On land, Jennifer mimes throwing her hands and legs out, to keep the leash away from the board. "If you wipe out," Christy says, "keep a hand over your head to minimize the chance of injury as you surface." Jennifer adds, "Should you get panicky, just follow the bubbles—they always go up."

"What about stingrays?" I ask. I know Lainey is still smiling from the night before, when I stopped short in front of a sign reminding people to use the "stingray shuffle," the toe-dragging walk that warns the critters off.

"Do the shuffle," Christy says. "But, really, don't obsess over it."

And that's when I feel like a kook; I have been obsessing. After class, I can't help but notice that the forest we walk through on the way to the beach has a cemetery, with English names on the gravestones. Probably former students, I think.

Poppin' up is hard to do
Our instructors have us lying stomach-down on the sand, practicing our pop-ups. This is surfing terminology for the single, fluid motion in which you push your feet up under your body and jump to a standing position, your feet spread apart in a relaxed stance not unlike a yoga pose. Except that most of us don't practice downward dogs on a moving wave.

We start out on the white water, which is actually the name for the gentler waves close to shore. Christy and Jennifer take turns guiding each of us on our boards. When it's Lainey's turn, Christy stands behind her, the board pointed toward shore.

"When I tell you to pop up, you pop up," Christy says. "When I tell you to paddle faster, then paddle faster."

Lainey hears the wave coming and settles herself on the board.

"OK, go!" Christy yells. "Paddle, paddle, paddle. Pop up!"

I watch as Lainey unfurls into a surfer, her posture erect as she sails into shore, exactly as I predicted.

What I didn't predict is that I'd forget about stingrays and, instead, become addicted to taking on the waves. By our second lesson, I muddle a pop-up and land on my knees. I feel transported by the way the water carries me to shore. When I wipe out, all I can think is: Let's do this again, and again, and again.

The days click by, a continuous loop of breakfast surf lessons and afternoon surf sessions, punctuated by yoga classes and horseback rides along the beach. And if you're wondering who the alpha female really is at surf camp, it's the ocean: By the end of day one, we've temporarily lost Nicole to a back injury. By the end of the week, we're all comparing bruises, scratches, and rashes. I consider the gash on my inner thigh a badge of honor, and we're all sore from our hours and hours in the water. I also realize that I haven't picked up my book in days. In fact, most of my usual habits—the daily to-do list, the cell phone calls and text messages—have vanished. I'm more interested in hearing how Lainey was given props by a blond and muscular twentysomething surfer dude.

During one of our early-morning surf sessions, she was just about to drop in on a wave when she looked up to see that he had snaked, or grabbed her wave. They both wiped out, and as they surfaced, he shouted, "Dude! Sorry to take your wave. That was totally your wave!" This story is later recounted at brunch, and as I look up and down the table, I see a group of wet, happy women. I can't really tell you about their politics, religious beliefs, or love lives, but I feel like I know them and count them as friends. If you're looking for a recipe for instant girlfriends, surf camp is the answer. After all, you just need to add water.

The oracle speaks again
On our last day, Christy asks if I want to try to reach the larger waves farther offshore. I've been so busy just trying to perform a pop-up that I'm actually a little envious of all the paddling the other women have done in their attempts to get to that placid zone, the one where you sit and just wait for waves. But each time I paddle out, I'm pummeled by a set of high waves that push me back. This time, I want to avoid hitting that impact zone. Christy calls it "getting Maytagged," because you swirl around like clothes in a washing machine.

Before I know it, I make the mistake of looking away one second too long and—bam!—I'm lifted up and then submerged under the water. When I surface, Christy gives me a rueful smile.

"The ocean won that one," she says.

I'm the winner, I want to tell her. Even the Oracle thinks so. The next time I see him, he's sitting at a bar, in the same zone of heavy-lidded calm. I march over and present myself.

"So do I look stressed out now?" I ask.

He recognizes me and laughs. "No, you don't," he says, leaning over to kiss me on the cheek.

Lanpher is the author of the memoir, "Leap Days: Chronicles of a Midlife Move".


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