Written by Nikki Engel.
Photographs used with permission from Cole Curtis & Nikki Engel.
“Crispy” is the terminology that I would use, at the end of the day in the life of a Surf Instructor. Salty hair, sunburns layered under soggy pruned skin and water logged ear drums.
I start the day with a downhill skate to the boardwalk. Music playing in my headphones and the ocean waves crash to my right. I stop at my “office”. Two red tents with a Pacific Surf School sign propped up in the sand. I kick up my skateboard, take off my shoes and hop over the cement and sand dividing wall. Music still blasting in my ears, I take just one of the earbuds out, to slowly awaken myself to reality. Half asleep and looking out towards the waves, I hear “Nikki, this is your 9 o’clock lesson.”
Today, it’s a 15 year old boy from Mexico City, who I had taught his first lesson the day before. He killed it. In a good way. I decided to take him out past the break where outside sets would give him a bit of a challenge. We surfed for a solid hour & a half. Instructing him which waves to paddle for, or not, the dynamics of surfing and occasionally paddling into a wave or two of my own. At the end we dragged our 9′ boards across the sand from where the current had pulled us, and dropped them at our feet. I gave him a high-five and told him I’ll see him tomorrow for his last lesson.
During down time instructors huddle under the tents to get 30 minutes of shade before teaching the next round of students. The traditional lunch is a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or two. Unintentional communal water bottle sharing is a daily routine. If you bring the biggest canteen expect it to be passed around.
Taking a break, I lay face down in the warm sand in a freshly salted, wet bikini to close my eyes. Soon after, I’m awoken by a loud fart near my face, sounding as if a duck were stuck inside of my co-workers wetsuit. Letting one more loose, he finishes checking his phone and nonchalantly walks away. Just another norm, in the life of a surf instructor.
With just 5 minutes remaining, we all inhale the last of our lunches, guzzle down some water and excessively lather up on the sunscreen. 11 o’clock and its Go Time! Size them, suit them and over the the “Land Lesson” we go.
Everyone has their own quirky spin on teaching a “Land Lesson.” While focusing on telling my own, I can’t help but over hear my fellow co-workers explaining certain repetitive phrases like: “Finding that sweet spot” or “Nose diving, also called Pearling”. I finish off my spiel with a round of enthusiastic high fives followed by a “yew!”, the internationally shared term by surfers expressing their stoke.
This time I have a “semi-private”, a group of 3 teens, one from Maine and the others from Canada. I have them strap leashes to ankles and we head out into the creeping high tide. Fighting the longshore rip current I move from one student to the next. Telling each eager teen to hop on the board as I scope out the best waves to push them into. They’re all popping up on their own half way through the lesson and I feel accomplished by my teaching abilities.
Walking back after rinsing off their no longer sandy but still salty ocean soaked wetsuits, they all run over to tip me with wads of one dollar bills in their hands. They smile and thank me for a good time. I take the cash and stuff it in my bikini top & finish lugging three wetsuits back to hang up for the next group.
Another 30 minute break to burn. I grab my skateboard & cruise the boardwalk to grab myself an acai bowl. Skating barefoot, in my bikini, I hang a left downhill from the beach. Cottages lined up on both sides of me. I cross Mission Blvd. with my eye on the prize, Juice Wave. I enter the beach hut and order from the cute ladies who greet me with, “Hello, sunshine!” My gluten-free granola topped acai bowl is ready in no time. I sit outside to enjoy.
Before I know it’s time to head back to base camp. Two lessons down. Two to go. The tent is surrounded by tourists and eager future surfers signing in for their lesson. I laugh at overheard conversations, “Man, my nips are raw from that foam board” and “Pass the vaseline, I’m starting to chaff from this wetsuit.” There is a white board resting in the sand indicating who I’ll be teaching next. She’s a young woman teaching english to children in the Middle East. We talk the differences between there and her hometown of LA.
Walking into the water I watched her cautiously fight the white wash rolling straight for us. One wave after the other, with the occasional one knocking her straight off of her feet. Finally reaching the sand bar, I help her turn the board around with the nose facing the shore line. Struggling to hop on the board, I hold the rocking foamie to keep her from toppling over. I turn around to see the crumbling white wash coming our way and give her one solid push into the crashing wave.
It only took a split second to realize what I had done terribly wrong. The leash attaching her ankle to the surfboard had wrapped around my calf. I was captured. With her being twice my size it didn’t take but much for the leash to quickly tighten as the wave took her and pulled me with it. It felt as if my calf muscles and ligaments were going to rip in half. Even after the pulling ceased, the excruciating pain continued as I held back tears by cursing under my breath. The look on my face must have been blatantly obvious that I was hurt. She asked if I was okay. I tried to put on my best fake smile and said, in a unusually high pitched squeaky voice, “Ya, I’m fine!” I struggled through the rest of the lesson. 90 minutes seemed like a lifetime. Looking down at my watch, it finally read 2:25 PM. Time to go in.
My 2:30 lesson was waiting for me on the sand, practicing her balance on our Indo board. She was a tan, blonde and enthusiastic 5 year old. Kids are secretly my favorite lessons to teach because they always have fun! Full of energy and spirit she told me her Hawaiian inspired name and we slapped a sandy high five.
She lasted about 15 minutes in the ocean, then asked if we could take a break. A break turned into the entire lesson of us playing on the sand and running into the crashing waves. We built sand castles and raced each other, letting her win every time she had a smile from ear to ear. I told her she was my new mermaid friend as she looked into my eyes and giggled. Throwing her on my shoulders and spinning her around into the ocean she persistented in asking “Can we do that again?!” Sand fights, summersaults and naming sand crabs was the end of our time together.
At 4:15pm it’s time to pack away our portable office. Prop each surfboard up. Sweep off the sand. Wrap each leash around the fin. We back up the van to the curb and work as an assembly line passing one board after the other. We load up 28 foam boards. Then hang up the wetsuits in our blue painted, milk truck/surf van. We end each day with a picture of the instructors and the surfboard packed van, proving to our boss that our job has been fulfilled. We are exhausted and sun fried. We all say goodbyes with a casual “later” or a lethargic thrown up peace sign, knowing we’ll all be seeing each other tomorrow.
Headphones back in my ears and I skate into the sunset for home, with just enough energy to eat some grub and maybe watch a movie. Lacking all motivation but to fall into bed and leaving my sand covered sheets as is. “Consider it exfoliation”, I tell myself as I doze off into a sandy, salty dreamland.