“Desperate” describes my first effort to stay afloat in the FlowRider, a wave machine at the water park of the Radisson.
My instructor, a bearded big kahuna named Nick Hernandez, is calling directives. I can’t hear him well because of the churning roar all around me. “... your elbows,” I think he is saying. “Don’t bend your feet.” Or maybe, “Bend your feet.”
Ultimately, I do little right. I am flipped into the rushing current and sent hurtling back up an incline. There I wash ashore, a skinny, white piece of driftwood.
Whatever drove me to such saturated madness? Then I remember: the yearnings of youth.
When I was a sophomore in high school, a new student showed up one day, a transfer from Huntington Beach, Calif. In my mind, anyone from a town with “beach” in its name had to be cool. And Steve McArthur was cool. A curtain of blond hair fell across his face, and he wore Hawaiian shirts in the dead of winter. Rumor had it he knew a Beach Boy.
What is it about surfing that grabs people who don’t live near the ocean? Is it that we can only dream of doing it? To that end I admit reading anything written about Laird Hamilton. He may be the coolest alpha dog in the pound. He’s married to a drop-dead dazzling model / volleyball star, and his vocation is apparently to ride waves as tall as five-story buildings.
Until a week and a half ago, I had never tried surfing. I had bodyboarded a couple of times while vacationing near the Pacific Ocean, and my memory is of gentle swells and lots of seaweed.
Earlier this summer I heard someone mention that the Radisson has a water park that includes a surfing venue. Not outside, mind you, but indoors. I also heard the hotel operates a surf school.
I called the Radisson and was transferred to the water park. I told a young woman named Angel that I wanted to sign up for surf school.
“Awesome,” she said.
I asked Angel what the busiest day was because I wanted to be around other students. Angel recommended Saturday mornings.
“Put me down for this Saturday,” I said.
]photo]Surf school at the Radisson begins at 9 a.m. before the water park opens. I awoke excited—until I turned on the radio and caught an update on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son. He’s the boy who was seriously injured bodyboarding in California. I reminded myself I would be surfing in tranquil, indoor waters. There would be no seaweed, I was fairly certain. Besides, it was hot as hell outside. Didn’t I want to be cool?
The Radisson’s water park is a massive building that holds not only a surfing area but several play pools, waterslides and a winding pleasantry known as a lazy river.
The surfing room, and it is a room, contains a tank measuring about 15 yards by 10 yards. Hernandez informs me that I will be the only one in surf school this morning.
“But I was told there would be a bunch of people.”
He shrugs. “I think a lot of people who don’t know about this aren’t coming.”
An image of the Schwarzenegger kid flashes across my brain.
“Sign right here,” Hernandez says, “and here and here.”
The FlowRider is a device that recycles thousands of gallons of sheet waves and sends them down an incline and back up at 30 mph. Wave Loch Inc., headquartered in La Jolla, Calif., installed the first FlowRider in Texas in 1991. There are now more than 100 around the world, including some on cruise ships. The Radisson’s FlowRider opened March 12, 2010.
Hernandez, I learn, has never surfed in an ocean. He grew up in Socorro. He was taught to surf indoors by a team from Wave Loch. He goes to UNM, where he studies psychology and says he wants to work with PTSD sufferers. I hope I am not among them.
“What do you want to do first?” he asks. “Surf or bodyboard?”
I study the incline. It stands perhaps 5 feet high.
“It’s pretty safe,” he says.
“Well, no one has drowned here that I know of.”
I tell him I’d like to warm up with a bodyboard. “I’ve done that,” I say. “I’m decent at it.”
Hernandez nods. He’s clearly heard such words before. “Listen,” he says, “all we’re really doing here is hydroplaning.”
The moment I hit the water I discover the FlowRider produces waves a lot stronger than any I encountered in the Pacific. The power of the machine surprises the crap out of me.
I go down, hydroflaming.
When I pick myself up at the back wall of the FlowRider, Hernandez is there to meet me. “This is a lot harder than it looks,” I tell him, struggling to catch my breath.
“It’s a lot simpler than it seems,” he says.
After two more tries—neither of them photo-op worthy—he has me attempt a turn on my body board.
That’s when my swimsuit malfunctions.
The suit doesn’t rip or tear; it comes off. Sucked completely from my body by the heavy jets of water. Suddenly I am glad to be the only student at surf school.
“That happens,” Hernandez says laughing. “Want another suit?”
No, I think, I usually hang 10 naked. “If you have one, please.”
He brings me spare lifeguard trunks. I tie so many knots in the drawstring a tsunami can’t remove it.
He says it’s time for me to kneel on my bodyboard.
The first time I try this, I am halfway up on my knees and thinking, Piece of cake. That’s when the board leaves me in its wake. Flung backward up the incline, I gulp water and stub my toe before being deposited.
“We’re going to bodysurf now,” Hernandez says, as if I’ve earned the honor.
Bodysurfing? That sounds doable. No board, no problems.
“Lie flat,” he says, “and shove the board forward, away from you. As you do that, raise your arms up. Got it?”
Had it, for a nanosecond.
Back up the hill I pinwheel, flotsam in a frenzy of foam.
Hernandez pulls me from this reverie by telling me to follow him to the front of the FlowRider. He has me stand on a narrow piece of hard Styrofoam. Marc Montoya, another lifeguard, holds my surfboard steady. Hernandez takes a thick rope and hands one end to me. He holds the other end. The plan is to ease me out into the FlowRider. Supposedly I will get the feeling of surfing by holding the rope. When I am stable enough, I will let go of the rope.
“Remember,” Hernandez says, “keep all your weight on your back foot. If you go down, tuck in your chin.”
“Ever have whiplash?”
I am at an age when I occasionally forget things. This time I forget everything.
I don’t put my weight on my back foot and I don’t tuck in my chin. The result is about seven seconds of chaos. Flopping backward, I clunk my head. By clutching the rope like a lifeline, I wrench my left shoulder.
Surf school? I belong in smurf school.
After I pack up my belongings, I thank Hernandez and return the swimsuit, which takes me 10 minutes to unknot.
Back home later that day, I Google “death by FlowRider.” I can find no evidence of a fatality. However, I do find lawsuits filed against Wave Loch for injuries. Many of those legal actions seem to come from people traveling on cruise ships. Pity the poor cruisers. They either get thrown overboard in some drunken sex romp, or they throw out their backs on a FlowRider.
I had asked Hernandez if I was the worst surfer he had ever seen. He paused and stroked his beard.
That pause worried me.
“No, no,” he said finally. Then this: “You’re gonna be sore tomorrow.”
But I’ll be alive.