We have all experienced that heart-pounding moment when a huge wave sweeps us along in the ocean’s washing machine, leaving us both breathless and electrified with a mixture of adrenaline and fear pumping through our veins. Sandra Winkelmann told us her personal story – how she regained her trust in the sea after a deeply traumatic encounter. It is a story that reflects the deep emotions of surfers and water lovers, a reminder of the ocean’s captivating allure and its ability to both empower and humble us.
Back on the board
by Sandra Winkelmann
Starting at the beginning would be too far back. I start in the dark of the wave. Inside the turning tumbler that washes a mixture of sand and water into your nostrils while circling you like a teacup ride at Disney World. Your leash pulls your leg out of your hip socket, and your arms fight a useless battle against the power of the wave. Sounds like fun, right? Imagine running out of air, and your ear starts to beep at a high pitch, in sync with your rising panic. Traumatizing, more like.
Moments ago, it was all fun and laughter, and now you are being dragged through a horror show without air. The split second you struggle to get your head out of the water, a new wave crashes on you, and you’re in for a second and third ride. You fight, while feeling your strength fading. But somehow I made it, onto the board and to shore, beaten and broken.
A valley called fear
This is where I start. At the bottom of the valley called fear. A fear that holds you back from getting out or staying in the white water because it’s so much safer. And when you take up the courage to paddle out, the first bigger set breaks you again, and you swim ashore crying and weeping. I loved surfing. I loved the time on the board. I loved the ocean, although I could not understand that it didn’t love me back, and instead chose to push me around. It took a while for me to realize that it was not the ocean, but me. I had to rethink, to rewire my brain, starting to gain trust in myself and fight my way back into the waves.
I figured there would be only one option for me, and I turned back to the person who taught me to surf. He was not only my surf teacher but we had also become good friends over the years. With my scared little heart, I trusted that he would not let me down and, more importantly, pull me out of a heavy set. After discussing my plan, he suggested that he choose the days when we go out in the waves. This meant that we would have perfect conditions for my level of surfing, and the frustration would be moderate. Agreed! This allowed me to spend some days on the beach before getting in the waves. It gave me time to literally talk to the ocean, say hello and show that I was happy to be back. I could watch other surfers and study the waves and currents. It allowed me to feel a bit more prepared.
The first session
On the morning of my first session with Adri, I sat down and did a breathing exercise called box breath for 10 minutes. My heart was pumping hard, and I felt it calmed down after a few minutes. The endless replays of nasty wipeouts no longer occupied my mind. After I was finished, I was calm and open to whatever might come during this session. And no matter how I performed, I would be OK with it. The breathing took away all the pressure that I had placed on myself. For the first time, I allowed myself the option of failure. I made a deal with myself to simply try again without judging myself. On the beach, we sat down on the cool morning sand. I felt the sun warming the neoprene on my back. Adri showed me what was going on out there, which wave we would ride, the channel we would take to get out easily and pointed out where the current was. Best of all: the spot was empty! Nobody in the water…awesome!
Before I went in, I did some pop-ups in the sand. A good exercise to remind my legs and feet that this was not snowboarding but surfing. It involves a different stance, after all. And then the moment of truth: I paused in front of the sea, took a deep breath and told myself to face whatever comes and tackle this wretched fear. Adri remained with me, and cheesy as it sounds, he said the most important words for me at that moment: “you’re with me,” “you’re going to be alright,” “tell me whenever you don’t feel good.” Those are magic words. I had to find the courage within myself, but having someone watching my back was the safety belt that I needed on this ride.
Regaining the joy
And then we go in. I ride a white-water wave first, and immediately and doggedly Adri decides that we should go further out. I have to let the white-water rides behind me. I follow him in the channel and out to face my demons. And the ocean loves me. Adri helps me into my first waves, and I ride them with a flush of warm fuzzy happiness rolling over me. I feel the wave’s energy through the board in my feet, with the waves pushing me, carrying me, and finally losing power. Naturally I fall, but this time I come up laughing. Laughing about my nose dives and how goofy I plunge in. This nurtures my feeling of playing in the water and with the waves. It rises slowly but steadily, and I can have fun on the board again. Within these 90 minutes, the waves I ride push my confidence, and the ones I fail boost my joy.
My last wave is a belly ride to the shore because my arms are like jelly. But I roll off the board in the shallow water, and the remaining white-water wave washes me on the sand. Like a starfish, I lie on my back laughing. I shout over to Adri to have a look at me. His face is happy and all smiling. “Dude, I’m so proud of you,” he shouts. We high five and hug, laughing. Well done. I feel the shift in myself. The fear is not gone, but now a strong opponent has shown up: confidence and his sidekick joy. This was the best head start I could get. Tomorrow my muscles will hurt, but it’s totally worth it. I have a break the next day and return for a sunset session. The conditions are good, just a bit of frisky wind, and we have company in the water this time. Adri teaches me some techniques for my stance and how to get out most of the ride. The session further boosted pushed my confidence due to the progress that I’d made based on Adri’s advice. There’s no denying that I get a wash in a strong wave. It rolls me over, and sandy water shoots up my nose. But this time I don’t fight it, I let go. Seconds later, I come up and blow saltwater and sand out of my nose. I’m a little shaken, but I realize how I handled the situation, encouraging me back on the board. A deep breath, a swear word, and I paddle out again. I tend to sneak away and stay on the shoulder of the waves since I consider it safer, but Adri has a close eye on me. With a whistle beckoning me over, he ushers me back to the sweet spot.
During our last session before I head home, a friend of Adri joins us. We paddle out on a sunny and clear morning with icy cold water waking us. The waves pick up slowly. We’re the first ones in the water and have some rides all for ourselves. It’s a great last day for me. I’m so confident back on the board that I even start to clown around. I’ll never look as sexy and cool on the board as other girls, so I might ride this unique flex of mine and make fun of myself. The ocean gives me a last hug and then pushes me back ashore.
On my flight home, I recapture this trip. What helped me the most, and how can I keep this confidence for my next trips? Overall it was a combination of things. Most importantly, my friend Adri, who has my back and always respects my limits. He was also always there to push me and pull through. It was also important for me to be gentle with myself, giving myself time, and allowing myself to fail. Failure would be totally OK and nothing to be scared or ashamed of. No expectations except to show up and try. That was the core of everything, and everything else built up onto that base and was a perfect combination of breathing, slow pace and a very dedicated friend who helped me back on the board.
Sandra Winkelmann is digital artist based in Berlin. Her passions are stories and pictures in any form. She also has her own podcast about women in the media industry. Check her website and podcast out here.