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Catching Life's Perfect Wave

  • Faiza Elmasry

Author Peter Heller says learning to surf taught him a valuable lesson about catching the perfect wave in life.

A 48-year-old man drops his 'real life' and heads for California to learn how to surf

Peter Heller was 48 when he decided to take up the sport of surfing.

What followed was a six-month odyssey of catching waves along the Pacific coast, during which Heller learned lessons not only about surfing, but about life.

For many years, adventure writer Peter Heller had nurtured a secret dream: to drop everything and go off to a tropical paradise and learn how to surf. When an old friend moved to Huntington Beach, California - a Pacific coast city nicknamed Surf City, USA - he realized it was time to live his dream.

"He found himself in a beach community and thought, 'Well, I might as well try to learn to surf,'" Heller says. "He asked me if I wanted to come out and learn with him. So, I said, 'Sure.'"

Surfer dude

The Denver resident bought a board and wetsuit, and embarked on a surfing journey from Southern California down the coast of Mexico. The results of that adventure are chronicled in his book, "Kook."

'Kook' by Peter Weller
'Kook' by Peter Weller

"Kook means the clueless beginner who paddles his surf board out to the other surfers in the lineup and starts chattering away like it's a cocktail party, completely ignores all the finely-tuned protocols of surf that have developed over decades," says Heller. "Gives a rebel yell and hoot when he does manage to stand up for a split second, drops in on people, collides with people."

But Heller says being that kook allowed him to learn about surfing and the ocean.

"Ocean. There isn't another word in the English Language as strange as lovely and broad," he writes in his book. "...If you look at it long enough, it is a word that opens and spreads out, makes a circle of a far horizon, a word on which rain can fall and dimple or sweep across in lashing gusts and leave unperturbed, a word that is calm enough to look at, almost lulling, but also hints at holding unreckonable power."

Learning how to surf cames at a high price. There are bruises, chipped teeth, sunburned ears, chafed ribs and stinging eyes. And sometimes, getting hit in the head with your surfboard. But in return, Heller's surfing adventure helped him learn a valuable lesson about catching the perfect wave in life.

"You have to totally commit," he says. "At the same time, you've kind of got to let go to a power that's way greater than you. You have to have faith that everything is going to work out. And it's about staying open to new experiences. That's the whole thing about being a kook, I mean, being willing to be a beginner, make a fool out of oneself once in a while."

Being on the ocean also taught Heller to be humble.

"You paddle out every morning and a sea turtle might be swimming around, birds diving around you, you might even see a shark fin or dolphins and you realize you're just one citizen among all these other species. You're not even the top predator out there. You know you could be food for somebody. I like that. I like finding a place in the world that's small, that's humble. That's the lesson I try to remind myself of every day; we have an equal vote with all these other species on this planet."

Heller's surfing adventure took him to the other side of the Pacific Ocean, where he became more aware of some serious environmental issues threatening the world's oceans.

"I had a call two months into it from the guys making the movie, "The Cove." It won an Oscar, Academy Award for documentary this year," he says. "They asked me to come with them into this cove in Taiji, Japan where they massacre dolphins and small whales. I paddled a surfboard into this inlet that was pink red with blood from these large dolphins, these pilot whales that were being piked. We formed like a surfer circle, held hands, sort of like a funeral ceremony for the departed dolphins."

The experience changed his perspective.

"I came back from that really shaken up. I started to think about how the oceans are having a hard time. Half our coral reefs are dead or dying. We've lost 90 percent of deep blue water, big game fish: the halibut, the tuna and the marlin that we all loved to eat. We've lost 90 percent of those since 1950. I began, as we surfed down the coast, to see where the resorts were put in. You could see from the fishermen's catches that their fish were really small, not like in the old days, not like even 20 years ago. You can't really take a surf trip in 2010 and not be aware of what's happening out there."

Author Peter Heller says he hopes the lessons he learned from surfing, and shares in his book, "Kook," will inspire people who enjoy summer activities on beaches around the world to stop, think and take action to save those oceans.