The tide and wave conditions at the end of the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk haven't satisfied Zabowski on this day, so he has taken my daughter and me a couple of miles away to the wide, empty ocean beaches of the oddly named Gordon's Pond Wildlife Area, which is within Cape Henlopen State Park. I'm happy we've deserted the crowded boardwalk area, where hordes of sunburned tourists would likely be rushing from beneath their umbrellas to watch. In fact, the only spectators of my travails are a family of Brits who've just completed their lesson for the day. The family, including two children, discovered the school the first year it opened, four summers ago, and have returned every year since on their annual visit to family in Washington.
Even so, I would rather there be no witnesses and am glad the family gets bored seeing the gawky popping of a middle-aged body squeezed into what is basically a black girdle stretching neck to toe.
I'd suggest you practice popping up in the privacy of your own home for a few days before testing that ability in public and on the open sea, when the little bit of fiberglass floor beneath your feet is moving every which way.
I enjoy the paddling out part, bobbing over the waves. Really, my first time out I'd just be happy to paddle and bob. But Zabowski is waiting, chest-deep in water. The ratio of students to teacher is 2-to-1, and it's my turn. (I've let my 11-year-old go first. Since she has survived, I'm ready.) The three challenges of surfing are picking the right wave, perfectly timing the moment to take it and popping up. For beginners, Zabowski takes care of the first two. While you lie on the board and face the beach, he holds the end of the board until the right wave comes. When it does, he shouts "paddle hard." By the time you've taken about two strokes he shouts "ready," at which point you tense and grab the sides of the board. Then comes the "pop up" command.
The first few times I mean to pop. In my mind I'm popping, but my body remains stiff and prone. After a few more tries, I make it to my knees. I enjoy the knee ride so immensely I'd be satisfied with that.
But Zabowski clearly believes I can do this, and as all wonderful teachers do, he makes me believe it. Endlessly patient, he figures out that while I'm properly gripping the sides of the board during the ready phase, I fail to let go when it's time to pop. You can test this at home: It's hard to stand if you keep your hands nailed to the floor.
He adjusts the technique so that on the split-second ready phase, I place my hands flat on the top of the board, instead of gripping its sides.
This is not a magic solution, but a big help. I try again and again, and soon understand why surfers have such great bodies. Battling the waves with an eight-foot board is no easy task, to say nothing of the constant popping and falling.
"People think a two-hour lesson is no time at all, until they get out here," says Zabowski. "After two hours, though, they're exhausted."
Working out in a gym doesn't prepare you for surfing, he says. Swimming helps, but doesn't work all the muscles you use to surf. "You just have to get out here and do it."