California Surfing on a Ventura Beach

When I told my husband that I was planning to take a surf lesson while on a press trip to Ventura, Calif., he stared at me as if I had been snatched by Martians. He weighed his words carefully: “How unlike you.” He really meant: “Who are you, and what have you done with my wife?”

Yes, surfing seems high on the athletic adventure scale—more the purview of well-muscled beach boys than wimpy, flabby writerly types. But I love the ocean, and I couldn’t think of anything more representative of the Ventura experience than to get on a board.

Professional surfer Mary Osborne gives private lessons and runs surf camps in Ventura, Calif. Photo courtesy Patagonia

Besides, I had low expectations. I pictured lying tummy-down on the board and flailing through a few swells.

Surfing Surprises

My instructor was Mary Osborne, a champion longboarder and tandem surfer who grew up on the beaches of Ventura. She’s a petite blonde who does surf modeling and won MTV’s “Surf Girls.” And she’s devoted to teaching women and kids to surf. She runs surf camps for people of all ages, sizes and abilities.

Mary is also the co-author of Sister Surfer: A Woman’s Guide to Surfing with Bliss and Courage (Lyons Press: 2005). It’s a how-to book that guides women through the process of learning to surf and covers everything from conquering fear to waxing a board.

The first step to learning to surf is practicing on the sand with Mary giving pointers.

First surprise: Mary explained to me and the other journalist who was taking a lesson that she was going to show us the new craze: stand-up paddling. In this sport, the surfer stands on a larger, wider surfboard and paddles to catch a wave. I’d never heard of stand-up paddling, but Mary assures us it will be an Olympic event someday.

Second surprise: As we women stood in the parking lot wriggling into cold, clammy, skin-tight wetsuits, I realized there’s a pretty un-glamorous side to surfing. If you’re going to surf much, you get used to changing clothes in public!

Then Mary pulled a board out of her pickup and balanced it atop her head with the posture of a ballet dancer. Once on the sand—we were at Surfer Point by Ventura Pier—she demonstrated how to lie on the board and bring yourself to standing. It starts like the Upward Dog pose in yoga and then you kick a leg back into a lunge and bring yourself erect. Hello core muscles!!

Practicing in the ocean

After we’d practiced that move on land, Mary demonstrated stand-up paddling on the water. She made it look easy, bouncing right up on the board to a standing position. As the board skimmed along the surface, she looked like she was walking on water while “sweeping” the ocean surface with a broom-like paddle.

I couldn’t imagine being able to achieve a vertical posture. Yet, I followed Mary into the ocean, and with her patient coaching, I hand-paddled myself while lying on the board (super fun as you glide over the swells!) and then managed to stand on my knees and cautiously paddled. It’s a real lesson in balance.

Ultimately, Mary convinced me I could even stand up on the board. I gave it my best shot—twice—but always plummeted into the sea when I got semi-erect. But here’s the thing: it was fun! Even falling was okay—sort of goofy as you flop unceremoniously into the water—although getting back on the board in deep water was challenging for me.

So, I had a blast trying to surf, and honestly, I can see how with an instructor like Mary and some practice, pretty much anybody could get the hang of surfing…and soon be hanging ten!

Save the Oceans

There’s an ecological angle to my surf lesson: Mary Osborne is just one of the many pro surfers who are becoming ocean ambassadors by helping the public become aware of the importance of preserving and protecting oceans and beaches. (One of Mary’s sponsors is outdoor gear company Patagonia, a leader in corporate sustainability.)

Surfer Mary Osborne is also passionate about preserving beaches. Photo by Ellen Barnes

Mary and other surfers know firsthand about polluted, contaminated oceans. They wade through debris that washes up on shorelines daily. And, shockingly, many surfers are infected with potentially life-threatening staph infections from the water. Storm and sewage runoff washes harmful bacteria right into the water for a brew that’s toxic to both humans and ocean animals.

(For more about preserving beaches and fighting runoff pollution, visit the nonprofit organization Surfrider.)

In addition, Mary is currently on a plastic-pollution research trip run by The 5 Gyres Institute to help raise awareness of the problem. Along with a team of researchers, she and fellow professional surfer, James Pribram, are sailing from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, South Africa, to explore the Atlantic plastic “gyre”: a rotating system of ocean currents where floating debris accumulates. This plastic garbage patch harms marine wildlife and potentially threatens human health. See the 5 Gyres blog for updates on the voyage of the research ship, “The Sea Dragon.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and ocean lover

P.S. I’m dying to hear about an un-characteristic adventure you’ve taken, dear reader. Tell me about it in a comment below…

23 thoughts on “California Surfing on a Ventura Beach

  1. Laurel,

    What grit you have, girl! And what fun. I’ve never surfed (can’t even swim–and I’m a Pisces, go figure). But my 72-year-old husband surfed in California in his teens. And they used wooden surfboards then!

    I love it that your instructor is connected to Patagonia. Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Couinard is one of my heros. (I’ve interviewed Tom Frost, who cofounded the company with him but left for other adventures. He’s a hero of mine, too.)

    When I was in Peru last February, we stopped for some meditation at a beach on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The beach was littered with plastic and other trash. Jorge Luis Delgado (the Peruvian shaman I was there to see) modeled beautiful behavior by beginning to collect some of the trash. All of us pitched in.

    Thanks for a delightful post.

    Melanie Mulhall

  2. I’ve heard of surfing groups organizing beach clean-up days. It’s truly sad that now any beach, even on a sacred lake like Titicaca is polluted. Too much disrespect for the land and ocean.

  3. Good for you for stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something daring and new! Although it sounds like you do that quite often. Very inspiring. Now what’s next? Sky diving?

    • Sky diving is absolutely NOT on my to-do list! I’m way too much of a nervous nellie to do that. I did go ziplining in Glenwood Springs a couple of months ago. Gosh…I think I sound adventurous… on paper!

    • Thanks! It’s really a joy to relive adventures and journeys all over again as I write articles and blog posts. (Especially because afterwards I know I survived!!!)

  4. Years ago. I had the same sense of wanting to be one with the ocean — or some such. I got my scuba certification, so instead of fancying myself skimming over the water, I learned to maneuver under its surface. I started writing for dive magazines, but was like Typhoid Mary. Every one I wrote for folded.

    Beach cleanup, and ocean cleanup, are challenges that are still to be met. The most littered beaches I’ve ever seen were on small Thai islands. On a sea kayaking trip some years back, I was the one who modeled responsible behavior by picking up a slew of plastic bottles, piling them above the tide line and extracting a promise from the guide that they’d load them on a skiff and dispose of them properly. I have no delusions that he kept his promise. I’m sure they stayed there until the rainy season when they washed back into beautiful Phang Nga Bay.

    • I would truly love to learn scuba diving, although I worry about not being able to clear my ears. However, I’m an avid snorkeler and I feel I see a lot that way.

      You bring up a good point about trash cleanup on outfitter excursions: Blue Sky Kayak which I took to the Channel Islands asked that we collect any floating garbage we spotted. And I’ve noticed a number of conscientious outfitters make a point of incorporating a few hours of beach/ocean/river/trail cleanup for all the groups they take into the wilderness. Definitely a better way to travel!

  5. Hey Laurel: You mean that’s not YOU in the photo! I think it’s fabulous that you tried this–surfing is one adventure I missed but always loved the “look” of it and thought it would be a blast. Did take up scuba and had some great adventures seeing underwater landscapes and creatures that really blew me away. You are definitely a candidate for reading Peter Heller’s new book KOOK: What Surfing taught me about love, life, and catching the perfect wave (Free Press 2010). You’d love it. You can read my review at

  6. Laurel, I still can’t picture stand-up paddling. Do you do it with your feet? an oar? Paddling out to catch a wave is REALLY hard as I learned in my ONE surfing lesson (nevermind standing up).

  7. Laurel, you daredevil, you! I’m reading Peter Heller’s book KOOK, about learning to surf, and you’d love it. Hoopdance tricks are my latest adventures outside the comfort zone, but I have zip-lining in my future.

  8. Wow…you took your first surfing lesson t one of my very favorite places in the world! I lived in Ventura for most of my adult life, and Surfer’s Point was one of my favorite places to relax and enjoy the ocean breezes. I never tried surfing, though I always loved to watch all the guys and gals who spent all their spare time paddling out near the pier and waiting to catch the perfect waves as they rolled in. I did spend alot of time there fishing off the pier, too, and fishing from the jetties. As I reiterate…Ventura is my favorite place in the world!

  9. Greeeeaaat post Laurel! So you tried paddle-boarding? I attempted that in Alaska with a mustang survival suit on. Fun! But a tad chilly when I dumped in the glacial drink.

  10. I loved this post. :) I’ve always been afraid to surf too…I can’t imagine I’d be very good but after reading this I might try it someday!

  11. OK, you got me, Laurel–now I want to try surfing! And I’ve never been remotely interested in it before. Though I do want to do at least one skydive (strapped to somebody who knows what they’re doing, of course). And I’m dying to zipline. My scariest moments have come during the unextreme sport of hiking–the mountain lion I glimpsed outside Monterey, CA; the nervous tule elk bull monopolizing the Point Reyes trail early one Thanksgiving morning during rutting season. Plenty of adventures out there even for us writer types!

  12. I admire your courage in trying something new. And you’ve inspired me to think about trying something that’s outside of my comfort zone, something less than skydiving but more exciting than walking.

    • The danger factor of the challenge shouldn’t be the measure of an activity’s value. Walking and hiking can be extremely exciting! I think what’s important is occasionally taking a step outside of our comfort zone. But it doesn’t have to petrify you! What counts is that you stretch your horizons a little, change your perspective and preserve your spirit of exploration and curiosity!

  13. Laurel,

    You are truly amazing and I had a blast teaching you! I hope you come back and there will be waves to ride.

    My expedition across the Atlantic Ocean was unbelievable in so many ways. It was challenging mentally and physically. I am truly shocked at what we saw in terms of plastic pollution. The entire way across the Atlantic (4,000 nautical miles) there was plastic pollution in every trawl we deployed. A trawl is a device that collect water samples. I would love to tell you more about it. If you are interested at all please let me know. The media has been portraying this so called “isle of trash” and it doesn’t exist. The real problem is the confetti-like plastic particles under the water. The story needs to be told properly. I hope to hear from you!

    Thank you again. Mary Xmas

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