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…

Ventura: California’s Authentic Beach Town

A quintessential California surf town, Ventura has a laid-back vibe and down-to-earth soul that some people say feels more like “authentic” California.

Chic boutique in Ventura, Calif.

Ventura’s got far less glitz—and lower prices—than Los Angeles, directly to the south. And with a population of just 100,000, it’s easy to navigate and retains a smaller town feel.

I loved its architecture, its outdoorsy atmosphere with emphasis on sustainability (eco-company Patagonia is headquartered here), and its downtown, which has a lot of character.

Here’s a tour of some in-town spots.

Ventura’s revitalized Downtown Historic District is packed with boutiques, coffee houses, wine bars, and restaurants. The town is famous for its thrift shops, vintage bookstores and antique shops.

Get your surfer gear here!

The lettering on the window of the Hawaiian Shirt Shop, “Open daily unless surfing” says it all. The shop was closed when I was there. Could the shopkeepers be out hanging ten?

The San Buenaventura Mission (Ventura’s official name is “Buenaventura,” which means “good luck” in Spanish) was founded in 1782 by Father Junipero Serra, the last of the historic California missions.

The San Buenaventura Mission in downtown Ventura

A statue of Father Junipero Serra stands in front of the stately Buenaventura City Hall.

Padre Junipera Serra founded Ventura.

A great downtown lunch spot is the Anacapa Brewery, which serves hand-crafted ales and lagers produced on site. All the salads and appetizers were nice and fresh, and I tried the taster flight of beers ranging from a pale wheat to a dark espresso stout.

Menu of local microbrews at the Anacapa Brew Pub

The Watermark on Main, an elegant downtown restaurant, was originally the Ventura Guarantee and Loan Company building constructed with gorgeous tilework and balcony grillwork in the 1920s. It gets my vote for most historic atmosphere.

The Watermark Restaurant in a beautiful historic building

This pirate sign below was in the front window of a Ventura shop called Sea Things, which sells seashells and ocean-inspired gifts and jewelry.

In the window of the Sea Things store

Wine Lovers Bar has a cozy, outdoor patio complete with fireplaces—in addition to a posh, indoor vintage-and-velvet ambiance. Wine Lovers specializes in rare boutique, local, and California wines. I enjoyed a pre-dinner glass of Casa Barranca “Bungalow Red.” Casa Barranca, an organic and biodynamic vineyard, is just a few miles from Ventura in Ojai.

The neon signs at Wine Lovers

Ventura Harbor

Although it’s a drive from downtown, the Ventura Harbor is a fabulous place to go at sunset. You can watch the fishing boats come in and ogle the docked sailboats in this picturesque marina. Many of their names intrigued me and made me envision the type of person who owned the boats. Names included: Hold My Calls, Wizard of the Winds, Dragon Rider.

Boats docked at Ventura Harbor

The Harbor is also home to the Four Points Sheraton hotel where I stayed. It’s a comfy place with a slightly nautical ambiance and views of the harbor that can be enjoyed from balcony rooms.

Local author Sondra Briggs took my friends and I on a harbor meditation walk during which we cleared our minds and let our senses smell the sea air, feel the rain on our faces, notice the wind on palm fronds, and contemplate the international flags on the boats, thinking about all the places they’d been.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor