The Inland Paddler: What I Learned at PaddleSurf Camp

A Week at Nosara Paddlesurf

A Week at Nosara Paddlesurf

One of my local sup surfing heroes once said, “ A week of intense surfing at a much more challenging, bigger break is like an entire season’s worth of waves at home. “

Haywood is right. After a week at the Infinity camp at Nosara Paddlesurf in Costa Rica I feel like I’ve fast-forwarded through a whole North Carolina summer.

Does that mean I can now do top and bottom turns like Izzi Gomez or Fiona Wylde? No. I did, however, come away with something far more important.


Yes, I learned some extremely important technical things, and I’ll get into that in a minute. Yes, I surfed bigger, more powerful waves than anything I have ever experienced at Wrightsville Beach or even Maui. But not because I suddenly became as proficient as Mo Freitas. No, because, armed with knowledge on reading and understanding the water, passed on by my super encouraging instructors,I became more comfortable in the waves. And with that, comes the desire to try harder and push oneself.

I realized I was more shellshocked than I thought I was after last summer’s accident. Being with the guys at Nosara Paddlesurf was exactly what I need to make that realization and work toward overcoming it.

My instructors were kind, supportive, patient and even a bit tough when I needed them to be. They didn’t push me any farther than necessary to get results – mainly motivating me and giving me the right cues and comparisons to connect with the skills I came to camp with. (Several times I was asked, “You surf race boards or downwind, don’t you?)  And at the end of the week, their approach left me knowing that YEAH I SURFED THOSE WAVES and HELLA-YEAH I CAN DO THAT. AGAIN.

Day One

The first day, our morning session took us to La Boca, so named because this beach break is at the mouth (La Boca) of the Nosara River.

Our boards were unloaded on the inland side of a small lagoon where the river, which might remind you of a smallish river or tributary in the US’s South, except for the monkeys, parrots and crocodiles, meets the Pacific Ocean.  We paddled across to the brownish-black, silty sand beach, where the waves were breaking waist to shoulder, and occasionally higher.

I didn’t see anything on this day that didn’t look doable. The intervals between sets were long. Andru, my primary water coach, gave me the lay of the land as we sat on the beach studying the waves. Despite the fact that to my east coast eyes, the waves looked like they were breaking pretty close to shore, Andru explained that there was no inside sandbar. The presence of at least one inside sandbar at my local beach break often makes secondary or reform waves pitch up in shallow water, creating a sketchy if not dangerous shore break situation. Not the case at La Boca. No pesky sand bars.

Patience, like it is almost anywhere, was key to getting out. Just wait for the inevitable lull.

After sitting on our boards on the outside and talking about how the waves were peaking and breaking (mostly to the left) Andru had me take off. I just went for it, doing what I normally do. I felt the board catch the wave, I dropped in, a big long drop. I bent my legs and caught what ended up being the biggest wave of the day.

I didn’t believe that until Anthony Vela, who watched me during most of my session, reviewed the video of it with me later that afternoon back at the camp house.

In the water, Andru gave me a series of instructions – watch the wave, over-paddle to the right, then course correct to the left to get into the wave, keep my head up and look where I want to go.

I started catching more waves. I started catching lefts.

It wasn’t smooth, I was really trying to get the hang of looking over my left shoulder at the wave. It wasn’t comfortable.

Then a late take off caused a wipe out, the board was below me, fins up and my butt was on a collision course with it.

“Oh God, not again!” I thought, as I tried to get away from the little field of Ginsu Knives pointed in my direction.

I made contact. I rolled around under the water for a while, in darkness because the sand/silt combo makes it very difficult to see. I tried to stay relaxed.

When I popped up, I boogie boarded into the beach. My upper thigh hurt but not “that kind” of hurt. Andru followed me in

I told him what happened and that I thought I was fine but just wanted to check. Inspection of my surf tights revealed no cuts, not tears, no blood, nothing. Except an aching upper thigh that would probably be sporting a nice bruise the next day.

Session was over and we headed back to the Camp House for a dip in the pool, lunch and review of our morning’s video.

The Camera Doesn’t Lie

Anthony Vela was my video coach. He pointed out the things I did right. And he confirmed I caught the biggest wave of the day. When I saw the film of that first wave, I was astounded. I could not believe my eyes. Wow.

He gave me more notes – building on what Andru had pointed out in the water – I need to get lower and not lean out so much – keep my knees, hips, shoulders in one line. And, I need to keep my paddle out to the side, not behind me – use it like a tripod. I had no idea I was doing this till I saw the video. Video coaching like this is so valuable.  Out there, you think you’re doing things one way, but until you see yourself on the screen, you don’t know for sure.  Most times you’re not at all doing what you think you are.

The Reef

That afternoon, we went out to a reef break, Garza. Most of the folks went to the outside – which requires a 10 minute or so paddle. I stayed on the inside. I wanted to conserve energy – surfing two 90-two hour sessions a day is not something I get a chance to do much, especially in the winter. And we had the whole week ahead of us.

The reef was a rocky substrate – not coral like Hawaii. So not as sketchy.  But the water was harder to read here, at least for me, and once again, it seemed to me like the takeoff points for the waves was too far in. My home break preconceptions getting in the way again. I caught one or two and then the tide went out and it was too shallow to continue.

Day Two Chaos

Next day we went back out to La Boca.

I tried to put all the instructional notes from the previous day together and quickly realized that multi-tasking strategy was not helpful. Just pick one thing. Focus on that. Except that I couldn’t.

That’s when I had the brain fart.

The waves seem to get bigger. I’d take off, wipe out, then rush getting back out and get pummeled. I started attacking the waves too hard. And I kept getting hung up on the over-paddling piece and looking at the waves over my left shoulder. All that resulted in me trying to catch waves with my paddle on the wrong side.

I was kind of a hot mess.

That’s when camp owner Nate Smieja paddled out.

“I’m just gonna tell you like it is, Lisa. You are your own worst enemy. You are a strong paddler. But, right now you are paddling like you are trying to beat Connor Baxter in a sprint.”

And he was right.

Takeway Number One: You cannot paddle surf as if you are in a flatwater race. Or any kind of race for that matter.

Nate proceeded to tell me to slow down, not try to muscle into the wave as much, watch the wave and to make sure to catch it with the paddle on my right side – since I am Regular footed. And to get my head up.

“The board’s not going anywhere. Look where you want to go, not at the nose of the board.”

Suddenly, I realized that while some of my flatwater and east coast paddle style was an asset, some of it wasn’t. And that was okay. Use the good stuff, ditch the other.

And, as fellow camper Eric Logan Toppenberg reminded me, when you get rolled, just use the Kalama Trick: Count backwards from 10 to 1. It helps. It really does.

I caught plenty of waves that session. My video notes this time were courtesy of Dave Boehne. He wanted to see me get farther back on the board.

We headed back to the reef break at Garza and I had a much better day out there. Still not ready to go to the outside but I got a lot more waves – basically by keeping the head up and looking down the line of the wave, not at my feet or the board’s nose.

The Not-So-Swell Swell

Wednesday is a rest day during the camp week and while we were taking the day off, conditions changed. A swell moved in and the wind picked up. The plan for Thursday, then, shifted.  No afternoon session, just a longer morning session at La Boca, the beach break

The waves were bigger than I’d ever seen at home. Big, dumping waves with power and force behind them. After watching them for a while and despite encouragement from Andru, I opted to go with Alex and Ashley, two fellow campers from Canada, for a flatwater paddle up the Nosara River. It was beautiful and I can now say I have paddled with monkeys and parrots. But the entire paddle up and back, the mind started to lose in the self-confidence department.

Back on the beach, Nate made some suggestions – including just to swim out a ways.  I didn’t go out. I spent the rest of the evening kicking myself for not even trying. It was the next to the last day of camp.

I resolved to paddle out Friday, period.

It would be a learning experience, and would be valuable even if it was just one wipe out after another.

The mind would, as my mentor Suzie Cooney says, win first this day. No matter what. Dammit.

The next morning, it was still windy but the swell was diminishing. The call was made to shift plans and head back to Garza, where the inside reef would make it a little easier, under the day’s conditions, for all of us to get waves.

The wind made the water messy and disorganized. But my comfort level in conditions like these, from experience back home, is high. The paddle out was not a problem – I’ve been in worse in Masonborough Inlet many a time.

But, the waves weren’t easy to catch – until Andru noticed that conditions tide-wise were perfect for a wave in the middle of the bay to break, where a large rock juts up off the ocean floor. And it was cleaner than where we were, because there wasn’t as much for the incoming waves to bounce off of and refract and get all jumbled. We headed that way.

Andru explained that this wave – the rock wave – was a great place to learn how to surf the larger waves, because while the waves would be bigger, they still break softer than the ones on the outer reef. You can feel the speed and the power of the bigger sets, but have a gentler fall, sort of.

Only one catch. The take off spot to catch the rock wave was very specific, with a rather narrow window of opportunity. And that spot was right next to where the rock comes up out of the water, and just a little behind it.

We sat and watched how the waves would come in, peak up and then crest, right in the spot. The waves were big.

So was the rock.

My fear was that I would bump into it setting up for my wave.

But as I studied the way the water was moving and the way the wind was blowing, I had an epiphany. Maliko. Maui. When you paddle out of Maliko Gulch to do the epic downwind run there, you have to hug the big lava rocks on the right. It’s intimidating but if you don’t, the wind will push you into the rocks on the other side of the gulch and you’ll never make it out. Despite what it might look like, you can get very close to the right rocks and never touch them because the wind keeps you off of them.

This was the same thing! As long as I stayed on the downwind side of the rock, I’d be fine.

I saw my wave.

I got into staggered stance, paddled around, looked over my left shoulder and kept my eye on the wave as it came in. With my head still up, I paddled fast. I stalled for a moment, so I leaned forward and dug in. The board caught and I slingshotted down, then across the face, looking where I wanted to go. Higher and faster than anything I’ve ever experienced.  I rode it in and bailed to avoid the shallow reef, and got a taste of what the power of a wave that was head-high feels like. It felt like I was falling into a water canon.

Didn’t matter.

I was elated.

When I made it back out, Andru and Josu were hooting and hollering and throwing me shakas. And fists of victory in the air.

I caught several more off that rock, with the same result, just relaxing, watching the wave as I set up and took off for it, then looking wherever I wanted to go.

They were all lefts. Which is kind of a thing for someone who is right or regular-footed.

Eventually the tide got low enough that the rock wave no longer was workable, so we went back to the the other side of the bay where I caught a couple more before it was too low there as well.

The day ended with me catching the biggest and best waves of my life. Easily head high if not overhead.

I still have a lot to learn and a lot to work on, and I cannot wait to get back to Wrightsville Beach and get started.

Next year, outside reef at Garza, I’m coming for you.

Biggest Take-Aways from my week at Nosara:

1. Stay out of your head. It doesn’t help to over think.
2. You cannot paddle surf like you are in a flatwater sprint.
3. Looking at the wave coming behind you demystifies it. It tells you everything you need to know. That information is valuable. Use it. If you’re not looking at the wave, you’re missing out.
4. Look where you want to go – it all starts there.
5. Feel the speed of the wave, not the glide, and when you do, you’ll know you’ve caught the wave.
6. Keep the paddle out to the side, like a tripod.
7. Get back, get low, stay stacked and compressed.
8. Relax and let go.
9. Don’t take it too seriously.

10. Go to a camp, go to Nosara Paddlesurf if you really want to progress.