The term “stoke” is an enduring surf slang expression meaning excited, pleased, or thrilled. It’s apparently an English adaptation of the 17th-century Dutch word “stok”, used to describe the rearrangement of logs in a fireplace in order to bring up the flames.  According to surf historians (who knew there were such people), the expression became fashionable in California in the 1950s to describe the buzz that surfers get from riding waves. When you see it in someone else on the water, it’s unmistakable – akin to the facial expression the first time a kid rides a two wheeler, or catches his or her first fish.

I turned 44 a few weeks ago. It turns out that twenty years later, surfing is not really like riding a bike.  I’m starting to find my groove again, but the challenges have been a combination of fitness, flexibility (or lack thereof), and most importantly, unrealistic expectations.  It’s still early spring here in New Zealand, and on overcast days the water is a chilly 14 degrees C (57 F). This means thick wetsuits, boots and on some days hoods- not a great recipe for rediscovering a lost art that demands both grace and repetitive movements.   

My back has troubled me for the better part of a year now.  I’ve largely ignored it, under the pretense that it would magically get better once I was no longer in the car 8 to 10 hours a week.  It didn’t… and I really struggled my first couple weeks here with both the pain and the impact it had on my ability to be active. Fortunately, I committed myself to making the time to get well again.  Physical therapy with a local woman who really knows her stuff, accompanied by a great local osteopath has made all the difference in the world, and I’m kicking myself for not making the time sooner.

I also re-read John Sarno’s “The Mindbody Prescription” which examines the impact our emotions and subconscious selves have on our physical well-being.  Dr. Sarno was the NYU physician made famous by curing Howard Stern and Larry David of their back pain (among many other non-celebs) and reframing the discussion about chronic musculoskeletal pain in general.  I’d highly recommend the book. I’m still not sure what made the biggest difference for me in terms of my recovery; and frankly I don’t care. The reality is that benign neglect for one’s health, both physical and mental, is a recipe for trouble.  I hope this is the last time I’ll need to learn this lesson.

Surfing has a lot to do with a careful measure of the elements, and I’ve begun to plan my routine on off-days around tide schedules and wind conditions.  It’s something that surfers all around the world spend an inordinate amount of time studying. We’re very fortunate here in Gisborne to have multiple beaches with different exposures and contours and a steady supply of ocean swells.  Crowds are generally avoidable.

The break at the end of our block in Okitu.

I took Lucas out surfing last week for the first time since our arrival here in Gisborne.  We picked the perfect day- warm sunshine, light winds in the afternoon, and a better than expected swell.  I was nervous for him; I wanted him so badly to enjoy himself and get the bug that had bit me years ago… back when I had a teenager’s sense of indestructibility and the personal fitness to match.  And then it happened: not the most graceful of take offs, but a glimpse of more waves to come. The stoke.

Chloe was next, as she’ll be surfing with her class at school in term 4.  (Yes, this really is a thing at Wainui Beach School). I’ll admit that the day I picked for her was less ideal…. but fortunately we’re still on speaking terms, and she has promised to give it another go with me in the near future.  She’ll be right, as they say in NZ. Julien has a wet suit of his own, thanks to some local friends, and he is taking swim lessons on Saturdays at a local pool. We’ll see if we can get Fred to give it a go as well once the weather warms up some.  The family that surfs together…

I’m still a long ways from my 20 year old surfer self, but I’m getting there.  More than anything, I’m simply enjoying my time out on the water where there are no cell phones, no clocks, no email, and no grades. On some of the most beautiful coastlines I’ve ever seen.

Jesse Irwin

Jesse Irwin

It's Jesse. I'm an emergency physician and healthcare leader, a Navy veteran, a father of three children, and until recently a land-locked Washingtonian with dreams of living on the ocean. I'm also a Luddite and an unapologetic introvert. But I'm going to give you, my family and friends, and this blog my best attempt at sharing my experiences here in Gisborne.
Jesse Irwin

Latest posts by Jesse Irwin (see all)