Surf Survival, A Life Lesson

by Landon Hartstein


The thrill of catching a wave and rippin’ along down the line is addictive. Sometimes my addiction makes me do stupid things and risk more than I should.

I was living in New Zealand, on a 200 acre farm two kilometres down the Whanakai walkway from Sandy Bay--a beautiful, horseshoe shaped, sandy bay with an estuary leading to the sea. When the swell and winds aligned, the shifty sand bank produced an incredible wave.  

It had been storming for a few days and the surf was definitely “up”. Even though it was raining, it didn’t calm the winds. The water was choppy and the waves could easily be considered “over-head”. I paddled out alongside the protection of the cliff, using the rocks as a rip.

Once I was outside, I knew I was in trouble. A huge wave rose up right in front of me and I realized I didn’t get far enough out of the danger zone. I ducked my board under the wave. As I pushed through, I could feel the power of the wave pull me backwards and got a deeper sense of just how dangerous my situation was. 

Humbled, I decided I shouldn’t mess around out there and would try to get back to shore immediately but I was already outside and I’d have to attempt at least one wave to get back in. Well, that’s what I came out for, I thought. One wave. 

As the first wave passed me I could feel I was out of shape and my lungs weren’t conditioned to handle the size. The second wave came and I paddled for it but I was too far out to catch it. I drifted to the top and over the back of the wave. At the top, I looked down from a moving mountain of water and got the first real sense of how big these waves were. They didn’t look that way from shore. I looked back:  I was in prime position for the third and largest wave of the set. 

Looking back over my shoulder to position myself on the wave, it jacked up behind me. I felt the wave propel my board forward and I popped to my feet. Trying to find my balance, the board shot uncontrolled down the wave. I struggled to get the board onto a rail. I flailed my arms, lost my balance and fell off at the bottom. The wave broke immediately upon me, churning me up the face, off the top and then throwing me forward. I stayed loose and relaxed. As I flew towards the water, I took one deep breath of air before the mighty sea pushed me under.

Silence. Limp and calm,  I didn’t fight the power of the ocean as it threw me in circles under the water. Tumbling around , I conserved my energy and my breath. Knowing it would let me up eventually, I waited. And I waited. Then I started to worry. I tried to swim for the surface but I was unsure which direction was up. I looked for light, between the foam and bubbles of churned-up ocean water and swam towards it. 

I was deep, deeper than I thought. It was taking too long to reach the surface.  I stroked and climbed and pulled my way up. My lungs started to tighten and I worried I might not make it. I clamoured more intensely, fighting the water to get my head to the air waiting above. Still nothing. My lungs burnt and I knew I only had a few seconds left. The wave finally passed. 

My head pointed up, so my mouth was the first thing to come out of the water, I gasped for as big a breathe as I could. I didn’t get my head far enough out of the water and instead of air I got foam. Coughing and struggling to breathe,  I turned just in time to get a glimpse of the next wave already upon me. It broke right on top of my head, smashing me forward and then flipping me in disorienting directions. Round two. 

This time I knew I didn’t have as long. I immediately pulled on the leash, felt the floating board and started swimming. The powerful grip of the wave was too much, pinning me down.  I relaxed again, waiting for it to pass. It did and I scrambled to the surface. I reeled the board in and got onto it, just as the next wave smashed down behind me.

The white water was powerful, surging forward like a watery stampede; it tried to wrench the board from my grip. I took a quick breath as the water engulfed me. Enveloped by water,  I found myself under the surface and scrambling once more. Exhausted, in need of air and with muscles that were limp from being worked beyond exertion, I struggled for the last time to find the shore. 

When I washed up I only had enough strength and energy to take a few staggering steps up the beach. I collapsed just far enough up the beach that I could lie there without the tide washing up to drown me. As I lay there, happy to be ashore and desperately inhaling air, I clutched the sand with my right hand and my surfboard with my left. A cheeky grin crept onto my face. I was happy. Happy to be alive. Happy to have survived such an ordeal. Generally, the risk is more calculated and this time I knew I was lucky to have come away more or less unscathed. I could have died out there. I knew it. I was grateful I survived. I realized then that sometimes in life, it’s the experiences that put you face-to-face with your own mortality that make you feel the most alive. So I picked up my board and paddled back out.


Landon Harstein sees travel as a short cut to personal growth, allowing the traveller to push themselves; growing at dramatic rates. On the road he encounters a variety of experiences both pleasant and unpleasant, all of which he views as opportunities to learn about himself and grow as a person. He believes that individual growth, understanding of different peoples and ultimately the unity of mankind around world is the key to having a bright future for both humanity and Mother Earth and promotes travel wherever he goes. 


Photography provided by Landon Hartstein.

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