COCOA BEACH - With hair matted to my forehead and seawater dripping from my earlobes, I pulled myself from the shallow froth like a weary warrior. Phillipe, my surfing instructor, stood hip-deep in glistening Atlantic waves about 20 feet away, arms raised, pointing to his sports watch.
"It's five minutes until 1 - are you sure you want to go another hour?" Phillipe asked, wrinkling his sunblock-painted nose. The look on his face suggested I should surrender to strong April winds that had transformed Cocoa Beach's normally small, clean waves into what felt like a scene from "The Perfect Storm."
"She's not stopping," hollered my son John, 11, "until she gets up on the board!"
The humiliation stung more than the saltwater in my eyes. Yet, if 55 minutes into my first surf lesson I still hadn't managed a successful "pop-up," did I really think an adolescent taunt would do the trick?
Before we get to the outcome, let's consider what prompted family surf lessons in the first place.
Once we moved to Florida three years ago, everyone assumed we were on perpetual vacation, including our kids. Sure, we live 45 minutes from the finest, soft-as-flour beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. But my son believes any car trip can turn into a wave-seeking expedition two hours east to the Atlantic, along Florida's Space Coast. Forget Disney and Orlando's endless amusement park thrills. My boy dreams of "getting air(borne)" on a surf or body board. And anywhere along that 72-mile stretch of pristine beaches south of Cape Canaveral will do.
Never mind that he's the only family member with surfing experience - five-day minicamps the previous two summers in France, plus hours studying pros riding the barrels in surf magazines. Even in the dead of winter (if there is such a thing in Florida) out-of-town friends with only a day to see the Kennedy Space Center have been subjected to his "quick" surf fix before heading home at dusk.
"When you're out there - just you and your board and nature - it's spiritual," John says in a tone way beyond his years.
After a half dozen of these impromptu detours, the insanity of our situation hit me. Why were we watching in street clothes like deadbeat parents, while his brother Louis, 8, passed the time digging holes in the sand? By spring break, I vowed, we would be the family that surfs together. Or at least tries to.
We found a likely comfort zone 32 miles east of Orlando in Cocoa Beach, which claims to be the East Coast surf capital. Resting on a barrier island between the Atlantic and Banana River, it's known for consistent, two- to three-foot waves ideal for beginners - without the high-rise clutter and party crowds that have swept up much of Florida's coasts. Old pastel bungalows dot side streets off State Road AIA; while I Dream of Jeannie Lane is a nod to the 1960s sitcom that was fictitiously based here at the same time employees of the space program began calling it home.
There's no mistaking the surf culture - particularly when the town's most imposing architecture is the Ron Jon Surf Shop off the main drag. Shaped like a giant Art Deco sand castle and open 24/7, the store's front lawn includes a statue of Kelly Slater, eight-time world surfing champion and Cocoa Beach's most famous native.
With more than a dozen surf schools to choose from, Ron Jon's seemed a safe choice - even more so when I learned that it's the state's oldest.
"We get about 10 families a day," Craig Carroll, the school's founder and former coach of one of Slater's teams, said during a sold-out stretch at spring break. "Really, anyone can surf, as long as you have the gumption and just a little bit of athletic ability."
My husband selflessly volunteered to videotape our group lesson with Phillipe, who said one to two hours should be enough to get us on the board. We changed into wet suits (barely necessary in April), and were briefed on the hazards of jellyfish, stingrays, and riptides. We then took turns lying on a foam board, doing a push-up, and then popping up in a crouched position with one foot ahead of the other.
"Remember, just take your time - you want to be centered on the board," Phillipe reminded us as we trekked 200 yards to the beach.
While Louis was too small to carry his board alone, I struggled with my 10-footer as we passed beach umbrellas turned inside out by the wind - my first clue that weather was working against us. Blinded by a bright sun, I was glad I had applied lots of suntan lotion until Phillipe explained you didn't want it on the front of your legs or else your board might be too slick.
We took turns letting Phillipe do the hard part - towing us against four- to five-foot waves he called "rough" for Cocoa Beach; turning us so that we pointed toward shore; and then pushing the board once the ideal wave came along. When he yelled go, all we had to do was push up and pop up - and enjoy however many seconds our wobbly knees could keep us upright.
Predictably, John was quickly paddling out unassisted and getting up, frustrated only by his inability to turn the board. Louis, who was lukewarm about taking lessons in the first place, gamely struggled against waves as big as himself. But after managing a few three-second rides amid countless falls, he abandoned his board to build sand castles.
Meanwhile, I was the 46-year-old klutz, whose feet either failed to get traction (I blamed suntan lotion) or never got past the crouch. Every wipeout ended with the shock of my ankle being yanked by my board's leash and a cruel wave rushing over me.
"You're thinking too much," Phillipe said after countless critiques.
While it may have taken my son's taunt for me to produce my only ride of the day - a moment too brief to even savor - I was wiped. Too embarrassed to even think about scheduling a Day 2 lesson, I told Phillipe I'd be in touch. Maybe.
"Give it another day, Mom," John said.
The next morning, the soreness in my upper body reminded me that I at least got a good workout. Still unsure if I was up for more, I agreed to drive John to The Pier, a Cocoa Beach landmark that overlooks one of the more popular surf spots. I looked longingly at the sign advertising a champagne brunch with ocean view as I approached the information booth to ask about board rentals. Before I knew it, I was pouring out my tale of failure to two men selling time-share condos.
"Hey, my kid gives lessons," one said. "Come here, Dillon! Want to help this lady out?"
A muscular 15-year-old with a buzz cut, Dillon shrugged and grinned. I considered my options. John had already dashed for the beach with his body board and fins. I could either revert to the deadbeat mom who watches, or put my faith in a kid whose credentials came with no brochure or medical waiver.
I chose an hour with Dillon.
"I just have one bit of advice," the other time-share salesman said, lowering his sunglasses to reveal a serious look.
"Free the mind, and the board will follow."
It sounded like a line out of "Caddyshack." But I repeated the mantra as I paid $5 to rent a board at the hotdog stand. And I repeated it again as I waded through waves that were gentler than the day before, yet plentiful enough to satisfy more skilled surfers on the horizon.
"When I say go, you paddle," Dillon said after turning me toward shore. "And when you feel that wave start to lift you, try to get up."
On my first try, I hesitated too long and ended up riding belly-down all the way in. The surf carried me as if I was jet-propelled, and for the first time I envisioned reliving that sensation standing up. After three tumbles, I surprised myself by turning my crouch into a full stance for an exhilarating three seconds.
While my side-flops numbered as many as my stand-ups, I was finally having fun - especially when I glimpsed my son beaming, giving me the thumbs-up.
Now that was spiritual.
Susie Woodhams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.