Lessons Learned – How Surfing has Helped in Life


A good old Florida summer storm. Photo by Spencer Morton

It was a sticky, humid summer day and the Stubbies Surf Trails had been put on hold due to the conditions. My friend and I had paddled out and caught a few waves with a small group of surfers at Sebastian Inlet.

At some point, I heard a loud rumble and turned shoreward and saw a black wall stretching across the horizon. Some more rumbling and then a bolt of lightning came down in the distance. This looked serious and I began to make my way towards shore.

I have seen a million storms in Florida and the tenacity of some of them are jaw dropping. This one came at a speed that was fearsome. Very quickly it went from something far-off and closing in to a watery Armageddon.

My friend was paddling in as well and I reached the shore just before him and laid up against the sand berm that separated the lower beach from the upper area. People were fleeing and the scaffold for the contest was abandoned. Pellets of rain began to hit me and then more in with an increasing velocity. Then a watery haze lowered onto us. I looked back over the berm and heard a loud boom. A bolt of lightning came down and struck the long metal handrail that runs along the north jetty. This was serious.

My friend Lou sprinted up and forced himself against the wall of the sand berm as well. The water was spraying into my face every time I tried to see what was going on in the ocean. How long did this last? I could not say. But I do remember peering back over the berm and seeing the black to the west being replaced by grey so the storm was moving by rather quickly.

As the severity began to decrease, I looked out to sea and saw that some of the surfers had chosen not to leave the water and they were trying to ride out the deluge; maybe trying to get the jump on the crowd that would surely return with the sunshine.

Then suddenly came a boom! So abrupt that my only reaction was to crouch forward towards the sand. I could hear screams and cries. So I sat trying to process what had just happened. A woman was screaming in the water and others were running along the beach. Then it became apparent that lightning had just hit close to or had hit someone.

I got up and a wave of adrenaline and fear washed over me. The situation was clearly not safe but I also knew that somewhere out there was a person whose very survival depended upon someone taking action. The sky let out a low rumble and the flash of lightning in the distance washed out the sky. I trotted towards the ocean and ran in. Rain drops still dropped on us from the dark sky and a man ran towards us.

Look for the man! He has on red shorts. You go this way and I will move this way.

I jumped over the walls of white water and peered down into the water hoping to get a glimpse of something in the churning surf. Another rumble made me lower myself closer to the water trying not to be a target myself. A young woman was wading out too and she was sobbing. Then maybe a half a minute later…

I have him! I have him!

Three of the guys picked him up and we all moved up onto the beach. I saw a towel and moved it to where they could lay his body on top of it. The rain still came down as the lifeguard started C.P.R. Within moments some emergency units began to respond and a few minutes more he was taken away.

I never saw him again and later I heard he was pronounced dead.

As a 16 year old, moments like this would shape my perspective as did getting caught inside by massive clean up sets, coming face to face with a Great White Shark, and being alone in massive closed out surf in a rising hurricane swell.

You do not have a lot of choices. You can panic and possibly die or you can calmly try to work things out on your own terms.

  1. It Will not Last Forever.

When I was caught inside of a maybe 25 foot set, it seems like you will not make it. But the reality is that you will either wear 4 sets on the head or you will take 2 or 3 bad ones and get washed inside where it will not be so bad.

So work and life are the same way. A short-staffed day will only last a shift and someone usually steps up when overtime is mentioned. If not, do the best you can and call it a day.

Then move on. It is in the past and can not be changed.

2. Perspective is Everything

This goes along with #1. For example, deciding to put yourself in danger is a big decision. You could possibly lose your life. On the other hand, working in a restaurant and finding out that you do not have enough pickles to last a shift is not an event that could result in someone going home in a casket. So employees need a leader who does not freak out every time there is a work inconvenience. What they need is someone to calmly analyze the situation and then come up with an appropriate plan of action.

Even better, you can get the employees involved to come up with solutions of their own. The feeling of involvement will give them some ownership.

3. Action!

Surfing is a joyous sport and it can be very fun. But ask any surfer about facing a day where the swell interval is short and you are paddling out in a highly shallow area. Once you commit, you have one option to get out. That is to paddle. And duck dive. And paddle. And duck dive and repeat over and over. If you give up or worse, do not commit from the beginning then you will never make it out. There are no hacks to get out or ways to cut corners. No amount of complaining or pointing out how unfair the situation is will get you out. Only a committed episode of paddling will yield any possible outcome that may be fruitful.

Once, I was working at a very popular theme park with high attendance. On one busy day, I received a call from another department that needed some assistance and guidance. I arrived to a group of fellow management members from another department huddled together discussing what to do in regards to a giant puddle of grease that was spilled on a main pathway. Some guests were walking into the grease and foot prints began to show up down the path. When myself and my co-manager arrived with some employees, we looked at the scene and I walked up and asked what they decided. They were unsure and returned to their discussion.

My co-manager looked at the spreading ooze and said to herself that this is ridiculous and we both agreed to ignore the others and that it was time to take action.

We picked out a few people to get others to help. A few to block the sidewalk and a few to get the equipment that we needed. The plan took shape and was quickly put into action.

Within 45 minutes, the mess was cleaned up and not a member of the management team from the department that created the issue had helped. Later, we received a thank you letter and a gift card for stepping up and taking care of the issue.

So, if something is clearly wrong. If a problem is festering and you see it. Do not wait for a far off meeting to address the situation or at least start to move the ball forward. Any action works!!

In my life, I have watched people complain about why something happened instead of removing the problem. Complaining does not solve problems. Action solves problems. When you are finished correcting the problem, then you can address how to not have the problem happen again.

With that, I hope that none of my readers will ever have to experience creating an action plan just as a random shark tries to swim onto your surfboard. This will also mean that you will not have to give yourself a pep talk that the moment is over and that you should just continue on with your day because dwelling on the past will not produce anything positive. But by adopting some of these ideas in less stressful moments, one will quickly find themselves becoming a doer and will solve tasks as opposed to a critic who does nothing more than points out things.


– Steve




About 1stpeaksteve

Welcome to The Side Wedge! The Side Wedge is a product of the journey through life of Steve Zima. Former professional surfer, a writer, surf coach, and hospitality manager. This is a collection of travel tips, motivation, and stories from my past. Finally, I offer surf coaching through The Side Wedge. Please feel free to contact me with questions if you want to improve your performance today! Thanks for reading!
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