Joy and Wipeouts: A Widowed Mom Finds Healing on an 8-Foot Surfboard

A solo trip to a Costa Rica surf camp helps a single mother crest one of the most difficult waves of her life.

A few surfers in front of looming Witch's Rock at Guanacaste on Costa Rica's Pacific Coast

Guanacaste is a popular surf destination on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, and Witch’s Rock is one of the area’s most famous spots.

Photo by Jesse Artavia/Shutterstock

I clipped on the seat belt, gripped the armrests, and let the tears flow as the airplane lifted off, taking me far away from my only child. The voice inside my head berated me—What have you done? But it was too late to turn around. My daughter was at sleepaway camp in Upstate New York and I was off on my own for a week at surf camp in Costa Rica, yearning to rediscover myself.

I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, slicing the waves of Barra da Tijuca and Prainha on my yellow-and-orange Morey Boogie Mach 7, my belly firmly set against its porous surface as I maneuvered along the wave’s face. It was only in the summer of 2017, in Maui, that I stood up on a surfboard for the first time. As I glided toward shore in Kihei, riding lazy baby waves, I felt powerful. I felt in control. I felt that I could do whatever I set out to do.

Then, in the fall, my husband died of pancreatic cancer, just 30 days from his diagnosis. Widowhood took a big bite out of my reservoir of fearlessness and resolve. Grief became a lid of sorts, trapping the carefree parts of me—the one who sings at karaoke and doesn’t care if she’s out of tune; the one who dances like no one is watching, even if everyone is. There was no room for surfing, a joyful experience, in an existence newly defined by the weighty responsibilities of raising a child and running a home on my own.

As the years passed, though, I began to dream of an escape that would be only mine. I longed to answer the ocean’s calling, hoping to shape my future by reconnecting with a piece of my past.

I was turning 50 in July, the perfect excuse for an adventure. As a gift to myself, I booked a round-trip ticket to Liberia Guanacaste Airport and reserved my spot in the beginner’s school at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo, a charming, bustling beach town that Endless Summer II put on the map. Now, three weeks after celebrating my birthday and five days after dropping off Flora at camp, I was finally on my way.

As the Pacific Ocean came into view from my window seat, azure like a cloudless sky, excitement and self-doubt played a game of tug-of-war inside my chest. I took a deep breath and repeated an affirmation I’ve recited most mornings since losing my husband but finally had the courage to act on: I am allowed to put myself first.

Sunset on Tamarindo beach Costa Rica with some ships and surfers in silhouette in distance

Tamarindo started to draw surfers from around the world in the 1970s; today it’s estimated that more than 100,000 surfers come to Costa Rica each year.

Photo by Fernanda Santos

The ride from the airport to camp took about an hour; transportation is part of the package for anyone who stays for at least a week. There was another guest in the van, an experienced surfer named John, who told me he was registered in the advanced program. His trip would consist of hitting surf breaks all around Tamarindo, including the world-famous Witch’s Rock, whose powerful A-frame waves offer skilled surfers the right combination of challenge and thrill. (The camp also offers a program for intermediate surfers.)

I sighed in relief at the idea of not having to embarrass myself as a novice surfer in front of a cute guy.

We bumped along a winding road that cut across verdant fields interspersed by small towns, smaller farms, and occasional clusters of chickens and cows. Witch’s Rock Surf Camp occupies a long two-story building between the main street in Tamarindo and the beach. Rooms are functional; mine, on the top floor, had a minifridge, a queen-size bed wedged against a wall, and a balcony. From it, I could see the beach, the camp’s small pool, and a garden where iguanas as green as grass lounged during the day.

John and I reconnected late in the afternoon, during an orientation session that was held in the same surf shop where we had checked in. My stomach growled as a young man showed us and a handful of other new arrivals a whiteboard displaying the start time and meeting point for the next day’s lessons; I hadn’t eaten since breakfast at home in Manhattan.

I didn’t want to have dinner alone, so as we walked out, I turned to John and asked, “Want to grab a bite together?”

On our way to the center of town, we stopped at a beachfront bar, ordered a two-for-one happy hour special, and watched the sun set behind the Pacific, tinging the sky in fiery shades of orange.

I took a deep breath and repeated an affirmation I’ve recited most mornings since losing my husband but finally had the courage to act on: I am allowed to put myself first.

Surf lessons at Tamarindo Beach break are timed to the tide. When the wind is blowing offshore during mid- to high tide, the waves become cleaner and more consistent, which means they’re easier to spot and ride, ideal for beginners. My first lesson was set for 11 the next morning. I got up early and stepped onto the balcony to watch the rising sun paint the ocean in a silvery sheen, my body electrified by the excitement of anticipation and the prospect of having my own collection of memories to share with my daughter when we reunited.

I was also apprehensive. Who else would be surfing with me? What if I couldn’t surf, after all? I’d struggled with the idea of failure since my husband’s death left me alone to make all decisions, a self-imposed pressure that kept me up at night sometimes because—in my mind, at least—everyone was watching and waiting for me to falter, if only to affirm to them a fragility that I know doesn’t define me.

August is rainy season in Tamarindo, which makes for smaller crowds in and out of the water and nice surf after afternoon downpours. There were about a dozen of us beginners, mostly parents and their teenaged kids. We were split in pairs, with one instructor assigned to each pair. I shared Mateo with a congenial divorced woman in her 50s who was traveling with her 15-year-old son.

As we walked barefoot to the surfboard garage across the street from camp, dressed in our bikinis and rash guards, she asked, “Is this also your first time?”

“Oh, no, and I’ve bodyboarded for years,” I told her, my tone telegraphing more confidence and experience than I had.

We found Mateo standing between the surfboards he had picked for us—eight feet long and made of foam, for extra buoyancy. I propped the board on my head, fins up and tail forward, feeling as cool as the longboard surfers I’d watched (and envied) in Brazil and Hawai‘i. We walked to the beach and parked on the sand for our first and most important lesson: how to stand up on a surfboard.

Instructor Mateo and Santos below wooden "Welcome" sign for surf camp

Instructor Mateo told Santos (right): “Surf is a feeling. Get out from inside your head.”

Photo by Fernanda Santos

Pop-ups, or the explosive movement that gets surfers from their bellies to their feet, are all about mechanics. Where you place your hands (by your ribcage) matters just as much as how much you arch your back (a lot) and how quickly you can push yourself up and place both feet on the board. I watched Mateo closely as he demonstrated the sequence and then got to rehearse it, working to incorporate his careful adjustments, like “bend your knees more” and “don’t look at your feet.” To stay up, he told me, “You’ve got to look ahead.”

The practice session played in a loop inside my head as I paddled in, but what seemed so simple on dry land proved challenging in the water. The board wobbled under my feet, surfers vied with me for the same wave, and swimmers ducked and dived as I rode toward them, not yet knowing how to turn the board to avoid hitting someone.

The most common scene that first day, though, was me crashing face first on the water as soon as I stood up or being thrown off the board by a wave I caught too late, its lip closing in on me, the white foam stirring me around. Frustrated, I asked Mateo, “What am I doing wrong?” His answer? “Surf is a feeling. Get out from inside your head.”

It’s also an experience unlike any other I’d had, rooted on the reverence and respect the ocean commands. It demands patience, which isn’t a strength of mine, so I got tested at every wave I caught (or at least attempted to).

I’m an overthinker, but not the type who is easily dissuaded from embarking in new experiences. I remembered taking Flora to São Miguel, in the Azores, the two of us hiking spectacular, lonely trails that led to lakes on mountaintops. I remembered driving through rain, sleet, and snow for seven hours one winter to get from Phoenix to Zion National Park in Utah, a pandemic escape I planned for just her and me.

It dawned on me that if I can embrace risk and adventure with my daughter and for my daughter, I have what it takes to do it for myself, too.

Isn’t that what got me to Costa Rica?

Time and distance conspired to ground me in the present. By the third day at camp, I felt more confident, in large part because I stopped worrying about my performance. It also helped that one of the instructors taught us the turtle roll in the camp’s pool, a move that helps longboard surfers pass the break by turning themselves and their boards upside down before the white water grabs them. It was one of the technique sessions for beginners. Another, on stability, got us all to break a serious sweat trying to stand on wooden balance boards.

About 20 colorful surfboards, long and short, lined up vertically on beach under shade of trees at Tamarindo

Beginners at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp start out on eight-foot foam longboards, which are easier to learn on.

Photo by tombar2018/Shutterstock

In the water, Mateo chanted, “Smooth, smooth,” each time I got up on the board, my pop-ups becoming cleaner and more frequent with less worry and more practice. My surf partner cheered on, her “yeews” following me as I made my way toward the sand. I must have been smiling face even as I fell off the board because of all the salt water I gulped in.

On our last night, instructors and students got together at the camp’s restaurant for awards night. A mother of two little girls got the award for best wave. A balding man in his late 50s won for the best wipeout.

We sat side by side, mostly in silence, to watch a video montage of our time in the ocean. I, for sure, was mesmerized by what I had accomplished—the crashing, the wiping out, the churning underwater, and, yes, the waves I rode. I looked at the beginners around me, people I likely wouldn’t have met otherwise. I thought of John, who had left a day earlier, and wondered if we’d ever see each other again.

The next day, on the plane, I scrolled through the pictures on my phone and realized I didn’t have a single one of me surfing. It didn’t bother me. I went to Witch’s Rock to learn through trial, error, and sheer repetition, without pressure, without shame—and that’s exactly what I did.

Fernanda Santos is a writer, editor, journalism professor, and budding surfer based in New York City.
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