Learning to Surf Without Feeling

For some surfers and SUPers, hanging ten is the holy goal—toes on the nose, nothing in front of you but pure green wave. With a nerve disorder threatening to destroy his balance, longtime kook Erik Hedegaard asked a waveriding genius to train him for one last shot.

May 13, 2014
Outside Magazine

Surfer Robert "Wingnut" Weaver on the water. Weaver was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997 and went into remission five years later.    Photo: Paolo Marchesi

The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do as a surfer is walk to the nose of my board, hang ten, cruise along like that, every little piggy happily dangling off the tip, me just minding my own business, not a care in the world, before cross-stepping back to the tail and kicking out, mission accomplished, all eyes on the beach on me, a couple of hoots received from my fellow surfers on the paddle back out, and then I do it all again. Is that too much to ask?

And yet, time and time again, I am denied. Whenever I try to move forward, my feet either refuse to lift, or tangle up with one another, or suddenly propel me backward off the board, windmilling into the drink. It’s the damnedest thing.

In fact, I am one of the biggest klutzes the surf breaks around my Wakefield, Rhode Island, home base have ever seen. It’s embarrassing. Taking off on a wave, I’ve heard snickers. Once, this hot-stuff longboarder named Carl paddled up to me and said, “You shouldn’t be out here, man. You can’t even surf.” And sometimes, during my bleakest moments, I have to agree. But I don’t plan on giving up anytime soon. You’ve got your ridiculous, far-fetched, half-baked dreams that won’t go away, I’ve got mine. I want to nose ride.

Which is what has brought me to Costa Rica, to the dusty, stray-dog surf town of Tamarindo, where I am nervously slurping down some predawn coffee poolside at the lovely Vista Villas hotel, looking over the railing at a few nice waves peeling in the distance and wondering just what I’ve gotten myself into. My traveling companion is a sandy-haired, 48-year-old surfer named Robert Weaver, from Santa Cruz, California, but everyone calls him Wingnut. For the most part, we have nothing in common. He starred in Endless Summer 2, the highly successful 1994 sequel to 1966’s Endless Summer, the greatest surf movie of all time, and is considered one of the best longboarders and nose riders of the modern era. Also, he’s always cheerful, always peppy, always entertaining, and always optimistic—one of his favorite sayings is “In my world, the glass is half full all the time”—while I’m more Danish and really have no idea what he’s talking about. He’s got muscles, I’ve got skin and bones. He’s well tanned, I’m deeply pale. You get the idea.

Yet for all our differences, we do share one thing. Both of us have a serious autoimmune disease. In Wingnut’s case, it’s multiple sclerosis (MS), which was first diagnosed in 1997, went into remission five years later, and hasn’t come back since. Mine is something called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), and it’s been having a field day with me for at least the past ten years, turning my immune cells against me and destroying the protective covering—the myelin sheath—that surrounds the nerve fibers in my legs and feet. As a result, many of those nerves are now dead, leaving me with calf muscles that are atrophied and as thin as cornstalks, toes that won’t wiggle, and feet that are so insensible they sometimes flop around of their own accord. I have scars on my knees from the times I’ve fallen. 

Robert Weaver surfing multiple sclerosis Wingnut
All toes on the nose.

As it happens, CIDP is a fairly rare disease, afflicting at most 8.9 people per 100,000—MS is 30 per 100,000—and in my case is idiopathic, with no known cause and no way to stop its progression. It’s almost never fatal, but there’s a 30 percent chance a wheelchair is in my future and an almost zero percent chance I’ll be surfing ten years from now. At the moment, the worst thing is how it has messed with my balance. The remaining millions of nerves in my feet are incredibly slow to tell my brain how to get my body to react to the world around it. Hence all my clumsiness, and why I can no longer ride regular surfboards—they’re far too tippy for me—and have happily taken to SUP boards, which are wider, thicker, and much more stable. Even so, it took me two years to learn how to stand on one of them, and it’s been impossible for me to get to the nose. That’s why I got in touch with Wingnut, to see what he could do with me while there’s still time.

“OK, man.” he says. “Ready? Let’s go!”

I nod my head, but I don’t want to go anywhere, not really. I’d rather stay here and listen to Wingnut talk about his life as a professional surfer for hire, $2,500 a day, taking wealthy clients (hedge-fund operators, movie stars, famous athletes) to places like Ollie’s Point, a more remote Costa Rica break, where, if he’s in the water, you’d better understand that he rules the roost.

“This one time, there’s a kid I don’t know—he’s the best surfer out there, next to me—taking all the waves,” he says. “I paddle up to him and ask him to back off, let my guys have some. He’s like, ‘Hey, I want to get as many waves as I can.’ And I go, ‘Alright, let me rephrase that. Either you back off, or I will ride every wave you’re on, in front of you, behind you, I will take you out on every single wave, all day long. It’ll be fun. It’ll be something new for me to do, to ruin your day.’ See, I understand that need, that hunger, but you’ve got to be benevolent with your power as a dominant predator in the water. You’ve got to be responsible, or else I’ll fucking teach you some responsibility.”

I’d like to hear more of these stories featuring Wingnut as good-guy alpha enforcer. Or else we could talk about my disease. I’ve got a lot to say, about spinal taps, interminable plasma infusions, and weird KGB-type Russian nurses who seem to delight in zapping my muscles with electrodes, to see how dead those nerves really are becoming. But Wingnut doesn’t give me the chance. Instead, he bounces down the stairs to our room, slathers on sunscreen, grabs a towel, and is on the way to the beach, with me huffing and puffing behind. I’d run to catch up, but I can’t run anymore, either. Soon enough, though, we’re in the water, and shortly thereafter, I’m showing him just what I’m made of. It isn’t pretty.

It really is kind of a minor miracle that anyone can nose ride at all. You’re standing there, perched on the end of your board, nothing in front of you but the water rushing by. It makes no sense. By all rights, the board should lever up and smack you in the back of the head, leaving a knot to remind you of your hubris. But if you’re any good, it doesn’t. The board stays locked in, held in place by the counterbalancing force of the wave breaking on its tail. “It’s a very strange thing, when you think about it,” says Matt Warshaw, the former Surfer magazine editor and author of the History of Surfing. “When you see someone set up and hang ten for a long time, even as a nonsurfer, you just sort of stop and your jaw drops, like, how is that even happening? I’ve heard it described as the closest feeling to flight you can get. It’s bizarre and wonderful, and a bit freaky.”

And I want it. Back home in Rhode Island, I’ve sometimes wanted it so badly that, when the surf goes flat, I’ll turn off my phone, lower my shades, tell my girlfriend to go away, lock the doors, put my dog in the basement, bring my dog back up, cuddle with her in bed, and spend the next four hours glued to surf videos on YouTube, hoping that some of what I see rubs off on me. I typically start with videos from the early 1960s, roughly around the time that hanging ten, arguably first accomplished in the fifties by the late Dale Velzy, established itself as the most wonderful way to ride a wave. Big names of the era include early Malibu, California, fixture Mickey Dora, also known as Da Cat for his lightness of step on a surfboard, and David Nuuhiwa, who in old footage glides to the front, arms by his side, shoulders down, then lifts his left arm straight up into the air and leans way, way back into a soul arch that is cool-daddy-casual beautiful. Then there are the best of today—Joel Tudor, Alex Knost, C.J. Nelson, Mikey DeTemple, and, of course, Wingnut. I love watching them all.

After that, I’ll take a break and go work on my balance skills, warming up with a vintage Bongo Board that I’ve actually gotten good at; progressing to a wobbly electrified version of the Bongo Board called the uSurf, which doesn’t so much aim to improve your balance as to throw you against the wall; transitioning to a contemplative glance at my Wingnut-endorsed Goof Board, a type of advanced balance board that I’m too scared to try; and ending with me soaking my head in a fifth of vodka. Later, I’ll cruise the Internet in search of another “perfect” nose-riding fin or another “perfect” nose-riding SUP and fall asleep while rereading for the umpteenth time Tom Wegener’s seminal treatise on the physics of nose riding, in which he postulates his “suction + tension = hang ten” theory of why a board can stick to a wave and allow it to be ridden from the beak.

The next morning, I’ll wake up and head straight to one of my local rock-reef breaks, to get in a dawn-patrol surf session and wash off all the mortifying fatuity of the previous day. I know as well as anyone that what legendary Malibu longboarder Mickey Munoz says is true: “You can sit on the beach, and you can watch the waves, and you can watch people ride them, and you can visualize what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, but when you finally get in the water, all bets are off.”

Actually, it's been going unexpectedly well with Wingnut so far. On day one, after some initial flailing, I proved to him that I could catch a wave and ride down the line. “You can surf,” he says. “You can do a bottom turn. Fantastic foundation. Marvelous!”

On day two, I did something I’ve never been able to do before: take one step forward on my board without falling off. In fact, it looked as if I’d been taking that one step forever. Why here and not in Rhode Island, I don’t know. I just did it, right after Wingnut told me to do it, as in, “Do it!”

The author, right, with Wingnut.

Now it’s day three, another sunny morning in Tamarindo, at the break right in front of Witches Rock Surf Camp, which has become our drinking hole away from Vista Villas and is where Wingnut’s longtime buddy Robert August, one of the stars of the first Endless Summer, is the surfboard shaper in residence and quite the 68-year-old ladies’ man. It’s early enough that Wingnut and I have the waves mostly to ourselves. He’s riding his slender, tippy Wingnut-model Boardworks SUP; I’m riding a superwide, superstable Starboard Whopper, ten feet by thirty-four inches, on loan from Marco Salazar, a former dentist who fell for SUP after retiring from his practice and moved to Tamarindo to start Costa Rica Stand Up Paddle Adventures. It’s just the ticket for my special needs. Even I have a hard time falling off this beast, and I can almost keep up with Wingnut as he paddles into position to wait for the next wave.

“When we’re out here, hover around the mother ship and you will be in the zone,” he says, watching a small dark line roll toward us. “There’s virtually no wind. The current’s mellow. OK, so here we go. Start paddling. Turn around. It’s all you! It’s all you!”

I pivot the Whopper, begin paddling like hell, catch the wave, execute an OK top turn, and start cross-stepping to the nose, to hang ten toes over and bring me all the joy in the world. Only, my feet stop moving after that first step. I look down and tell them to lift. They refuse. Stupid feet. I hate my feet, especially the right one, which is the more reluctant of the two and has told its toady brother to stay still, too.

“Come on!” I can hear Wingnut yelling. “Walk! Let’s go! Good step! Good step! Move it! Do it! One more! Again! Again!”

I’d love to, but no way. I kick out and paddle back. “My feet,” I say.

“Fuck your feet,” he says. “If you can take one step, you can take three.”

I nod, even though I know it’s not true. The farther up the board you go, the more unstable it becomes, the better your balance has to be, the more micro adjustments you need to make. It’s not anything you have time to think about. Your body has to sense what’s necessary and take care of it. Mine won’t do that, and that’s all there is to it.

“And once you get up there, don’t kick out, stay on the wave,” Wingnut continues, “because that’s when you start getting an idea of how much lift you have. See, it’s such a mental thing. It’s all about getting to ‘Yes, you can,’ because, well, you fucking can!”

I’m still halfheartedly bobbing my head when Wingnut says, “There’s another little set coming.”

I look where he’s looking and don’t see anything. But then, just like he said, almost like magic, there the set is, right in front of me—except that the first wave is a little too close and has jacked up a little too steep.

“You’re on it!” he says.

“I’m not!” I say.

“Yes, you are, Eeyore. Go!”

Strangely enough, he’s correct, I am on it. And this time, I take a bigger step to the nose, actually get off the SUP’s traction pad and onto the bare paint on the front third of the board. Wingnut’s shouting, “Go! Nice! Go! Take another step!” But the moment I do, my feet get confused and I bail out over the side, come up sputtering, blinking furiously, one contact lens lost. I flop onto my board and paddle back out, scowling at my ineptitude and irritated that Wingnut called me Eeyore. But I’m also thinking about something he told me earlier. “Smiling in the surf is good,” he said. “I mean, my whole thing is, unless you’re in serious stuff, why aren’t you smiling? Every time you go, there’s something out there to put a smile on your face, otherwise you shouldn’t go, right?”

So before I get back to him, I plaster this great big grisly rictus of a phony-baloney smile all over my face. The last thing I want is to get sent to my room. But Wingnut doesn’t look at me. He’s too busy scanning the horizon for what may come next. He’s always doing this. Even if he’s talking to you, he’s looking past you for the next good ride.

Then he starts paddling for a wave. It’s a slightly larger one that looks like it’s going to close out and slam him into the sand. I’d kind of enjoy seeing that. But, of course, it doesn’t. Wingnut just flies along, taking his time cross-stepping to the nose, in three easy-as-you-please steps. He hangs five for a few seconds, steps back down the board, lets it drop to the bottom of the wave, then rockets it down the line, where he banks off the top into a truly tremendous swooping-gull cutback, smacks the dropping curl, comes around again, slides along beneath the foam ball, starts to walk even before he’s back into the green, continues walking, little graceful birdlike steps, until he’s fully up front again, back arched so that his rear foot is more heavily weighted than his front. It’s just so pretty. It’s enough to make me weep.

In the evenings, after surfing, we usually head to Robert August’s sweet little hacienda for a veggie-heavy dinner, to a bingo night for the local gringo community, to some rich guy’s what-a-view pad, to a barbecue cookout, or to a charity auction, with Wingnut making new friends as he goes and greeting old ones with handshakes and hugs. His energy is relentless. It’s hard to see how he could possibly have MS skulking around his mitochondria.

One night, he tells me what it was like in 1997, when it first appeared, and how it affected his surfing. “I could stand up and get my trim,” he says, “but then I’d have to get down and take a knee. If the waves were kind of bumpy, I’d go to stand up and fall right over.” It took two years for that initial episode to fade and another three years before the doctors pronounced the disease in remission, a happy turn of events that Wingnut attributes to clean living and lots of vitamin D directly from the sun.

“Yes, it can and will return,” he says, “but my lifetime surfing goals are all done. I got to surf in Indonesia, got to surf Fiji, got to surf South Africa, surfed with Gerry Lopez and Mickey Dora. So if I never surfed again, it would be horrible, but I could deal with it. But when I was diagnosed, my son Cameron had just been born. He was three months old, and the thought that I’d never get to share a wave with him—that was the hard part and the thing that scared me the most.” He stops, wipes at his eyes, and says, “I still get choked up about it,” then starts smiling that great Wingnut smile and says, “But now, yeah, that little fucker drops in on me all the time.”

As to my own surfing, it started in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, when I was 16, rode a shortboard, thought I was a ripper, decided to give up the sport after moving to Manhattan at 22, and returned to it with a new passion for longboarding, which is how most older guys ride, after I relocated to Rhode Island ten years ago—or right around the time that CIDP really began to mess with my feet, heart, and head. I’d first noticed it eight years before that, when I was 40 years old and my toes starting feeling all fuzzy. The numbness didn’t upset my mobility, so I didn’t think much about it, until I made the move to the Ocean State and hit the Matunuck beaches. Whenever I tried to stand on my board, I was overcome with dizziness and fell.

Two years later, a neurologist finally gave me the CIDP diagnosis. By that time, both feet were fully engaged and nerve death had begun to creep from the extremities up into my legs, atrophying muscle as it went. One thing I learned is that, while the disease can’t be cured, it can be fought. You can go after it with high doses of steroids, which sometimes work but is a method my doctors won’t let me try, since the side effects (crumbling hips, vicious mood swings, massive weight gain, and chronic girlfriend-irritating hiccups) are so dire. Or you can bombard the system with a plasma-protein replacement called intravenous immunoglobulin. IVIG works in about 80 percent of cases, allowing the nerve structure to regroup enough to create new muscle. That being the case, I’ve spent days on end hooked up to an intravenous drip at Rhode Island’s South County Hospital, only to find out that I’m a member of the fairly exclusive 20 percent club for whom IVIG does nothing at all. This also makes me wonder why cross stepping and nose riding continue to be my main surfing interest, since they’re vastly more difficult for a person with CIDP to accomplish. Must be I’m either stupid or stupidly perverse. Or both.

Wingnut is great, though. It’s hard not to think he’s great. He’s just so full of joy. At the same time, it gets to be a little much, how everything in his life always turns out for the best, how bitchin’  everything is, the way he’s always whistling, the way everyone brightens in his presence, the way he calls all the Costa Rican guys guapo—Spanish for “handsome”—making them laugh, him with his snappy shorts, his neatly pressed shirts, his easygoing flip-flops. Plus, everything’s usually all about him, which he easily owns up to. “Yes, I am megalomaniacal,” he says, “and I like the sound of my own voice. But a good, healthy ego can get you through a lot. Remember—the glass is half full.” I guess some people are just born that way, and sometimes, I suppose, it’d be nice.

Right now we're out at a tiny-wave break called Suizo—Wingnut, me, and Robert August’s very cool, athletically built assistant Kristen, nicknamed Waimea. Wingy is calling out waves for me, Waimea is hooting up a storm, and I’m getting closer to the nose. After one ride, Wingnut steams up and says, “You did so many things right on that wave. When you got to the paint, you kept your weight more on the outside rail, which keeps you better balanced. You had a really good vertical stance, with your hips square. You were real stable. You just got real relaxed and stood tall. And that’s the perfect thing to do. It’s like what Laird Hamilton’s dad, Bill, used to say: ‘Stand tall, do nothing at all.’ ”

I’m bobbing my head, smiling for real this time. But my toes are always still about a foot shy of finding themselves directly on the nose. Wingnut has tried telling me that being anywhere on the front third of the board is considered nose riding, which is how some people look at it. But I know better. As Matt Warshaw says, “Nobody gives a shit if you’re on the front third of the board. That’s not what people are thinking about when they think nose riding. Nose riding is hanging ten or hanging five, something way, way up there.”

But here’s the thing that has me scratching my head. During all our time together, Wingnut hasn’t ever actually instructed me in the ways of nose riding, the nuts-and-bolts -mechanics of it. He hasn’t directly addressed how much to bend my knees or when to start walking. He’s acted more like a surfing-lifestyle tour guide and an enthusiastic supporter of my hopes, and at that he’s been terrific. And so much about him is contagious. When he starts wearing his beach towel backward around his neck, I do the same. He likes to drink a single beer with his breakfast; I’ve at least thought about doing that, too. But why I’m getting closer to the nose I can’t exactly figure out.

erik hedegaard Robert Weaver surfing multiple sclerosis chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy costa rica
The author, getting close to the nose.

Two days later, our last day before leaving for home, again at Suizo, I’m wondering where the time went and looking down at my feet, the source of all my issues. More than anything, I want to experience that great aha, epiphanic, life-altering moment that leads to all my nose-riding dreams coming true, with me hanging ten or at least five. But there’s only an hour of sunlight left, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.

I look over at Wingnut. He’s blabbing away at some goo-goo-eyed surfer girl, saying, “I’m so hot right now. I’m like Hansel. I’m so hot right now,” and preening in his amusing, self-mocking way. But then he’s paddling in my direction. “You see that one?” I look around absently. “Hey,” he almost shouts. “We’re not here to fuck around. We’re here to catch waves. I like this one. Come on, princess, this one is all you! It’s a corker. It’s a bobby-dazzler!”

I start laughing and paddling and drop down the face of the wave, come around, stall, then walk. Behind me, Wingnut is yelling, “That’s it! That’s it! All the way up! All the way up! Don’t look down. Look where you want to go! Make it happen, motherfucker! It’s the last day!”

I glance at my feet, praying that what I see are ten toes over. Nothing doing. I’m still at least a foot short. Maybe even two.

Back in Rhode Island, the first thing I do is order a new SUP, a very handsome nose rider made by L41, out of Santa Cruz. It’ll have a wide, square tail, lots of tail rocker, a flat midsection, fancy step rails—and Wingnut has already proclaimed it bitchin.’ It’ll be here in a month or two. I can’t wait. And then I’ve got my eye on a board called the Hammer, made by a guy named Wardog, which is known to be a great all-rounder and probably perfect for me if all my further attempts at nose riding only lead me to pound the L41 into fiberglass smithereens on the local rocks.

Meanwhile, I’ve been pondering some things Wingnut told me after our final session. “I really like what you’ve done, but you’ve got a mental roadblock,” he said. “Nothing is stopping you but you. And, again, fuck your feet. They’re not an excuse I’m going to buy. You’ve got to have the right mental attitude, because you can talk yourself into success, or you can talk your way into failure, right?”

Yes, right, and I’ve heard this stuff before, and, yeah, I know, the choice is mine. But I’ve also come to believe that sometimes the choice isn’t yours. I mean this in a good way. Whatever nose-riding progress I made in Costa Rica, I made largely because, when you hang around Wingnut, what you get is Wingnut all the time, Wingnut without end, Wingnut smiling every second of every goddamn day, Wingnut constantly whispering in your ear, “I have faith in you.” At some point, whether you know it or not, whether you even want to or not, you can’t help but start to think that maybe, sometimes, the glass really is half full. His faith becomes your faith. That’s probably what got me so close to the nose in Tamarindo. And, if anything, that’s what’ll one day get me all the way up there. As long as he’s still with me, I know it can be done.

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