In the 1991 surf-heist movie Point Break, Keanu Reeves learns how to ride waves in a day. My own experience is a little different. On my first attempt, I banana-skid backwards off my board, catapult into the foam, and swallow about a pint of brine. Next, I dive face-first into the waves; a process known as “pearling.” The phrase sounds almost glamorous when my teacher, Mary Osborne, says it. But I can assure you it is not.
A professional long-boarder for over twenty years, Osborne lives for adventure. She’s surfed the Silver Dragon tidal bore in China; led humanitarian missions to El Salvador; and joined environmental scientists on a 15,000-mile research cruise from Brazil to South Africa. She also happens to be married to Mel Gibson’s stunt double, Lance Gilbert. (“He proposed to me in a helicopter. He was down on one knee, suspended on a rope, hanging a hundred meters above the ocean.”)
All this burly bravado is making me feel a little intimidated. After all, I’m here in Ventura, California, with my two teenage sons to learn the basics, and we all have beginners’ nerves. Of course, Osborne is uniquely qualified for the job. Not only has she won the Malibu Surf Championships, she has decades of experience teaching teens—both here in Ventura, and at her Teen Giveback Escapes in Costa Rica and Panama. These week-long camps include daily surf lessons, as well as time spent helping out at local schools and orphanages.
My sons and I may not be ready for Panamanian tube-riding just yet, but we’re keen to get started. Our first lesson is on Solimar Beach. The waves here are relatively small and gentle: the perfect spot for rookies like us. “This is where I grew up,” Osborne says, as we squeeze into our wetsuits. “We get swells from Mexico, from Alaska, from Hawai’i. Ventura has very consistent surf all year round.”
After a quick demo on how to “pop up” on our boards, we paddle out into the waves. Unlike Dad, the boys are naturals. By the end of the hour-long lesson, they’re both standing up and maneuvering from side to side. Watching them with a confusing mix of envy and pride, I’m beginning to suspect I’m a hopeless case.
“It’s a hard sport because you’re dealing with Mother Nature,” Osborne kindly offers. “Maybe you’re going to get a perfect wave, or maybe you’re not going to get a wave at all. It’s not like skiing or tennis where you just go. With surfing, there’s a lot of factors you don’t have control over.”
For me, the sport holds an almost mystical allure. Growing up in rainy England, I was transfixed by The Endless Summer (1966) and Big Wednesday (1978), watching slack-jawed as infeasibly tanned Californians sliced through waves like knives through butter. I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, and it felt like high time we sampled surfing as a family. My kids are already in their teens; if we don’t try now, we never will.
The first lesson had been challenging—but I had to admit I was feeling good. It was invigorating to be out on the water, and there was a pronounced rush of endorphins after the fact. The boys were clearly triumphant. And for now, I was happy to live vicariously.
The following day, we join Osborne, Gilbert, and their two-year-old son, Stetson, for lunch. Arriving at Sloan Ranch–a 4,500-acre estate about twenty minutes inland–we’re whisked off to a sun-kissed hilltop where a table is set in the long grass. Hawks wheel overhead, and the ocean glimmers on the misty horizon. I quiz Osborne about her own surf roots: “I had two older brothers who were really into long-boarding, and of course, I just wanted to do whatever they were doing,” she says. “I was always competing with the guys. When I started out as a pro in 2001, there weren’t even enough girls to make up a division. Nowadays, there’s lots more women’s events.”
Mary’s own experience coming up as a professional surfer led her to launch her Teen Surfari camp, aimed at girls aged 11 to 15. Through a packed program of ocean-based activities, there’s a focus on building confidence and unleashing raw talent, with women athletes and adventurers invited to speak about their own career paths. “We’ve had pro-race car drivers like Teegan Hammond; ski champions like Grete Eliassen; and big wave surfers like Bianca Valenti,” she says. “It’s a real eye-opener for some of these young women; a chance for them to explore different avenues in life.”
I have to be honest: as an anxious parent, part of me is praying my kids don’t end up as big wave surfers. This afternoon’s final lesson has all the hallmarks of a bonding experience, but it’s hard to achieve it with my mind racing, and my palms sweating, over both my and their own wellbeing.
“Does anxiety get in the way of surfing?” I ask Osborne, as we snake down the highway back towards the ominous Pacific.
“I encourage people to be present and let go of their fears out there on the waves,” she says. “Surfing is definitely therapeutic. It’s a sport that allows you to be vulnerable.”
Arriving at Mondos Beach, I’m feeling pretty vulnerable myself. Osborne senses my jitters, and gives my arm a reassuring squeeze. Her positivity is infectious, and after a few false starts, I find I can actually stand up on my board. It’s not much, but it feels like a secret triumph: a nanosecond of pure joy before the inevitable belly-flop into the blue.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler