'Eddie Would Go,' and So Would I

No ka moana ku'u mele, no nā nalu au e hula ai.

(From the ocean comes my song, of the waves I dance my dance.)

I am still glowing from what, for me, constitutes the perfect vacation: a week surfing in Hawai'i. I spent each day surfing about four or five hours a day, and the night listening to Hawaiian music and drinking Mai Tais. (I skipped the part about popping Advil non-stop and slathering on Mineral Ice for sore muscles from all that surfing.) As I always do after a good surf fest, I have had time to reflect on what surfing has done for me as a person -- how it changed my life, maybe even saved my life.

Sometimes, when I meet people at security conferences -- particularly women -- they comment on how much self-confidence I seem to have. Friends who have known me a long time know very well that that is not true. First of all, I still have my share of insecurities like any other person. Second, I guess it is a good time to 'fess up that I never had any confidence in myself until I learned to surf. I am really grateful for the friend who taught me to surf (Mahalo nui loa, e ku'u koaloha Keli!) and for the "bros" I have found out in the lineup: the people who hooted me into waves, told me to go for it, gave up a wave so I could catch it, and encouraged me even after particularly nasty wipeouts. Surfing gave me confidence that I could take risks; surfing taught me to face my fears in lots of aspects of life.

In particular, a surf buddette of mine gave me advice a long time ago that turned out to be good life advice: "You know, you can take off on a bigger wave than you think you can." Surfing is all about conquering fear; in fact, it is about embracing your fear, because even though there is always another wave you could catch if you back out of one, you are absolutely, positively guaranteed to miss 100% of the waves you do not go for. And you will never get a second chance to catch the exact wave you wussed on. My biggest regrets out in the lineup are not after a wipeout, but over the waves I chickened out of, that I could have "made" if I had just paddled for it and had confidence that I could make the wave. While you need the judgment to know which waves are "makeable" -- can be surfed -- and which not, you also need to embrace the concept of Going For It. (There are surf shirts that are proudly emblazoned 'Eddie Would Go,' in homage to Eddie Aikau, a big wave surfer who died swimming for shore after a boat he was on capsized. Eddie would and did indeed Go For It and inspires surfers to this day.)

After I started surfing, I found that I had courage in other areas of my life that I never had before. I realized that you build confidence by taking risks, not by letting waves pass you by. I was willing to Go For It a lot more often than not: everything from trying new sports (and I am not naturally an athlete; really, I am a natural klutz) I decided I was going to be killer at, like cross-country skiing to taking more risks at work. Surfing gave me the courage to take on the role of Chief Security Officer and to repeat that little mantra in my head: "You can take off on a bigger wave than you think you can." I have mostly ceased looking at life as a series of potential wipeouts, and started looking at life as a series of potential great waves. All because I learned to surf.

On this trip, I faced up to a particular fear, which is taking off at the peak. You can catch waves at a lot of stages. You can catch a wave after it has broken and has started to "re-form" after breaking the first time. Typically, beginners learn to surf by hopping up on waves that are already broken and will push them right along. You can surf by catching a shoulder of a wave (i.e., not where the wave is starting to fall over and is most steep, but farther over where the wave is less likely to pitch you down the face if you don't catch it just right). But if you want the biggest drop down the face of the wave, the biggest adrenaline rush, and more importantly, if you want the maximum power from the wave, and the most choices as to whether to go right or left on the wave, you need to catch it at the peak.

Catching it at the peak requires better judgment, requires you to look behind at how the wave is forming, and to be flexible physically and mentally. Take another stroke, or not? Slow down a split second to wait for the wave, or not? And you need to be fast to your feet: when you feel the wave catch the board, you have to pop up and lean into the wave -- commit to it heart and soul -- quickly. When you catch the wave just right, the freefall down the face is effortless. You are riding pure energy, because as everyone who has studied physics knows, it isn't the water that really moves, it is the energy of the wave that does. Raw power. Once you experience that feeling of weightlessness as you drop down the face of a wave, you know you would do anything to experience it again. It requires taking the maximum risk for the maximum joy. Nui ka maka'u; nui ka hau'oli (Big-the-fear;big-the-happiness.)

I caught some truly excellent waves last week, at the peak, and floated down the face in moments of perfect joy that will live with me forever. Nui ka hau'oli.

There's another thing about surfing that is unlike every other sport I have tried and unlike most things in life: you remember every great wave, every beautiful sunset, every honu (sea turtle) that came up to you, every nai'a (dolphin) that ever surfed the same wave with you. These are sacred moments and you treasure them in your heart. For the times I am travelling too much, or are too sleep deprived, or frustrated in traffic or at work, I relive those moments in the ocean. And when I get out of the water after a really good surf session, all my problems just seem to melt away. I can face them with equanimity.

For the Hawaiians, surfing was part of their culture and of their religion. For example, once you selected a tree for your surfboard (papa he'e nalu), a board builder would dig a hole near the roots and put a fish in the hole as a prayer/offering to the gods for the tree he was about to take to shape the board. Hawaiians also prayed for surf (an experience that, believe me, is as old as the sport). When the sea was flat, they would pick a pohuehue vine (beach morning glory), beat the water into ripples and chant:

Ku mai! Ku mai! Ka nalu nui mai Kahiki mai!
(Arise, arise you great surfs from Kahiki [Tahiti!])

Alo po i pu! Ku mai ka pohuehue,
(The powerful curling waves. Arise with the pohuehue)

Hu! Kai ko'o Loa.
(Well up, long raging surf!)

(I confess, on one trip to Hawai'i when the surf was flat, I did indeed rip a section of pohuehue off a plant, beat the water, and say the above chant. I am sure it was purely coincidence, but a new swell arrived the very next day!)

Surfing also is a subject of many traditional Hawaiian songs. "He'eia," for example, is about surfing the waves at He'eia. (I might add, like many Hawaiian songs, what you think the song is about is only one layer of meaning; what the song is really about is something else. "He'eia" is actually sort of kolohe (naughty).) Surfing is a lot like that song: it's not really about the waves; it is about something else: the entire experience of wind, sun and water. Feeling the swells, like the heartbeat of the ocean, seeing the beauty around you, and the aloha of sharing waves with others.

Despite my love of all things Hawaiian, I do not worship the Hawaiian gods. I do, however, believe on very solid authority that God went surfing before Creation:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)

"The spirit of God moving over the waters" is as perfect a description of surfing as there ever was. E ke Akua, mahalo nui loa nō nā nalu!

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Mary Ann, Glad you have found something to be passionate about, surfing and the Hawaiian language, besides your career. Is Stan Antrim still the skipper of your boss's yacht? He was a youngster in 16th company when I was a plebe. Do you still play squash? Unfortunately in rural Missouri, where I live, the nearest court is 90 miles away in St. Louis. I bang a tennis ball around occasionally with my son, Andrew (17)but he has gotten too fast for me to keep up with. I stumbled across your name while I was doing some web surfing on Internet security and was surprised to find out it was my old friend, Mary Ann Davidson from Field Support Activity days. Best wishes for continued success, Drew

Posted by Drew Dodenhoff on June 14, 2006 at 04:01 AM PDT #

Hi Mary Ann- I LOVE the fact that you are a female surfing Chief Security Officer at Oracle! I am a big believer in the diffusion theory. Thank you for sharing a bit about your experience with the spirituality of the sport. I'm a professor of cultural anthropology studying Native Hawaiian women's surfing as a healing practice. Let me know if you're interested in talking more about your experiences and learning about the project. Mahalo, Liz

Posted by Liz Strober on June 05, 2007 at 05:02 AM PDT #

Thank you. That really resonated within me.

Posted by CJ on June 26, 2009 at 11:53 PM PDT #

Mary What a nice surprise to see another leading security professional seriously committed to the surfing lifestyle and culture. I am impressed. I hope to catch a session with you one of these days. Mahalo Snake

Posted by Bruce on December 16, 2009 at 09:32 PM PST #

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