A lot of people suffer from fear of the ocean, also known as thalassophobia. It can be hard to surf when you’re afraid of the sea! There’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that your fear won’t disappear overnight, and might never completely disappear.
The GOOD news is that your fear can mostly be conquered and turned into healthy respect, which is something that is vitally important when dealing with the ocean. With time and dedication, anyone can turn their fear of the ocean into the pure joy of surfing on four-foot waves and beyond!
My Story…I Used To Be Terrified Of The Ocean
Would you believe that I was terrified of the ocean as a little kid? It might sound a little strange, but because of this hurdle surfing has become one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
When I started surfing I had a bigger-than-normal fear of the ocean. When I was little I had gone to the beach with my summer camp and I was knocked over by a wave. I was dragged a little by the water as it drained back out to sea, and I was convinced I was a goner.
Well, I survived that experience, but ever since then I had been quite scared of the ocean. I was never a risk taker, and to this day I still have a personality that doesn’t like to take risks.
I also wasn’t a water baby. I actually didn’t like the beach much when I was a little kid. Sound strange? Well, things change as you get older :). I realized that I lived five minutes from the beach and most people would give their right arm to live in such a great location.
A Desire To Overcome Thalassophobia
My desire to learn to surf stemmed from a few different things. A few people I looked up to were surfers. I loved snowboarding, and surfing seemed to be pretty similar. (I actually came to like surfing better than snowboarding!) Also, because of my fear of the ocean, I thought surfers were pretty much the bravest people in the world.
I remember being a little kid at the beach looking at the surfers floating out beyond the breakers and thinking, “How can they do that? That’s so scary!” All of a sudden, I wanted to join them.
The first year I surfed I was horrified of tiny one foot crumblers. Yes, it’s true. I don’t like to admit it. It was fear of the ocean to the extreme. However, now that I can routinely surf in 4-5 foot surf with confidence I love to look back on those days and see how far I’ve come.
I had to get over my fear of the ocean gradually. The first time I got tumbled by a little 2 foot wave I came up spluttering and thrashing, thinking that it was the most extreme experience in the world. Spoiler: I’ve since learned that it’s not ;).
What Is Your Fear Rooted In?
People have different reasons for having thalassophobia. There is fear of deep water, fear of sea creatures, fear of water in general, fear of not being able to see what is under you, fear of deep bodies of water, fear of drowning, and more. Some of these are more rational than others, and it’s important to know where your fear is coming from in order to combat it.
This article deals mostly with exposure therapy, which is a core tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy. I am a strong believer in the power of this process. Even though I’ve come a long way, if I don’t go in the ocean for a long period of time I regress a bit and I have to start small again and work my way back up. It takes much less time for me to do that now, but I just want to point out that sometimes eliminating fear is not a reasonable goal – however, reducing fear to manageable levels is!
Start With Easy Steps
If you’re not comfortable in the ocean, you might want to take a couple of weeks to acquaint yourself with the waves. Get yourself a bodyboard and go boogie boarding! This is an excellent way for people who might be a little nervous in the ocean to get used to it. This was my first step in learning how to surf.
A bodyboard is light and soft, so if you wipe out you don’t have to worry about it hitting you in the head. It’s also a perfect tool to learn how to catch waves. You don’t have to worry about standing up—you just have to hang on! Even some advanced surfers like to bodyboard once in a while. It puts you closer to the water, and every wave is overhead!
Take Your Time
Getting over a fear of the ocean is a gradual experience. Always listen to your gut instincts, too. Believe me, I know how frustrating it is to sit at the shore for hours debating whether or not to get in the water, and then deciding that it’s too scary and going home with my tail between my legs. It’s demoralizing and embarrassing. But it’s also no good to be out in surf that is so terrifying to you that you start to panic. Panic is bad, especially in the ocean.
Sometimes you have to override your self-preservation instincts just a little at first, especially in the beginning when 1-2 foot waves are frightening. Eventually, as you conquer the 1-2 footers it becomes more important to listen to your gut instinct. When the waves get beyond three feet the power increases exponentially. (So does the fun, but don’t worry, you’ll get there!)
The Right Mentality
The right mentality before you enter the water should be a little nervous, but also excited to get out there. It’s a nervous excitement where the excitement is just a little bigger than the nerves. If you get out of your car and the conditions inspire flat out fear and a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, you probably shouldn’t paddle out. You won’t make the right decisions in the water and you’ll put yourself and others in danger.
Eventually, after surfing 1-2 foot ankle biters, you’ll come to the beach on a warm sunny day and see 3 foot lines peeling gently across the beach. They look a bit bigger than anything you’ve surfed before, but you’ve been working on your duck dives and turtle rolls, and you’ve learned how to stand up pretty well. You’re a little nervous, but after observing the waves and currents for a bit it looks so darn fun that you grab your board and jump in with a big grin!
That’s how it works. You’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish.
Putting It All Together
Getting over your fear of the ocean involves taking small, well-educated risks. If you take the time to learn how to swim properly, observe the ocean and currents, and learn about the other associated risks and dangers, you’re probably better off than half the surfers out there who don’t think about their safety!
One last word: caution is great when you’re surfing, but once you decide to go for a wave—-go for it! Injury often comes as a result of not committing to the wave, especially for beginners. It’s so easy to decide at the last second to bail out, but this puts you in a precarious position, with the wave about to break on you and the board not under control.
I will admit to chickening out on waves sometimes—especially those late drops—and it’s a bad habit I don’t like. I think it’s especially difficult for people who have a fear of the ocean and get scared of big waves. If you can work on this now, it will be less of an issue in the future.
Steps to get over your fear of the ocean:
1.) Learn how to swim
2.) Learn about currents, tides, and waves
3.) Take a bodyboard out and learn how the ocean works firsthand
4.) Start surfing on tiny 1-2 foot beachbreak waves near (but not in front of) lifeguards
5.) Go surfing with friends
6.) Learn how to read your fear—is it just nervous excitement or flat out fear?
7.) If you start to get scared out there, smile, and remember that surfing is fun!