Surfway to Heaven

Discovering the joys of riding waves in Malibu—and beyond

WRITTEN BY KATHLEEN LACCINOLE | ILLUSTRATED BY CHRISTINE GEORGIADES


We spend much of our childhood learning things and much of our adult life learning to be afraid of things: earthquakes, cancer, war, boogeymen. For me, it’s the ocean—my invitation to death, my one-way ticket to heaven. I’d been working on this one for a lifetime.

I grew up in Calabasas at a time when the rigors of high school consisted of a few classes, a job at Sears and marinating the perfect tan. After school was a drive to Zuma to oil up and flop down. But I’d only watch the surfers in their fearless, fascinating water dance. Giving it a try never entered my mind. I’d dip a toe and frolic in the foam, but going in further terrified me.

As I journeyed into real life, surfing remained my forbidden desire—the bad boy who’d give you a beer, a cigarette and then your first kiss. Except for me the kiss never came, and my obsession grew.

When my son started surfing, there was an ache of unrequited love, growing more intense as I tipped toward the second half of life when one starts looking behind instead of forward.

I’d hit the bucket list phase, and at the very top was surfing. I’d stockpiled too many regrets and “what-ifs” to let this one go.

I began to train, pulling my hips from retirement while hoping for the miracle that would get this water-phobic gal up on a piece of foam that floated on waves and spit me back onto land alive. The stars aligned and my friend fell in love with her surf instructor. “Come out Sunday. Travis wants to put you on a board,” she said.

Everything moved slowly, yet happened quickly—dreamlike, on the gurney and being rolled into open-heart surgery. He zipped me into a wetsuit. It’s happening too fast. We dragged boards to the water. Hang on! He wrapped a leash round my ankle. But, but … and out we went.

That’s when everything changed.

The water wasn’t as cold as I’d imagined. I could swim. We paddled on our stomachs. A wave headed towards us. We arched into upward dog and the wave slid under. It was a miracle.

I tried to get up. Fell … and fell again. I cried. Tried more. Fell more. I got seasick. Went home. Cried. Threw up.

Then I did it all over again.

I didn’t die.

I learned seasickness was normal. Vomiting okay. I learned about the pecking order. To not put down my feet. Dive into the horizon. Push away the board. Cover your head. Swim under the waves if they’re too big. I marveled at the museum-worthy bruises that appeared on my legs at night. I saw seals, dolphins and learned the names of the other surfers. I forgot to be afraid.

The first time I got up, heard the rush of the wave and the surfers cheering—I was hooked. And the first time I surfed with my son, I stopped looking backwards.

I still fall a lot. But falling helps me stop thinking about my slips, falls, breakups and bad choices. Now if I fall, there’s a soft ocean to catch me.

And the early morning drive to Malibu, with clouds dripping over mountains like marshmallow fluff, opening to an expanse of sea and sky blue, is indeed my one-way ticket to heaven.


Kathleen Laccinole is a freelance writer. Her endeavors include writing under the pseudonym of dating expert P. Charlotte Lindsay. More at kathleenlaccinole.com and pcharlottelindsay.com.