My tempestuous relationship with surfing and a strong case for travel insurance

It was about this time last year when I found myself walking the silky sands of Waikiki about to make a very bad decision.

Our surf tutor – his name was Fritz; tall and long-haired with the almost-blended Polynesian/Japanese look that is unique to Hawaiians – had told us not to go out. “Too many kooks,” he said. He had a smattering dark day-old stubble that made me think he was in his early twenties and I suspect twenty of those years were spent surfing that very beach.

He stood on the shore, arms crossed, narrowing his eyes at the clusters of tourists wandering down to the water. They wore matching surf school rash shirts and struggled with matching blue single fin longboards.

We weren’t beginners – just part-time surfers at a different beach in a different country on different boards. I have been flirting with surfing since I was a teenager and it was an option for an outdoor activity at our high school on Wednesday afternoons with a teacher we nicknamed “Poppanopsicle”. In the thirteen years since then, with a variety of boards – from pink to orange to short or long – I still only manage to surf rights and get scared when it’s too big, too choppy – and now, after this fateful day – too busy.

My brother, however, is particularly talented. Now I would never tell him this because I often only tell other people how cool he is. I spent most of my time telling him how much he sucks and trying to give him dead arms. One of our brawls resulted in him falling into an open dishwasher and, if I hadn’t grabbed his hand in time – just like a scene out of the Lion King – a bread knife probably would have severed one of the arteries in his leg. Just remember that, Thomas.

My little brother Thomas

Back to Fritz. We’d had a lesson with him the day earlier. But on this day, the day where I made a bad decision, he wouldn’t even rent us the boards. So, we took our very expensive (the exchange rate was particularly bad) US dollars further down the beach. I’m sorry for ever doubting you Fritz.

The first few waves were fine but the ocean was far choppier than the previous day and there were more people out. Then a big set came in.  I started paddling, slowly at first, then a little faster, to the unbroken section of the first wave of the set. Then came the second wave, and with it, a blonde girl in a highlighter pink rash shirt on a 12 ft Malibu longboard sideways, straight into my face. I remember a big crack and my teeth feeling weird, then not much. Water, blood, lifeguards, anger at the girl who hit me, walking, towels, blood, hospital.

The board had cracked the top of my nose, breaking the bone and splitting a gash open straight across my face. I had a military doctor clean it with some weird fan dangled hose – there had been a sewage spill a week earlier; 500,000-gallons of human excrement – then numb it (painful), X-ray it (relatively uncomfortable) and stitch it together (some twisted form of abuse). With a month’s supply of Vicodin (better) and gauze over half my face (bearable) the doctors released me, with the bill – about NZD$2500 – sent straight to my travel insurer.

Back in New Zealand, doctors first attempted to straighten my nose by just breaking it with their bare hands. This is apparently standard practice, and of this, I am not convinced. Firstly, when you go to a hospital, you do not expect a young-looking doctor wearing Nike Roshes to just put her hand on the side of your face and PUSH. Secondly, she PUSHED too far, so my nose became S-shaped, and thirdly, without warning or painkillers. This was a job for Vicodin, I felt.

With my nose now bent too far the other way, and rather prominent scars on my face (quite daunting for a female – there’s only so much one can FaceTune), surgery was the only option. After a few months waiting for one of Auckland’s top surgeons – and a good part of summer to pass – I had a septorhinoplasty. This procedure involves a surgeon cutting under the nostrils to peel the nose back in order to chisel and straighten bones and cartilage and whatever else is up there in that part of your face. I YouTubed the procedure like some sick and twisted voyeur and I still regret it to this day.

The recovery was awful – I had to stuff gauze up there and couldn’t breathe and looked like I’d completed eight rounds of Muay Thai with a heavyweight champion. I went back to work far too early and I distinctly remember interviewing someone with my gauze falling off and flapping about under my nose and tears streaming from eyes. I pushed through. After about a week, I could start to breathe again.

Fast forward a year and I have only really started looking at getting back into surfing. And when I say that, my last surf at Piha consisted of paddling in one spot for about 20 minutes, so there was no concern about being hit by anyone – I couldn’t even get out the back, but I also couldn’t catch any waves. Baby steps, I tell myself. Baby steps. It’s like a tempestuous relationship with an old boyfriend that you can’t seem to shake.

The scars have also almost faded, which is cool. And I will never ever, ever fly anywhere without comprehensive travel insurance.

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