What It's Like to Learn to Surf in the Pacific Northwest in Your 30s
An ongoing photo series, "Bad Surfers" documents the brutal but sometimes fruitful quest to log wave time in an unforgiving corner of the country
Nikonos V w 35mm f/2.5 Nikkor lens
Joshua Poehlein is a professional outdoors & editorial photographer, and passionate average-guy athlete based in Renton, WA.
Learning to surf in Washington, in your 30s, while living multiple hours inland, is an exercise in patience. The water is frigid year-round, and the waves, while they most certainly have their shining moments, are fickle, heavily tide-effected, and spread out across hundreds of miles of coastline. Out of towners are lightly tolerated at most spots, and sent packing at others. Ferry rides, long drives, sad towns with pretty sunsets; it all adds to the charm of the search.
After a snowboarding accident in 2017, I bought a Nikonos V off of Craigslist. I couldn’t snowboard, but I’d been doing that for years, so I wasn’t overly upset by that. I was at the beginning of my surfing journey though, and instantly felt an impending sense of FOMO. I dreaded being left behind while my friends continued their efforts to improve, against the odds of age and geography.
I figured the Nikonos would be a good excuse to keep going on trips, as well as a way to get in the water without having to actually stand on a board. Pretty quickly I fell into old (art-school) habits, making portraits, photographing landscapes, making a “body of work.” I kept shooting even after I was all healed up, and though I’ve slowed down as of late, that little orange camera always comes with me when I hop in the car.
"The scale is set differently out here... Logging wave time in the PNW is a battle against the elements in every way imaginable."
For me, if it doesn’t happen in the PNW, it doesn’t count. What I mean by that is the scale is set differently out here. The Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula averages over 140 inches of rain a year, occasionally topping the 200 inch mark. Mt. Baker Ski Area once recorded 95 feet of snow in a single season. Ocean temps range from the low 40s to mid 50s year round, and if there’s a river mouth nearby those numbers can get even lower. Wild open-ocean swells regularly jump breakwalls, flooding beaches and small towns at the end of their path. Logging wave time in the PNW is a battle against the elements in every way imaginable.
I know I’ll likely always be “bad” at surfing, but I also know how much time goes into every wave caught out here. You can’t walk out your door and check the local point break, or at least 99% of the population can’t.
Surf checks begin the week or night before, agonizing over forecasts, multiple phone apps, and wind charts. From the Seattle area, you’re in for at least a two hour drive one way, often double that. And a fair amount of times, you’re just wrong, forced to take in a beautiful, albeit disappointing, view of placid or too turbulent seas.
There’s even a notable dearth in webcams up this way. So when I see someone make a drop, a maneuver, or, extremely-rarely, a barrel, I try to keep in mind how much effort went into just being at that spot, on that day, at that moment. I might venture a little head nod, or a subdued “yew!”, which is something I’ve learned that surfers say.
The effort is a good thing though. It makes the best days even better, and the landscape has a certain fantastical glow when I exit the water. The rain, and the cold, and the currents, and the thick rubber; I’ve come to appreciate these things, not just aesthetically, but as intrinsic to what makes surfing special.
They say hunger is the best spice, and on that point I’d have to agree.