Lifestyles in military retirement: surfing

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“Your assignment officer wants to send us to… Hawaii?!?”

When we arrived here over 20 years ago, Hawaii seemed like a consolation prize for military who couldn’t get orders to San Diego. Spouse and I spent our first eight years at duty stations on the East Coast and in Europe. Graduate school in Monterey, CA was fantastic but we didn’t see any reason to move further west. San Diego had a nice climate, small-town charm among a big-city infrastructure, and plenty of billets for follow-on orders. We were positive that it was the best place to continue our careers and maybe start a family.

So we were transferred to Hawaii.

Barely a week after I reported aboard my new submarine, we departed for eight weeks in the far northwest Pacific. I learned a lot and I was having a (mostly) great time, but this operational tempo continued for the next 30 months. I had so little time inport that I used to get lost on Hawaii’s local roads, but I’d memorized all the course changes to navigate down the Pearl Harbor channel and I was familiar with most of the Western Pacific. When we had enough liberty time for fun, spouse and I were snorkeling and diving or just lazing on the beach. Surfing was something that other people did.

Eventually I rotated to shore duty and made one of the biggest mistakes of my life– going to an operations staff. I learned a lot but I was having a (thoroughly) miserable time, and the 24/7 operational tempo continued for another 25 months. I was barely home on nights and weekends, let alone playing in the water. I still remember, though, that one of the staff took leave just because a big south swell was coming and he wanted to go surfing. To me that seemed like a strange reason to burn leave.

After nearly five years in Hawaii we finally transferred to our dream homeport: San Diego! We were looking forward to Mainland life again and we’d expected to leave behind fond memories of the islands, but a funny thing happened– we really missed our tropical lifestyle. We’d lost all our tolerance for cool weather and even the snorkeling was chilly. I remember looking out the windows of my Point Loma office and seeing surfers bobbing in the swell. They looked pretty miserable in those wetsuits.

Three years later we finally got back to Hawaii and happily resumed our old lifestyle.  (Nope, we’re not planning to move again.) I was on the glide slope to retirement (just over four years away) but there was plenty to do at my command, and at home we were raising a family. Most of our liberty was spent on small-kid beaches where the surf wouldn’t be a threat to anyone.

But during this tour I finally had the time to notice the surfing lifestyle that had always been around me. Staff used to joke about calling in sick with a four-to-six-foot fever. Morning meetings would start with a discussion about the surf conditions observed while sitting in traffic. Everyone took leave to go surfing during big swells, and they took a lot of leave. As our kid progressed through the elementary school system, we all began to learn about modern Hawaii history and the great surfers of the 19th and 20th centuries. My eyes were slowly opened to the surfing culture.

When it became publicly known that my military retirement plans did not include starting another career, my shipmates were skeptical: “Whaddya gonna do, Nords, surf all day?!?” Mostly as a joke I signed up for family surfing lessons on the day that my retirement became official.

It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Some hard paddling, a shove from the instructor, a wobbly rise to my feet, and suddenly I was the tallest- and fastest-moving object on the water. The ride was over all too quickly and I kept going back for more as long as my shoulder muscles held out. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was, and it was an irresistible challenge. I had so much to learn, so many muscles to build up, and all sorts of new skills to practice. Every wave was different, the workout was great, interesting things happened on every ride, and the adrenaline rush was unbelievable. I was stoked for life.

I’ve been surfing that break for over eight years. Every wave is still different yet every one still gives me that same feeling. I hope I’m surfing for another 40 years.

Today, every morning starts with the surf forecast. Most weeks I’m on dawn patrol a couple times, and some weeks I’m out there three or four times. I’m always reading about other surf breaks or different techniques or new styles. I can’t sit still when I see a surf video. We have three different boards but we “need” more. The history and technology of surfing is fascinating, and I even geek out with surfing encyclopedias to appreciate the history and the culture. Last year my daughter and I had our fantasy Christmas present– five straight days at surf school with Myles Padaca and Pancho Sullivan, who showed us all the famous breaks we’ve wanted to learn on the North Shore. I still have more enthusiasm than skill but now I’m a lot better at handling 15-foot waves.

The fence line at White Plains Beach, Kalaeloa, Oahu

Another tough day at the beach...

It’s possible that someday the novelty will wear thin, however I’m skeptical about the boredom. I may be adequate with a longboard in eight-foot waves but I have a lot to learn about shortboards and bigger surf. I’ve barely explored Oahu’s top ten breaks, let alone the rest of the Pacific or the world. I haven’t even made the time to try stand-up paddleboarding, and windsailing or kitesurfing may have to wait another decade. Surfing has been a great way to teach our kid about life, and those father-daughter waves are some of my happiest memories. I’m having way too much fun to worry about boredom.

We’re still stoked for life.

The retirement lesson here is that you’ll always be exploring new interests and different activities. You may need years to develop a special interest, or something will grab you on the first attempt. You’ll still have days when you don’t want to do anything, but you’ll NEVER have a day when you can’t find something to do. One of the top three concerns of all new retirees is the “What will I do all day?!?” question. By the second week of retirement, they’re all wondering what the heck they were worrying about…



WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

10 Comments
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  9. Reply
    Doug Nordman November 4, 2010 at 8:31 AM

    Yep, and I learned an epically awesome foreign language too!

  10. Reply
    Jerome Jolly MM1(SS) November 4, 2010 at 8:13 AM

    Narly duuuude…

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