Women, wind and waves: Surfing for adventure

August, 2021

Brian Jarvis leads a beginner’s surfing class for women in Galveston. Pam LeBlanc photo

I haven’t come to Galveston expecting to glide through a barrel-shaped wave or slice down the front of a 20-foot ocean swell. But since Explorer Chick Adventure Company offers two-hour surfing lessons just four hours away in Galveston, I’ve made the quick trip to the beach. 

RELATED: 2021 Texas Beach Guide 

Our group ranges in age from about 30 to 65. We are all shapes and sizes, and all of us have come in search of adventure. An all-female class, I’m hoping, will mean lots of support and zero concern about disheveled hair or smudged mascara. 

Brian Jarvis, a 72-year-old former fisherman and boat captain who started C Sick Surfing Company in 1998, is our instructor, and although the bandana tied over his head makes him look like he belongs on a motorcycle, he’s right at home in the ocean, where he learned to surf nearly 60 years ago. 

“You can really lose yourself in surfing,” he says when I ask him why he loves to surf. “At times I’ll look up at the sky at the end of a wave and say ‘Thanks.’”  

Ready for action 

Cincinatti-based Explorer Chick Adventure Company offers everything from day-long rock climbing adventures to one- and two-week rafting, skiing, backpacking and kayaking trips all around the world. It recently added these Texas surfing lessons to the lineup, and I jumped on the July session. Another is scheduled for Sept. 25.  

“When you show up with a group of women, your walls are already down, and you let yourself push farther,” says Explorer Chick event coordinator Mandi Smith. “Nobody is mansplaining everything and you get a chance to meet like-minded women.” 

Most of the women in our class are from Texas; one, a spin class instructor named Lindsay Marquis, drove seven hours from Oklahoma City for the experience. 

“I love water sports and we just don’t have a lot in Oklahoma, so you have to find it,” says the 34-year-old in a pink one-piece swimsuit. 

At Jarvis’ instruction, we trot down the cement steps to the beach, where we each grab a 10-foot longboard, hoist it overhead and carry it to the shoreline.  

Brian Jarvis instructs a class for Explorer Chick Adventure Company. Pam LeBlanc photo

Jarvis started surfing in 1962. Galveston, he says, is no California, but it’s better for surfing than a lot of places –– Austin, for example, now that NLand Surf Park, the giant wave pool dreamed up by Coors mogul Doug Coors, has closed permanently.  

RELATED: Becoming a birder at Galveston’s FeatherFest 

We’ll be catching gentle waves close to shore during our surfing lessons. There are no underwater boulders or coral formations to worry about; this is just a sand bar beach with waves crafted by the wind. We’re using big, soft top surf boards that float high and remain steady in the water. 

First, though, Jarvis gives us some on-the-sand instruction, explaining the basics of wave formation and the pertinent parts of the surfboard. While our boards are still on the sand, we spend about 15 minutes figuring out how to position ourselves so we’re not tilting to one side or the other. We practice smoothly transitioning from a lying down position to standing up. 

Into the ocean 

Lindsay Marquis carries her surfboard to the beach. Pam LeBlanc photo

Then it’s time to hit the surf, alongside a team of instructors. I dip a toe in the café au lait-colored water. Tepid. I fasten the leash around my ankle, so I don’t lose my board. Then I shuffle into the surf, making sure I don’t plant a foot on an unsuspecting stingray.  

When I reach waist deep water, board in tow, Jarvis holds it steady while I hop on top of it. I shift my body so I’m lined up along the spine of the board, then raise up on my elbows, like I’m ready to do some yoga. As a wave approaches, Jarvis gives me a shove, and hollers at me to paddle. Then I attempt to stand up. 

The board’s nose dips into the water, and I slide off the side. My weight is too far forward. The next time I have better luck. Pretty soon, I can get up reliably, even if just for a few seconds, and the tiny, ankle-slapping waves carry me right to shore. 

Why we do it 

Lindsay Marquis pops up on a surfboard during a beginners class in Galveston. Chris LeBlanc photo

I look around. Some of the women are doing better than others, but everyone gets up, at least for a few seconds. Whenever someone catches a wave, the others cheer. That’s typical of all-women trips, says Explorer Chick communications director Laurie Fontenot.  

“A lot of people attend when they’ve overcome something or have had a big life change,” Fontenot says. “They’ve beaten cancer or lost 100 pounds, the kids just left the house, or they’ve come out of an abusive relationship. They want to be celebrating with other females who’ve been through the same thing.” 

Today, 63 -year-old Joann Van Buren of Houston tells me she signed up for the class to shake things up a bit. “Life is to be explored. I’m like, ‘What’s next?’ I’m healthy. I can do it. I think most people can do it, they just don’t think they can,” she says.

She talked her friend, Karen Knight of Richmond, Texas, whom she has known for more than 20 years, into joining her.  

“We’re at the part of our lives that we want to explore,” Knight says. “The kids are gone, the husband left. Life is short and getting shorter. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it now.” 

One woman yells “cowabunga!” as she pops up on her board. I hear whoops and hollers between crashing waves. We take a 10-minute break to drink water, then I head back into the surf. I can’t get enough.  

“You don’t need to paddle all the way to Dallas,” Jarvis tells me, in his crusty but friendly way. “You follow me? You want enough time to get on your board and get in trim, look over your shoulder and start paddling.”  

I need to let Mother Nature do the work. I try it and get a longer ride. Pretty soon, I can hop on my board without assistance. By the end of class, I can pick out a good wave –– isolated, not a mashup of two coming together –– and catch it on my own. 

Pam LeBlanc rides a wave in Galveston during an all-women surf class. Chris LeBlanc photo

What we learned

After two hours have slipped away, we gather back on the beach.  

“Those are the basics,” Jarvis tells us, and we lean in, waiting for one last tidbit of wisdom from someone who’s been surfing most of his life.  

And then he gives it: “If you become a surfer, you’ve always got a great excuse –– ‘The waves were good.’” That phrase comes in handy whether someone wants you to mow the yard or cook dinner, he jokes. 

We chuckle, but it’s more than that. Surfing gives me another way to connect with nature. Learning a new sport alongside a group of women takes away the intimidation factor. And conquering a wave, even if it’s only a foot or two high, gives me a sense of accomplishment. 

At the end of the day, I’ll take that experience home with me, and it will remind me that I can do things I didn’t know I could do. 

Students listen to tips from surf instructor Brian Jarvis. Chris LeBlanc photo

If You Go

Getting there:

It takes about 4 hours to drive from Austin to Galveston, where C Sick Surfing Company teaches the surf clinics for Explorer Chick. Class meets at the 43rd Street lifeguard stand at Seawall Boulevard.

Stay:

For a splurge, book a room at the Tremont House Hotel, 2300 Ship Mechanic Row Street. Catch live jazz in the hotel’s Toujouse Bar or sip a cocktail on the rooftop lounge. For more information go to www.tremonthouse.com.

Do:

  • For information about all of Explorer Chick’s trips, including the Galveston surfing adventure, go to www.explorerchick.com.

    After your surf class, drive down to East Beach and walk the nature trail to look for birds, or drop by Pier 22 to see the Texas Seaport Museum and the 1877 tall ship ELISSA.

Insider tip:

Wear a long sleeved rash guard when you’re surfing to protect your skin from the sun – and from rubbing on the surfboard.

Eat & Drink:

For dinner, try Hearsay on the Strand, 2410 Strand St. The seared scallops won’t disappoint. For more casual fare, don’t miss Benno’s Cajun Seafood Restaurant, 1212 Seawall Boulevard, for fried ship, oysters and po-boys.

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