Mahalo Success Stories
Ben and the Other 90%
Words by Kim Feldmann de Britto | Pictures by Melanie Bonella
Much like we all have our own life stories, we have our own surf stories. We all began and evolved in different ways, at various paces, our passion for the sport sprouting from different seeds, our connection with the ocean and the culture weaving in a personal manner. For Mahalo’s long-time client and friend, Ben, this journey has been one of fortuity/chance encounters – and following his gut.
Born in Florida but raised in several distinct coastal locations, Ben is one of those people who took up surfing when already in adulthood. His relationship with the ocean, however, began at an early age through sailing, and in the winter of 2013, after a sailing job took him to the Caribbean, he found himself stuck in the Dominican Republic. During a stay at a surf hostel, Ben rented a big foam board and paddled out to figure this surfing-thing out.
Although this first official contact with surfing at the age of 23 was nowhere near as easy as he’d thought, the sense of playfulness – something the environment of professional sailing lacked – seeped into his skin and got him hooked. After a few surf lessons, Ben learned the ins and outs of wave-riding and was able to glide on an unbroken wave.
“I think that was the real moment when I decided I would get as much of that feeling as possible.”
Despite this newborn passion, Ben’s knowledge of surfing was still insignificant and he was unaware of all the great opportunities he had to keep pursuing the sport in Europe, where he had been living. On his last days in the Dominican Republic, Ben bumped into an old, well-travelled surfer who, by sharing a comprehensive list of spots, changed the course of his [surf] life forever.
“He had travelled a lot and I was amazed by all the places he had gone to in search of waves. After that encounter, I left the Dominican Republic motivated to try surfing at my next chance, and a list of places to surf and stay within my range in Europe that I could make happen.”
Getting into Flow
Getting back to Europe meant getting back to his “real responsibilities” in the UK. It took Ben six months to pull out the list and begin to plan a surf trip; trying to match the spots with his budget he decided upon Portugal – a place he’d never considered visiting up until then. With his return flight booked for a week, Ben made the most of the intensive beginners program at the surf camp and free equipment, spending an average of 6 hours in the water every day.
“I’ll never forget those two weeks because Peniche offered up some of the best conditions a beginner can ask for. I learned how to paddle for and catch unbroken waves, began to traverse the faces rather than just drop straight forward and then even was allowed to have my first tries on a hard surfboard rather than just a foam one. That was a huge milestone for me as the sensations of glide and speed were much more than that of the 9-foot foam boards I had experienced up to that point.”
Aware of his improvements Ben also became aware of what else he had to improve: he lacked balance and flexibility and his paddling resembled a cat trying not to drown, skills he realised the advanced surfers he was watching had honed. Knowing he’d be away from the ocean for at least another six months, he focused on these points and began surf-skating as a means to practice surf movements on land, whilst also spending countless hours studying surf instructional videos on YouTube.
“I believe you can never be sure how much more joy there is to unlock if you focus on it. I knew I wanted to be ready to progress my levels of fun and comfort in doing so the next time I came for a surfing trip.”
After six months of being back to his normal life, Ben went through his list again. This time the needle pointed to Morocco – but an ugly wipe-out while skating gave him a knee injury which forced him to stay at home. By the time his injury healed four months later, Ben had learned about swell seasons and figured that the best option for a surf trip would be again Portugal. With his technique knowledge broadened and his physical condition improved, Ben began to explore the different breaks in the multifarious Peniche region and get his head around what makes a wave break.
“In comparison to the busy peak summers, this time Peniche was calm, line-ups were more empty, and best of all, I had coaches to myself as there were far fewer guests. It was relaxed in low season, with some more difficult conditions to contend and work with, easy and busy in the summers with plenty of entertainment for between sessions. I’m a big fan of seafaring towns and relaxed, slow pace places, and I’m not sure if there is a better spot in Europe.”
When paths cross
“Felippe has been an integral part of my path since 2013. He was one of the coaches that pushed me into my first waves on that first surf camp I joined; one of the guys who helped me get that summer job; one of the people I could always ask questions and look up to as a surfer as well as the way he lived his life. We have had many conversations about god knows what all – probably mostly surfing – we were neighbours for three years and I took my first real surf trip with him.”
This ‘first real surf trip’, travelling by car from Portugal to Morocco, was also the next step in Ben’s evolution, improving not only his skills but expanding his range of comfort in different waves.
“I managed to feel my surfboards do things under my feet that I hadn’t felt before, and realized that change and variety in the waves we surf can help get us out of our routines and habits, if evolution is what you are after.”
Since the Morocco trip, Ben has gone in a few Mahalo experiences to the Maldives – yet another place that offered a completely different setup to the beach breaks he was mostly used to in Portugal.
“First of all the line-ups are often empty. For a change, I could consider going for the good set waves. It was something I had to work on, saving my energy for the better waves rather than paddling for anything that came at me. The consistency of those waves allowed me to try something, see the photographs or videos immediately afterwards, and realize how much I was doing wrong or how much worse it looked than it felt.”
And it was also in the consistency of the waves, or rather the possibility to break down performance challenges step-by-step, that Ben witnessed that ‘fun factor’ of surfing pick up a level – a cycle of motivation where the better and more empty the waves the more naturally and faster you get through each learning cycle. Returning more than once with Felippe to the Maldives, Ben could see clearly how his own surfing had changed by looking back on photos and videos from previous trips and noticing how differently he drew the line on those particular waves.
“It’s great to see the evolution of where my focus is on a wave, the boards I’m getting to experience, the comfort level in more challenging waves and conditions rising bit by bit. Those are all aspects that feed into the overall “fun factor” for me. Those trips were also always together with like-minded and great people, all motivated to learn and progress. It’s something special to connect with all different types of people through the joy of surfing. I think all of that, together with the great food and surreal scenery, is what makes any surf trip with Mahalo worthwhile.”
“I think about learning surfing the same way I think about learning anything. I believe the beginning of any learning process starts with identification: You need to identify what it is you are actually about to try and learn, what it takes to do that and how you can break it down into achievable steps. Once I have gotten through that I move on to being brutally honest about myself and my situation concerning what it is I want to learn. I ask myself ‘What is it about me or my situation that is holding me back from getting through my first step and on to the next ones, and how do I change accordingly?’”
For Ben, when it comes to evolving in surfing, nothing beats time spent in the water. Because the ocean is an ever-changing environment, to become more comfortable with wave riding a surfer needs to familiarise himself/herself with the sea in as many conditions as possible. Plus, acknowledging that he’s not a kinaesthetic kind of learner, compelled Ben to break the process down into steps so as to optimise his learning curve, often meaning that he stands as an observer.
“I’ve spent countless hours in line-ups that were beyond my level of surfing with no intention of actually trying to surf. I did it just to have a close-up view of what good surfers were doing in those conditions. I also use these opportunities to learn how to move in line-ups and stay out of peoples way. Over the years, the definition of what is “beyond my level” evolved and I think this a great method to stay inspired and motivated.”
Another crucial aspect in Ben’s surfing life has been to surround himself with the environment and people who foster his goals. Much like YouTube videos taught him about the backstage of surfing and the physics behind wave-riding, reaching out to more experienced surfers has given him a North.
“I’ve been very lucky to become friends with people that are great surfers with a wealth of knowledge, who can tell me when I’m doing something wrong. Someone like Felippe is amazing to have access to. He is such a good coach and can help break things down into slices that you can practice.”
From Felippe’s perspective, the appreciation for these interpersonal relationships and the opportunity to witness someone deepen their bond with surfing and the sea is just as rewarding.
“Ben shows incredible dedication towards surfing. I had the chance to see Ben developing from surfing just white water to mastering barrelling techniques together in the pristine Maldives waters. I am stoked that I have been a part of his progress as a coach and friend all the way and watched his surfing level develop so well.”
Felippe Dal Piero, CEO Mahalo
Being aware of his limitations as much as his achievements, and keeping as fit as possible through surf-skating and stretching have proved to be fundamental tools throughout his maturation as a surfer. But perhaps more than anything, embracing the art of surfing for all of its holism and striving to dive into that playfulness that caught his attention in the first place, is what has kept Ben looking out for the next set.
“I feel people imagine surfing as standing up on a board and enjoying the glide. But that is probably only 5-10% of what makes up “surfing” for most surfers; there is so much more that goes into achieving that moment of happiness. I don’t know if you can evolve your surfing without learning to love the other 90%.”