One fine summer morning a few weeks ago, we drove to Bat Yam with two friends. Our brand-new SUP, still packaged in its oversized box, filled the backseat of our van. My husband, and I, total newbies to stand up paddle boarding, had chosen the morning’s SUP adventure – an out and back trail at Bat Yam – out of convenience. Bat Yam was only an hour away.
There was no sea wisdom involved in our decision. We had picked from an online list of “40 great SUP trails in Israel.” The trail at Bat Yam was 1.5 kilometers each way and listed as easy level. Since it would be our second time ever on a SUP and our first attempt at riding out to sea (as opposed to on the calm waters of a stream), this seemed like a good choice. Since our more sea-worthy friends, Eli and CB, were with us, we hoped that their expertise would take us through the challenge.
At the beach parking lot, we pulled the shiny orange paddle board out of its big cardboard box. Confusion ensued as we pieced together the oar, inflated the SUP, and discussed whether we could bring along our big thermos of iced coffee. The coffee got left behind, along with bags, phones, and breakfast. Two bottles of water and a GoPro camera came along in an attachable pouch.
And then, it was time. We walked down to the water, each couple carrying their paddleboard. Almost immediately, we were accosted by a lifeguard. He must have sensed our inexperience. “You can’t use that over here with the swimmers,” he declared, pointing to our SUP, “Go further out, away from the lagoon.”
We had been hoping that the still waters of the lagoon would be a good place to test our vessels’ sea worthiness. But the lifeguard had spoken. We dutifully dragged our paddle boards across the beach and over the rock ridge. As we headed into the sea, we were detained by yet another lifeguard.
“I don’t know if you know what you’re doing, but today is not a good day for using those – just look at the wind!” This lifeguard told us that we could not use the SUPs as we had planned – to execute an out and back trail along the coast. On that windy day, this would have been an exercise in futility, at least for newbies like us. He instructed us to stick to the shallow water and ride the waves, one passenger at a time. “Riding the waves is more fun anyway,” the lifeguard insisted.
I volunteered to relax on the beach with our stuff while my husband took the first turn at testing the waters. The crew set out, Eli on one paddle board while CB swam alongside, my husband Avi on our big orange board. Even getting into the water was a challenge – they all battled the waves and finally got the boards past the breakers. Then Eli was on top of his board, and Avi too. Just as he picked up his oar to stroke, an unhappy voice rang out over the megaphone, in Hebrew. “Hey, you three on the paddle boards! I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but come to the lifeguard stand right now. I need to speak to you.”
The three returned to shore, dripping, looking like children who had been called to the principal’s office. I was eager to meet this lifeguard, whose voice had been so laced with condescension… I was hoping he’d have some useful paddle boarding tips to share with us! So, CB sat in my place on the beach while I joined Avi and Eli on a trip to the lifeguard’s booth. We tramped up the steps, expecting a thorough chewing out at the top.
Inside, we met a dark and swarthy older man, sporting some combination of crewcut and long ponytail in his salt and pepper hair. He was muscular and clad in what seemed to be a pair of underwear. “Are you sea people?” he asked, almost rhetorically, “Because you shouldn’t be paddle boarding here today. You need to go a little further down the beach, to where the water is really shallow. If you fall off, you’ll easily be able to get back on over there. And, when the current carries you up to my station, you can get out of the water and go back again.”
This lifeguard, Oded was his name, turned out to be the friendliest fellow, despite initial impressions. After discovering that Avi and Eli were from New York and New Jersey, he regaled us with tales of his time spent in the tri-state area, and we commiserated over the decline of New York City under the new mayor. We spoke about his life in Bat Yam – chaim tovim, he declared. And then, with his tattoos, earrings, and underpants, he proceeded to share some divrei Torah (words of Torah), with us.
“Working on Shabbat – no bracha (blessing),” he said, “My friends receive half my salary and don’t work on shabbat – they are doing great! Me, I’m always operating in the minus…”
He loved lifeguarding, and he knew that Shabbat work was part of the package. But as far as he was concerned, God was not going to be happy with him for his decision.
Oded also shared some stories about his meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, his ploy to obtain a visa into America, his thoughts on pikuach nefesh. And then, ten minutes later, with a smile and a wave, he sent us back out to sea.
The four of us dragged our SUPs even further down the beach and set out once more. This time, it was my turn to try, while Avi waited in the shallow water. It took a few minutes to get situated. With the board strapped to my ankle, I flipped over at least once as I tried to pass the breakers and reach calm water. But before I knew what was happening, I was out at sea, successful operating a stand up paddle board – even if I was crouching on my knees!
Just as I was starting to enjoy the sense of exhilarating freedom that comes with riding through waves, a giant sea turtle appeared, beyond our paddleboards. He was swimming nonchalantly through the water. “Turtle, turtle!” Eli exclaimed. He set off to chase it.
As fate would have it, I had left our camera on the beach with Avi. So, I called out to him to follow and then took off in pursuit of the sea turtle. I paddled along, as fast as I could in my inexperienced state, chasing the incredible creature. If only we could get a little bit closer…
Ten minutes later, Eli was right next to the turtle. He hopped off his board into the ocean to see if he could get even closer. And then, as giant sea turtles do, it swam away.
I returned to the shallow water to gather my husband, who took over the paddling. At this point, we decided that it was high time to ignore lifeguard’s advice, and I rode behind Avi cross legged, keeping the board in balance while he got the hang of the oar. Our friends paddled next to us, Eli executing some yoga moves on their wider paddle board; simple paddle boarding just wasn’t enough of a thrill. We rode the waves and soaked up the sea spray and sun as we progressed through the water. Getting the hang of paddle boarding turned out to be an adventure on its own. Eventually, it was time to wrap this show up – our kids would be coming back from camp soon, and we had to get home. Stolen time always comes to an end.
On the way out of the beach, we trudged past the lifeguard’s stand. Oded waved at us from up above. “Love you,” he called, forming a heart sign with his fingers. We had a new friend.
That morning, we never made it onto the Bat Yam SUP trail, 1.5 kilometers out and back. Our shallow water experience had been close to shore and hadn’t really taken us anywhere. But as we sprayed our boards down in the showers, I couldn’t help but think that in a way, we had covered a great distance.
Wading into the unknown, whether as a novice on a SUP or in any other part of life, comes with fear and discomfort. You know you’re going to look like a total fool. And you must keep telling yourself that that’s okay. Because it’s these unfamiliar excursions, these forays into uncharted waters, which are the secret spice in a recipe for new and unforgettable experiences. Today it was that trip into the lifeguard’s stand; meeting, Oded, a chiloni from Bat Yam with a questionable past in New York City who shared words of Torah; successfully mounting a paddleboard and riding the waves for the very first time; and encountering a giant sea turtle, who appeared beneath our feet like a phantom.
Our morning adventure reminded me of something important: wonderful things can happen when you face fear and embrace the mysterious magic of uncertainty.