With kids, our surfing adventures take on new meaning

Living Water Surf Co. in Little Compton, R.I.
Megan Lisagor Stoessell
Living Water Surf Co. in Little Compton, R.I.

Back in the day, as in our late 20s, my husband and I quit our jobs and flew to Costa Rica. A sweltering bus carried us from San Jose to Manuel Antonio, where we learned to surf. Fearless and free, we hitchhiked to another beach town to try scuba diving. Todd had a big beard; I had a small bikini.

Fast-forward a decade, and our extreme travel looks a little different. Take a spring visit to Quebec. The concierge warned us it was too cold to bring our kids skiing as planned. Instead we went to a suburban mall with an indoor park and two candy stores. Elinor, our daughter, puked in the Uber on the way back to the hotel.

“Well, that was an adventure,” I told Todd, stuffing coats into laundry bags.


The experience got me thinking, as did my 40th birthday. Somewhere between benders at Target and ragers at Build-A-Bear, our vacations had become a bit bland. I vowed to reclaim the excitement this summer. My son, Graham, who’s 8, agreed, apprehensively. Five-year-old Elinor just made sure she could tag along.

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A quick Internet search of family adventures revealed an entire industry devoted to this concept and, based on its tame offerings, we’d been decently daring. REI’s trips, for one, feature a lot of hiking and kayaking, which we often enjoy. Then I noticed a Costa Rica option that includes zip lining and surfing.

I drifted into a reverie of risk-taking before returning to my current reality of growing pains and dye-free Motrin. As it happens, Graham fell from a backyard zip line and broke some bones in kindergarten. He’s fully healed, but I’m still traumatized.

Surfing it was.

I’d heard about camps for children and women in Little Compton, R.I., only about an hour’s drive from Boston. Private lessons are also available, and Graham and I could share one. So we found ourselves hanging outside Living Water Surf Co. on a June afternoon near the town square.


Chuck Barend pulled into the parking lot, wearing a wetsuit and a baseball cap. Barend and his wife, Ana, met in Hawaii as competitive surfers and settled here after having twins Edward and Maria, now 17. “I thought maybe New England’s the place to raise the kids,” he recalled. They opened their shop in 2009.

Leaving Eddy to man the register, we hopped into a salt-sprayed van, Graham, Elinor, and her sitter, Riley, squeezed among soft boards. “Hey, guys,” Barend yelled at two teens, rolling past the general store. His husky laugh filled the air as we talked childrearing and responsibilities.

“Since you live near the ocean,” he said, the goal is “really enjoying it to its fullest.” Graham seemed less sure, as we unloaded at South Shore Beach, sun behind the clouds. A recent documentary on sharks didn’t help either.

Having lugged our gear to an empty spot, Barend distracted him with waxing, followed by tips on positioning, paddling, and popping up. “Why would I have to spread my feet out?” Graham asked as we practiced, still on board. “It’s not like skiing,” Barend explained.

As if on cue, Graham started shivering while scanning the sea. Elinor, for her part, plunged right into the water, which was toe-numbing, and I reminded myself to thank Riley. Barend gave us a pep talk, and we headed their way, ankle straps attached.


As Graham contemplated turning around, I thought about how my kids walk their own paths. He had to decide for himself whether to surf. This was not the adventure I had envisioned because it was about more than personal pleasure. It was about watching my child overcome a challenge.

With Barend’s encouragement and breaks to build a castle, Graham caught three waves. Satisfied, he plopped onto the sand and finished his moat. “I’d describe it as cold and frightening,” he reported, adding, “And good.” In parenting terms, a success.

That settled, it was my turn. Graham and Elinor looked tiny in towels on the beach as I had a couple of carefree rides. In those fleeting moments, I felt free and grown up, a thrilling combination.

Megan Lisagor Stoessell can be reached at Megan.Stoessell@