I turned a mid-life crisis into my great adventure on the waves.
Mother-of-three WILMA JOHNSON was in her 40s when she realised all she wanted to did was go surfing.
Sitting on a deserted windswept beach on the most westerly point of Ireland author and artist Wilma Johnson remembers experiencing a life-changing epiphany. As she watched husband Nick gliding effortlessly across the Atlantic swell she suddenly decided that her mission in life was to learn to surf.
It was an unlikely vocation for the 42-year-old mother-of-three who by her own admission had never even seen the inside of a gym. However once the idea took hold, Wilma felt powerless to resist it.
After a whirlwind romance she had hoped Nick, a fellow artist and dedicated surfer, would teach her to ride the waves, but she’d soon discovered she was pregnant. Three babies later she was still sitting on the beach watching, seemingly resigned to her fate as a surf widow.
At the time Wilma was living in a hiuge house in a tiny fishing village on the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry. On the surface everything looked perfect but deep down she knew she was ready for a change.
‘I’d spent the previous ten years living in Ireland as a bit of an eathr mother and I guess I felt I’d lost part of my identity in the process’, says London born Wilma, now 53.
‘We had come to Kerry for an adventure, but the years had passed and I looked in the mirror one day and discovered I was 40.
‘People talk about a mid-life crisis as a negative thing but for me it is all about taking stock of where you are and realising there are more things you want to do. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t too old to take on the world and for me that meant surfing.’
Luckily Nick was also ready for a change and they decided to move to Biarritz, one of the world’s surfing hot-spots, in an attempt not just to live the surfing dream but also to work on their marriage. Over the years the couples artistic temperaments had lead to frequent arguments and they wanted a fresh start.
Children Daisy, then 11, Nat, 8 and five year old Alice were furious to be transplanted from their beloved Ireland to the South of France, a transition no made easier by the fact they didn’t speak a word of French.
However it didn’t take long to adapt. What didn’t happen so easily was Wilma’s transition from housewife to surfer chick. ‘At 44 I was pushing the recommended starting age by at least 30 years, ‘ she laughs.
Having swapped one of her paintings for a surf board her first forays in the water weren’t just humiliating but hazardous too. In the first few months she ended up with a fractured collarbone, broken finger and one arm in a sling.
‘It was embarrassing at the time sluicing about in the shallow waves where the average age was about six, ‘ she says, ‘ my children were convinced I was the worst surfer in the world. They were probably right. I was often caught sobbing with frustration on the beach. »
Remarkably the recurrent injuries and indignity didn’t put her off. Just managing to lie down on the board felt exhilarating and there was no way I was going to give it up.
Two years after the move Wilma realised her marriage was over. She moved out of the family apartment and took the kids to live in a delapidated old house with no furniture except a couple of mattresses and a borrowed TV.
‘But even though I knew it was the right decision, it was hard walking out of a 15 year marriage and finding myself a single mother in another country,’ she says
‘But surfing proved to be the perfect distraction. When you’re out in the surf your problems tend to dissolve in the foam. The next wave about to crash over your head seems a lot more important than the tragic state of your love life, your career and your bank balance.’
Amazed by how few women there were on the waves Wilma and her friend Johanna, a former ski pro, decided to set up an all-female surf club.
The Mamas Surf Club was born complete with the motto ‘out of the kitchen, and into the surf.’
‘We were quite a multi cultural bunch as Biarritz attracts people from all over the world’, Wilma says, ‘most of us were mothers and it was a very supportive social environment.’
The Mamas met for a lesson with Johanna’s partner Christophe, a former champion, every Saturday and rounded off each session with beer and cake on the beach.
‘ At first we brought our kids with us to watch but we spent more time worrying about them than focusing on the waves.we realised we just wanted some time out to do something for ourselves so used to meet up when the children were at school.’
While some of the original Mamas dropped out of the lessons when they realised they preferred the cake and the chat to the actual surfing, Wilma found herself absolutely hooked. The moment she was finally able to stand up on her board, albeit only for a couple of seconds, is forever etched in her memory.
‘It was amazing standing on water with all this beautiful scenery around me. There really is nothing else like it in the world. It just felt so empowering.’
That’s not to say Wilma didn’t feel fear. ‘ At times I was so scared I could hardly breathe, but I just kept going because the alternative was giving up.Fear and the challenge are all part of the appeal.
‘Being able to surf gives you incredible confidence because if you know you’ve faced a 10 foot wave anything seems possible.
‘When I’m feeling a bit stressed the kids always go to me ‘Go for a surf mum, you know you’ll feel better.’ ‘
Not only has surfing given Wilma more mental resilience, she has so much more physical stamina.
‘I feel very strong. And my paintings have become bigger and bolder too.’
After 10 years spent mastering the waves Wilma is a proficient surfer who spends every spare moment in the water.
‘What I love best is when I get in the deep and a male surfer turns to me with concern and asks ‘Are you sure you’re alright out here ?’ Then I just smile and take a really big wave. It’s a wonderful feeling.’
Wilma is now busy plotting her next adventure. When her youngest daughter Alice, now 16, leaves home in a couple of years she plans a round the world ‘surfari.’
‘I’m on a quest to find the perfect wave,’ she adds. ‘While I’m looking I hope to write a travel guide to surfing very much from a female perspective.
‘After that I’m going to take lessons and become a flamenco dancer, just because I haven’t quite embarrassed my kids enough.
‘I want women to know that once you hit 40 you don’t have to lead a safe, predictable life.
‘Stepping out of your comfort zone might be scary but taking the plunge is well worth the risk.’