Expanding hearts and minds at the Earth Missions/Leah Dawson Next Level Surf Retreat.

Mindlessly scrolling Instagram a month ago, I was notified that I’d been tagged in a comment on a post announcing that one of my favorite surfers, the inimitable Leah Dawson, was hosting a ‘Next Level’ Surf Retreat in one of my favorite places, Rincon, Puerto Rico. I casually read the post to David who immediately asked, ‘When?’ followed by ‘How much?’ I read him the dates and then dismissed the whole thing by stating that it was probably more than I could afford on short notice. The next day David asked me again how much it would be and again I mumbled something about probably not being able to afford it. Thankfully for me, David insisted that it was an investment in myself and my surfing, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and affectionately kept pushing me to find out more details. Long story short, in a matter of a few days, I went from planning out the next few months for Surf Asylum to planning a five day stay in Puerto Rico.

I’ve been a fan and follower of Leah on social media for a few years now. Her style is hers and hers alone. She balances grace and strength with creativity seamlessly. Social media told me that we shared a few other passions and interests, namely clean eating, clean oceans and promoting a platform for women’s surfing outside of the current industry standards. Still, you never know what you’re going to get in person once the online filters are removed. When I was contemplating the retreat, I knew that it would either be ‘okay’ or ‘EPIC.’ You can’t really go wrong with spending a few days in Rincon, so I knew it wouldn’t be terrible.

It was EPIC! It was beyond EPIC. From the first embrace, seconds upon meeting, it was clear that Leah was the real deal. She walks her talk. I spent the first forty eight hours in a bit of fog as I couldn’t quite believe that I was living and surfing with one of my heroes. Nor could I believe the late season swell that showed up the day we landed. There I was, in one of my favorite places on earth, with one of my favorite surfers and the waves were a Florida loggers dream, starting out waist to chest high, peaking a little over head, hovering waist to chest for two more days and fading to one of the funnest knee high sessions I’ve ever had. Celebration inserted itself as the theme of the trip as every session became more about deepening our personal relationship with the sea than trying to out perform our sisters and brothers. The whole trip ending up feeling like a non stop party and not the kind of party you regret the next day, but one you never want to end.

I’ve been working really hard in the last year to refine my style and improve my positioning on the wave, so when I booked the retreat, I did it from a purely selfish standpoint of wanting to improve my own surfing and get critique and tips from a pro. One of my best friends was coming along, but aside from her I never gave another thought to who else might join the retreat. I was surprised and then stoked to meet two other participants while we were boarding our plane. Turns out they were from Jacksonville and we had surfed together before though we didn’t really know each other. It only took a couple of hours to realize that one of the highlights of the trip would be connecting with like minded men and women from all over the U.S. and Caribbean. The surf sessions were a blast, but the meal time round tables were an unplanned treat as we all bonded over incredible food and enlightening and entertaining conversation. Each person had their unique passion and information to share and I got up from each meal with a full belly and even fuller heart. It was so inspiring to be around such a caring group of individuals who put aside self and cared for issues bigger than themselves.

The daily routine was to get up as early as possible and get the longest session possible before the trades (and late sleeping Rincon crowd) got on it. If you haven’t been, most of the spots are reef breaks and break faster and a tiny bit steeper than Florida. There were many, many Maria’s sessions, but we also got in a few hours at Surfers Beach and Domes. On the biggest day, with Tres Palmas breaking and Maria’s in the 8 – 10 ft range, Kahlene, my best surfing friend/travel partner/sister and I went up to the bay in Aguadilla and scored chest to head high perfection at one of our favorite spots. I only ride my log and I find the conditions to be great for noseriding as long you can manage the speed (I’m still working on it). I had some really epic hang fives though I bailed on a few as the waves quickened and steepened up on the inside.

It was a joy to be in the water with Leah and the other surfers. Everyone had their own style and approach to the waves, but we all shared the same positive energy in the water. Each session was full of laughter. Everyone cheered for each other. There was no ego. Everyone was appreciated for who they were and where they were in their surfing. Simplicity was applauded. Stoke radiated in the air.

I learned more than I could ever put in this blog, but I did have a really profound moment that will me make a better surfer and a better coach. We were lucky to have someone film a few of our sessions and even luckier to be able to review the footage with Leah. It was late afternoon on the last day of the trip when myself and three of the other girls gathered around a table as Leah went through each of our waves and offered up her praise and gentle suggestions for improvement. She was talking with our youngest member, Becca, about positioning when I heard her mention to try getting closer to the heart of the wave. “The heart of the wave.” The words echoed in my mind. I mentioned I’ve been working really hard on positioning. I know I need to be deep on the take off to set up a noseride. I know it’s useless to try and walk the board out on the shoulder, that the most technical maneuvers can only be pulled off in the steepest part of the wave… but I’ve always thought and used the terms ‘peak’ or ‘power’ and though I knew I needed to be close or quite literally in this spot, I’ve always been wary of it. In the back of my mind, the peak or power has been a bit of a scary place. I knew that’s where all the energy was, but I’ve been afraid I might not be able to control it. When I heard Leah replace ‘power’ with ‘heart’, I felt my fear crumble and fade away. My mind expanded. Hearts are for loving. Hearts are life givers and safe places. Now instead of inching closer with caution, I’ll embrace moving into the heart of the wave, a loving spot that can help me surf my best.

I’m filled with gratitude for this trip. I’m thankful for the incredible friends I made, for the conversations and laughs we shared, for the beautiful environment we played together in. Thank you to Leah Dawson and Tom Werner of Earth Missions for putting this together and giving so much of yourselves. Thank you to the sea herself! We celebrate you!

  1. YOU ARE AND ALWAYS HAVE BEEN AN AMAZING YOUNG WOMAN WHO LIVES LIFE TO THE FULLEST. BEAUTIFUL, TALENTED, AND A JOY TO KNOW. MAY YOU CONTINUE ON YOUR PATH FILLED WITH LOVE AND BLESSINGS.

  2. Betsy. Thanks for posting this. I missed the last surf retreat due to an injury but wanted to join in on the panama trip. I was worried that I might not be good enough to be able to surf with Leah, but she is one of the people I greatly admire, and your words were encouraging to me. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Mariza,I can’t encourage you enough to join the Panama retreat if you have the opportunity. You won’t regret it. In Puerto Rico we had one true beginner (only surfed twice ever!) and another surfer who was still just learning to catch waves. Leah was so great about spreading out her attention to everyone, in the water and out. The time spent talking and sharing story over dinner was just as dear and valuable to me as was Leah’s gentle guidance on how to improve my personal surfing. Give Leah a big hug for me! Enjoy!

  3. Love this article! I would love to do o e of her retreats. Future dates. I’ve have been working on my hand ten for two years. I can get there on occasion it would love to understand it all a bit more from the technical point. This sounds incredible all of it!

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