Surf’s Up

“Err Scott, what are these rubbery things in the water? It’s seaweed right, not jellyfish?”

“Ah yeah, that’s just seaweed.”

Later on he confessed that was a lie.

Sharks and jelly-fish are the major animal threats to health when going surfing. But a strong rip, or a major wipeout which lands you on your neck are probably just as dangerous.

But right now, on my first surf lesson, I was more concerned with what a rediculous figure I cut in my wetsuit. Pigeon arms, fat tummy and a tiny pant protrusion caused by your dinkle retracting into its shell like a startled mollusc. Adding to my indignity was the fact I was learning with a load of 5-year olds. And they looked like they were going to be able to show me a thing or two on the waves.

First step is learning how to stand. Lie on your board with your feet touching the strap. Hands on the board, close in to your body. Push up and swing your legs round into a low crouch. Then quick as a flash (or as fast as possible), push yourself upright and centred on the board. Keep your knees slightly bent. Stick your arms out and up like you are at a disco. Trivial on the beach, rather more difficult in the water.

The waves were small and ‘dirty’ that day – meaning they broke close together without clean water separating them. These are poor surfing conditions for experts but fine for learners who don’t want big waves which smash you onto your board.

When learning, instead of paddling the instructor would push you into the oncoming wave. When you feel yourself being picked up by the wave, attempt to stand up. Simple in theory, rather difficult to manage in practice.

Nevertheless, after an hour in the water I’d managed to stand – for a few seconds at least – three separate times. Better than my Irish counterpart who was, quite frankly, struggling.

Rather pleased with myself, I couldn’t wait to get back into the water and consolidate my knowledge.

Later in the afternoon the waves were deemed fairly acceptable around Point Danger. I was reassured that the danger part referred to ships wrecked off the coast rather than to surfers. However, the beach was notorious for strong ripcurrents and was deemed too dangerous to swim, but OK for surfers who have the board as a buoyancy aid.

My second attempt was mostly a failure, hardly managing to stand up on the slightly shorter (and thus less stable) board that Scott had provided me. Surfing is divided into two disciplines, long-boarding refers to boards about 9ft. Short boards can be as short as 5ft. Long-boarding is easily to get into and lets you surf waves that would be impossible on a short board. But it is less easy to manouvere and go really fast.

As the long weekend progressed, the surf got better and better. We’d been watching surf films and it wasn’t quite “Big Wednesday” but it was definitely “Reasonable Sunday”. Scott told me that the area we are in – Coolangatta/Tweed Heads – is one of the best breaks on the Gold Coast. I learnt that there are several types of breaks – physical obstructions which create the wave shape that surfers look for. The main types are reef, beach and point breaks. Yeah, like the Keanu Reeves type. Locally there are two world-class breaks named Kirra and Snapper. These are like famous celebrities in Australia, mention them to any surfer and they’ll wax lyrical as to their specific qualities.

Surfers eagerly check websites with webcams for the current surf conditions all along the coast, and rush down in their cars when surf’s up. Consequently, the early mornings and evenings are the best time to surf. Scott will regularly get up at sunset (around 5am) to surf and stay late until it is nearly dark (6pm). During the day, there can be as many as 100 people sharing a sport, all trying to get on the same wave. This poses logistical difficulties with surfers coming at you from all angles. This is a particular worry for beginners who catch waves, falling off usually propels your board at considerable velocity in a difficult to control direction. I worried about ploughing my board into a child’s soft head.

Miraculously I avoided either killing or being killed whilst I honed my skills and learnt to control the board better. By Sunday, I could stand up fairly easily. The trick is to wait until you have properly caught the wave. The forward movement creates a stable platform which you can hop up on. If you haven’t properly caught the wave the board is unstable and you will fall. Lie too far forward on the board and the nose will point into the water, meaning that force will push you downwards into the wave, wiping you out. Too far back on the board will stop you catching the wave.

By Monday I had cracked it and was able to catch waves (you have to swim hard for a few seconds before the wave hits, and keep paddling whilst the wave is breaking underneath you until you get that wooosh of propulsion). I was getting on rides as long as 10 – 15 seconds.

All this takes a toll on your arms, legs and shoulders. I had also accumulated a large number of bruises, scrapes and grazes. My upper arms ached. I could also hardly walk by the end of the session, struggling to walk back up the steep hill to Scott’s.

But, I am totally hooked on surfing. Monday evening brought a fabulous sunset and some good surf, 3-4ft waves and very “clean”. With the day-trippers back in their cars to Brisbane, it was just us out there. Floating on a board, facing the setting sun, waiting for the swell to build up and the next set arrive was utterly relaxing. This kind of meditative relaxation has a spiritual element. I can see how people catch the surfing ‘bug’ and can’t ever go back to a normal life.

The post-surf buzz is just fabulous. A feeling of serenity counteracts the dull muscular ache. And if you close your eyes you can just see the swell rising and falling rhythmically. This natural high begs for an ice-cold beer, flopped out on the veranda balcony. After an hour of  vegetation, the ravenous hunger takes over and a sausage-filled barbecue is a virtual necessity. And then perhaps a couple of surf movies, before staggering to bed and slipping into a long, deep sleep.

Suddently Australian culture makes sense!

My surf pictures are on Flickr, and here’s a video of me surfing and narrowly avoiding killing a 9-year-old!
Top Surf Movies

We watched all these that weekend, and they were all great.

1. Point Break – Patrick Swayze is the ultimate surf philosopher/bank robber.
2. The Big Wednesday – “Deer Hunter” at the beach.
3. Surf’s Up – Surf penguins enter a competition. Surprisingly emotive.
4. Stepping into Liquid – Sentimental documentary about surf culture.

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