There are a lot of things to like about surfing. There is the laid back lifestyle, all year tan, girls in bikinis and endless summers. Other benefits include physical fitness, a strong connection with nature and the ability to use words like ‘worked’ and ‘stoked’ without sounding like a total flog.
Sun, sand and perfect waves beneath a clear sky are a hell of a lure for the modern human.
This ideal is true if you live in Hawaii or the Maldives or even Queensland. It is fine if you grew up with sand in your jocks and zinc cream in your hair. This myth is all good if you grew up near the coast or spent youthful summers at a holiday house or camping out in the annexe of a family caravan. You can probably surf like some ride bikes.
Perhaps you want to learn to surf, or claim you can because of that backpacker tour or lesson your girlfriend bought for your birthday. You know, the one where the instructors in green vests pushed you on a foam board through whitewash, and you stood up like a drunk with vertigo and straight lined it to the beach, hooing and haaing with arms aloft like a champ.
Okay, maybe that describes me too.
One truth about surfing is that what I just described isn’t surfing. Compared to surfing, it would be like riding on a velodrome with training wheels or ten pin bowling with a ramp and those bumper things in the gutter.
One truth about surfing is it is the hardest thing I have ever tried to learn, including long division. It is the albatross around my sporting neck, the Newman to my Seinfeld. Surfing is the pigeon to my statue and the fly in my sporting ointment and or soup. It is the dragon I spend too much time chasing.
It is a chase that has lasted more than ten years, and though the tone might sound complaining, it is more a lament. I too was drawn in by the image of surfing and the way people spoke about it. Tim Winton, in his novel Breath, wrote eloquently about the thrill of learning to surf and the spirituality of the lifestyle. To be honest, reading Winton only makes the frustration worse because it describes a soulful experience that has so far eluded me despite grinding effort.
I started learning to surf in my mid twenties, lured in by quick success of a first lesson and a mild case of quarter life rut. There were certain challenges to overcome – I grew up a long way from the coast and didn’t really like the beach. Normally that would be only a mild obstacle, assuaged with the application of effort and practice, for surfing is a great deal more than taking a few strokes and standing up on a wave. Without the knowledge of currents and tide times and weather conditions, learning to surf can quickly reduce itself to paddling around a lot, drinking seawater and worrying about sharks.
When the wind is up and the current is running, you can spend everything you have just getting out beyond where the waves break. On a learner board, which in my case was roughly the size of the HMAS Melbourne, it is impossible to duck under the waves, even in small conditions. My abiding memory of those early sessions was the effort of balancing myself with the quick realisation I often looked like a person in trouble in a flood, grasping at driftwood. Sometimes in choppy conditions it felt like there were gangster slaps coming from all directions.
Surfing back then was all sore arms and salty burps, with the odd short ride in the white water to keep me coming back. It was about learning not to panic when you were caught on the bottom, that seaweed was natural and every shadow did not make a shark. It was about getting shouted at by other surfers and learning line-up etiquette and university level meteorology. The urge to give up was a constant companion.
I also learnt that there was a difference between surfers and people who surf. People who surf are aggressive and drop in on you. They are always in a hurry and resent you being there. Surfing is an activity to be conquered and measured and mastered. Surfers are all like the Dude from the Big Lebowski. They whoop you onto waves and smile as you paddle by them. They speak slow, like Queenslanders, and have a quiet confidence that indicates they know something awesome about life.
The thing that changes them, steals ambition and sends you on a search is the very thing that keeps me turning up for punishment time and again. It is the thing that makes me squeeze my once athletic frame into a neoprene suit slash nappy, pick up 8 feet of fibreglass and paddle out into a winter sea for a free salt water enema and blue lips.
The truth about surfing is told in the peace you find out the back between sets, where time is a construct and nothing matters but the next lump on the horizon. Well, either that or the sharp rush of the last strokes before liftoff, when you ascend by the power of water and snap to your feet, or go over the falls to practice holding your breath, the usual outcome for this scribe.
Despite all the rejections and lost hours, all the days when swell disappears and there is nothing but close-outs, the truth about surfing is the very thing that keeps me coming back for more. It goes against all rhyme and reason, and defies the constant sense of dread I feel when I pull into the car park and lay eyes on the breakers.
But I’m not really a surfer, just a person who surfs not very well. Maybe Tim Winton is the man to ask about the truth.