“You get stuck in a rip and fight against it, you’ll eat shit. You try and stand incorrectly, you’ll eat shit. You don’t keep your concentration, you’ll eat shit.” Erik, our Norwegian surfing instructor, is nothing if not to the point.Ten minutes into my first ever surfing lesson, and it appears there are many ways you can eat shit. Given my complete lack of balance and co-ordination, this could be a very painful two hours that involves a lot of shit eating.
I am not a natural beach person, as my pale complexion probably immediately makes clear. As a child at the seaside, I was always happier exploring rock pools before going for a quick paddle and maybe a game of beach cricket. That’s not changed much. I emphatically had no interest in surfing and this lack of interest has continued all my adult life. Yet, here I am on Bondi Beach, about to embarrass myself in front of the Australian beach going community.
This wasn’t my idea, but I was told by my other half that if we were visiting Australia, I should experience the local culture and the surf lesson was duly booked. For me, not for her, obviously. Friends in England found this hilarious. “Pasty Brit on a surfboard on Bondi Beach. This will be brilliant,” was the general consensus.
As it turns out, the surf class is full of pasty Brits and one pasty Canadian, all of whom inhabit various degrees of hopelessness from complete novice to falling over a lot. Erik is very thorough though and has the patience of a saint as he guides us through the movements on dry land. “You might want to stand further back down the board, or you’ll wipe out,” he says, looking at my jerk movement from horizontal to standing up.
Twenty minutes in, and it’s time to head into the water, waddling like penguins in our wetsuits. Erik talks us through how to prepare for a wave, before pushing us each off, much like a parent does to a child on a bike with stabilisers.
On my first attempt, I’m far too terrified to attempt to stand and tentatively attempt a movement towards the end of the wave. Predictably I fall over. “You need to be more decisive, stand up in one quick movement,” says Erik.
The next few attempts follow a similar pattern before I finally attempt to stand up quickly - and, crucially, without thinking - and, to my astonishment find myself standing on the board and the wave pushes me in to shore. This lasts about 10 seconds before I fall over.
Erik, who has probably been sighing inwardly at my timidity on the board is impressed. “Not bad, you’ve a good motion. You just need to concentrate and focus when you’re standing up and you won’t fall over.”
Concentration, it appears, is my major downfall. I stand stand but find it impossible to focus on anything in the distance, not helped by the fact I’ve not wearing glasses or contacts. After two relatively successful stands, I become too cocky and promptly spend the next three attempts falling off the board relatively rapidly. Still, I’m feeling good about my progress until Erik tells the group we’re moving into deeper water to try and catch a series of waves to take us to the shore.
Lying on the board attempting to paddle further out, I feel like a slightly backwards dog. There’s a lot of splashing around but I’m not really going anywhere. Even more embarrassing is the point where everybody stops and sits on their board. It appears I’m incapable of balancing without falling off.
Erik pushes us off again as we aim for shore, except this time if you fall off, which I inevitably do, there’s a long way back to the beach and it’s quite clear that without the initial shove, I’m incapable of being able to push off, let alone gain enough momentum to stand up. My only consolation is the rest of the class appear to be equally inept and it’s not an uncommon sight to see them flying through the air minus the surf board.
After the fourth capsize in as many seconds a nearby Australia swims across to me. “You’re not very good at this are you,” he says in typical blunt Aussie style. “First-timer?”
With a mouthful of seawater, I’m unable to speak so just nod instead. “You’ll get better at it,” he says, “although you’re probably best to stick to practising in the indoor pool.” With that, he turns his attention to his five-year-old son, who is gliding through the water with the ease of someone who has spent their life on the surfboard. I start paddling towards shore, catch a wave, attempt to stand up and wipe out badly, landing on my jaw (who knew this was even possible?).
Despite the pain - my back is also starting to ache badly - and the fact I'm still a good three or four wipe outs from shore, I grin. This surfing lark is quite fun, providing it's done closish to the shore. And I have lots of help. And as long as it's done on a sunny day on Bondi. Really, don't expect to find me doing this on a cold November in Cornwall. I'm willing to attempt local culture, but not so willing to take it home with me.
I went surfing with Let's Go Surfing. Despite my ineptitude on the board, they're actually very good and I had a blast. Can definitely recommend them if you fancy attempting to catch some waves for the first time.