Learning to Surf

It takes two hours to get down to Coolangatta from Brisbane, a heavy hour on the train and a scant hour more on the bus – plenty of time to feel the slow roll from distracted calm to rushing adrenaline. I remember these nerves from bus rides to soccer matches and track meets, heart pounding, chills radiating from spine down the limbs and up the scalp. Anticipation. I’ve surfed before, twice, back in Hawaii in 2008, though it seems too long ago to count. My lifetime of snowboarding should be more help.  

Arriving on the Gold Coast at 45 minutes early for the lesson at 10 AM, I slather sunscreen in the shade of a palm. People walk, jog, skateboard, cycle by on the beachside path, just dunes away from breaking waves. I buy an iced coffee. It’s all fancied up with cream, whipped cream, and ice cream, liquid dessert for breakfast.

I meet Amy, my instructor, by the Go Ride a Wave van in the Kirra Point parking lot. I’m the only student today, a lucky surprise since I paid for a group lesson. In my extensive searching for surfing locations and services, I did some side reading about surfing culture, language, and etiquette. On the page (or screen) these words lacked body, unanchored in my brain. Here, on the shore, they stick. Rights off the point break. So obvious! Waves roll along the coast north easterly, shoaling, refracting around the point into a steady line of breaking waves. They’re about 1 m today and covered with tiny boys and girls – the fabled surf groms, and gnarly old women, bronzed and tattooed.

We grab boards, rashies, and head to the tide-narrowed beach.  Amy introduces the board anatomy: deck, rails, nose, tail, bottom, fins. We practice paddling in the sand, then popping to our feet. I feel awkward, too chatty, copying her movements: she picks up her board. I guess I should I pick up mine. Oh, guess not. I put the board down again. Let’s get to the water! I think. No, not yet. Get the basics first! Will I be able to stand? I hope I don’t crash. There’s a lot of people in the water. Don’t hit the rocks. Oh, Amy’s talking to me… Now your pop up looks good – smooth, quick, she says, but watch your front foot: you’re putting it straight down the board, pointed towards the nose like that. You want it perpendicular – towards the rails – for stability. All right, let’s head out to the water.

Getting to the waves isn’t some big romantic paddle through spray. We just walk out until we’re about chest deep, board floating to my right, left hand at the center line, right on the tail. I grab the rails, and slide my body up like I’m wrestling an alligator. I wait with my feet angled away from the oncoming waves, looking over my right shoulder. Okay, this next one, she says. Paddle, paddle, paddle. Now pop! I stand on my first wave, ride grinning 10, 20, 30 meters, before toppling into the whitewash.  

And then proceed to fall over on my next ten attempts.

The water rushes underneath the board, lifting, driving. I pop, but put too much weight on my back foot. The board slows, the wave rolls on without me, and I flop into the water. The board leash tugs on my ankle. I stand, spotting Amy in her blue trucker hat, and work my way through the surf, pushed back every ten steps by another wave. I catch another wave and my front foot, my left, points to the nose and left of the center axis. As I straighten, the board shifts from underneath me. Splash! I work back out and when I get to Amy, I report. Yup, turns out a straight front foot makes things harder, just like you said on the beach. Good that you notice it! Go try again, she says with a grin. Waiting, waiting, paddling, lifting my body, twisting, then pop. Left foot sideways this time, weight centered. That’s more like it, I think. I stand up straight and there goes the board again. Keep your knees bent! Amy yells.

I straddle the board, looking out at the waves, rolling with the swell. I could get used to this, the slow undulation, patiently looking for shape, a mass of water rolling up, a path that brings it breaking just before arrival. In the few final runs, the timing and weight distribution start to click, but by now I’m getting tired. The pop is more of a blurp. Lesson one ends. Nice work today! Amy says as we rinse the boards. So you like surfing? Think you’ll try it again? Because you should… No question. I respond. Even clumsy as that felt, it was awesome.

Day two. A brekky (Aussie for breakfast) burrito in my belly. Last night, I enjoyed a surprisingly decent sleep in the Cooly (Coolanagata) YHA hostel. But the nerves are back and I’m annoyed I stayed too long on the beach after surfing, skin roasting in the Australian sun. The sun feels stronger here than anywhere else I’ve lived, almost tingling the skin the way a campfire does when you’re adding wood with treacherous precision.

I bus north to Currumbin Alley for today’s lesson. It’s another point break just south of a river mouth, waves rolling down in lines like corrugated cardboard. The beach here is even busier than Kirra point. My instructor today is Maria, from Spain. The other students are from Netherlands, England, and Australia, all women: I hope I didn’t crash what was supposed to be a women’s only lesson. There’s confusion at the van — I’m not on the list, though I received confirmation e-mail for participation.

Today, I’m eager to get to the water and start practicing, but as expected we spend time on the beach reviewing board anatomy, stretching, examining the conditions, which are much the same as yesterday, maybe a bit gentler.  Practicing our transition from paddle to standing, Maria includes a bit more precision, specific steps and methods, referencing the board’s centerline, appealing to my engineering mind. Okay, maybe spending some time reviewing was helpful. But come on, come on! Let’s get to the water! All right, Maria says, grab your boards. Let’s catch some waves! Yes!

Too eager on my first couple waves, I’m unbalanced just paddling, impatient to prove myself. Slow down. One day doesn’t give muscle memory. Think about what you know. Belly button on the centerline, toes just at the tail. A wave rolls up behind me, my cupped hands sweep submerged semi circles, then grab the rails. I raise the body, twisting, establish the right foot in back, as my left swings forward, landing perpendicular on the deck, knees bent, eyes up looking towards the beach.

Oh. Fuck yeah!   


Header Image: Two blokes head out to the surf at Currumbin Alley. Behind them, a number of new surfers wait for a good wave. In the distance, the high rise buildings of Surfer’s Paradise – ‘quintessential Gold Coast’ – are visible. 


  1. Ben M

    Congrats on standing on your first wave (in years)! That’s a big deal.

    Also, give up now on the burritos and embrace the meat pies.

    Glad you’re getting a chance to surf out that way. Bought my Aussie board not to far from where you were, and left it for the next lucky someone when I headed to the airport so many years ago.

    So many good days.

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