I live in Perth, Western Australia , and I'm dying to learn to surf, despite the very real fact that I may die while learning. In 2001, a great white shark beached itself attempting to cram an unlucky swimmer into its maw, much to the horror of the breakfast crowd at a seaside cafe. That shoreline, Cottesloe Beach, is 500 yards away from my house. Tonight's news reported that a snorkeller in Sydney had one of his flippers gobbled off by a shark. A helicopter patrols my local beach every morning, tracking the great whites that live offshore. If the monsters are getting too close, the pilot gets on the radio and tells somebody, who in turn tells somebody else to clear the swimmers from the water.
Australians trade tales of shark attacks and other ocean disasters like we Americans talk about the things that happened to our friend's cousin's boyfriend-except they're not kidding.
But the vast majority of Australia's population lives along the coast. Beachgoing is more entrenched in Australia's culture than driving is in America's. I've heard of one guy being messily devoured at my local beach, but I see hundreds of people there daily, and they all leave the ocean with their limbs intact. Americans drive past makeshift memorials to highway accident victims every day. I'm just getting on a surfboard in Australia and doing the same thing-such is my mantra when I'm out in the ocean, scared out of my mind.
My mate Luke from down the street agreed to teach me how to surf while he took these pictures. Now I can do everything on a surfboard except stand and ride a wave, but here's what I know:
Here in Perth, the waves are gentle and smallish, just right for clumsy beginners. Margaret River is a three-hour drive south, and a mecca for serious surfers. Perth is packed with tour operators that claim to teach beginners how to surf, many of them with a money-back guarantee if you can't stand by the end of the day.
Longboards work better for beginners because their sheer size makes them more stable in the water, and therefore easier to stand up on. Sizes vary, but they're usually around nine feet long. They're not fast, but I'm told they're a mellow, easy ride.
Without my glasses, I can't tell a wave from the open ocean. All the shadows in the water look like shark fins as well. I use prescription snorkeling goggles which are way cheaper than contacts, the standard for visually impaired surfers. It's not about looking cool, anyway.
Wetsuits, headless Spiderman costumes made out of neoprene rubber that insulate the body in cold water, are crucial. They also make your arms and legs look like a seal's flippers to sharks cruising beneath you. Just to check, I dove under Luke as he lay on the board at the oceans' surface, his wetsuited limbs floating idly in the water. From the bottom, the silhouette of a surfer on a board looks just like a lazy seal. I couldn't resist snatching at one of his ankles. I'd only been in the water for two hours and I was starving imagine how a carnivore that spends its whole life swimming feels when it sees that shape.
After I surfaced, I asked Luke if he'd ever seen a shark while surfing. He thought for a second, his eyes scanning the horizon for the next wave set. "Saw one once,"? he replied quickly, never taking his eyes off the water.
"White pointer (great white)."?
"Jeezus, what'd you do, Luke?"?
"Caught the next fuckin' wave in, mate. What's your plan?"?
It is critical to warm up properly before going out into the water. Put simply, surfing is the act of quickly standing up on a slippery piece of polyurethane that is shooting through tons of water- it's easy to pull something you didn't know you had in your body. Luke made me warm up with a jog and some back and leg stretches.
I was knackered after my first lesson. Knackered is Australian for "tired as hell." Not only did I swim through waves all day while carrying a big old surfboard, I fell down a lot. Then I made the mistake of going straight to my dishwashing job immediately after my first lesson. I nearly fell asleep on my feet, forgot to clean the bathrooms, couldn't be bothered taking out the trash and got canned as a result. In the local parlance, I should have "chucked a sickie" instead.
Decades of movies and television have led us to believe that surfing is a really mellow, easygoing sport full of super-fit laid-back people- but that's only half the story. The reason surfers are all fit and mellow isn' because they're inherently nice. They're so laid-back because they've been up since five a.m. swimming their asses off through a rolling ocean. By the time you see a surfer, he's too knackered to get upset about much.
At the time of this writing, I've had two surfing lessons, and I still can't stand up on the freaking board. Every attempt to stand has resulted in rapidly pushing the board away from my tumbling body with my feet. Other times, I've sort of jumped off the board in a sideways fashion, except once.
About an hour into my second lesson, I caught a wave and rode the board straight into shore on my knees. For a few magic seconds I was a hammerhead speeding through the ocean, and for one brief period in twenty-seven years of oafish clumsiness, I felt both large and graceful. It kept me out in the water long after I was cold and exhausted, long after my back started howling for a rest, and way past any of my own whingeing (Aussie slang for whining) about sharks.
Every magazine story where the author learns to surf ends the same way: "I finally stood up and caught a wave, and I was hooked.?" I spent two days tumbling through the ocean, falling off my board every time I touched it and thinking far too much about my legs trailing in the water behind me. I was nervous and knackered, back hopelessly bent out of joint and I didn't catch a damn thing.
But I'm still hooked. I found another job and I'm saving for a surfboard.
If you crave more formal surf instruction, here are a few places that offer surfing lessons in Perth:
H20verland Tours offers a wide variety of tour packages that take travelers on road trips up and down Western Australia's coast in between surfing lessons. Travelers are provided food and comfortable camping gear in addition to surfing equipment, but here's the deal on straight surf lessons:
Prices: 2hr. lesson ($45), 3x2hr. lessons ($110), 5x2hr. lessons ($160)
H20verland provides wetsuits and soft learner boards. Phone 1800 010 515 for all bookings and enquires, or visit them online at: www.h2osurfadventure.com.
Cameron Bedford-Brown teaches surf lessons in Perth in addition to writing the surf report for the local weekly paper. He charges AU $60 an hour, AU $80 for an hour and a half, and provides boards and wetsuits. Class sizes are small, with a maximum of two students per lesson. For more info, ring (61) 9389-6328.
Surfing WA (Western Australia) seems to be the best-known organization in Perth to teach surfing. Courses are AU $99 for four 90 minute lessons, with a maximum of 8 people per class. Surfing WA provides all wetsuits, boards, and sunscreen. Surfing WA offers one on one and group coaching for beginners as well as advanced surfers, and the more people in a group, the cheaper it is per person per hour. Call 9448 0004 for more details, email email@example.com, or consult their website at www.surfingwa.com.au.