‘Never, ever look down’: A middle-aged guide to catching the waves | surf vacation

A group of surfers riding the wagon is a quintessential image of the Australian summer. As far as I can remember, I wanted to be there on a board with them.

When I was young, I learned to skateboard, boogie board and ski. But learning to surf – especially now, on the wrong side of 50 – seemed out of reach. Yet, on a four-week break in a seaside town, I decided to give it a try anyway.

Alison bought her new board from the Golden Breed surf shop on the first day of her vacation. Photograph: provided by Alison Rourke/The Guardian

The man of the Golden Breed store in Noosa Heads suggested a sufficiently long board, wide and light to carry. I thought the store was a kind of sign, since my first skateboard, around 1979, was also Golden Breed.

A month’s rental costs around $350, but buying a board costs around $400. So I left the store with a new 8ft 4in foamie named Darkhorse and a surf etiquette brochure.

A quick internet search after my purchase told me that Darkhorse featured reinforced polyethylene to give “stiffness and durability”, and was “designed to withstand harsh Hawaiian conditions”. None that I really needed. Or so I thought.

In the first year of Covid I had taken a two hour surf lesson on Manly Beach in Sydney. The key messages were quite simple: try to go from lying down to standing up all at once (the “pop-up”); look where you want to go; use your front foot to accelerate and your back foot to brake.

Simple, right?

The swell at Noosa Heads can be stunning and ideal for beginners. Along with my new rashie (make sure it goes all the way to your elbows or you’ll get “moss burn” on your arms), my freshly waxed Darkhorse (choose the right wax for the conditions – cool, hot, tropical, etc.), and a leg rope (tie it to the foot that is on the back of the board), I rowed.

I was not Layne Beachley.

Lots of wipeouts and a few milliseconds standing on set made for a pretty exhausting first encounter.

The pop-up was difficult. Very difficult. Especially when your upper body strength isn’t what it used to be.

“Get your hands close together, under your body, and push fast,” a friendly surf instructor advised me as I wiped off in the middle of his private lesson with a 10-year-old. “And never, ever look down.”

The swell generated by Cyclones Seth and Cody around Noosa Heads National Park.
The swell generated by Cyclones Seth and Cody around Noosa Heads National Park. Photography: Alison Rourke/The Guardian

At night, I googled some learn-to-surf videos and practiced my pop-up on the mat. But a few more days in the water got me pretty much nowhere.

And then there was the first of three ocean curveballs.

Overnight, the small, gentle beach waves were replaced by 8ft monsters, thanks to Cyclone Seth, which had rolled down the Queensland coast. I had bodyboarded after a cyclone here in the 80s, but it was much more intense.

Local surfers said the three days of big waves were among the best they had ever seen after a cyclone. The power was enough to throw a huge tree trunk onto Noosa’s main beach. I stayed firmly on solid ground.

The fourth or fifth day, the swell had disappeared and I was back in the water, still struggling with my pop-up.

Soft surf outside Noosa National Park, between cyclone swells.
“As far as I know, there really isn’t a timeline for learning to surf.” Photography: Alison Rourke/The Guardian

And then, on a single wave that I will never forget, I got up and surfed to the beach. The glide was almost hypnotic. My brain didn’t really know how it happened, but my body did.

The end of the second week brought a second curveball: another cyclone swell, this time from Cyclone Cody, 2,700km off Fiji, pulsing powerful waves and a strong tow.

I took refuge in small waves foam beginner area at the far end of the beach. Another instructor had mercy on me, professing his desire to “share the love of surfing.”

“Be careful not to push on the rails (sides of the board) because it will tip over,” he said.

As far as I know, there really isn’t a timeline for learning to surf. As a longtime surfer friend told me, the only way to learn how to do it is to keep doing it. Again and again and again.

The surf was rough off Little Cove beach in Noosa Heads following Cyclone Seth.
The surf was rough off Little Cove beach in Noosa Heads following Cyclone Seth. Photography: Alison Rourke/The Guardian

The pop-up becomes kind of instinctive. Your strength improves each time. And if you’re willing to get dumped on a regular basis without hesitation, things are moving forward.

The latest ocean curve ball was the aftermath of the tsunami caused by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano off Tonga. Its local impact has been devastating. And 3,000 km away, its distant power was felt in the waves and tears of Australia’s east coast.

After the worst was over, the beginners corner at high tide was my refuge again.

Alison and her daughter Ella both learned to surf in Noosa.
Alison and her daughter Ella both learned to surf in Noosa. Photograph: provided by Alison Rourke/The Guardian

In four weeks, I went from barely able to push to standing on most waves (admittedly not for very long). I still don’t really know how it happened. Somehow I had developed instincts for where and when to push, and my feet seemed to know where to go.

I did, however, manage to squeeze out a rib on my last day of surfing. But that was just jumping on the board, not wiping. The local physio (also a surfer) told me to “work on my pop-up strength” before going out again.

And that’s really the best advice I can give to anyone who wants to learn to surf. Be as strong and as fit as possible when you try it. It exposes all kinds of muscles you didn’t know you had or haven’t used in ages.

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