August 14, 2022

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A group of surfers riding the break is a quintessential image of Australian summer. I...

A group of surfers riding the break is a quintessential image of Australian summer. I have wished I could be out there on a board with them for as long as I can remember.
As a youngster I learned to ride skateboards, boogie boards and to ski. But learning to surf – especially now, on the wrong side of 50 – seemed out of reach. Still, on a four-week break in a seaside town, I decided to try anyway.

Alison bought her new board from Golden Breed surf shop on the first day of her holiday. Photograph: Supplied by Alison Rourke/The Guardian
The man at the Golden Breed store in Noosa Heads suggested a board that was long, wide and light enough to carry. I told myself that the shop was some sort of sign, as my first skateboard, circa 1979, had also been from Golden Breed.
A month’s rental cost about $350, but buying a board was about $400. So I left the store with a new, 8ft 4in “foamie” named Darkhorse, and a pamphlet on surf etiquette.
A quick internet search after my purchase told me Darkhorse featured reinforced polyethylene to give “stiffness and durability”, and was “designed to withstand heavy Hawaiian conditions”. None of which I really needed. Or so I thought.
In the first year of Covid I had done a two-hour surfing lesson at Sydney’s Manly beach. The key messages were fairly simple: try to get from lying down to standing up in one go (the “pop-up”); look to where you want to go; lean on your front foot to accelerate and on your back foot to brake.
Simple, right?
The swell at Noosa Heads can be beautiful, and great for beginners. With my new rashie (make sure it goes to your elbows or you’ll get “foamie board-burn” on your arms), my freshly waxed Darkhorse (choose the right wax for the conditions – cool, warm, tropical etc), and a leg rope (attach it to which ever foot is at the back of the board), I paddled out.
Layne Beachley I was not.
Many wipeouts and a few milliseconds standing on the board made for a fairly exhausting first encounter.

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The pop-up was hard. Very hard. Especially when your upper body strength is not what it used to be.
“Put your hands close together, under your body, and push up quickly,” a friendly surf instructor advised me as I wiped out through the middle of his private lesson with a 10-year-old. “And never, ever look down”.

The swells generated by cyclones Seth and Cody around Noosa Heads national park. Photograph: Alison Rourke/The Guardian
At night I Googled learn-to-surf videos and practised my pop-up on the carpet. 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 beach’s gentle, small waves were replaced with 8ft monsters, courtesy of Cyclone Seth, which had descended down the Queensland coast. I’d ridden a boogie board after a cyclone here in the 80s, but this was much more intense.
Local surfers said the three days of big waves were some of the best they’d ever seen after a cyclone. The power was enough to dump a huge tree trunk on Noosa’s Main Beach. I stayed firmly on dry land.
On the fourth or fifth day, the swell was all but gone, and I was back in the water, still struggling with my pop-up.

‘As far as I can tell, there’s not really any timeline when learning to surf.’ Photograph: Alison Rourke/The Guardian
And then, on a single wave I’ll never forget, I stood and surfed all the way to the beach. The glide was almost hypnotic. My brain didn’t really know how it happened, but my body somehow did.
The end of week two brought a second curve-ball: another cyclone swell, this time from Cyclone Cody, 2,700km away, off Fiji, pulsing powerful waves and a strong tow.
I took refuge in the small foam waves in beginners’ corner at the far end of the beach. Another instructor took pity on me, professing his want to “share the love of surfing”.
“Be careful not to push on the rails (sides of the board) as it will tip over,” he said.

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As far as I can tell, there’s not really any timeline when learning to surf. As a longtime surfer friend told me, the only way you learn to do it is to just keep doing it. Over and over and over.

The surf was rough off Little Cove beach at Noosa Heads in the aftermath of Cyclone Seth. Photograph: Alison Rourke/The Guardian
The pop-up somehow becomes instinctive. Your strength improves each time. And if you are prepared to be unceremoniously dumped on a regular basis, things progress.
The final ocean curveball was the aftermath of the tsunami caused by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai undersea volcano off Tonga. Its impact locally was devastating. And from 3,000km away, its distant power could be felt in the waves and rips on Australia’s eastern seaboard.
After the worst had passed, beginners’ corner at high tide was again my refuge.

Alison and her daughter Ella both learned to surf at Noosa. Photograph: Supplied by Alison Rourke/The Guardian
In four weeks I went from barely being able to push up to standing on most waves (admittedly not for very long). I still don’t really know how it happened. Somehow I had developed instincts about where and when to push up, and my feet seemed to know where to go.
I did however manage to pop a rib out of place on my last day surfing. But it was just by jumping on the board, not wiping out. 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 anyone wanting to learn to surf. Be as strong and as fit as you can when you try it. It exposes all sorts of muscles you either never knew you had, or hadn’t used in ages.

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