News & Politics

Haber’s Crash Course at Aussie Surfing School

Washingtonian’s intrepid columnist spends an epic day in Australia’s surfing mecca of Torquay—and has the bruises to prove it.

Photograph courtesy of Brett Haber.

It wasn’t by design that I spent two extra days in Australia by myself. Let’s call it a travel SNAFU. My wife had intended to join me down under for some leisure time during and after my work at the Australian Open. But when a work commitment scuttled her trip, I found myself staring at a $5,000 fare difference in order to move up my return flight from Wednesday to Monday. As much as I love my kids and wanted to get home early to see them, I would need to have several dozen children to sufficiently amortize the cost of their affection against the $5,000 fee. (It’s right there on the standard actuarial tables—check for yourself.) And that’s how I wound up in Oz for two extra days.

But it afforded me the chance to do something I’ve always wanted to try, in a place that’s famous for it: surfing.

I rented a car (I could write a separate column about the perils of driving on the left) and ventured to a town called Torquay (pronounced “tor-KEE”). The tiny seaside village sits about 60 miles southwest of Melbourne at the gateway to Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. Torquay is to surfing what Cooperstown is to baseball—it may not be the precise birthplace of the sport, but it is the source and guardian of much of its culture.

Photograph courtesy of Brett Haber.

The most recent Australian census places Torquay’s population at less than 7,000, but there are enough surf shops on the town’s main drag to comfortably service 100 times that many people. Several world-renowned producers of surfing gear and apparel—including Quicksilver, Rip Curl, and Piping Ho—were all founded in tiny Torquay.

The first place I stopped the car along Torquay’s Esplanade was a shop called Go Ride a Wave. The name seemed inviting (in retrospect, that was rather obviously the point). I walked in and inquired about lessons, and was immediately encouraged to join the group session beginning in 45 minutes, at 10 AM. Done.

After signing the requisite waver (see: Greg Brady in Hawaii), I was given a wetsuit and assigned a surfboard that appeared long enough to accommodate not just me, but Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, and the entire cast of Beach Blanket Bingo. As I later learned, longer boards are more stable than shorter ones—ideal for rookies like me. This one was a nine-and-a-half-foot GBoard. GBoards are made of high-density polyethylene, or closed-cell foam, rather than the standard fiberglass, to increase buoyancy and eliminate the need for “ding repairs” normally caused by inexperienced surfers crashing into stuff.

Our group hauled our surfboards en masse about a quarter-mile from the shop down to the beach. (Turns out the most ergonomically efficient way to carry something that long and that heavy is on your head.) The class consisted of ten students—eight of whom were children who had been taking surfing lessons all week during their school holiday. Nothing compounds the awkwardness of a middle-aged man attempting a new athletic endeavor like juxtaposing it against the dexterity and fearlessness of a group of well-trained teenagers.

When we arrived at the beach, the two instructors, Luci and Beck (who looked exactly like what you’d expect two college-age blond Aussie surfer girls to look like), had us form a semicircle in the sand with our surfboards facing them. They issued no more than five minutes of instructions. This was due either to the fact that the other students had heard their patter previously during the week, or that surfing is just that simple. I later learned it was the former.

Here’s the tutorial I received: Go out to where the water is waist-deep. Wait for a wave. When you see one coming, lie on the surfboard with your toes dangling off the back. Start paddling. When you feel the wave hit your feet, make four additional paddle strokes—that should put you on the wave. At that point, grab the rails (the sides) of the board with your hands and push yourself up to your knees. From there, put your left foot in front of you, toes forward, then put your right foot behind you to stabilize, toes facing sideways. And poof, you’re surfing.

Photograph courtesy of Brett Haber.

What can’t be taught in a five-minute beachside lecture? Balance. Or feel. Or any of the dozens of other nuances that can only be appreciated after trying—and failing—to surf on your own. Which is what I did. So as the teenagers on either side of me did their best impressions of Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton, I spent the first 30 minutes of my surfing career failing to get past the prone position.

Luci and Beck would come by periodically to hold the nose of my board as a wave approached . Their hope was to give me a more stable starting point. What they couldn’t help me with was the fatigue. After half an hour and eight to ten waves, I was sucking wind. My arms and shoulders were burning from the repeated attempts to push myself up, my tailbone was sore from several run-ins with the sandy bottom, and I had swallowed a goodly portion of the Pacific after falling ass over teakettle into the water numerous times.

But after about an hour, things started to click. I managed to get up to my knees on several occasions, and then finally, the stars aligned. One wave was cresting in just the right place; I got a stable start, made a strong paddle, rose to my knees in good position, and—left foot up, right foot up—how about that.

Mind you, these waves were not exactly epic. Nathan Taylor, one of the owners of Go Ride a Wave, said the surf on Monday was in the neighborhood of one to three feet. This means, given our relatively shallow depth, that by the time I finally rose to my feet, there were only a few seconds before the ride was over.

I’m a pretty bad golfer, but every once in a while I will pure my driver 280 yards or so. Granted, that drive may come in the midst of a round of 106, but that single shot keeps me coming back for more. That’s how I felt after my first surfing experience. I wasn’t very good, but those few moments when everything coalesced were intoxicating. Apparently I’m not alone. Go Ride a Wave serves more than 50,000 students a year at multiple locations in Victoria and Queensland, everyone from tourists to school groups to corporate seminars, using surfing as a vehicle for team building. Beats the heck out of a ropes course.

Surfing is one of those sports that always struck me as simultaneously enticing and foreboding. Both the skill set and the culture of the sport seemed inaccessible to a guy my age. I am living proof that neither is true.

I managed to “get up” to my feet five or six times over the course of my two-hour lesson. After my first successful ride, I pumped my first into the air in self-congratulatory exultation. The teenagers thought that was a riot.