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Walking on water: John Cooper dives into the world of surfing, and decides that the thrill of riding the waves lives up to the hype that surrounds the sport

In the film Point Break surfing is referred to as the 'source'. According to Californian lore, it is supposed to be an awesome, zen-like religious experience. I didn't believe the hype, so I decided to try it.

While waiting for the tide to change - this affects the 'sets' (the nature and frequency of the breaking waves) - the class was shown around a small surfboard production house by veteran surfer and instructor, Roger Mansfield.

By midday we were equipped with wetsuits and spongy surfboards (included in the price of the lesson). Beginners are given these because, as Roger explained, 'if you wipe out and this hits you on the head, it doesn't hurt'. The first 45 minutes of tuition involve heading to the beach to learn fundamental techniques like 'trim': optimum positioning on the board, and what to remember when paddling out to the surf: always hit the oncoming wave at 90 degrees 'or the surfboard's going to hit you in the face'.

After the beach lesson, it is time to put theory into action and experience the small, glassy swell (unaffected by wind, perfect for beginners). We walked towards the surf, holding the surfboard on the water, and once at knee-depth, lay on the surfboard, before paddling out into the surf. Roger instructed us to find an appropriate wave, turn the board around and paddle enthusiastically to catch the wave. The wave approached, I paddled, but it flipped me tail over nose. As a result of lying too far forward on the board, I had 'pearled', and consequently downed about a litre of brine. When this occurred again, Roger lost patience: 'That's not what you were doing on the beach and that's not what I taught you.'

On the next attempt my distribution was right and I was invigorated as the wave surged underneath the board, carrying me back to shore with its momentum. Gripping the board at chest level, I stood up slowly into a low crouch, then into the wide, low stance. I could only have been standing on the board for 10 seconds, but it felt like half an hour. It was unbelievable to watch the wave break underneath the board, being carried at what felt like an incredible pace. 'Stoked' is the finest surfbum description for the rush of standing on a fast breaking wave, with just a dense piece of foam between you and the water.

By the afternoon the tide had changed, and long rides on the board were out of the question, so we spent the afternoon practising the transition from lying to standing. By seven o'clock, after being filmed on camcorder so we could see our mistakes, the day's surfing was over.

Surfing is an experience so thrilling that it is hard to explain. It is an opportunity to forget your worries and cynicism, to be purely occupied with making the most of the waves. 'Experience is everything,' Roger explained. 'You're only as wise as the number of waves you've ridden,' he continued, saying that 'every wipe-out is a learning experience.' How could being pounded by waves and swallowing sea water be considered a learning experience? By four o'clock my attitude had changed, and I was looking forward to more wipe-outs and more lessons from the sea. I am not the only one: first-time surfers invariably come back for more. The consensus of my fellow pupils? Believe the hype.

Offshore Surfing Courses and Action Holidays, (0637-877083) 'Surfari' day's surfing pounds 35

Pro-Am Surf Contest 27-29 August, Fistral Beach, Newquay

(Photograph omitted)