Make a big splash down under

Learning to surf on the golden beaches of New South Wales is a humbling experience, says Christopher Wakling, but once you're up...
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The Independent Travel
p> "If I say it's safe to surf this beach Captain, then it's safe to surf this beach." At 15 years old and five foot nothing Curly didn't look much like Robert Duvall, but he was good at the accent and had his Apocalypse Now routine down pat. Together we stared out at what passed for the horizon - a wobbly blue line falling over itself, it seemed, to get at me - as an air sea rescue helicopter whoop-whoop-whooped its leisurely way along the beach. "Charlie don't surf," my instructor went on. "But you're down for the lesson. So in you get."

"If I say it's safe to surf this beach Captain, then it's safe to surf this beach." At 15 years old and five foot nothing Curly didn't look much like Robert Duvall, but he was good at the accent and had his Apocalypse Now routine down pat. Together we stared out at what passed for the horizon - a wobbly blue line falling over itself, it seemed, to get at me - as an air sea rescue helicopter whoop-whoop-whooped its leisurely way along the beach. "Charlie don't surf," my instructor went on. "But you're down for the lesson. So in you get."

We were at Avoca Beach in New South Wales, some 70 miles north of Sydney, in the middle of a beautiful stretch of shoreline known as the Central Coast. Less crowded than Bondi and Manly in the city, the string of beaches here are as long and broad, and they're made of the same yolk yellow sand. But instead of a cityscape the view inland is of big rocky headlands and green hills full of eucalypts and native pines. The day we arrived the beach was also framed by an incredible blue sky and big, big sea.

Too big. I'd brought one surf tip with me to Australia and it was this: start small. Curly assured us from the safety of dry land that the waves today were small, but he was less than half my age, so what was I doing trusting him?

Because his ripped torso spoke of a lifetime's wave-experience down under, while my feet spelt "surf-virgin" in pristine, just-out-from-under-a-London-desk white. In case anyone doubted my novice status, I made it clear: tripping over the leash attached to my big padded board as I staggered down to the white-water's edge.

"Float her to one side!" Curly yelled. "Don't get the board between yourself and the waves!" I smiled and waved back at him and tried to take his advice too late. The advancing wavelet wielded my cumbersome board much as a toddler uses a butter knife. I found myself spread back up the beach.

There were just four students in our class. This was another advantage over the lessons on offer in the city: a week beforehand I'd watched an instructor show 25 Japanese novices how to take on the waves at Manly. Today, once I'd coughed myself back to life, Curly was able to accompany me out to sea again, giving me "paddle, paddle, paddle" instructions one on one. I managed to lie on my board this time, and even hauled myself a few yards into the spume, but the effort of getting anywhere was extraordinary, and not eased by the encouragement of two nine-year-old girls who floated past me without apparently moving their arms.

They were on little pointy boards, about a third the size of mine. Though Curly had already taken the trouble to explain how a novice needs something big - and stable - to have any hope of standing up, I would have begun blaming him for fobbing me off with shoddy equipment around now, but another wave intervened and I found myself making my complaint to the sea bed.

In fact Curly had kitted us out well. Boards, leashes, wetsuits, rash vests, even sun-block for those of us - me - who forgot to bring their own. He had also talked us expertly through the theory. I'd learnt to steer with my hips while I paddled, and I'd hupped myself silly on the sand, and I'd sprung into my little surfer's tuck almost exactly like Keanu Reeves in Point Break. But balance, wave sense, timing - talent - these things are only so teachable as, 20 or so arm-noodling minutes later, I'd had time to consider.

As with the Sydney city beaches, the sea bed shelves quite sharply along this stretch of the New South Wales coast. This means that the waves tend to rear up and break faster than on beaches with a more gentle gradient like, say, Byron Bay at the northern end of the state. Thousands of people learn on the Central Coast though, and when the waves are small or hit the shoreline obliquely the fast break makes little difference, but if you're looking for a "the-sun-was-in-my-eyes" type excuse (which I was about now), there you go.

Considering he had a blond mullet, I seemed to care a lot about Curly's good opinion. Whenever I started thinking I should pack up and visit the nearby Australian Reptile Park (I did later, it's great), his cheerful little face would pop up alongside me, hollering encouragement and making the threat of disappointing him too great. He let loose another tip as I flailed forward again. "Let the broken water pass between your belly and the board." I pushed clear, survived the onslaught and found myself staring up at a proper wave.

The place not to be, Curly had been at pains to emphasise on the beach, is just in front of a wave as it's about to break, because there you risk "going over the falls". This is when you and your board are sucked up the face of the wave into the "lip". The lip then dumps you head-over-heels into the "pit". A period of tumbling upside down ensues, after which you're free to fight your way back to the surface, generally in a position called "x marks the spot", which is the spot, as I'm sure you've guessed, where rides "over the falls" are free all day.

The board worked as a blender blade while I was underwater, but came in surprisingly handy - as a floaty thing to cling to - once I'd finally clawed my way clear of "x marks the spot". I'd pretty much resolved to cut my losses (and the leash) in favour of a trip to view the Aboriginal rock art in Dharug National Park - on the banks the nearby Hawkesbury River - but Curly reappeared beside me again and something about the fact that his hair was still dry so annoyed me I decided to give it one more shot.

A good teacher knows when his student needs a boost. Curly proved both literal and good. He gave a me shove as the next wave approached and yelled "Hup" so loudly that I jerked upright as if beneath an opening parachute. The board (my lovely board) forgave the fact I was standing all over its wrong bits, and for a second, two, three, I was... up and going. I was surfing. Surfing! I fell off of course, almost immediately, but it didn't matter, because I was stoked, hooked, a convert. Curly's push and the little ride that followed it were enough to make me persevere: I had surfed.

TRAVELLERS' GUIDE

Expect to pay in the region of A$45 (£19) for a two-hour starter lesson (in a group of up to four beginners) at one of the many surf schools on the Central Coast. Lessons in larger groups cost A$25 (£10) for 90 minutes. Equipment is included. Lesson times vary day to day (wave/weather contingent).

Christopher Wakling booked lessons through STS The Board Centre, 170 Avoca Drive, Avoca Beach NSW 2251 Australia, 00 61 2 4382 1541. See also www.surfcoaching.com.au

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