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Surfing in Sydney – You’re Never Too Old To Learn
A few months ago, a friend called me to ask if I would like to join her for a surf lesson at Manly Beach in Sydney. Thinking about his answer, two images flashed through his mind. My thirty-nine-year-old body, tired from the struggle, tries to hang five with a crowd of confused foreign backpackers and pointed schoolchildren. And even more vividly, the look on the faces of my established couple and married friends with kids if they knew I was even considering the idea.
Having recently escaped the maximum suburbs of Sydney’s Lower North Shore and moved to the fun-filled Manly Beach, I had already become the prime suspect in their case against the dirty thirties trying to recapture their lost youth. It’s not like I’ve been caught driving a red convertible sports car or acting suspicious outside botox clinics. However, I was ushered into the frescoed living rooms and interrogated under the glare of a designer mood about alleged weekend football games, school night bar hopping and nightly clubbing, sternly warned that such activities were not something a self-respecting man of my age should be involved in.
“Of course, count me in,” I replied. Breaking the news to the fun police couldn’t be more embarrassing than having to answer the question of every man living in the suburbs next to the beach, “So do you surf?” with a mumbled response about body slamming into a pair of flippers. Besides, hardly a single lesson was compulsory. It was like a speed date. I’d hook up with a few records, share a few laughs, make a fool of myself and never be seen again.
The day came and everything seemed to go according to plan. Paddle out, thrash around like a doll on amphetamines, catch a wave, try to shake, fall comically, try to laugh at yourself louder than those around you and start over. At this rate, I would quickly retreat to the safety of the pub, telling those who asked, “Yes, I surfed until I wiped out the sunken German and turned my back.”
Then the most bizarre thing happened. After I landed one particularly kind wave and staggered to my feet, the regulation left hook that had sent me crashing to the canvas all day never arrived. I was still standing, surfing over the remaining backpackers, while the school kids didn’t even notice the impact!
There was no denying that my giant eski lid was about the size of a KEII, and would have stayed steady with the entire government of Central Africa on board, however, gliding through the water with the sun on my face, salt on my lips and sand in my shorts cheered me up a way that no Sunday night happy hour had. By the end of the lesson I knew that somewhere in the surf shop out there, a beautiful piece of fiberglass was calling my name.
From an early age, I have always loved the beaches of Sydney. Face planting on the bank after catching a ‘dump’; we have to “run” on the scorching hot sand until we find a place to put down our towels; ravenously waiting in line for a chocolate Paddle Pop and pie n’ sauce with the feel of course wet sand underfoot and the smell of bodies colliding under your nose; golden tanned girls who, well, just walked around like golden tanned girls. My transcendental surfing lesson on HMAS Polystyrene left me wondering, “Why didn’t I try this years ago?”
Among a list of very poor excuses, only one seemed to have any validity. Fear. As a teenager without a car, it was less terrifying to stand in the local nets and watch cricket balls fly towards my face, or try, and often fail, to jump BMX bikes over a 5ft ditch, than to let the golden tanned girls see me hanging on the beach with mom and dad.
In my twenties, I built a career, traveled the world and discovered that there is more to a woman’s beauty than the shade of her tan. Until then, my parents were allowed to follow me in public, however, the thought of prehistoric cannibals licking their lips under my sea biscuit and stories of 120kg Neanderthals performing surfboard proctology on anyone who happened to catch a wave ensured the nearest Do the thrill of surfing I came through the eyes of the six o’clock sports news camera.
After the lesson, I realized how irrational those fears were. I saw dozens of windsurfers coming out of the sea every day. They all still had their torsos, and very few walked like they had a surfboard stuck in their back. Never again would I let a problem beyond my control stop me from achieving my surfing dream!
Which meant I would need a more tangible fear. It came to me just after the smiling surf man took my money and watched me walk away with eight feet of fiberglass, a rubber suit, two packets of golden brown bikini girl wax and his sunglasses wrapped in a rope for my legs. Maybe my sensible friends were right after all? Maybe I was pathetically clinging to a long-lost youth?
Shyly making my way down the beach, I felt the stares of the bakers bore me, knowing exactly what they were thinking. A voice came over the lifeguard club’s speakers. Nobody ever understands those announcements, but I heard it clearly: “You, thirty-nine-year-old guy in a hysterically fitted suit. Act your age. Put down your surfboard and get back between the flags. Nice and easy.” Just when I thought the game was over, I took one last look at the splashing water and realized I had come too far to stop now. Gathering every bit of courage in my fun frame, I held my board like a swagman with my bag and yelled, “You’ll never catch me alive,” crashing into the sea, leaving a world of epoch-correct soldiers in my wake.
I’ve been honing my lousy surfing skills for a while now and I still often find myself upside down, but it doesn’t matter. As any golf hack will tell you, one sweet drive down the middle of a long fairway makes up for 99 pars in the parking lot and dribbles off the tee. Give me just one smooth ride on a sparkling blue satin wave, showering me with champagne foam in its wake, and not a backpacker to be seen between my board and the beach, and this middle-aged delinquent will always be back for more. Because the only thing that scares me these days is imagining what life would be like if I never became a surfer.
Four things every late beginner should know about surfing:
1. Physiological studies have shown that surfing is an excellent form of exercise. A study of aerobic fitness at Deakin University found that the pace of competitive surfers was comparable to Nordic skiers and long-distance runners, while my study found that it reduced male bulging breasts and wobbly love handles.
2. Male surfers are allowed to stand behind the beach and watch women for at least fifteen minutes longer than other men before being arrested, provided they at least pretend to be studying the swells in the water as well. Surfers don’t have extra rights to look at other women, because men just want to do it more often.
3. It is worth investing in a quality suit. In addition to the warming benefits, they distribute excess body fat evenly across the rubbery skin.
4. No matter what your friends tell you, you should wear a casual suit with a zipper in the back. I promise.
Best places to learn to surf in Sydney:
Manly Surf School offers lessons on Sydney’s four northern beaches daily all year round.
Bondi Surf School – Lets Go Surfing Offers lessons on Sydney’s most famous beach all year round.
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