Tuesday, October 11, 2005

On Surfing

The official word on Italy must wait, but I offer instead this previously un-published dispatch from Australia.

Noosa, Australia February 15

If you spend any real amount of time in Australia without surfing a wave and drinking a beer it’s debatable if you’ve actually visited Australia at all. Having sampled many Toohey’s, Melbourne Bitters, and Carlton Draughts (as well as the occasional Victoria Bitter, XXXX, and Boag’s) it was time to learn to surf.

When you’re on Australia’s eastern coast and you want to surf you don’t have to wait long. The urge took hold in Noosa, a trendy foodie Mecca just north of Brisbane. There are 34,000 residents and three surf schools.

Sabrina and I paid $35 for a two-hour class and just after 9am the “Noosa Surf School ” herded twenty-five of us to the west side of the main beach and equipped us with red, long-sleeved tops and big buoyant foam boards. We had been instructed to bring swimmers (that’s a bathing suit), a towel, and a bottle of water but as we headed down to the shore from the parking lot we were told to just bring the swimmers; all other possessions and any sense of personal competence would be locked in the vans.

Freddy drew a circle in the sand and instructed the “first day, group lesson surfers” to huddle around it, positioning the tips of our boards on the edge of the circle.

In a paragraph or so I could outline the four or five tips that allow you, with practice, to surf a wave. But if you saw the way Freddy strolled out of the water board-under-arm after two hours work with his wet blonde hair waving in the wind you would imagine for a moment the life of a surf instructor and you would like that idea too much to endanger the livelihood of all the Freddys out there by revealing their simple secrets.

Let me not suggest, however, that surfing is easy. Step one for us was riding the waves boogie-board style on our bellies. When the waves grabbed us we were told to push ourselves up with our arms so our chests arched up from the boards. We were taking baby steps.

I grew up a block from the ocean and have been body surfing and boogie-boarding forever. I’m sure in some ways this helped but in one big way it hurt. With a boogie board, or when body surfing, you can choose your wave up until the point it reaches you. On a surfboard you need to commit to the wave well ahead of time, giving yourself a chance to balance on the board, make sure its pointed towards shore, and gain some momentum by paddling six or so times. It’s like trying to catch a fly ball but not being able to move once the ball is on the way down. I watched many perfect waves crash by because they didn’t look so good from a distance.

Any learning curve has a few mileposts that give you a sense of accomplishment but with surfing they’re so visceral, such a rush, that they feel like more than they are. The first, simple rush is when you’re still on your stomach and a wave grabs you and sends you to shore. You get a sense right away that this is a different ride than a boogie-board gives; if that feels like riding a moped, this is a Harley.

The next step is the much-fetishized “standing.” All the surf schools guarantee you’ll stand during your first lesson and you will. Once you’ve mastered lifting your chest off the board while it drives towards the shore it’s pretty natural to slide your feet up onto the board and stand. You don’t remember what it felt like to take your first steps but it probably felt something like this.

I was coasting to the shore on my belly a little while before Freddy showed us how to stand up but tried getting up anyway. Next thing I knew I was surfing. I feel comfortable using the word “surf” because the surf photographer left early and so there’s no visual evidence of the height of this “wave.” You will notice that in most first-day surf photos the wave looks like something formed by throwing a big rock into a still pond.

The next big thrill comes from catching an “unbroken” wave. Yes, lets dispense with the illusions, we were generally riding waves that had already broken 50 feet earlier. My bodysurfing instincts brought me out to the unbroken waves but those same instincts put in the wrong position for surfing them and they regularly broke right on top of me.

The learning curve then progresses to riding those unbroken waves in the fashion seen in surf videos, but I saved those thrills for some future session.

Since I can go no further with tales of glory lets discuss fashion. Do you know why we were wearing those long sleeved red shirts? We found out when we got back to shore. The parts of our arms that weren’t quite covered were scraped to bits as if we’d fallen off a bike. The shirt keeps the board from cutting you up. It doesn’t stop the board from instigating an adversarial relationship between you and the ocean though. The water grabs ahold of the board much tighter than you can and pulls you wherever it chooses. By Sabrina’s estimate she swallowed 10 liters of water due to this problem.

By now your arms are sore from the paddling, your sinuses are infiltrated with salt and your uncovered skin has developed a red splotchy texture that matches your shirt. You’ve been in the water for 90 minutes when they call you out. You want to catch one more wave but its okay when you don’t.

There’s something about the skintight surf shirt drying in the baking sun as you lug your board up to the shore. “All surf instructors are like our surf instructor,” Sabrina says at lunch in her halting English, and you ask, unnecessarily, what she means. “Long blonde hair, tan skin, blue eyes, smiling.”

There’s a silence as you eat your meat pie and she picks at her fish and chips. “‘Handsome’ means the same as ‘pretty,’” she confirms. “But just for a man, right?”

And later, waiting at the bus stop for a Greyhound to split you up and end your three weeks of living as a couple, Sabrina asks if you remember the surf instructor’s name.

Yes, no matter how simple it all is, you can’t imagine ruining it for Freddy.


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