True confessions of a surfing virgin
I HAD never seen anyone surf until I came to Australia from England as a 26-year-old.
When I was a boy in Leeds, Yorkshire, my family would often drive to Blackpool, Lancashire, for our annual holiday. Blackpool is a seaside town overlooked by the Blackpool Tower, a half-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower, but offering panoramic views of Blackpool, rather than Paris.
There were beaches in Blackpool, with deck chairs and donkey rides and girls wearing kiss-me-quick hats. I remember the sand as slushy and sticky, a close relative to mud. The sea was ice-cream cold and there was no surf. The great attraction of Blackpool was the Pleasure Beach, which wasn't a beach at all, but a sprawling, crowded amusement park with a Ferris wheel, a fun house and the big dipper, which was widely held to be just like a ride you might find in the US.
I grew out of the Pleasure Beach, with its clouds of candy floss and tooth-cracking sticks of rock, but didn't grow into sandy beaches until I arrived in Sydney, and found Bondi, a beach that was somehow able to attract thousands of visitors without inconveniencing a single donkey.
When I noticed the surfers, dancing across waves like the stones my brother used to skim into the Irish Sea (but not like the stones I used to skim, which just sort of plopped), I admired their grace and athleticism, but the thing I liked most about them was their T-shirts.
This was 1989, and some surfers still wore Mambo. I thought the designs were funny and clever, and the colours rich and deep, and surf labels seemed to be the only street fashion in Australia. So I started to wear them, too, silently lying I was a part of a culture I'd only seen from the sand.
I came to love the ocean and the beach, and realised all the surfers I met always seemed to be happy. I wondered whether they truly felt at one with nature, or it was just because they were stoned all the time.
Every now and then, I thought about learning to surf, but then I thought about buying a beer instead. This summer, however, something changed: I was offered lessons for free. This was the opportunity I hadn't really been waiting for, the chance to get out there in the waves and make an idiot of myself in water, instead of on land.
At my first private surfing lesson, I had to read about all the various risks I was about to take before I could go into the water, and indemnify the company of any responsibility for what might happen.
It was a long document, and I asked my instructor, Marty Williams, which was the best bit.
"The one that I like is 'comply properly with all the directions given to you by the instructor'," said Marty.
The rest of the text warned I might be "stung or bitten by an ocean creature, such as a bluebottle, jellyfish, stingray or shark" but I was also potentially in danger "crossing any roads". As a result of these - or the many other perils listed - I might "suffer serious injury, disease or death [including by drowning]".
Marty was good-natured, good-humoured, patient, sardonic and slightly baffled by my inability to accomplish the simplest of tasks. He said we'd go out paddling first and practice lying on the board. If that went OK, he'd teach me to stand up.
But I couldn't even carry the board down to the water properly. I dragged the tail through the sand, and it looked uncool, the thing I dreaded the most. Apart from drowning.
The beach was mercifully quiet on a weekday morning. While I'm usually willing to try anything (except bungee jumping, which just seems pointless), I perform even more badly than usual when I know people are watching.
We walked into the ocean at the north end of the beach, near a rip over some rocks. Neither a rip nor rocks sounded like the kind of the thing I'd want to be near during my first outing on a surfboard. I feared Marty had miscalculated, and my feet would be slashed to seaweed when I fell off the board.
Of course, I had to get on it first.
Marty asked if I could ride a skateboard. I can't.
Had I ever been snowboarding? No.
He gave me only a 20 per cent chance of standing up on a wave.
Marty told me to climb onto the tail of the surfboard and slide up closer to the nose. This went OK, although it felt dangerously precarious. Then Marty suggested I sit up on the board. I think we both knew what was going to happen. I immediately flipped the board and fell into the rip (probably) over the rocks (definitely). I flailed and spluttered and struggled and sank.
"Can you actually swim?" Marty shouted.
I can swim. It's just that I panicked.
"You fell off in waist-deep water and nearly drowned," said Marty. "I'd hate to see how you go in the bath at home."
He revised my chances of standing up to between 0 and 5 per cent. I was not going to skim like my brother's stones, I was going to plop like my own.
I parted company with the board several more times, but kept my cool (comparatively) and, eventually, Marty had me paddling about 150 metres out. He said I should plunge my hands deeper into the water and take bigger strokes, as if I were swimming freestyle, but I can't do freestyle so that example didn't help much.
Marty positioned my board so I would catch a gentle wave and then pushed me onto it. I slid slowly towards the beach, and watched the view through the tip of the board. My eyes felt like a camera mounted on my own head - which, I suppose, they are.
Once we'd done this a couple of times, Marty went rummaging through his surf shed and came out with the 'Biggest Surfboard in the World'. It looked like the deck of an aircraft carrier, or an oil tanker. It was, officially, a stand-up paddleboard, but for our purposes it was a surfboard, because I was going to surf on it. That was the idea, anyway.
"The bigger board is more forgiving," said Marty, "and I can see you need a lot of forgiveness."
Marty laid the vast board on the beach and said, "I'm going to show you the correct way to get up on a surfboard. Not because I think you'll be able to do it, but because if I don't show you and you get hurt, I'll be in trouble."
He lay down on his own, rather smaller board, his back bent like the horn off a bull, and jumped up into a short, low stance, as if he were trying to straddle an invisible carton of beer.
I thought about it for a moment, then mimicked his move. Almost perfectly.
Perhaps the only physical movement I can perform reflexively, apart from bending my right arm to raise a glass to my mouth, is snapping into a boxing position. And a surfing position is a lot like a boxing position. Especially when I do it.
Marty asked if I thought I could do the same thing on the water.
I wasn't exactly confident, but it didn't seem impossible. I assumed it would be similar to trying to box while drunk, which I have done several times.
The first time I tried to get up on the board, I rode it all the way back to the beach. I was more stunned than exhilarated. I just couldn't believe it had happened.
Marty encouraged me to give it another go, but if Jeff Fenech had never staged a comeback, he would never have lost a fight. I realised instinctively I had already reached the pinnacle of my surfing career. I had saved the best until first.
Nevertheless, I complied properly with all the directions given to me by my instructor and stood up on the next wave too. This time, I almost had the time to enjoy it. It was a beautiful, if fleeting, feeling, like skating on air.
By the end of the hour, I'd ridden three waves out of three.
I had one more lesson, caught some bigger waves and, according to Marty, was "taking the drop on them".
This meant, apparently, I was standing up at the top of the wave and riding it to the bottom.
"It's like going down a mountain," said Marty. "Or, in your case, a very small hill."
For my last trick, I caught a perfect left-hander and stayed with it the whole way to the shore.
"I don't think you did it on purpose," said Marty, "but you may claim that you did."
I don't know what to claim. I've rarely been so surprised in my life. I don't know what to do for an encore. Maybe I'll eat an aeroplane.