Few things have a stronger association than surfing and Australia (except maybe surfing and California, but that’s another story). My arrival in Byron Bay, that hippy backpacker town several hours north of Sydney, was the first time I’d been thrown into this surfer-culture world. Amidst this place of wet suits, bare feet, and sun-bleached hair, I figured I had to be missing out on something good.
We were picked up, the only passengers on a small white bus, and carted to the Mojosurf office. There, we met up with the rest of our group for the 1/2-day surf lesson: a German man and woman, two German-speaking Swiss girls, our Aussie guide, and another German photographer. After a quick briefing, we headed back out to the bus and on to the beach. On the side of the road, we all stripped down to our swimsuits and squeezed into some wetsuits that smelled overwhelmingly of feet.
The surf boards were heavy, and I struggled not to drag mine in the sand. For a few minutes, we practiced the routine in the sand. As first-timers, we would be only aiming for waves that had already broken, sticking to waist-deep waters. It sounds simple enough: Wave breaks and hits your feet. Paddle hard with your arms one, two, three times. Pop up.
Taking to the water, the waves hit hard. Carrying the board against the surf was a difficult task, every wave that hit would take me back a few feet. Finally, at waist depth we all turned, spread out evenly, and took turns waiting for the waves. My heart was racing, a mix of adrenaline and honest terror. As a decent wave approached, I jumped onto the board, slamming my body hard against it. The wave hit my feet, I paddled, popped up… and took a nose dive into the rolling white water. Standing too far forward, my weight was unbalanced on the board. Though I knew the difference, I did this a lot more than I’d like to admit.
Swallowing more than a healthy amount of sea water, and sustaining a few cuts from several collisions with my own board in the crashing waves, I wasn’t having too much fun. The work was exhausting, and more times than not I would get caught in a large wave and dragged back without even jumping on my board for a moment. I was starting to wonder how it was possible to get past this initial misery and to a place where practice and success at this sport seemed possible.
My last chance to ride a wave was coming, several hours had passed and the winds were picking up. I was terrified, but pushed myself to walk further into the water, where the waves were breaking more evenly. I saw one coming and jumped on the board, pushed hard with my arms, and popped up. For a few seconds, I stood awkwardly on the board, my arms in weird contortions in a strange attempt to hold my balance. Riding the surf to the shore, I felt like I’d accomplished something. Maybe my happiness was from overcoming the challenge and making progress, or the feeling of overpowering these waves that had battered me so hard. Maybe a bit of both, but also the overwhelming joy that for once, I didn’t wipe out.
Read more about my time in Byron Bay here.