That time I sat on a man’s head while surfing

It snowed today, which I am utterly appalled by, so this seems like the perfect opportunity to go back in time to when it was summer.

A big part of my Cornish dream when I moved here was to be able to saunter to the beach, hop on a surfboard, and look for all the world like a Blue Crush character. Of course, that requires the ability to surf and, aside from one excellent wave caught while bodyboarding at Perranporth beach aged seven which has since become the stuff of family legend, I had zero experience.

I picked Boardmasters weekend for my course of beginner-level surf lessons in Newquay, because of course the thing to make a person feel right at home during beginner-level surf lessons is to be alongside actual pros competing in an actual competition for actual accolades. I opted for lessons because, while I was absolutely certain I was going to be a natural, I thought it might be helpful to have somebody around to help me tweak my technique to really get the best out of my inevitable skill. I don’t spend hours on Instagram watching videos of big wave surfing for nothing, you know. That’s the dream. And lessons were my first step.

My teacher turned out to be from Berkhamsted, which is very close to the part of not-quite-London I’d moved from earlier in the year. So far, so good. It became immediately clear that Hertfordshireans (which is totally not a word but it absolutely should be) have an excellent pedigree as surfing is concerned. Even if we are allegedly as far away from the sea as it’s possible to be*. We bonded over our shared Home Counties heritage.

The lesson got off to a great start. We laid our boards in a semi-circle on the beach and paddled for our lives against the sand. I could pop up like a pro. Frankly, my whole technique was poetry in motion.

I was feeling good as we headed into the sea, and I was right to. I turned out to be excellent at catching waves. All of those hours I put in down at Perranporth as a child who didn’t realise she was in training for anything massively paid off.

The only snag was when we got to that whole ‘standing up’ thing they seem to insist that all surfers be able to do. I just couldn’t do it. I could push my torso up. I could even get up onto one knee. But at the last, crucial ‘Blue Crush’ moment, I always ended up with a mouthful of Newquay seawater. All around me, my fellow students – who I’d (smugly) sailed past so many times as I caught wave after wave while they struggled – flew past me. Sure, none of them looked like they were quite ready to star in their own early-noughties sports movies either, but at least they were out of the water.

At the end of my first day the teacher caught up with me and reassured me that some people just take longer to pick it up than others. I’m a bit of a slow burn when it comes to sports that do not take place on completely solid ground, so I wasn’t too worried, but it was nice to think we’d bonded over more than just our shared Home Counties heritage.

The next morning, when a new batch of fresh-faced students and my achy, creaky shell of a body were divided up among the teachers, Mr Hertfordshire called dibs on me. I think after watching me fall over and over again the previous day he’d taken my plight to heart, and wanted to be the one to finally get me standing.

The lesson started. I aced the sandy semi-circle, and I proved myself again when it was time to catch the waves. Then it was standing time. Since my only usual exercise is a light paddle or a leisurely swim, my biceps were killing me from a full day of pratfalling the day before. The rest of my body wasn’t in much better shape. Even pushing myself up on the board felt more difficult and I was going face-first into the water even more than the personal best I’d set myself previously.

My teacher saw me struggling and came over to help. He rode on the back of my board to keep it steady while I tried to haul myself up to standing. Time ticked by, and the waves rolled in, and I was undeniably not improving.

“Last wave before we have to go in,” He told me, eventually. “Come on, you can do this.”

Full of renewed energy I paddled out for one last try. I could feel the water moving around me as my wave of destiny (I know it’s wanky, but I need somebody to option this story so I can live out my surf movie dreams) rolled in. I paddled like the Dickens, the teacher held on, and then we were moving. As I thundered towards to beach I summoned every last ounce of energy and managed to pull myself up to one knee. I twisted my foot just like they’d been showing me for two days, and things finally fell into place.

For a glorious instant the clouds parted, choirs of angels sang, and I was standing on a surfboard and had magically transformed into Kate Bosworth.

Unfortunately after that glorious instant was up my legs completely gave out and I sat back on my still-moving board. Except that there was something in between my backside and my still-moving board, and that something was the head of my Home Counties hero.

I wish I could say I moved straight away, but if we’ve learned anything from this it’s that I’m not naturally very nimble while on surfboards. So my shining moment was immediately followed by a steep fall from grace, as it always should be.

Oh, how I miss the days when all that had happened between me and my surf teacher was a bit of small talk about our shared Home Counties heritage.


* I have since googled this fact that the teacher told me. It is untrue any way you slice it. There is no excuse for my lack of skill.

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