Depleted, I hauled myself onto the board and paddled into calmer, shallow water. The sun had spent the morning climbing lazily from behind the Dorrigo hills and now perched high above, breathing heat over the town of Coffs Harbour, whose every resident, it seemed, basked in the warm, Sunday water below. It was good to be alone, and I closed my eyes as I lay back on the coarse gritted plastic, the waves rumbling gently beneath me.
“Don’t start paddling too soon!”
A voice cut through the silence; a father, instructing his son.
“Wait until the wave sucks you back, then catch it before it breaks.”
He made it sound so simple. I turned and watched as the boy – who could not have been more than eight – braced himself.
“Surely he’s too young…” I pondered, as a look of steely determination formed across the lad’s face. With barely a second thought, he was off – a blur of tanned skin and neon board-shorts gliding towards the shore.
The Aussies made it look so easy. They carried the boards with ease, tucking them under their arms and sprinting across the beach as if they were carrying a pillow. They understood the water, their sun-bleached hair and golden arms remnants of whole summers spent by the shore. They knew how to spot the right wave before it had crested, how to distinguish between the breakwater and the backwater. They knew how to ‘pop up’, knew which foot to put forward, and how to shift their body weight so that the nose of the board did not rise too much or dip too low.
There was a lifetime of experience behind those eyes, and a skill which filled me as much with admiration as it did envy.
I, on the other hand, had no sense for how the water worked and had all the grace of a drunken walrus. My Scottish limbs were gangly and uncoordinated and simply refused to do as they were told. My throat burned from repeated ingestions of salt water and my shoulders were tense from jumping at every blur and shadow which so much as vaguely resembled the dreaded ‘S-word’.
Yet still, I was determined to catch a wave. With every tumble I took, I was brought back to a conversation I once shared with a friend who had learned to surf right here on Australia’s East Coast;
“That feeling when you first get up on your feet and make it back to shore? It’s hard to explain. It’s just…euphoric.”
Those words rang in my head like a bell calling through the night. I had to do this.
I sat up, contemplating my next move. The sounds of the beach began to drift back into my consciousness. Laughter as whole families tip-toed tentatively into the coldness of the sea. Whoops as backpackers, spurred on by life, leapt from the nearby jetty. Their energy was infectious.
With a deep breath, I paddled out again and chose my spot.
“Get ready for it!” called a voice, somewhere to my right. The force of the water changed, drawing me back. I felt the board begin to rise as the wave gathered strength. I started to paddle. This was it. The big one. I took one final look at the shore, which seemed so much further away than it did before, and with every ounce of strength, pushed myself up onto my feet.
For a moment, there was only sky and the cool rush of wind against my face. Then, silence.
I never did learn to surf that day. I did, however, learn to fly. And as for euphoria? Well, I’m sure that’s overrated anyway…