‘Never, ever look down’: a middle-aged guide to catching waves

‘Never, ever look down’: a middle-aged guide to catching waves

Alison Rourke, a surfer from Ireland, learned to surf in spite of board burns and wipeouts. She did this between two cyclones that left remnants of the tsunami.

The image of a group of surfers riding a break is the quintessential Australian summer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wished to be on a surfboard with them.

When I was a child, I learned how to skateboard, ski, and use boogie boards. It seemed impossible to learn how to surf, especially at 50. On a four-week break, I decided to give it a go.

Alison purchased her board at Golden Breed Surf Shop on the first morning of her vacation. Alison Rourke/The Guardian supplied the photo.

The Golden Breed shop in Noosa Heads recommended a board that was light, long, and wide enough to be carried. I thought the store was a sign because my first skateboard from Golden Breed, circa 1979, was also there.

A board costs about $400. The cost of renting a board for a month is about $350. I bought a brand new 8ft 4in board named Darkhorse and a pamphlet about surf etiquette.

After my purchase, I did a quick search on the internet. I found out that Darkhorse was made of reinforced polyethylene for “stiffness” and “durability” and “designed to handle heavy Hawaiian conditions.” All of which I didn’t really need. Or so I thought.

In my first year with Covid, I took a 2-hour surf lesson on Sydney’s Manly Beach. The main messages were simple: Try to stand up from lying down in one motion (the “pop-up”), look at where you want to go and lean forward to accelerate.

Noosa Heads’ swell can be great for beginners. My newly waxed dark horse, my fresh rashie, and my leg rope (attached to the foot at the back of my board) were all I needed to paddle out.

The first game was a pretty exhausting one.

It was very hard to pop up. It was very hard. It is especially difficult when you have lost upper body strength.

As I was about to fall over during a private surfing lesson, a friendly instructor gave me some advice. “Put both hands together under your body and push up fast,” he said. “And never, ever look down.”

Then, I practiced my pop-up on the carpet. I spent a few days more in the water, but it didn’t help me much.

The first of the three ocean curveballs.

The gentle waves of the beach were suddenly replaced by 8ft monsters thanks to Cyclone Seth, which descended along the Queensland coast. After a cyclone in the 1980s, I rode a board, but this was more intense.

Local surfers claimed that the three days of huge waves were the best after a hurricane. It was powerful enough to drop a massive tree trunk onto Noosa’s Main Beach. I was firmly on dry ground.

The swell had almost disappeared by the fifth or sixth day. I was still struggling to get my pop-up into the water.

On a wave that I will never forget, I stood up and surfed to the beach. The glide was almost hypnotic. My body did it, not my brain.

The end of the second week brought another curveball: a cyclone swell. This time, it was from Cyclone Cody 2,700km off Fiji. It was pulsing with powerful waves and had a strong pull.

I found refuge in the foamy waves at the beginners’ corner, which is located at the end of the beach. One instructor was sympathetic and said he wanted to “share his love of surfing.”

He said, “Be careful to not push on the rails” (sides) of the board as it could tip over.

There doesn’t seem to be a timeline for learning how to surf. A long-time surfer told me that the only way to learn is to keep on doing it. Over and over again.

After Cyclone Seth, the surf was rough at Little Cove Beach in Noosa Heads. Alison Rourke/The Guardian

It becomes almost automatic. Each time, your strength increases. If you’re willing to be thrown out of the house on a regular schedule, then things will progress.

The final ocean curveball is the tsunami that was caused by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga – Hunga Ha’apai subsea volcano off Tonga. Locally, the impact was devastating. From 3,000 km away, the power of its waves and rips could be felt on Australia’s east coast.

When the worst was over, I went back to the beginners’ corner on high tide.

Alison and Ella, her daughter, both learned to surf in Noosa. Alison Rourke/The Guardian supplied the photo.

I was able to stand on the waves in four weeks. I don’t know how this happened. My feet knew where to go and where to push up.

On my last surfing day, I did manage to pop out a rib. It was only by jumping onto the board and not falling off. The local physiotherapist (also a surfer) told me that I should “work on pop-up strength” prior to going out again.

It’s the best advice that I can give to anyone who wants to learn how to surf. When you first try surfing, be as strong as possible and fit as you possibly can. This exercise exposes muscles that you didn’t know you had or haven’t used for a long time.

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