The Beauty of Surfing
Apr 05,2023 | Steven Fleming
For the past few months, on Sunday mornings, I have been going down to my local swim centre and providing children with learn-to-swim lessons. Then last week I was asked if I would give a lesson to some adult non-swimmers - recent immigrants from countries where nobody swims. There were meant to be ten of them but only two came. By the second lesson, those two had quit also.
This got me thinking about times in my life, when my natural human reticence toward water was very strong, and my desire to have fun was unsually weak. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I'm living through such a phase now.
I've been so busy, that I have told myself that bicycle transport is enough exercise and recreation for me, and that I don't have to add surfing on top. With the ocean baths near my house closed for renovations, my time in the water has been reduced to the occassional body surf, and those lessons on Sundays, that don't actually count.
I know myself well enough to know that the times in my life when I've been most productive in work, have not been the times when I've sacrificed everything for it. Rather, they have been the times when I have kept a promise to myself to surf for twenty minutes each day. Even if I only get tossed by foam on the shore, I'll feel better for it.
So what is the matter with me, that at age 55, I don't know my own lesson?
Now let me introduce someone whose testimony could shake me out of this malaise.
Beulah grew up on the coast South of Durban, in South Africa, where she was a nipper and chased her brothers, on her boogie board, when they were surfing breaks near Port Shepstone and Lucien Beach. It wasn't until her twenties, when she was working in Durban, that she could actually afford her own surfboard. I can easily picture Beulah honing her board riding skills near the piers she describes there. Looking at them on Google Maps, I can imagine them forming nice sand banks, next to deep water for paddling out. The problem Beulah had there though, was a shortage of time.
The water was so cold in Capetown that she didn't surf at all when she moved there. She got the occassional surf in at Manly, when together with her husband she immigrated, but Sydney traffic made that an irregular thing.
She didn't actually become a regular surfer until she moved to the Tweed area on the NSW North Coast, when she was in her forties. Yes of course, you might say, what occassional surfer wouldn't become a regular surfer if they moved to the North Coast, with its warm water and abundance of point breaks!
But there is something I haven't mentioned. She didn't go to Tweed to retire. She went to start the most demanding chapter of anyone's life. Her move coincided with the arrival of a new baby daughter, who is now a teenager. Though surf breaks were more accessible to her, she would have to jostle surf sessions with her care of a child.
Where I live, I have a one minite walk to two surf breaks, and within ten minutes can walk to ten more, yet I can talk myself out of surfing. Beulah has an abundance of surf breaks to choose from (Currumbin, Snapper/Rainbow, Fingal, Kingscliff, Cabarita), but she can't check the surf from her kitchen, like I do, or leave home in her wetsuit. She has to plan things, and drive.
In case you're wondering, no, she's not an heiress. She gets her surf in quick and early each morning, so she can attend to all the same pressures that rule most of our lives.
She has some reluctance to combat as well, which although not as bad as that of the adults I was teaching to swim, does require some positive self-talk and tricks. One trick she uses to force herself to get out in the morning, is to strap her soafboard to her roofracks the evening before. I guess she knows it would be pain taking it off to do something else; better to just drive to the beach and get the surf over and done with. An example of positive self-talk, is telling herself, "what's the worst thing that can happen?" The worst thing, she figures, is she could get there and not catch any waves. Still, she would at least come out of the water feeling refreshed by the negative ions and oxygen.
When she gets to sharing the euphoria she feels on a wave, the word oxygen comes up a few times. I find it curious that the one thing surfing will deprive you of, while you're being held under, is the thing Beulah keeps telling me surfing provides!
Surfers don't talk about two-wave hold-downs, how black it is under white water, and sharks. The only surfers who let themselves even think about those things, are the ones who have quit, and taken up drinking instead.
The only drawback current surfers, like Beulah, admit to, is the hassel of crowds. But all surfers have their strategies for snagging some waves for themselves. Beulah's match mine: find Beta waves (waves Alpha's don't fight for); confirm you're not dropping in on anyone else, then charge onward, ignoring anyone who might drop in on you; and always remember that sixty-percent of the people out there don't know what they're doing - they're just "tea-bagging" as we like to say.
A moment ago I joked that former surfers have all switched to drinking instead. It was in my mind because, while she was talking to me, Beulah did quip that if it wasn't for surfing, she might turn to the bottle - the bottle or pills, I seem to recal.
Not knowing enough about her to comment, I will instead put the lens on myself. I said at the beginning, that the times in my life when I've been most productive, have been the times when I have been religious about surfing each day, even it's just to get wet. I can see that connection. The connection I haven't drawn, is one that might exist between my starting on anti-depressants, and stopping surfing each day. Both occurred around age forty, in 2008 - roughly when Beulah relocated to Tweed.
I'm not leaping to conclusions. My forties was when I won a lot of bicycle races and had the international speaking career I brag about often. And in the case of the keynotes, I'm sure the meds helped!
Nevertheless, like any daily ritual I have ever stopped and restarted (journal writing, push-ups, sex, etc.) my new resolution to resume surfing each day, is tinged with some grief. I feel as though a decade of my life has been lost and can never be gotten back now, like the years of good surfing Beulah missed out on in Capetown and Sydney.
She told me she can't imagine moving somewhere with no surfing.
"Not even to live near grandchildren?" I asked.
"Ah, they can come visit," she said, laughing off my suggestion.
However, a doubtful note in her voice told me she hasn't really thought that far ahead.
As daily rituals go, surfing may be the world's best. The wave Beulah is on in these photos, while hardly the best she has caught in her life, hints at all the pleasures that she reports: the power, the feeling of flying, the adrenalin rush, and the oxygen (see footnote below).
Would she really turn to the bottle if she didn't have this? I doubt it would be that bad. It's more the case, I think, that we only get two handfulls of decades of this (life), and given surfing is so wondrous, you would be crazy not to arrange every day to squeeze some of that in.
Beulah's advice to women her age who want to start surfing, is to first work on their fitness. You need a degree of confidence in your body, to handle a board in the water. Then, find a surf school, practice your pop-ups on dry land, and stay within your "comfort zone", which means start in small surf.
Footnote: I thought Beulah was being poetic about oxygen. However, after reviewing my draft she sent me a link to this article. "The surface layer of the ocean is teeming with photosynthetic plankton. Though they're invisible to the naked eye, they produce more oxygen than the largest redwoods."
Word and photos by me, Steven Fleming. All rights reserved.