There are two ways to learn to surf from scratch; three if you count “go back in time and be 17”. I chose the one that doesn’t involve going to Cornwall: an indoor surf centre, Twinwoods Adventure, near Bedford – the reason being that I’ve actually tried to learn a sport in the sea before, when I was considerably nearer to 17. The year was 2001, and I was on a kite-surfing press trip to the modish Watergate Bay. Kite-surfing is so impossible that to try and learn it from scratch was like being a toddler learning how to hurdle; we spent four full days just getting on the board. By the end, I was no closer; only colder. Learning indoors had to be easier, surely?
My instructor, Keagan Walsh, was straight out of central casting for Home And Away. He had two bodyboards (surf boards happen later), one of which was plainly intended for me. He introduced me to a sloping slide about three metres long, with water gushing out at the bottom at incredible pressure. “OK,” he said, or at least I think he did, because I couldn’t hear anything at all. “Just jump on. It’s not cold.” Sure, not cold, but I still stood at the top giggling with fear. Once it dawned on him that I was not going to jump, he suggested I kneel at the top. I could manage that. Then, with the board against my body, elbows in, holding on to the top, I didn’t so much jump as lurch forward. Luckily, water has a grace of its own.
There are so many fun ways to screw it all up: if you get the top of the board into the water before your weight is on it, it’s like being hosed in the face with a water cannon. If you forget how to steer – lean heavily on the elbow of the direction you want to go in – you’ll careen straight into the side. If you steer too aggressively towards the middle, where the water is fiercest, it will blow you straight back to the top and you’ll hit the back wall, which is not as painful as it sounds.
I discovered all this over the course of 17 or 18 tries, while Keagan inaudibly tried to teach me new stuff. I attempted the Superman (let the board go, then catch it as it fires back to you); nope, not yet, maybe in six months. I tried kneeling on the board itself, a first step to standing; ha, not in a million years. By this point he was looking at me quizzically, as if wondering why a person so afraid of getting wet would think surfing was for them. Or maybe he’d asked me a question and I hadn’t heard.
On about my tenth go, I did learn to steer: I was so amazed at even this scintilla of control over my surroundings (having previously felt like a snooker ball, pinged across the slide by unknown forces) that I started to really love it, like a kid in a water park. I cannot think of a faster way to exhaust yourself. Maybe standing up on a horse?
What I learned
Belly on the board (BED), elbows in, allowing your legs to drag behind. This sounds so much easier than it is.