A Little Adrift

A Little Adventure… Surfing Waves and Eating Water in Byron Bay, Australia

As my round the world trip picked up speed and headed into parts of the world with erratic internet access, I started to lose the thread of the story, jumping ahead to share updates of my current travels. But that left some truly wonderful experiences unshared! So we head back in time today to the east coast of Australia for a flashback to my questionably successful attempts learning how to surf.

Our time machine has landed us to a sunny, windy day in the surfing town of Byron Bay. After getting my fill of diving in Cairns, taking a gorgeous boat ride to the Whitsundays, and four-wheel driving on the world’s largest sand island, it was time for another adventurous activity: learning to surf.

Other travelers warned me that, as a complete newbie, I only needed two days of exhausting lessons before I would beg for a break, my muscles not up to the strenuous task. Heeding their advice, I signed up for a two-day class with Mojo Surf to give me a taste of surfing without the body-aching pain I would feel from the seven-day courses they also offered.

Byron Bay is a hippy coastal town soaked in the alternative lifestyle. An eccentric nudist community, Nimbin, is just a short ride outside of town and every third backpacker you meet sports a wetsuit sunburn and sun-bleached dreads. The vibe is fun, laid-back, and it turned out to be the perfect backdrop to my painstaking hours of surf lessons. The Mojo Surf van pulled up in front of my hostel and within minutes the ten of us were cruising a coastal road parallel to the rolling ocean waters.

Although I had packed a short-sleeved rash-guard, our instructors also passed out full-sleeved rashies that would protect our arms from both sun and potential sand-burns on our skin. The sun in Australia is even stronger than my hometown, so I also slathered myself in sunscreen while our instructor unloaded the van. Dan was a cliché surfer dude — long, sun-bleached hair, darkly tanned skin, and a groovy, far-out personality designed to perfectly accompany the look. He had such a positive outlook on life and he seemed to love his job, so he made the day that much brighter. Plus, he truly lives for the surf, he oozed enthusiasm from every pore, so I couldn’t have had a better teacher for the two-day course.

My first lesson of the day was unexpected: long boards are heavy! There was no way I could carry it under my arm like the guys in our group, so the women and I hoisted the boards onto our heads before trotting to the beach. Mine plunked into the sand ungracefully, but no one paid me any mind. We made a semi-circle with the boards as the group assembled on shore for a safety talk. Instructor Dan explained the tidal patterns for the day, how wind would effect us, how to handle rip currents, and safety precautions to keep our boards from hurting each other once we were in the water.

Then we did a dry-run and practiced the moves on the sand — long, deep scooping motions with the arms and then you jump up as quick as lightening. Before I could felt truly ready, Instructor Dave shooed us down the beach, assuring us that the best way to learn was actually on the waves. My first thought: “Holy crap I’m not ready yet!” But that doesn’t cut it in surf school and our three instructors fanned out into the water to help us practice our technique.

Surfing is hard work! I bit it over and over again, eating water, sand, shells and even some stringy seaweed. And just when I would start to feel accomplished because I would get half-way up before tipping over, I looked back to see the instructor holding onto the back of the board for me!

My main issue was jumping up from the paddle position into knees-bent surf position quickly and with my weight centered. By the end the first day, board burn scored both of my knees but I could successfully make it up onto the board as long as the instructor was also holding it upright. Which was still quite the accomplishment since learning the rhythm of standing is one of the trickiest parts.

Our second day was both better and worse. The training wheels had come off and our instructors were less eager to hold the back of our boards for us. Crap. That meant I had to not only pick my own waves, but paddle and then jump up all by myself!

It did not go well throughout the morning.

By lunch time, I was freaked out from a scary fall where I picked a wave that was far too large, I fell off tumbled into the water. By this point, I had fallen before but this wave was huge and it tossed me like in a rag-doll in a washing machine for what felt like minutes (really only seconds).

The seconds dragged on though, and bent and braced my arms over my head to protect my neck if I hit the bottom, just as they had taught us the day before. The whole time though, I just prayed that my board wouldn’t hit me in the face while the wave tumbled me.

I surfaced coughing up liters of water and dragging the board cord tied to my ankle and slugging my way onto the beach to take a break. My teacher’s response: “Woah, narley fall dude … but wait, what are you doing up here, get back in the water — there’s still ten minutes before lunch!”

He wouldn’t let me psych myself out from the fall, so I signed and returned to the water, giving it a half-hearted attempt before our lunch break. After lunch, I am proud to say that I made it upright on the board! And on my own, too. I won’t go so far as to lie and say that I can get up on the board consistently, but I was at least standing up each time, although not yet coasting very far once I was up. Baby steps.

My very first ride where I picked the wave and got up on the board on my own!!!

My instructors cheered for me when I came to shore after finally making it up on the board.

It was hugely exhilarating to stand up on the board as it coasted toward the shoreline. There’s a power you feel when you conquer something difficult, and I’m hooked. While I will never be the best surfer in the world, it is a whole lot of fun, bloody knees, sore muscles and all — and I do kind of wish I had another day or two of camp. Those backpackers were wrong, I could have surely managed more days since I was feeling motivated and freshly accomplished by the end of the second day.

You can bet that the next surfing opportunity I get, I am there for more lessons without a second thought! My Australia photo gallery has many more pictures of me eating it into the waves. :)

Quick Tips: Learning to Surf in Byron’s Bay

Where: I used Mojo Surf after endlessly researching my options. I needed a budget option with good reviews, and they fit the bill nicely.

Sleep: I stayed at the Arts Factory Lodge in the dorms and it was a good spot from which to explore the city — basic but clean and has a great traveler vibe. If I return as a couple, I would likely stay in the Bayshore Bungalows, which are mid-range prices and more private than the hostels.

Read: I have a free Australia Travel Guide here, collecting all of the tips from my two months in country, with links and lists of the companies I loved during my trip. I also used the Australia Lonely Planet religiously during my backpacking trip and it is, by far, the most comprehensive guide to the country.