Learning to Surf in Three Easy Steps

I have never before surfed in my life, but I figured how hard could it be?  I am fairly athletic and I can snowboard which is pretty much the same as surfing, but on snow instead of water, right?  Actually, wrong, it turns out.   But of course I learned the hard way.

The road to Grupuk.

On our last day in Lombok Francesca and I hopped on our rented scooter and headed for a village called Grupuk about fifteen minutes from the Novotel.  Nick, our scuba dive master, informed us that this was the best place for beginners to try surfing.  He described it to us in his good, but broken, English, but his description didn’t nearly prepare us for what we encountered.

One of several “surf huts” in Grupuk.

We figured there would be a bright, sunny, albeit crowded tourist beach like on Kuta in Bali, where we could find a local to rent us a board and give us an introductory lesson on small, calm starter waves that gently rolled ashore. But Grupuk was a tiny, dirty village with no beach in sight and if not for a couple of hand painted “surf” signs on a few thatched roofed huts there would be no indication that any would-be surfing English speaking tourist ever set foot on this ground.

The surf shop guy waxing up my board.

We parked our bike at one of the huts with “surf” marked on it, but found no one inside.  After about five minutes a man appeared from a side alley and between his broken English and my sign language we brokered a deal for two surf boards, an instructor and transportation to the surf spot (which it turns out was a twenty minute boat ride away from the village).  He charged us fifteen US dollars which we figured was a lot, but we didn’t have much time to comparison shop as we had to be back at the Novotel in a few hours for our ride to the airport.

While we were waiting for our surf instructor (a different guy) to swim out to our outrigger boat with a canteen of gas and our surfboards we enjoyed the above group of enthusiastic Grupuk kids as they hammed it up for the camera.

Then we were on our way.   The kids all tried to hang on to the pontoon despite being scolded by the surf instructor (who happened to be doubling as the boat pilot).  The cutie in the shot above held on the longest and then calmly let go and waved as we headed out to lasso us some waves.  Yeehah, bring it on!

Francesca had planned to surf as well, but as we headed further out to sea and the water got darker and more menacing her hyper active fear of deadly sharks got the best of her and she decided to bow out volunteering instead to take camera duty (an unselfish and noble gesture to be sure).  Plus she had surfed before in Hawaii and therefore had nothing to prove.  Me on the other hand…..

Here I am trying to look calm, cool and collected, but really on the verge of squirting in my board shorts (and not the colon cleanse induced kind of squirting…..not that there is any good kind of squirting).

Fortunately we were joined shortly by a group of Swiss guys as I wasn’t relishing being the only shark bait in the water.

After a while a few more outriggers arrived and unloaded a veritable United Nations of tourist surfers.  In no time we had a full house.  I know you’re probably looking at the photo above and wondering “Where is the beach?  Where are the waves?”  Trust me there were waves….and some pretty honkin’ ones for a beginner class.

Not that there was much of a class.  As soon as we anchored, our outrigger skipper / surf instructor tossed his board in the water and dove after it and never looked back.  He didn’t even show me how to put on the ankle strap for the leash or even how to properly paddle the darn thing.  It became apparent pretty much instantaneously that I was just paying him to surf, not to teach me.  It was just as well though because he couldn’t speak English and I figured I’d just learn by watching the Swiss and Aussie surfers.   They looked pretty cool out there so they must know what they’re doing, right?  That was my second miscalculation of the day.

As I paddled out it occurred to me that since there was no beach to be seen the waves must just be breaking over a reef.  Great.  Perfect for a beginner.  But wait, it gets worse.  Or better depending if you are rooting for me to fail or succeed.  As I paddled my way through the crowd it became clear that none of these guys knew how to surf either.  Okay, so here I am in dark (yet thankfully warm) waters that my wife is convinced is chock full of ravenous Great White Sharks, surrounded by a bunch of guys who don’t know how to surf, but are all posturing as if they do and my supposed teacher is off hanging ten on some gnarly six to eight foot wave that I am apparently supposed to be putting my body in front of so that it can smash me to smithereens.

It didn’t help that it was total chaos out there with bodies and boards everywhere.  I tried to catch a few waves towards the end where they were breaking smaller, but after a few unsuccessful attempts I realized I would probably have to paddle into the belly of the beast and try to ride them big ones if I was going to do this.  Go big or go home, right!?  (Actually I thought about turning board and doing the latter, but then I saw Francesca cheering me on (from the comfort and safety of the outrigger) and my ego slowly turned my board back around and pushed me out to join the others lads).

In order to go big I had to have a plan and initially I had thought I would take a zen approach and just try to be one with the board.  But then I thought better of it and decided to tackle the problem from an analytical perspective. So I broke it down into steps.

Step One: Sitting Up on the Board.

A big part of surfing appears to be looking cool while sitting on your board.  I had observed the surfers on Bondi Beach and they seemed to spend an awful lot of time sitting on their boards and letting waves pass harmlessly under them.  Let me tell you people, it is significantly harder than it looks.  Every time I would try to push up to a sitting position I would fall off to one side or the other – sometimes getting my strap caught around my neck and have to untangle myself before clamoring back on my board.  While I said the other guys didn’t know how to surf either, they did know how to sit on their boards and while they didn’t laugh out loud at my ineptitude (that would be against the surfers’ code) I could feel them dying of hysterics on the inside.

Eventually I was able to get to a sitting position and hold it for a few seconds before slowly rolling over to one side with my legs wrapped around the board where I would linger for a moment, under water with my feet dangling in the ocean breeze.  I felt as if I was riding some bizarre, lethargic water borne mechanical bull or something.

I hadn’t completely mastered Step One yet, but time was getting on so I figured I would just skip to….

Step Two: Catching a Wave.

This is also easier said than done.   My “teacher” didn’t go out of his way to help me out, but on a couple of occasions he was near enough to yell out something that sounded like “Paddle! Paddle!” when a large enough wave was heading towards me.  Usually though I would not paddle, paddle because either the wave looked too ferociously large or too far away to start paddling – of course by the time I thought it an appropriate time to start paddling it was too late and the wave just passed right by me.

Eventually I figured out that if you happen to be in a spot right under the wave as it is about to break on you it will carry you and your board along.  “Hey look, I’m catching a wave!”  Of course I didn’t try to stand up at this point.  It was too early for Step Three.  I just clung on to my board for dear life and stared down the crest of the wave as it thrust me at break neck speed towards the reef.

The above photo is blurry (Francesca may have been too worried about sharks to focus the camera), but that blur is me tumbling gracelessly into the sea foam.

After a few boogie board rides I was ready for….

Step Three: Standing up on the Board.

After bailing out at the last minute a couple of times because there were Swiss or Aussie guys right in front of me (“Hey dude, get the hell off my wave!”) I finally caught a big sucker and then attempted to stand up.  As you can see from the photo above I barely got off my knees before I went tumbling headlong into the surf.  I felt like I was in a washer/dryer combo appliance as my body was tossed about under the crashing waves for what seemed like a good day and a half.  When I surfaced gasping for breath I turned around just in time to see another monster wave bearing down on me. It was at this point that I realized it would have been handy to have some instruction on how to get back out past the breaking waves (Step Four?).

As it was I got pummeled by each successive wave only to face another one and another one…and another one.

Me (or more accurately my board) getting hammered by a second wave as I attempt to get back out past the breakers.

I had seen in the movies that the cool surfer guys push the nose of their board under water and cut right through the wave to avoid getting hammered.  I tried this, but the wave would always grab my board as if it were a piece of balsa wood and toss it (with me attached) back towards the reef beach.  Wave after wave I endured, my strength sapped with every blow, until finally I noticed the other surfers were paddling parallel to the shore where the waves broke less.  Then they would paddle back around to catch another large wave.  I was so exhausted by the time I made it back to the pod of surfers sitting tall and cool on their boards that all I could do was lie flat on mine and rest for a good ten minutes.

As I did so I watched as my teacher expertly carved some waves.  As despondent as I was that my instructor wasn’t instructing me, I did have a tinge of pride that he was my guy since he was the best surfer out there that day.  I wanted to brag to the guys next to me “Hey, that’s my guy.  I know him.”, but I thought that might be in violation of the aforementioned surfer code.  Plus, I was way too exhausted to carry on a conversation.

Some instruction at last.

I eventually regained the strength to try Step Three a couple more times, but with the same result.  Just as I decided to call it quits and head back to our outrigger a Swiss surfer (the one guy from that group who actually could surf half decently) cruised up to me and offered me much needed advice on how to paddle more efficiently.  “Lie higher up on za board and raise your chest off za board” he instructed.  I followed his advice and although I felt like I was now in a core body workout class I was definitely able to cut through the water at greater speed.  Did I take this new found technique and head back out there?  Hell no!  I used it to paddle my ass back to the outrigger quicker than I would have before.

Calling it quits and heading home.

By the time I reached the boat I was so exhausted I had to lie on my board for several minutes before I had the energy to haul myself over the side to safety.

Me and “my guy”.

It took a while for me to get the attention of my instructor so he could take us back to shore.  Actually, I’m pretty sure he saw me in the boat, but was enjoying himself and wanted to continue surfing.

Me on the other hand, I made a commitment to myself to never try surfing again.  Well, never say never, right?  But if I do try it again, it will definitely be under more gentle circumstances.

Click here for some good info on Lombok surfing sites.


9 Responses to “Learning to Surf in Three Easy Steps”

  1. You’d think part of the requirement for paying for a surf lesson would be…an actual surf lesson…

    Sounds like a full body workout. At least your wipeouts looked cool too!

  2. hilarious! looks like another wise opt-out by fran !

  3. Dan,

    Awesome story and great picture of a wipe out. As a surfer I can kind of empathize although that was probably how I felt when I was 14 or so… See you in Cali at some point.

    Tom T.

  4. Tom Treanor Says:

    I was when I was a kid and then took a 15-20 year break. I just got back into it about 2 years ago…

    I enjoyed reading your blog posts and look forward to meeting up down south!


  5. Seems a shame to stop when you’re almost there.

    • Thanks Linda. Well now that I live on the beach in Southern California maybe i’ll pick it up again. There will be no shortage of English speaking surfers here. 🙂

  6. Stumbled on your beautiful memories for the first time.
    It is truly uplifting and encouraging to see that love and wisdom are still very good friends!
    Thank you!

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