School of hard knocks

Ben Stubbs gets full marks for persistence when he learns how to surf.

I'm fair-skinned and freckly, the type of person who belongs indoors. So it is with trepidation that I slide into a wetsuit for my first surf lesson on Flynns Beach in Port Macquarie. I assume that surfing isn't meant for people like me; it's for the tanned and the agile, the sun-bleached early-morning risers.

We're given bright red boards and I pull at my tight-fitting wetsuit like a sulky toddler, taking my place at the back of the self-conscious collection of old and young surfing novices. We walk to the edge of the sand to receive our introduction in full view of the sunbathers on the beach. The bronzed surf coaches are led by Grant Hudson, a local surfer who has competed on the world stage since 1998.

The beginning of our lesson is a simulation; the coaches take us through paddling demonstrations on the sand and give us safety advice before we get into the water.

We're shown how to lie on the boards properly and to spring up like ninjas, planting our feet wide to give us a feel for the technique and the balance needed to ride a wave.

After working out if we're natural or goofy (the stance right-footed or left, not the ability), we pick up our seven-foot planks and head into the water to see if we will sink or surf. It is a relatively calm day and the waves are small and flat-faced, breaking right in front of us to make the task a little easier.

I push out into the cool water, my head throbbing with excitement. Once I'm out past an angry scar of rocks to the left of the beach, I spin the board to face the shore and wait in the swell.

Glancing across at the incoming set, Hudson gives me the nod. I slide onto the board and start paddling feverishly. The wash picks me up and I give three more quick paddles. Just as I think of standing, my board dips and I flip over. My nostrils are full of salt water and one ear is packed with sand. I'm given a clap for my spectacular wipe-out and pushed back into the surf to try again. Still running on adrenaline, I paddle out once more hoping to impress Hudson as he stands in the water to his waist watching the carnage unfold before him. I paddle into my next catch and topple straight off.

On the next attempt my leg rope tangles around my ankles and I'm spat back into the water. After half an hour of tumbling and chasing my board through the swell, I finally latch on to a small wave. I paddle, grab the rails and spring up in one fluid motion. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. I'm surfing!

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My ride finishes after five seconds; even so I'm given a thumbs-up by Hudson and the other instructors as I resurface.

I dash out into the water again buoyed by my momentary success and encouragement. Paddling out a little further this time, I scoop across the tops of the waves to where there are other surfers waiting for a set to roll in. I've heard a lot about surfing rivalries, of newcomers being chased from the beaches or punched by competing surfers mid-wave. I look across the trough in between the rise and fall of the swell and see my competitors. My own version of the Bra Boys (or maybe training bra in this case) is a trio of 10-year-old girls. I steer clear of their lines just in case and I manage fleeting moments of triumph among the beginner's bloopers.

When Hudson's hand goes up for the last wave of the day, I watch the water suck up into a wave and I spring up into the blue lip as it arrives. Hopeful of catching the wave all the way to the shore, I manage a brief ride before keeling over into the shallows. I leave the water with blue lips and pruned fingers but with a huge smile on my face. I'm hooked. I head up the beach, lured by smells of hamburgers and greasy sunscreen.

That afternoon I drive past locals wrapped in beach towels sitting on their car bonnets. As they watch the oily black ocean chewing into the sand banks along the rocks of Lighthouse Beach, I think I understand a little of the surfers' courtship. It's a relationship that needs constant attention. The surfer obsesses over weather reports, constantly waxes his board and scours the coast morning and afternoon. Sometimes they stay home but on other days, when the wind is just right and the waves are big and chunky, they surf. Just a few moments alone and upright when the roar is behind them is all that the surfer needs.

I return to Flynns Beach the next day for another lesson, my arms and back aching from yesterday's effort. I am anxious to jump on to my big red Bertha and get out into the water. I watch other surfers carrying their boards a certain way: grip assured and firm, like an arm around a lover's waist.

I grasp my own board awkwardly as if on a first date. Today the surf seems cranky; waves smash into each other frothing like cappuccinos, pot holes gurgle in the centre of the water and a rip drags along the rocks. With guidance from Hudson and the other coaches in white, I paddle out to test my newly acquired skills.

I'm slapped off the board as I try to rise time after time. I manage a few brief "Mississippis" before I'm dumped again. Despite the conditions, every novice paddles through the spray and keeps trying.

I sit on my board and look out beyond the breakers to see what the waves will do. There are no voices out here, no noises, no smells except for the ocean that rolls and whips along with the wind. My shoulders ache and my feet are raw but I stay on the board, waiting for one more ride.

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

There are daily flights from Sydney to Port Macquarie with QantasLink and Virgin Blue. The drive takes about 4 1/2 hours.

Learn to surf

Port Macquarie Surf School runs private and group lessons throughout the year for beginners and advanced surfers. A two-hour group lesson costs $40. Phone 6585 5453 or see portmacquariesurfschool.com.au.

There are numerous learn-to-surf programs along the coast, including:

Byron Bay: Surfing Byron Bay, phone 6685 7099.

Coffs Harbour: East Coast Surf School, phone 6651 5515.

Evans Head: Summerland Surf School, phone 6682 4393.

Forster: Great Lakes Surf School, phone 6554 6550.

Gosford: Gosford City Surf School, phone 4325 8123.

Soldiers Beach: Terry McDermott Surf Coaching, phone 4399 3388.

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