Why I don't "know" the feeling - but I should

Surfing ... a lot of work for little reward.
Surfing ... a lot of work for little reward. Photo: AFP

Shane was a pretty good flatmate, all things considered. He always cleaned up after himself, he had good taste in music and he didn't invite "friends" home to our Bondi Junction house at three in the morning.

There was only one bone of contention between us.

Shane, an Irishman, was a keen surfer and he was convinced that I, as an Australian, would be similarly inclined. I, meanwhile, was of the opinion that no, I was not a keen surfer.

I always felt like I had the upper hand in this argument, given Shane had only known me a few months and I had known me all my life. Still, he wouldn't give up.

"C'mon Ben, do you want to go for a surf?" he'd say. "Just a little one, you can borrow one of my boards. C'mon, it'll be fun."

I tried to fob these entreaties off but eventually I gave in and agreed to join him at Maroubra one morning. There, Shane threw his board in the water, leapt on top of it and swiftly paddled out past the breaking waves, ready to catch his first ride.

I sort of flopped onto my board and drank half the Pacific while thrashing about in the shallows in my attempt to join him.

A good half-hour later, I made it. "Orright mate, where've you been?" Shane said.

By that time I was so knackered that it was all I could do to half-heartedly wipe out a few times before telling Shane I was calling it quits: "I'm outta here mate."

He gave me a funny look, comprehension slowly dawning. "Wow," he laughed. "You really can't surf, can you?"

I can't surf. Shane was right in a way - I should be able to but I can't. I grew up in Queensland, by the beach, but I still can't surf. I used to have long blond hair until - well, look at the picture. Still, I can't surf.

I don't get it. To me, it seems like a lot of work for little reward. There used to be a surf brand that had the slogan "Only a surfer knows the feeling" and I completely agree, because I have no idea what they're on about.

And yet here I am now in Hawaii, clinging to a board far off the shore of Waikiki Beach, pictured, learning to surf.

There's something I forgot to mention - while I don't "know" the feeling, I've always wanted to. Surfers seem so passionate about their sport, so there must be something I'm missing. And, I figured, while in Hawaii I might as well embrace the cliche and give it a bash.

Where better to make a fool of yourself than a place that no one knows you?

We started off in the safety of the surf shop - me, a couple of young Hawaiian girls and a Swiss backpacker - learning how to stand up on the board.

"Dude, where you from?" asked our instructor.

"Sydney, mate."

"Sydney? Dude, you should already be able to surf!"

Uh huh. Soon we were strolling down to the packed beach, a surfboard the size of the Queen Mary 2 balanced on my head, a highly un-surfer-like paunch protruding from my bright yellow rashie. "All right guys, in the water!"

We hit the ocean and began the long paddle out to the break, my man-boobs, carefully cultivated over long winter months of cappuccino sipping and pasta eating, apparently not designed for the task of propelling a surfboard forwards. I eventually made it, though, and was about to take a rest when Brad the instructor pushed me onto a wave.

"Start paddling Ben, you're on this one dude! Stand up! Stand up!"

And you know what? I actually did stand up. And I was proud. I could hear Brad yelling encouragement behind me: "Dude, that's ahhhh-some! Woo!"

Within seconds, however, it was all over. A slight overbalance and I was heading face-first for the ocean. I popped up, remounted my board and realised the unfortunate task ahead of me: more paddling.

I caught a couple of decent rides that afternoon and while I still don't know the feeling, I think I got some tiny inkling of it. There was one wave I'll never forget, a nice strong one that I must have been on for 30 seconds or more. I have to admit, there's something inherently sweet about paddling into a wave at Waikiki Beach.

It's like being a bad golfer - you only need one perfect shot in your entire crappy round to leave you wanting to come back for more. For me, just one nice wave in a whole afternoon of paddling and drowning gave me a taste of what could be with more practise.

Still, I don't think I'll do that practise. As I said to Shane so many times back in those Bondi Junction days, and as I even admitted to my totally stoked instructor after our lesson at Waikiki: dude, I'm just not a surfer.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

Do you "know the feeling"? Have you tried out activities overseas you wouldn't try at home? Post a comment below.

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