Lee Winkler of Lee Winkler's Surf School on the Coffs Coast tells me women are more intuitive when it comes to catching waves. "They just get when to stand up," he says. I can get up on my knees (although Lee stresses that's a bad surfing habit) and I can sometimes jump up into a standing position. Remaining standing… it depends on the wave.
I'm going to be drained come Monday. This weekend I'm squashing three surfing lessons – all at different beaches along the New South Wales north coast – into one weekend. When I chat to Australian pro surfer Sally Fitzgibbons about women's surging interest in the sport she explains that most are attracted to the lifestyle. "I chose surfing [over athletics] professionally because of the lifestyle. It's a fun activity and the surfing community is really supportive."
Byron Bay is one of the most iconic surf locations in Australia, so I'm pumped to get in the water and catch those Byron waves. Surf coach Serena Adams of Lets Go Surfing Byron Bay has been with the company for 18 years. She's got long ruffled blond hair, sun-kissed skin and an infectious attitude. We head to The Pass (one of Byron Bay's best surf spots) and go through various techniques on the sand before heading out into the surf. Walking into the sea carrying my huge surfboard I'm bounced around in the foaming white water and when Serena catches me out of the corner of her eyes she says, "Small waves, big boards – you'll thank me later." The waves are better than small, they're also mushy and reeling (great for beginners), which in surf talk means weak and they go on forever, resulting in a long, smooth ride. The bigger the board the easier it is to get up and maintain balance and second wave in I'm actually surfing.
Further north at Cabarita Beach the waves are denser and crash earlier and my instructor Vicky Schutt from Cabarita Ocean Health Retreat focuses on teaching me how to get the pop up right. I pop up all right, but also go down… hard. It's here I really get to know the term wipe out. "My main aim with these lessons is getting people to want to go back in. Surfing is fun, great for your body and it's a cheap sport," Vicky explains demonstrating her jump-up approach. I practice a few more times on the sand and do end up catching a few of the one-metre waves without falling off prematurely.
In Coffs Harbour Lee also goes through techniques on the sand before we gallop into the sea. Teachers want to see what you're doing and tweak your technique if necessary, so it's standard practice to go over the positions on the beach. Born and bred in Coffs Harbour, Lee rose to fame as a teenager when competing at world surf championships and travelling the globe for around 15 years. He's caught waves alongside Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson, Andy Irons… and on this clear day he's catching waves with me at North Wall Beach – chosen because of the channel, which for us today means we can paddle out to the break sheltered by a sand bar and then surf back in.
Out in the water we have time to chill out and chat while we wait for the next big wave. Lee tells me that when he was growing up surf schools were non-existent and he learned by practicing. Today he teaches anyone – kids classes, tailored groups and even people with visual or physical disabilities. He tells me about a group of blind kids that outshone most people he's taught ("They knew exactly when to get up and go with the wave," he says) and he tells me about one of his students who has a throat catheter to assist with breathing. "She comes with a team, they take out the catheter, she paddles in, catches a wave or gets wiped out… whatever, and then she's back on the beach and the catheter goes back in until the next wave," he laughs.
I think it's in that moment that I get it. On a basic level people surf because it's fun. On a deeper level I recollect Sally saying that once you catch that first magic wave you become hooked for life. Life seems like a big commitment third day in, but I see the attraction. Whenever I catch a wave my stresses and the never-ending conversations in my head fade away and I'm 100 percent focused on riding the wave. It's like meditation with a suntan.
Sally Fitzgibbons' top spots to surf in New South Wales
1. Seven Mile Beach at Gerroa: This is where I learnt to surf and I have so many fond memories there. It is also a great place to learn and there are surf lessons available for beginners.
2. Byron Bay: Another iconic location and can be good for beginners and intermediate surfers
3. Lennox Head: Challenging waves and more so for intermediate and advanced surfers.
Keen to learn more about surfing? The Hurley Australian Open of Surfing will return to Sydney's Manly Beach from 7-15 February 2015, showcasing the world's best surfers (including Sally Fitzgibbons) alongside skateboarding, music, fashion and art.
The writer traveller as a guest of Destination NSW. For more information go to visitnsw.com.