26 Jul Jezology Podcast – Season 1 | Episode 5
Australia – 2017
[Please click play to listen to the episode]
I’m an alien… I’m a little alien… I’m an Englishman training as a surf instructor in Australia…
Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware I’m insinuating that Brits have no place in the hallowed halls of surf gurus. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our small, cold island boasts some of the best surfers in the world and some top notch British surf coaches, it’s just, I’m not one of them… Let me elaborate. There are surfers who grow up around the bountiful British coastline, riding every day in miserable, masochistic conditions which chisel these rough souls into grizzled water bears. Conversely, there are British surfers who buy a 5 foot shortboard after their second weekend to a Cornish surf beach, screw the fins on back to front and then rack the under-waxed matchstick on their land-locked bedroom wall until the biannual pilgrimage to the Southwest.
For the majority of my teens and twenties, I held an honorary membership to that latter group of British ‘surfers’, until the dissatisfaction of a corporate career, not too many moons ago, started to push me back towards my passion for adventure sports, travel and mother nature. It’s early 2017 and I find myself in Queensland, a stone’s throw from Superbank, arguably Australia’s most famous wave, attempting to qualify as a surf instructor.
Few places on the planet are more surfy than this golden stretch of pristine coastline and I feel as though I’ve taken a ridiculous bite of surf pie and my cheeks are too full to swallow… Just the other day I went for a casual paddle at Snapper Rocks and ended up cuddling distance from Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson and Mark Occhilupo – for a little reference, that would be the Messi, Ronaldo and Zinadine Zidane of the Surf world. I didn’t even think these surf gods were real. I thought Instagram was just fucking with me… But if life has taught me anything, it’s that remarkable things begin where your comfort zone ends and through irrepressible positivity and a deep love for the ocean I am somehow stumbling through the coaching pre-requisites.
Most of the qualification hasn’t phased me much, which may come as a comfort to any surfers reading or listening to this who have always fancied qualifying. A surf rescue course with a couple of fitness tests was pretty much my idea of fun. Throw in a first aid, advanced resuscitation course and a few days of surf coaching theory and it’s all good stuff replacing some of my more redundant grey matter. The thing that concerned me most is that I am surrounded by shaggy haired, impossibly bronzed Australians who I have no doubt surfed the placenta out of their mother’s womb and never looked back. These guys walk, talk and live surfing and my ego has never felt more exposed. Coffee break chats consist of discussions around fin construction and bottom contours which doesn’t bode well for Johnny English who’s quiver consists of one 11-year-old shortboard that contains more patches than original fibreglass.
I’m living in a pleasant enough hostel a little out of town alongside a rag-tag bunch of international travellers, drifters and homeless people who mostly seem to subsist on a combination of super-noodles, Tim-Tam chocolate biscuits and bag-wine… otherwise known locally as goon. This may seem like a throw-away comment, but one evening I was roped in to a man-hunt to track down and eject the hostel goon-thief, such was the importance and value placed on these one liter wine bags. Each morning, I’d peel myself off naturally exfoliating, sand covered dormitory bedsheets, gobble down some Weet-Bix, being careful not to pronounce the A as is the customary in Australia, say gudday to Bob, the fist sized Orb-Weaver spider living on the wall of the outdoor common area and head to the bus-stop to make my way up the coast to the instructor training centre.
At one point towards the end of the training, our assessor informs me that the next morning will be the performance test we all need to complete as a pre-requisite to qualification. I knew this day would come, the inevitable moment when I could no longer hide behind trendy surf labels and under-trimmed facial hair. Essentially, this was the ultimate kook test. The manoeuvres we were expected to demonstrate worried me less than what is known as the ‘contrast effect’. A little like when you go to a bar with that annoyingly beautiful friend of yours, paddling out alongside these antipodean surf monks was just going to make me look completely and utterly unappealing. I was doomed.
The following day arrived with the make-or-break moment that could hold me back from my teenage dream of becoming a surf instructor. I wasn’t overly anxious. Up to this point it had all been an enormous punt anyway, so I was willing to be sent home with my tail between my legs. We had been lucky, a 3-day flat spell had been broken that morning with shoulder high, clean waves. For me, this could be a hit or miss… a blessing if I somehow managed to pull off the half dozen manoeuvres that were expected of me, a curse because surfing like a wretched kook in good waves, on camera, is the ultimate watery embarrassment.
I paddled out into a small group of locals on a generic Gold Coast sand bank. Sitting up, my eye caught that of a female surfer in a pink top. I won’t beat around the bush; she was gorgeous and I was not expecting the distraction. We exchanged a few glances waiting for a set and had I not been under-the-cosh of the performance test, I might have found myself thinking there was a bit of line-up chemistry between us. This was simply not the time to fall in love with yet another surfer girl I’d never approach, so I took a wave, worked hard, surfed my socks off and was called in after thirty minutes by the assessor. Sheepishly I approached him on the beach, expecting bad news. “Now that’s pressure eh?” he chirped in his Aussie drawl. “Surfing alongside Courtney…”. “Courtney…?” I replied. “Courtney Conlogue, the girl in the pink you were surfing next to…”.
Later on that evening I Googled Miss Conlogue. I Googled her because, as previously mentioned, I am a first class surf pretender. Google reliably informed me that Courtney is one of the most recognisable, successful and talented female surfers on the planet who happened to be holding the world number 2 title spot at the time. As if the contrast effect wasn’t bad enough, I had only been trading waves with one of the best surfers on the planet… Google also confirmed my suspicions that no matter how good I become at riding waves, I will always have the capacity for first class surf kookery.
To my astonishment, and everyone else’s I imagine. I passed the course. I even got a T-Shirt, which I’ve always felt a little conflicted about wearing in case someone figures out I’m an imposter. Coincidently, I passed the course the week that the elite surf world was descending on this little stretch of coastline for the 2017 Gold Coast Pro, the first World Tour event of the professional calendar. It seemed apt then, that to celebrate my newly acquired guru status, I would head out to hit the waves at the break that would be the focus of competition in the coming days. As expected, the break was packed. Pros from all over the world vying for waves with talented locals and the odd interloper buoyed by their newfound instructor bragging points… I resigned myself to just watching from the show from the water. World class surfers taking on head-high barreling waves is most definitely best watched from the line-up. A rare privilege, a little like being a ball-boy at Wimbledon, watching your heroes engaged in mastery just a few feet away. At one point I even saw the mythical bald head of Kelly Slater take off on a set-wave down the line from me! Kelly Slater! Such a big deal that I don’t even have to explain who he is. Despite resigning myself to voyeurism for the afternoon, I happened to find myself in a great position at one point with a solid, empty wave peeling towards me down the point break. I almost thought it was a mirage given that there had to be 250 surfers all vying for waves on the same break that day, but here it was, whispering, “Jeremy… ride me” “It’s your chance to impress everyone” “just turn around and paddle”. And paddle I did! Here I was, surfing in the big leagues, about to totally score a goal in front of the world’s pros! Oh it was glorious, gliding along, passing countless surfers, pretending like this was a totally normal occurrence. “Yeh guys, no worries, just catchin’ waves”. I came to a stop some way down the break and lowered myself onto my board to make the paddle back to the point. Endorphins coursing through my body and I had a solid grin on my face. “Oh yeh, I’ve arrived” I thought to myself as I smoothly dodged the back of one surfer, paddling confidently into the lineup. I took a stroke, only to notice a black, rubber cord drifting over my board towards my chest. “Oh shit, I’ve paddled into someone’s leash” I thought too late to do anything as our momentum jarred both her and my progress to get anywhere. “shit, sorry” I offered, turning towards the surfer I’d impeded, only to be met by the un-impressed glance of Tyler Wright, two time and reigning world number one female surfer. Why did it have to be her…
There is no getting around it. I’m a kook. Courtney knows it, Tyler knows it, the Australian federation of Surf Instructors knows it and you know what, I think I’ve just accepted it. Despite all that, it’s something I’ve learned to love about surfing. No matter where I go and what I do in the ocean, surfing has a way of keeping my feet firmly on the ground. Generously gifting me incredible moments, but reminding me to not take myself too seriously and humbling me when I start to get a little too comfortable. What a great analogy for life.