Learning to Surf in Sydney

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Over the course of the last year and a half, I’ve done a lot of things I never would have seen myself doing. Scuba diving, running the City 2 Surf, and hiking around the Grand Canyon are amongst them.

I recently added surfing to that list of random experiences.

Preparing to hang ten and catch some gnarly breaks dude!

It perhaps seems unusual that it’s not something I’ve done before. After all, I’m from the country of bronzed beach bums and beautiful blonde babes who practically live on the beach. There’s some truth in that stereotype of course. I spent the better part of every summer as a child on the beach  and while I never turned my time to surfing, I spent many scorching hot January mornings boogie boarding and dodging breakers with my siblings.

When Fallon suggested that she’d like to take a weekend surf trip, I wasn’t overjoyed at the idea, but she’d not steered me wrong in the past. And with a friend in from the United States, it seemed like a good, iconic Aussie thing to show him.

Manly Surf Guide

After doing a lot of research into potential surf schools for us to enroll in, Fallon eventually settled on the guys at Manly Surf Guide. While there are a large number of companies offering day long and weekend long surf camps for anyone from beginner level to an expert just looking to see a new part of the world, the lads at Surf Guide offered the best value one day course at $79 a head including all rentals and lunch.

From the very start of the day it was clear that this was the kind of small, hands on operation that deserves the support of tourists and locals alike. The ‘surf shop’ was little more than a garage stocked with surf boards, surf DVDs, and a modest array of merchandise. It all had a very down to earth charm, which is what I associate with surfing.

Our guide, Ryan, met us at the Manly Wharf and we joined a group of Spanish backpackers and a local couple in the van for the ride out to get fitted for wet suits. A brief stop at the aforementioned ‘surf shop’ had us clutching wet suits and ready for our first brush with the surf.

A likely bunch of budding surfers

The day’s venue was Dee Why Beach, but the boys also run days out at Manly Beach and Freshwater Beach. Dee Why Beach is pretty much what you expect of an Aussie beach: beautiful women in bikinis, lifesavers keeping a watchful eye on the kids playing in the surf, white sand, big waves, and plenty of cute cafes offering good food and great views.

Sydney had turned out a fantastic day for us and sun screen was liberally applied before we wet-suited up and practiced ‘popping’ onto our boards. I felt like Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall as my instructor had me popping up over and over again on the hot sand, but soon we were hitting the water and were grateful for the wet suits and the scorching sun overhead. The water, a balmy 20 degrees, soon felt fine – but it was a damned shock when we first waded out into the breakers!

The tide was coming in and the waves were coming thick and fast, and that made getting out to a good spot to catch a break a bit difficult. Thankfully the instructors (both top blokes) were on hand to tow us out from time to time and instruct us on which waves to chase and get us set. Before too long a few of the more dexterous members of our group were standing – and I’m proud to say that by day’s end I’d also managed the feat. Fallon and Adam weren’t quite as successful, but both managed to catch a wave or two before plunging back into the water.

I should make the disclaimer that I didn’t manage to stay up longer than two seconds all day. Unless kneeling on my board counts. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. I won’t soon be doing Australia’s surf traditions proud in Hawaii or down on Bell’s Beach.

Lunch on the Waterfront

The stunning Freshwater Beach

Our first two hour surf lesson was over before we knew it, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being grateful as we dried off in the sun and stripped out of our wet-suits. Don’t be fooled by the laid back style of surfers – it’s hard work paddling out beyond the breakers, and I ached all over from the effort of hauling myself up onto the board only to be thrown back off it a few seconds later.

While we all stretched out and soaked in some sun, the boys put together our lunch. They say hunger is the best seasoning, and we’d certainly worked up a fierce hunger out in the water. The modest lunch of deli meats, rolls, and salad really hit the spot. One of our Spanish companions, a pretty blonde with a hilarious accent, declared it the best sandwich she’d ever had.

The boys also served up sodas and beers for us, and that lead to some interesting discussion as I explained to a pair of Italian lads why we have low alcohol content beer. Their thoughts?

“Drink a fucking Coke”.

Before too long we were headed back to the water, but my continued defiance of lactose intolerance had come back to bite me – and I instead had to watch on from the beach for fear I’d devastate my wet-suit. I contented myself with checking out a few local cafes and doing some writing on the beach while trying not to be distracted by the girls sunbathing topless beside me.

Seeing the Sights

After the lessons were done, the guys provided us with a few beers and some post surf muesli bars before we piled back into the van and went on a whistle-stop tour of the northern beaches. We stopped on the headland overlooking the utterly stunning Freshwater Beach, and Fallon and I resolved to return for some snorkeling later in the year.

Posing with 'The Duke'

Then it was time to pose with ‘The Duke’ – the man credited with popularizing surfing in Australia. The lads patiently snapped photos of us before it was time to call it a day. Those staying on for the night went one way, and we were dropped off down by The Esplanade to find our ways home.

More Beer

It wouldn’t be a day in my life without some good beer, and Manly offers plenty of options on that front. My personal favourite is the 4 Pines Brewery – which offers up some great meals and some particularly good locally brewed beers. We splashed out on the reasonably priced ($15) sampler – which offers five of their finest beers. We soon settled on their fragrant Kolsch as our beer of choice, and ordered up some fries while we waited for the rest of our party to arrive.

$15 sampler!? Great value!

Before to long we’d gained control of a corner of the bar and ordered up a feast of burgers, pasta, beer, and soda. Fallon and I split a pretty amazing Ploughman’s Platter so we’d still have room for some Cold Rock on the way home, and everybody seemed to enjoy their meals.

The food is a tad expensive and you pay brewery prices for your beer, but it’s worth the extra cash for the quality of the food and the quality of the view out over the harbour.

The Verdict

Will I go surfing again? Probably not. I had a great time and the boys at Manly Surf Guide were accommodating and made good teachers, but it just wasn’t for me. Maybe it wasn’t helped by the rough surf making it a battle to get out to catch a wave, or maybe it was just that there are other things I’d rather do on the beach. Snorkeling, body surfing, and scuba diving all rank above it for me.

That said, I’m glad I went. Surfing is as Australian as a BBQ and a beer; a game of footy on a Saturday afternoon; and a summer sunburn.

If you’re in Sydney and have a spare day to kill, change things up and do something active rather than visiting another boring museum or crowded tourist trap.

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