Shortly after we decided to move to New Zealand I was researching things to do in the town we would be living and learned that it boasted one of the best surf beaches on the North Island so I resolved to learn to surf.
We were still living in Ireland at the time and it would be another six months before we arrived to New Zealand. Still, I started watching YouTube videos on how to surf, reading surf books, watching surf movies, learning surf lingo and even practicing pop ups on my yoga mat. A few weeks before we left for New Zealand, I bought a wet suit and I started researching the best kind of board for the surf where we were going to live.
We arrived to Ohope and before I even got over my jet lag I called Debs, the owner of the Salt Spray Surf School here in Ohope Beach. It was mid-winter here in New Zealand. The water was about 55 degrees and the air during the day wasn’t much warmer. Not the best time to learn to surf. Plus, Debs was out of the country but she emailed me back and said that she’d be back in two weeks if I didn’t mind waiting.
I did. I had waited and prepared six months for this and I had exactly one year to learn to surf. Not a lot of time. Debs told me to hold on and within a day she got back to me and said one of her surf coaches, Troy, would call me shortly and arrange a lesson. Troy contacted me and we set up a lesson on a cold, cloudy Sunday afternoon in August (the worst part of winter here).
Troy and Debs have subsequently become dear and trusted friends. I see them just about every day down at West End. Troy is our kids’ swim coach at the Aquatics Center in town and both kids have enrolled in Debs’ surf school and surf camp (where Troy is also a coach) so they have both spent countless hours in the surf with Troy and Debs. Debs taught me about surf stoked, the exhilaration you feel after you just caught a rippin’ wave, the relief you feel when you have managed to catch, rather than be caught by, a wave and the sweet exhaustion you feel after a long and fun surf day. Troy seems to have a sixth sense for wind direction, incoming swells and the perfect time to get out in the surf so the first thing I do every morning is check the surf report and if it looks good, I’ll text Troy, “Surf looks good! You heading to West End?” Most of the time, he’s already there.
We live on the beach in Ohope but the surf beach, West End, is about a mile from our house. West End is a long beach break ending at a headland that juts out from the beach on a 90-degree angle from the beach. The headland is key to the good surf at West End because it disrupts the winds that are generally blowing in from the northwest. Wind is always bad for surfers because whether it’s coming from offshore or onshore, the wind tends to either bat down the waves if it’s coming from the ocean (onshore) or make it harder to catch a wave if the wind is coming from the land (offshore). A little bit of an offshore wind can be nice because it might fluff up a wave a bit, but for the most part, surfers are looking for windless or nearly windless days.
Besides helping surf conditions at West End, though, the headland, a steep ridge that is chock-a-block full of native New Zealand trees and bushes, towers over the beach and provides a gorgeous visual backdrop when you are bobbing on your board out beyond the breakers. During the early part of December, the Pohutakawa, a venerable New Zealand native tree, pushes out red blossoms and turns almost the entire headland area into a red and green Christmas card. You feel kind of tucked in and protected there underneath the headland and if you look off toward the east, you can see the long sweep of Ohope beach as it angles into the longer stretch of the East Cape, a beautiful and remote region of the North Island’s south eastern coast. On a clear day you can just make out Cape Runaway, the easternmost reach of the North Island and the place, it is believed, that some of the first canoes of the Te Arawa and Tainui made land after their voyage from Polynesia. The Cape eventually got its current name from that scoundrel, Captain James Cook.
Sometimes when I’m sitting on my board taking in all these sights it feels like my heart is going to burst with joy.
West End is unique, too, for its open and friendly surf culture. A lot of surf beaches have acquired rather nasty reputations where the locals are aggressive and rude to novice or visiting surfers. This is especially the case at a lot of surf beaches in Australia and Southern California where the number of surfers seeking a wave far exceeds the number of waves to ride. It’s basic economics: high demand and low supply means people act like idiots. At West End, there are enough waves for everyone and it’s generally expected that everyone—locals and visitors alike—contribute to the laid back, cruiser vibe of the place. I rarely go to West End without finding an old friend or making a new one.
Initially, I had to get over a false assumption that surfing is only for twenty-somethings. At one point, I even typed “Can 50-year olds learn to surf?” into the Google search bar and was pleasantly surprised to find a number of websites written by 50-somethings like me who learned to surf later in life. The demographics on the line up (surf term for the line of surfers waiting for the next ride-able wave) at West End proved this. Sure, there were young kids bobbing on their short boards, ready to tear into the next big wave that comes their way, but there were also a lot of folks (men and women) with grayer hair and more wrinkles than me. Surfing has a reputation of being a male dominated sport but at West End I generally see a pretty even gender distribution as well.
I also had to get over a certain fear of injury. To the non-initiated, surfing can look pretty dangerous. You paddle out beyond the breakers, wait for a wave, pop up as it’s cresting and if you make any sort of mistake or lose your balance the wave eats you up. That, of course, elicited another internet search, “Is surfing safe?” and, turns out, unless you are riding the big waves at Oahu, surfing is a relatively injury-free sport. I’ve strained my back picking up my board at a weird angle but other than that I’ve been mostly injury free for the past six months.
Since I’ve learned to surf, I see the ocean in a whole new way. Most mornings after I wake up I make my coffee, walk a block to the beach and assess the surf. Surfers like what they call “long and clean” waves. The best way to see this is to imagine dominos set up in upright positions on the floor—you knock down one domino and the rest fall, one by one, right on down the line. A long clean wave is like falling dominos in that it will crest at a point and then steadily and consistently break down the line. If you catch the wave just as it’s breaking you can ride the face until it collapses and if you’re lucky that can translate to a 100 or so meter ride. I’ve never made it that far, yet.
Ohope is separated from its neighboring town, Whakatane, by a steep range of hills and to get from one town to the other you have to drive along a road, Gorge Road, that, as you near Ohope from Whakatane, provides aerial views of the West End surf. Sujata works in Whakatane and the swimming pool and grocery stores are over there, so I drive over the hill nearly every day. There’s a little turn off on Gorge Road that I’ll often take before I descend the hill on my way back to Ohope. I get out of my car and peek over the side of the overlook to see if there are any surfers out there and then I look out toward the ocean because you can see any large swells that might be coming in. On perfect surf days, when there is a consistent swell heading toward the beach, you can see long, graceful ribbons of unbroken waves loping toward the shore. Surfers look at that scene and say, “Corduroy, man, corduroy,” because the long swell lines resemble the tufted channels of your corduroy jeans.
When I see corduroy from the top of Gorge Road, I can feel my endorphins starting to surge.
If the ocean is rough or the waves aren’t breaking long and clean, surfing can sometimes feel like more work than it’s worth. I’ve been out on days where there is significantly more white water than clean wave faces. On days like that, getting out past the breakers is tedious, difficult work. The white water and the waves breaking in front of you keep pushing you back towards the shore and if you don’t get under the broken wave it slaps you in the face or, worse, knocks you off your board. At that point you are what surfers call, caught in, which just means you are caught in that nasty white water chaos. By the time you make it past the last breaking wave you have noodle arms and have to sit on the board until you catch your breath, steel your nerves and get feeling back in your limbs.
When I first started surfing I’d pearl out all the time. When you pearl out, you get on the top of a wave and it feels like you are going to catch it but then the nose of your board digs into the wave face and you go ass over backward or the wave just picks you up and tumbles you sidelong. Pearling out is humiliating and until Troy told me to simply arch my back and shift my weigh slightly to the back of the board, it was my greatest surfing fear. Now, when my nose digs into the wave face I can either get out of it, or since I’m so far back on the board the wave usually just washes by with out scooping me up and making me look and feel like a fool.
Once you paddle out through the white water and after you’ve gotten over the top of the last breaking wave, you are out back or beyond the breaking waves. There, you can sit up on your board, catch your breath and while you are waiting for the next set to arrive, chat with other riders or just look around and the glorious ocean ahead of you.
I’m a goofy foot surfer, which means I surf with my left foot back. That works at West End because it’s usually a left-hand break, which means I’m not surfing with my back to the wave so I can see the face.
I’ll never be a great surfer. I’ll never do acrobatic back- or forehand cutbacks nor finish a ride by turning back over the top of the wave in a dramatic kick out. I’ll never even paddle my board out in waves that are over two meters. I’ll just be happy if I can surf for another decade or so and I’m content being an average surfer in the same way I’m content being an average piano and guitar player, scholar, teacher and swimmer. At my age, I strive for consistency and breath of experience, not excellence. Excellence is for youth. Getting out there and just doing it is for late middle age. If I can catch a wave and ride it trim across the face as it breaks behind me, I am ecstatic and when I get out of the water, I feel surf stoked. Like my friend, Maka, said to me one day as we were bobbing on our boards at West End, “The best surfer is the one who’s having the most fun.” If that’s true, then, on just about every day I’m out there, I, along with just about everybody else who’s bobbing, popping up, riding and falling off their boards at West End, are the best surfers on the beach.