We Learn to Surf…

We have come to Kuta, in the south of Lombok, to learn to surf.

And the beach, Selong Belanak, 20km or so west of Kuta, is beautiful.

A vast sweep of bay with white and gold sands, curling surf breaks out at sea, green headlands, pyramid islands and fishing boats rocking on the waves.

Learning to surf?


Let’s just say it’s not a one-day process.

We first tried surfing in Seminyak, Bali, a week ago, on a 9 foot longboard made of soft, rounded, foam rubber. The ultimate beginner’s board, these things are slow, stable, buoyant, as easy to mount as they are hard to fall off.

Here in less touristed Kuta, Lombok, Sandi and Aris have dug up longboards for us to learn on. But they’re six foot, fibreglass, angled.

At first, I struggle even to get on the thing and paddle it without capsizing. Let alone sit astride it backwards, facing out to the ocean, as Sandi wants me to.

We started late, 9.30am, and Lombok’s famous surf is not in a giving mood.

It seems to drop rather than curl or barrel.

And it’s unpredictable. Enough to make one long for the more reliable breaks of, say, Mexico’s Pacific coast.

For minutes at a time, the waves are tiny, bare ripples rising a couple of feet and breaking far closer into shore than we are.

Then all of a sudden there’s a cluster of behemoths, substantial things which, in chest high water, rise so high you have to jump straight through them and even at a jump you are still in the middle of them.

I figure they’re probably all of four feet high. Which is, to be honest, more than big enough for me.

This is beginner’s surf for Kuta. But there’s heavy duty current to contend with, too.

Whenever I look over at Z, he seems to be cruising effortlessly into shore in the cobra position, serenely ignoring Aris’ yells of “Stand up, now! Now! Now!”

One of my son’s better qualities, from a self-preservation context, and more irritating, when it comes to trying to teach him anything, is his unwillingness to attempt anything unless he thinks he will do it well.

(By that stage, also, he has generally worked out his own method of doing it, which is — but of course! — infinitely better than any method anyone else might suggest.)

It dates back, I think, to his first steps, aged ten months. He managed four for the childminder.

Back home, I knelt on the floor, held out my arms and encouraged him to “Walk to Mummy!”

On step three, he toppled.

And I, err, well, I, umm, missed him.

Anywise. Junior is in no hurry to stand up on a surfboard. He wants to stand up on the board in the sea before he attempts to stand on a wave.

“It’s easier to stand up on a wave,” I say, as Aris has been attempting to communicate for some time.

“I don’t care,” he says. “I need to be able to stand up before I try to do it on a wave.”


I figure I’m going to be wiping out a lot anyway, so why not wipe out at least trying to stand up?

If you’re even less initiated into surfing than us, you may or may not know how it works.

You attach yourself to your board by a lead from your ankle. You paddle out into the sea, through or over the breaking waves depending on their stage, find a good spot, turn your board around and wait.

Then you pick a wave of the right size at the right time and paddle madly ahead of it, continuing to paddle once you’re in it until you feel it catch you.

Then, once you have the momentum and (weirdly) stability that the surge provides, you grip the edges of the board with both hands, extend your body, push up into a kind of crouch, then ascend to standing.

Sound like hard work?

It is.

As pathologically under-used back, stomach and thigh muscles whinge in creaky protest only an hour or so into our first surfing lesson, I realise quite how unfit our sojourn in Bali has left me.

I’ve gone so native with the motorbike that I’ll hop on it to make the 100 yard trip to the shop.

I also realise that Z, who about a year ago passed the stage where he feels less fear than me on theme park rides and waterslides, is now at the stage where he acquires new physical skills faster.

I’m still bigger than him –- should be so for a while.

And faster than him –- for a couple of years, I guess.

But we are definitely past the point of no return.

There’s an undeniable pleasure to waiting for the wave.

Lolling on your board, feeling the rhythms of the ocean, letting one wave or another tilt you and release you, waiting for the right one to arrive.

It’s pretty zen.

I’ve always liked sitting by the sea, trying to predict when the next big wave will come. And this is doing that but on the ocean, with the prospect of some adrenaline when the right one comes along.

But even with little waves like these, watching a swell appear on the horizon, and build behind you towards a peak, is scary.

When you miss one, it’s beyond frustrating.

You paddle like hell, upper arms aching, feel the big peak build under you, tug and then –- oh anticlimax of anticlimaxes! –- wash past, leaving you stranded in absolutely the wrong position for the next one.

But when the wave catches you, the surge pushes you forward and upwards, you stabilize and you’re riding the water into shore with the surf roaring in your ears –- it’s a rush.

I’m a sucker for bodyboarding. Learning to surf is harder, there’s no two ways about it.

But, just as when I was learning to ski I could feel the potential of future grace, even as I snowploughed bandy-kneed down the nursery slope, there’s the beginning of a sense of just how good surfing could be when you get it even vaguely right.

It gets later. The swell is bigger, choppier, the water murky as the receding tide sucks detritus out to sea.

I go for a big fella, which feels five or six feet tall.

My board gives that tell-tale lurch, engages with the wave, but it’s not catching me and pushing me forward, it’s tipping me from the horizontal to the vertical amid a roar of breaking surf.

As my head heads towards the invisible sand and my board and I part company for the twentieth time I clasp my arms around my head for protection.

It is, as the cliché has it, like being in a washing machine. I am submerged, tumbled over and over, water up my nose and in my mouth, awestruck by the power of the ocean and wondering when the board will hit me.

It doesn’t.

I surface in the shallows, coughing ocean.

“Are you alright?” asks Sandi, my teacher, a well-honed Sasak with a dramatic ginger bleach, who has muscles in places where I have back fat, and an impressive range of scars courtesy of coral reef, broken surfboards and a motorbike driving style so, erm, audacious that we drive ourselves to the beach next day.

Sandi’s been surfing since he was five, much to his mother’s displeasure. Aged 22, he’s been married, divorced and lost a child already.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Don’t take the big ones,” he says. “It’s dangerous. You go through them on the board, ya?”

“I’m going for a cigarette,” I say, heading for the beach shack where the ibu is watching my possessions.

Three hours in, and I still haven’t managed to even stand up.

I’m beginning to doubt whether I have the strength to do it on a board like this.

Even on this entry-level beach, I am aching.

We break for lunch.

The surf lesson goes better after a bowl of instant noodles. I catch a few waves and ride them in the cobra without wiping out.

I begin to push up.

I get as far as my knees and ride the board all the way in, kneeling, arms out in a wild hallelujah.

It’s a small triumph. But a big step for me.

Sure, I fall off a lot, but when you fall off once you’ve caught the wave the force is dissipated.

And then comes a big fella. “Go, go, go,” yells Sandi.

I go for it. I feel the lurch. And then I feel the board tip down to the vertical.

The wave churns and spins me, underwater. My head and face scrape along the bottom, my neck at an uncomfortable angle to the rest of me.

I didn’t get my arms up to protect my head, and there’s no chance of persuading any part of my body to do anything other than exactly what the ocean wants it to do, which is flail in spastic, tangled ellipses along the bottom.

My board pops along and says a brief, yet plangent, hello to my ribs.

My mouth and nostrils are full of sand and salt water, and I don’t have a cat’s chance in hell of surfacing until the wave has finished with me.

It lets me go in the shallows.

I surface, fully exfoliated and with a full head of sand, eye the oncoming surf beady as King Cnut, retrieve my board and head for shore.

Tomorrow is another day. But for today, I have had enough.

Z’s muscles don’t ache. He’s ten.

Mine do.

We’re back unschooling, so I suggest that for a learning project, he might want to use the internet to identify the names of the various muscle groups of mine that ache.

“The ones at the top of your shoulders, by your collarbone, the ones in your lower back and the top set of abdominals,” I say. “Oh, and that long one that goes down the side of your thighs.”

“Does your butt ache?” he asks.

“No,” I say. “Just the thighs.”

“I know that one!” he says.

“Really?” I say, impressed. “What is it?

“It’s called Thunderus Maximus,” he says, poker-faced.


I nearly cried.

*: We’ve been learning with Blue Sea surf shop, near the market in Kuta, Lombok. 300,000 rupiah ($33) buys a four hour lesson with two instructors for two people, including bike transport to Selong Belanak beach. You might reach them on +62 (0)819 0796 4618 or you might be better just stopping by.

13 Responses

  1. Great post!
    You’ll be standing up soon, don’t worry. You are a complete champion!
    Darling Man and I had a half-day surfing lesson a few years ago, before the baby. He was a natural, stood up on the first wave. I was in such pain from cable skiing a few days earlier that I couldn’t hold the board to get past the wash. I managed one wave, stood up for a few seconds, then took my injured arms in to watch from the beach like the cliched girlfriend. (But he *does* look good on a surfboard. MmmmmmMMMMM.)

    • Theodora says:

      Yeah, i can stand up now. Hurray! But, my god, I am aching — arms, abs, shoulders, lower back. Tried to do it two days in a row and just collapsed. Z is standing reliably, now. Even the paddling is hard work, I tell you!

  2. Hahaha…if I didnt want to surf before, now its definitely on my list of things to try. Exfoliation, neck stretching and aching Thunderus Maximus – who can resist such an adventure.
    Keep on having fun.

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you, Geri. I think my gluteus maximus might be lifting. This is the theory…. You should totally try it.

  3. my brother surfs and loves it. and i am SO envious – loved step into liquid, and watching the grace of laird hamilton. i know, as a disabled person, that stand up surfing will never happen for me. reading of this sort of makes it ok, although i WILL lie on a surfboard and float, one day! 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      Yes. I think the floating sensation is lovely. You know what you could do? Sea kayaking. Thailand is great for that. They’re plastic inflatable kayaks, very stable, not like the white water ones, and you can just loll around, particularly if you have a husband to do the paddling as and when required.

  4. Ainlay says:

    Bali is a hard place to learn! Never gave it a shot there but I did learn in Costa RIca and even at the ancient age of 44 managed to stand up because the surf was very regular and “reliable”. Or it could just have been those decades of surfing the NYC subway w/o holding on to the poles! On the other hand, I never got the thrill, found it a bit boring on the whole so six of one, half a dozen of the other.

    • Theodora says:

      Lombok even harder than Bali, I think. We’ve just got here — finally moving again. Interesting that you didn’t enjoy it so much. i wonder whether the unpredictability is part of the thrill. The bloody waves are different minute to minute, day to day. We’re taking a day off today…

  5. Sounds bloody fantastic! I’ve been reading your surfing posts with envy and have been telling myself that I’ll learn how to surf when I get back to Bali.

    • Theodora says:

      I think Seminyak/Kuta might be quite good places to learn, Adam. The surf seems fairly predictable in some spots there, and on Kuta Beach you have a rip tide. Plus, I think the surf schools use the easiest type of board. We’ve been hanging out with people who’ve been surfing for a *month* and still wipe out all the time. I think what’s great about it, though, is that you do get these milestones, even if at the end of each one you realise how much further you have to go.

  6. Roy says:

    I’ve always thought it’s be cool to surf. But I think I like the idea more than the reality 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      It’s something that takes weeks, I think, rather than days, Roy. But we’re both committed to getting the hang of it. May head out to an island off the West Coast of Lombok where we’ve heard there’s nice easy surf too… We were going to do the Gilis, but I think I’d rather dive Komodo. I’m not sure we’re in the easiest place to learn. Because somewhere where good surfers go to surf is not necessarily the place for beginners…

  7. PatrickH says:

    I learned to surf in kuta bali back in the late 80s and have been addicted ever since. We travelled through the islands as far as bajawa, flores. Saw you piece in the guardian today and it bought back lots of good memories. Have you read The Redundancy of Courage by Timothy Mo? It is a fantastic book about the struggle in Timor. Your site is great. Another good one is Emmas house in Portugal.