Riding the waves

Sunday, January 12, 2003

SYDNEY, Australia -- "Whoo hoo," yelled Dave as he cut across the crest of a wave and accelerated toward the beach, pumping his fist in excitement.

Clearly this was a man passionate about his surfing -- and his enthusiasm was infectious. After just an hour in the ocean with Dave "Big Wave" Hannagan, a surfing instructor at Sydney's world-famous Bondi Beach, all six members of the class had managed to stand, albeit briefly, and catch their first waves.

"There you go, you're a surfer now. That wave was beautiful," grinned Dave, his nose smeared in sun bloc and his eyes crimped close against the glare of the Australian sun. "Let's go catch another."

"Big Wave" is one of 15 instructors at "Let's Go Surfing," Bondi's only licensed surf school. For $31, the amiable team will fit you with a wet suit and surfboard, and, in two fun-filled but exhausting hours, put you through your paces.

The lesson starts on the beach, studying the ocean to see where the waves are breaking and where the dangerous undertows -- known as rips -- are.

After stretching off, you learn how to lie on the board, master paddling techniques and -- all importantly -- how to stand up as a breaking wave hurtles you toward the beach and threatens to dump you under tons of churning white water.

Then, with a brief prayer to the surfing god, who is inexplicably called "Huey," it's into the surf to try, fall off, try, fall off and try again.

Surfing isn't easy. Powerful waves can roll you underwater like a pair of pants in a washing machine and batter you into the ocean floor.

But where better to learn than Bondi Beach, a 1,000-yard crescent of sand flanked by rocky headlands that is an Australian icon.

Bondi, an aboriginal word meaning "the sound of waves breaking over rocks," is only 4 miles from downtown Sydney. It's an eclectic suburb, with fashionable open-air restaurants and bars, a wide promenade where the body beautiful jog and skate, a grassy park complete with BBQs and a stunning cliff walk.

But for hundreds of surfers drawn to Bondi every day, the biggest pull factor is the waves that crash relentlessly onto the beach.

"It's a great sport and something that covers all aspects of your life," says Brenda Miley, director of "Let's Go Surfing," who caught her first wave at age 3 clinging to her father's back.

"It is physical, it can be spiritual as you are in the ocean and surrounded by nature, and also very social," she says.

According to Miley, who is the national women's director of Surfing Australia and president of the Bondi Girls Surfriders Club, surfing is a growing sport Down Under.

"When I began surfing, you taught yourself," she says. "There was no such thing as schools. But more and more people are turning to it now later in life and can learn the basics in a couple of hours with an instructor.

"A lot of business people have learnt with us. They say the only time they know the office can't get hold of them is when they are out in the surf. It's a great was to de-stress."

Surfing is a challenging sport and anyone taking it up needs to be able to swim and be reasonably fit. But, according to the coaching team -- a self-declared team of "surf bums" who eat, sleep and dream about catching waves -- anybody can do it.

"I love being in the water. I can teach for six hours a day, but I'll still go out after work," says "Big Wave" Dave.

"Sitting out behind the breakers, waiting for a wave, is so relaxing. You forget about everything else.

"I'll be surfing 'til I die."

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