A surfing lesson in Byron Bay
“You can call me Gaz, but my kids call me Shrek. That’s because I’m usually pretty nice, but I can be an ogre.”
I had no idea how old Gaz was. But after a few minutes riding in his van to the beach, I knew a couple of facts about him.
- He was a surf instructor.
- He’d been surfing for 45 years.
- His face, made of “crocodile skin” didn’t seem to make sense without his black, wrap-around sunglasses, that he rarely removed.
And it was Gaz’s surf lesson. When we arrived at the beach, he handed us forms to sign, faded rash-vests to wear, and boards to carry. There wasn’t time to wonder if you could learn to surf. Our group of 6 was rushed from car park to sand to water.
An introductory surf lesson, like anything else that’s repeated often (a health and safety demo, a house tour, a sales pitch), has been optimized over time. This is a defining characteristic. There’s an invisible schedule, a structure, that you respond to. The jokes feel tired, but they are tried and tested, and they’re deployed for a reason. Over years, a formula emerges. Gaz reads the crowd, tests for age, sensitivity, existing dynamics (eg. partners, friends, strangers), and selects from his tool kit. It’s fascinating to see this well oiled, and well tanned machine in action.
With the boards laid out on the sand in a row, he explains some fundamentals. The side of the surfboard is the rails. The front is the nose. The back is the tail. We lie down, prone, and he draws a line of wax infant of our noses. “This is where your nose should be. Some instructors will tell you to line up the tail of board with your feet. They’re a bunch of wankers.” To Gaz, all other surf schools and instructors were wankers.
After jumping to our feet a few times (faster, faster!), we knelt in a circle and he used “google sand” to show how the ocean works. Currents, waves, rips. Where to paddle. Where to surf. He seemed particularly annoyed by the popular belief that rips were dangerous, something he attributed to surf life saving Australia. “Rips are only dangerous if you swim against them. They take you out to where the waves break. Rips are good.”
I signed up for this lesson with a fair amount of hesitation. My natural instinct would be to rent a board for myself and struggle at it alone. Here’s a few reasons why I liked it.
Firstly, and most importantly, a good instructor makes a hell of a difference. A good instructor can get in the shoes of a beginner, and can quickly squeeze out results. He’s heard every excuse. He knows exactly what’s possible. He knows what cues, like “banana”, are simple enough to get your body to do what it’s supposed to do (biomechanics, theory and form aside, there’s no time for that). He also was naturally “high status”. By status, I don’t mean social status, but the status dynamics that exist within any interpersonal interactions. As socialized humans we are always adjusting our status in relation to the people or spaces that we interact with. A teacher naturally has a higher status than students, but is not always the case. This is important, as a low status teacher (think about someone who is bumbling, self doubting, frustrated, clumsy, eccentric), can quickly lose the favor of the group. Gaz rewarded behavior he liked, and quickly extinguished anything that questioned his power and control.
Secondly, it couldn’t have been a better wave to learn on. “The Pass”, was a gentle, spilling right hander. It was shallow. We waded out to the break, and it felt like the waves had been dialed down in power to about a 2 out of 10. Just enough to push you towards the beach. The Pass is considered one of the best places to surf in Australia, and after splashing around for 30 minutes, I could see why.
Lastly, we had a good group. That makes a difference. I quickly bonded with Sarah and P.G, two Berliners living in Australia for different reasons. P.G was a smiling Italian, covered in tattoos and “used to have dreadlocks, when I was an anarchist”. Sarah, was a little more reserved and tougher looking, with a shaved undercut, and was originally from Belgium. After the lesson, we ate rare kangaroo and got drunk on light colored beer. Isn’t that how every surfing lesson should end?