It's never too late to try a first-timer's surfing lesson

Always wanted to learn how to surf? If not now, then when! It's time to say “carpe diem” and learn how to ride the waves in surf mecca Byron Bay.

Two men sitting on a surf board in Byron Bay.
  • Matt Shea
  • February 2020

Sean Riley is staring at a wave I can’t see. “Here’s a good one,” he says. “You see it, Matty?” I lift my head from my board. All I spy is the Pacific Ocean and a bunch of kayakers. No crests. No whitewater. It doesn’t matter. Suddenly he is behind me, turning my board to face the shore. “You ready? One! Two! Three!” he shouts. “Go!”

Sean pushes me and I’m propelled towards the beach. I remember my training: feet onto the board’s base, pivot up, back leg forward, then front. I’m shuffling about when my coordination gives way and I fall, bum first. Luckily, it’s like  a warm bath – because I’m in Byron Bay.

In fact, how to fall was the first thing Sean taught me back before we paddled out. It seems comical but then he runs Soul Surf School – a local outfit that’s been offering surfing lessons along the NSW north coast for more than a decade. And some of the international travellers he takes out have never even seen the sea before.

Two men standing on surfboards in the sand.
Aspiring surfers get to test out their moves before taking to the waves.

I have no such excuse. I’ve lived near the beach all my life and swim in the sea regularly. I’ve always been envious of the wave riders sitting out beyond the breakers but it’s only now I’ve gathered the courage to try surfing myself. Why? Probably because surfing is changing in Australia. Research from both Roy Morgan and the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that the sport’s culture has shifted significantly in the past 10 years, with a slight decline in numbers of young “surfer dudes” being offset by increases across every other demographic. Everyone’s hitting the waves now, from women to goofy-footed 40-year-old first-timers like me.

“It’s really changed the whole tone of surfing. Up until the ‘80s, it was just 15- to 25-year-old guys. The surf was a territorial place,” says renowned Australian surf writer Nick Carroll. In 2020, surfing is set to become an Olympic sport for the first time too.

Helping propel this growth are Australia’s generally easygoing surf conditions and a rise in the number of surf schools. “The interest in learning to surf has blossomed,” Nick says.

Man carrying surfboard into water in Byron Bay
Learning to catch a wave like a pro isn't easy - but it sure as hell is fun!

Sean couldn’t agree more. In peak summer season, the Soul Surf team will be in the ocean every day, teaching etiquette, pushing students into waves, or sometimes “taxiing” (quietly swimming behind them and guiding the board  to help build confidence).

My own confidence levels are rising as  I look back at the beautiful crescent of Byron Bay stretching off to the north, with clouds collecting around the hinterland’s emerald-green mountains. As far as classrooms go, it’s hard to beat. “The bay itself is protected,” Sean says. “The waves don’t get too big too often... ” He cuts himself off as another wave approaches. I spot it too this time – a gentle crest moving towards us. He’s back behind me. “Remember, Matty, back foot first,” he says. “Go!”

This time I try to pop up quicker but I’m fighting the instinct to move my front foot.  I carve through the water for an exhilarating moment before I stumble and plop back into the sea. Sean appears, smiling, and gives me  a high five. “You’re so close!”

Two men standing by a vintage Ford in Byron Bay
The instructors love watching beginners ride their first wave.

And I feel close. Back out in the sea awaiting my final attempt, I’m spotting the waves along with my instructor. “Ready?” he asks. By now my toes are numb and there’s sunscreen in my eyes but I’m ready. “Go!” This time my back foot moves first and suddenly I’m in the middle of the board, gliding serenely towards the beach. I can’t believe it. Any nerves I had before the lesson are gone, replaced by that weightless exhilaration surfers talk about. I hear Sean yelling in celebration behind me. “I think I might be hooked,” I say. He gives me a knowing smile.

Back on dry land, we pack our boards into Riley’s vintage Ford F100 and retire for brunch burgers at The Byron Bay General Store. I wonder... these guys are gun surfers – don’t they ever get bored shepherding beginners like me?

“No way,” Sean says. “It’s sick seeing some-one throw their hands up, shouting, ‘Yeaaahh!’ They’ve just caught this cruisy little wave but  for them, that’s epic. And it’s just the start.”

Love catching a break? Here are the best surf beaches in the Gold Coast.