I’m an Englishman training as a surf instructor in Australia. I might as well be an alien. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that implies Brits have no place in the hallowed halls of surf gurus and nothing could be further from the truth. Our small, cold island boasts some of the best surfers in the world and some top notch British surf coaches. It’s just that I’m not one of them.
There are surfers who grow up around the bountiful British coastline, riding every day in miserable conditions. It’s an experience that chisels these rough souls into grizzled hell-men, like big wave charger Andrew Cotton. Conversely, there are British surfers who buy a thruster after their second weekend visit to a Cornish surf beach, screw the fins on back to front and then rack the under-waxed matchstick on their land-locked bedroom wall until the biannual pilgrimage to the Southwest.
For the majority of my teens and twenties, I held an honorary membership to that latter group of Brits. But eventually, the dissatisfaction of a corporate career pulled me back toward my passion for adventure sports, travel, and mother nature. The camel’s back just couldn’t take any more bullshit straws and I now find myself in Queensland, a stone’s throw from Superbank, attempting to qualify as a surf instructor.
Few places on the planet are more “surfy” than this stretch of coastline and I feel as though I’ve taken a delicious bite of surf pie while my cheeks are already too full to swallow. Just the other day I went for a casual paddle at Snapper and found myself cuddling distance from Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, and Mark Occhilupo.
Most of the surf coach qualification hasn’t phased me much, which may come as a comfort to any surfers who have always fancied becoming an instructor. A surf rescue course with a couple of fitness tests was pretty much my idea of fun. Throw in a first aid, advanced resuscitation course, and a few days of surf coaching theory and I’ve found myself replacing redundant gray matter with new good stuff. The thing that made me most self-conscious, though, was being surrounded by shaggy-haired, impossibly bronzed Aussies who undoubtedly came out the womb surfing. These are guys who walk, talk, and live surfing. Coffee break chats consist of discussions around fin construction and bottom contours, which doesn’t bode well for Johnny English and his 11-year-old shortboard with more patches than original fiberglass.
At one point toward the end of the training, the instructor informed me that the next morning would be the performance test – a prerequisite to qualification. It was the inevitable moment when I could no longer hide behind trendy surf labels and under-trimmed facial hair. Essentially, this was the ultimate kook test. The level of surfing that was expected actually worried me less than what is known as the “contrast effect.” Just like going to a bar with that annoyingly beautiful friend of yours, paddling out alongside these antipodean surf monks was just going to make me look completely and utterly unappealing. I was doomed.
The following day arrived with the impending make-or-break moment determining the fate of my teenage dream. I wasn’t exactly anxious about it. It had all been an enormous punt to get to this point anyway, so I was willing to be sent home with my tail between my legs. Luckily, a three-day flat spell was broken that morning with shoulder high, clean waves on tap. This could be a hit or miss for me; a blessing if I somehow managed to pull off the half dozen maneuvers that were expected or a curse, because surfing like a wretched kook in good waves (on camera) is the ultimate embarrassment.
When I finally paddled to the lineup my eye caught that of a female surfer in a pink top. I won’t beat around the bush; she was gorgeous and I was not expecting the distraction. We exchanged a few glances waiting for a set but this was simply not the time to fall in love with yet another surfer girl I’d never approach. So I took a wave, worked hard, surfed my socks off and was called in after thirty minutes by the assessor. Sheepishly, I approached him on the beach, expecting bad news. “Now that’s pressure eh?” he chirped in his Aussie drawl.
“Courtney…?” I asked. “Courtney Conlogue, the girl ”
“Courtney Conlogue, the girl you were surfing with.”
I Googled Miss Conlogue that evening, having no clue who she was that entire time. I quickly learned who I’d been surfing with. As if the contrast effect wasn’t bad enough to begin with, I had only been trading waves with one of the best surfers on the planet. Google also confirmed my suspicions that no matter how good I become at riding waves, I will always have the capacity to be a first class kook. On the plus side, I’m a super kook who somehow scraped through that performance test and now love my life as a surf instructor who may possibly have shared a “moment” (I’m claiming it) with the Courtney Conlogue. I can’t think of a better analogy for the benefits of irrepressible positivity and a deep love for the ocean.