A Shore Thing

One girl, four lessons and her dreams of one day becoming a surfer

Words: Sibu Mabusela | Photographs: Neo Baepi

I'll be honest, surfing was never something I thought I’d venture into. Between my mom's shark jokes and of course Hollywood sensations: Jaws and Sharknado, it just never seemed to make my list of things to learn to do. Not when my friend would call me at the crack of dawn to catch a wave (not at 6am I don’t think). Not when Bondi Beach was but a bus ride away. Not when some of my friends took an hour-long ferry to surf Cloudbreak. Not a single one of these occasions had me yearning to hit the great blue armed with nothing but a fiberglass board for protection. Ok, I lied – maybe that one time while watching Blue Crush 2 and the stars were shredding waves in what looked like an effortless feat. It never occurred to me that I too could take up surfing and list it on my CV under subhead: hobbies.

It really wasn’t until a colleague suggested we learned to surf on YouTube that I considered the option. And while the idea was enticing, the hundreds of failed Pinterest crafts I’ve committed to would suggest I shouldn't (laugh now but you try making a lightbulb aquarium and not having it look like a 8-year-old’s Arts and Culture project). Instead, I decided to get some pros involved.

I set out to learn how to surf and got to contacting some local surf schools. And by local, I mean two taxis and a train ride away, nothing special. I was lucky enough to have a colleague who knew the owners personally. So after a few emails and gif exchanges, they were generous enough to let me get to surfing.

Off I went on a sunny Sunday morning to the Lifestyle Surfshop in Muizenberg where I met Craig (the guy who runs things around there) and Jessie (my soon-to-be surf instructor). Let me start off with this: Jessie was everything I was hoping he would be. Firstly, his name was Jessie – if that isn’t the most surf-inspired name you’ve ever heard, I’m not sure what is. And second, he had a really dark tan with long hair that swept across his face every time a wave came by. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “what does the way your surf instructor looks have to do with anything?” My answer: Everything! His tan would demonstrate two things: that he’d put in his hours in the sun (surfing no doubt) and that I, no matter what my brain was telling me, would A) not get eaten by a shark and B) probably learn how to surf. The length of his hair demonstrated that if he was patient enough to let his hair grow out, he’d be patient enough to teach my stubborn self how to surf.

Between all the mental prepping, YouTube videos and articles I’ve since been through on how to surf, I knew I had to make an impression on my instructor, just so he could know that nothing in this life is certain. I waited until I was fully kitted out in my wetsuit and on the beach, learning how to pop up on the board. I looked at him with all the seriousness I could muster and asked: “I don’t need to be able to swim to do this, do I?”. A horrified Jessie looked back at me, trying to keep his composure and said, “ Uhm, no you don’t, but it would help.” I quickly told him I was joking and had asked for anecdotal reasons. Plus, seeing his reaction was totally worth it. I continued to do some pop-up practice runs and then did my stretches (which I would soon learn were not nearly enough) and hit the water, with a 9-foot board strapped to my leg.

My first lesson was a bit of a blur: I struggled a bit against the water and I guess it was a whole lot different to how we’d practiced. It was a challenge, too, considering I had so much to remember. Like: "paddle out" then, "pull yourself towards the middle of the board " (a cheat Jessie told me not to tell anyone I’d learned from him – oops) then "push up on the board in one quick motion". "Make sure your feet are the middle of the board, bend your knees". My favourite was, "Don’t think so much". Believe it or not, the last bit was what I struggled with most. I guess overthinking isn’t something you think you do on the regular, until your instructor tells you not to do it. But once I stopped thinking and did what my body wanted to naturally – I finally stood up! It was my first lesson and about 45 minutes in. Jessie did a bit of a celebration shout and clapped for me, and then, as swiftly as I'd gotten up, I fell off. It was great!

Over the next couple of weeks, I worked on standing on my board for longer, and controlling the direction. Lesson three didn't happen because the sea was a bit choppy and Jessie had been away for the weekend. Craig had encouraged me to take a board and try hit the waves by myself. Though I was honoured he thought I’d be that good by then, I wasn’t too confident, plus I had gotten to the point where my weekly visits were catch-up sessions on all things pop and cool related. I mean, if it weren’t for the encouragement of my super cool instructor I’d still not have listened to The Weeknd's album, I wouldn’t know that there was a place called Club Mykonos in South Africa and I certainly wouldn’t have learned how to surf. Which brings me to week four. Being able to finally say I can surf(ish). At this point, I’d pulled all the lessons together and knew all I needed to know. I’d grown so much and of course become (to my amusement) a really good listener. I’d learned patience and self-reliance. I learned how to relax and to trust my instincts.

I never quite expected to be a pro surfer nor did I think that I would be entering any huge competitions. I suppose that’s the idea with learning a skill the older you are. It’s never about being the best at it, it’s being perfectly satisfied with being just alright.

I realised while I was out there why some people much prefer solo sports. Because you rely solely on yourself (and in my case, my instructor). You explore your limits and your strengths – it stops becoming about winning and being the best and outshining others but more about conquering the demons in your head, conquering the fear. It became about calming the mind and doing what your body wants to do naturally.

Was I hoping a big time surf magazine or brand would sponsor a year's worth of travel around the world as I posted pictures of myself on the ‘gram sipping on margaritas? Maybe. Did that happen? Nope. But the things I learned went far beyond standing on the board itself and now I guess I can finally say I get it, that it really isn't just a sport or pastime but rather a lifestyle.

And now? Every time I hit a different coastal city, I’ll definitely be strapping on a wetsuit and heading straight for the waves. Also, I’ll be listing it in my CV under hobbies only partially as a joke ‘cause that bit might happen.