I still remember my first surf class.
I wriggled into a wetsuit, lathered my face up with super thick sunscreen and walked down to the beach feeling like Aquaman in my spongy suit with a rocket ship tied to my leg. They say Kiwis love to surf, but at 28 I’d never touched a surfboard in my life. That’s the Chinese side of me, I guess. Chinese people don’t surf. When’s the last time you saw a Chinese surfer?
My first wave was tiny, the smallest splash of water. When the teacher pointed at it and lined me up, I almost thought he was joking. Yet it picked my board up and sent me flying. That’s all it took; one wave. I knew I had to learn more. I signed up for a full week of surf camp a few months later.
Brett didn’t really look like a surfer. He was a Maori dude, maybe late 30’s or early 40’s, and he could’ve been anything really – a plumber, a lawyer, a taxi driver, but not a surfer. He didn’t have the beach blonde locks or the California slow talk, which is what you’d expect from someone who surfs for a living. But I guess stereotypes are only true until they’re broken.
The drive up to our camp from Auckland was a long one, so we had a lot of time to talk. I noticed the Maori in his humour, the surfer in his opinions but also the wisdom from his years in the water. It was clear he lived for the ocean; he had studied the way the wind and the weather patterns affected the swell, why the waves formed in the shapes that they did, how the climate halfway around the world affected the waves that we experienced in New Zealand. He noticed small details, like when the wind changed from a north westerly to a westerly, or when it softened earlier or later than expected. Surfing, it seemed, was about a lot more than just a board and a wetsuit.
As we made the drive north he rattled jokes off constantly about anything that came to mind – landmarks, bad drivers, the towns we passed through – like a twelve year old kid. But every now and then we’d pass the ocean and his tone would change; he’d explain the shape of the beach, the difference between a spring tide and a neap tide, and why the waves were coming in the way they were. As soon as the subject moved to surfing, it was all business.
We arrived five hours later to our home for the week. It was a small town, and quaint, littered with weathered corner stores and clean but empty sidewalks. Every house had a small front yard, the lawns unkept and a mossed over dinghy or kayak leaning against the fence. This was Ahipara.
“There’s the hospital,” Brett pointed out as we drove past. “Just make sure you don’t get sick after 4:30, cos ain’t nobody gonna be there,” he laughed. I wasn’t sure if he was being serious or not.
As we pulled up to our quarters – a beautiful chic beach house right on the shore of 90 Mile Beach – I unloaded my stuff and went to look out over the ocean. Many Kiwi families own a ‘bach’ – a small beach house where they come and enjoy their weekends during the summer – but not my family. I didn’t grow up with the sand on my doorstep. I’ve lived in New Zealand almost my entire life, but my school holidays were mostly filled with video games or sports tournaments. The whole sailing, surfing, collecting shellfish thing – that was all “white people stuff” to us when I was a kid. I didn’t grow up with the ocean like a lot of other Kiwis.
The next day we headed to Shipwreck Bay – one of Ahipara’s gems. Brett parked up on the cliff, overlooking the beach, and tried to explain how awesome these waves were, coming in one after the other in almost perfect sequence. I didn’t get it. They just looked like waves to me.
“If you wipe out, cover your head. Then grab your board and paddle out to the side and out the back. If someone’s surfing at you and you think you’re gonna get hit, let your shit go and dive under the water. The fins are only a few inches long, so you’ll be safe down there.”
Brett talked a lot. He kind of needed to, but a lot of it went over my head. I heard the important bits, though.
It was standard surf class to start off with; we caught some smaller waves and whitewash, practising all the things he was teaching us. We stayed pretty close to the shore that morning, but after a couple of hours in the water I was ready for the big time. He’d shown me how to paddle in and pop up, how to watch and read the wave and stay on the board all the way into the beach. I still wiped out on pretty much every ride, but he told me it was just a matter of practise now. He sent me out the back, to where the real surfers were.
There was a bunch of us out there, bobbing in the ocean in the afternoon sun – a loud American guy, a couple of local kids, myself, Brett also grabbed a board and got in eventually. As the waves came in everyone would turn their boards around and paddle, riding the waves into shore before paddling back out for another ride, but not me. I sat there on my board, floating in the water; watching, observing. I didn’t feel ready yet. There’s a rulebook in surfing – an unwritten one, and I was trying to decode it all. Are these guys in a queue, or just sitting wherever they want? Is there a rule of who goes and who doesn’t? Is there some sort of system, like smaller board, first wave, bigger board, second wave? I had no idea. The rules of surfing aren’t clear to the newbie like myself. You need to learn them through the grapevine.
Between sets, everyone sat out there waiting for waves, chatting. I watched intently. It was like a secret community, detached from the world, just men and their boards, playing out in the ocean.
“Check out all the birds around that boat,” I overheard Evan say to Brett, as we all sat around during a short lull. Evan was a local guy, a friend of Brett’s who seemed to surf a lot. I turned and looked behind me. A small boat sat bobbing in the distance, maybe 200 metres away, a flurry of birds circling overhead. “Maybe I should’ve gone fishing instead of surfing.”
I looked over at him, laughing. Fishing instead of surfing? On Tuesday? In my house it was either study or do your homework. Maybe it would’ve been nice, to grow up in Ahipara.
That evening Brett cooked up a feast for dinner. He seasoned a couple of chickens, stuffed them, and roasted them in the oven with a bunch of veges. Then he grabbed the rice and pulled out the rice cooker.
“You know how these rice cooker things work, bro?”
I turned to see if he was being serious. In a Chinese home the rice cooker is the equivalent of a toaster, so it was a question you’d expect a six year old to ask.
“You just put in two cups of rice and then fill the water to the line marked 2,” I told him, laughing.
He examined the inside of the pot looking for the markings, then filled it with water, fiddled with it for a while and finally turned it on.
“That might be a bit too much rice for us,” he mumbled, as he peeked through the top of the pot.
“Don’t worry bro, that just means fried rice for breakfast.”
He looked at me.
“You know how to make fried rice?”
Err, do you know how to make toast?
Day 3. His eyes were sharp.
“Stop fuckin’ around. When you’re in the water it’s time to put your fuckin’ game face on.”
He was getting angry, obviously.
It was early morning and Brett had taken me out behind the rocks, beyond the learner waves. He figured maybe I was ready for something a little more thrilling. I still felt like a schmuck in the water, but I was up for anything if he was willing to show me.
Things weren’t quite clicking though. Perhaps it was the early start, or my busted shoulder, but I was paddling like a nine year old girl. Eventually I made it out the back behind the breaking waves, and sat up on my board next to him waiting for the swell to come in.
“Dude, you’ve got to get your shit together. We don’t have long out here. Plus it’s absolutely unheard of to get these waves all to ourselves. Unheard of.“
I didn’t get what he was so angry about. We’re surfing, bro. Chill out.
After a couple more waves we paddled back into the bay. I caught a wave, got rolled completely and sat there for a moment, giving my aching shoulder a rub and catching my breath. Brett got in my ear again.
“Dude. Seriously, you can’t fuck around when you’re in the middle of a set. If you wipe out, get your shit and paddle away. No time to fuck around.”
Chill the fu*k out, bro.
The following wave was no better. I caught it badly, rode it for a few seconds and then got tumbled like a sock. As I plunged into the water the wave rolled over me and I came up, gasping for air.
“Mother****!” I screamed, irritated.
I took a moment to catch my breath and figure out what I did wrong. Was I not leaning forward? Did I not get the right angle? Who knew. I gave my shoulder a little rub, looked around for my board and pulled the leash towards me. Then I saw Evan, on the wave after mine, coming towards me quickly. He was still a good 20 metres away, so I tried to gauge whether he was going to hit me or not.
Yep, going to hit me, ooh no no, gonna go past me for sure, ooh shit maybe he might hit me, oh nah, definitely gonna go past me.
Until he was right in front of me, and he was going to hit me.
I let all my shit go and dived as deep under the water as I could. After two or three seconds, I felt the wave give a solid tug on the board, pulling me a metre backwards, and as the water calmed I came up to breathe. The first thing I heard was Evan swearing his face off. I looked around and found him bobbing in the water, ten metres away, clutching his leg. The wave had taken my board and flicked it out the face, smacking him on the leg as it flung out. Earlier in the day I’d dropped my board on my finger and winced, so I knew getting one thrown at your leg would’ve hurt like a mother*****r.
I floated there, not sure what to do. Evan was still cursing and Brett didn’t look happy either. I paddled over and apologised profusely. He took it as well as he could. I knew he was dying to let loose on me, and he should’ve. Had he not been Brett’s mate, things might’ve been a little different.
As I turned to paddle back out, Brett’s words rang through my head. “No time to fuck around! Grab your board and paddle away!” It made sense now. I’d been in my own little world out there, but it wasn’t my own little world. We couldn’t just chill out. What was I even trying to do out here? I couldn’t surf. I wasn’t a surfer. I belonged by the sand, on the baby waves.
I spent the rest of the afternoon bobbing out the back, watching. I was done for the day. This wasn’t my ocean. I didn’t feel welcome here anymore.
I was pretty weathered when we got back to the beach. I wriggled out of my wetsuit and massaged my shoulder. Brett was over at Evan’s car, chatting away. I knew what they were talking about.
“You left a few marks mate,” he said as he walked back.
I nodded, upset with myself.
“We better get him a box of beers,” he suggested. I nodded again.
I pulled on a shirt and Brett and I hoisted the surfboards up onto the roof. He threw me the straps.
“Strap those bad boys on tight mate,” he said, fiddling with the rest of the gear.
He had explained on the first day how to strap the boards on the roof, but I’d been busy eating a banana or something. I looked at the straps.
So this clip will probably go around this bar, and then that one will go over there and then….
Who was I kidding. I had no idea.
Brett saw I was clueless and came over to help. He stood on the other side of the roof and threw me one end of the strap.
“Thread that one through the front mate.”
I threaded it through the front.
“No, through the front.”
I looked at him.
“It’s through the front.”
He laughed out loud and shook his head.
“Man, you must be tired.”
I still didn’t know what was wrong with the strapping, but eventually we got it all strapped down in a way he was happy with. Once we’d pulled the straps tight, he came over and asked if I could tie it down.
“You know how to tie a bowline?”
I shook my head. He laughed and took the straps off me.
Whatever bro. You don’t even know how to cook rice.
On the way home we bought a box of beers and Brett took it around to Evan’s place that evening as a peace offering. I wanted to pay for it, but Brett insisted on splitting the bill. Even though I’d done the damage, he was the one responsible for me out there, he said.
He got back around 11pm with a few beers under his belt. I was in the lounge reading at the time, still feeling shitty about what had happened. Brett grabbed another beer from the fridge and sat beside me on the couch.
“There were a few people over at his place. A few opinions came out eh.”
I smiled and nodded. I could imagine.
“A few of them saw the whole thing and were pretty horrified, to be honest,” he laughed.
“But I explained it to them like this, you know: you’re a 29 year old retired accountant. And they were like what? Really? And I was like yeah, he’s not an idiot. This is just a totally new world to him. They were literally laughing out loud when I told them about you strapping the boards to the roof. A lot of them were on your side after that, they kinda started to understand.
But in the end Evan was just like, thank you so much, for the beers. He actually thought you were some foreigner dude. When he heard you say sorry in your Kiwi accent, he was all good about it.”
That night Brett and I sat there and talked it out until 2 or 3 in the morning. I thought it was cool, how he’d stood up for me. He certainly didn’t need to. As we talked about the week, he told me he’d been disappointed watching me paddle half-heartedly that day, as those morning waves had been my chance to really surf some bombs. He said that had been my moment, to really show him what I could do; that those might be the most perfect learner waves I’ll ever see in my life. When the surf is that good, you gotta go for gold. You gotta surf until your arms fall off.
“I knew it straight away, the very first day, when I saw you do those burpees out here on the lawn. My expectations for you have been up here, this high. That’s why I’ve been so hard on you. Your popup is effortless, you got awesome technique, awesome athleticism. For someone your age that’s crazy. People your age usually have trouble picking this up, but you don’t have that problem. You could be really, really good man, seriously. All you need to do is go out there and put your game face on, but I haven’t seen you do that.”
I was disappointed in myself too. I hadn’t thought of surfing that way. I’d thought of it as a hobby, like playing frisbee. Not something you bring your game face to. All day he’d been saying it – get your shit together, put your game face on. But I hadn’t been hearing him.
It wasn’t too late. I still had one day left.
The next day before our surf we headed up the coast to collect some shellfish for dinner. Brett had asked around town for which spots were hot, so we jumped in the van and made the journey north.
Eventually we pulled off the main road and took a side road onto the famous 90 Mile Beach. Brett parked the van up on the bank and we headed down to the water to try our luck.
I watched him dig his toes into the sand, hunting for treasure. I copied him. I found one straight away and quickly pulled it out of the sand.
“That’s a tuatua, right?”
“Yeaaah bro!” he screamed.
But that was the last one. After digging for three or four minutes, we found nothing. He looked out into the ocean and screwed his face up.
“The tide’s too high man. We need to be down there,” he said, pointing a few metres out into the water.
Neither of us had our swim gear, so we called it quits and headed back to the van.
With his foot flat on the pedal, he floored it up 90 Mile Beach, 100km an hour. Every now and then he’d turn and look at the water, looking for something, and then after ten minutes or so he pulled over and parked the car.
“This looks better. We’ll probably find some here.”
I looked down the beach, confused. I could see at least a few hundred metres in either direction and it all looked identical to me. The tide was at the same spot, maybe even higher, the beach looked the same, so did the water. What did he see that I didn’t?
We walked down to the water’s edge and dug our toes in again. I watched Brett wriggle his feet in and after a few seconds he smiled, bent down and dug his hands deep into the sand.
“Look at that!” he laughed. His hands were overflowing with tuatua, literally. He couldn’t even hold them all.
I bent down and did the same, digging my hands in the sand and rummaging around. I could feel the little suckers wriggling between my fingertips. I pulled my hands up and looked at my palms, filled with five, six, maybe seven tuatua, wriggling themselves back into their shells.
“Go get the bucket from the car, bro!” he yelled, laughing.
I couldn’t believe it. It was like finding hidden treasure. Maybe this guy can’t cook rice, but he can smell the shellfish in the sand 90 miles away.
When we arrived back that afternoon Brett sent us out to surf on the beach just outside our bach, 100 metres from our backdoor. I sunscreened, suited up and headed for the water. The ocean looked different to me now. I didn’t see a playground anymore. It was more like a boxing ring, a place for battle. Me against the water.
I spent about two hours in there getting tumble dried by the waves – paddling out, trying to catch something, getting smoked, paddling out again. I didn’t care. All I needed was a good one. Just one good wave.
Before long the sun had started to set and my arms were about to fall off, but I was still out there fighting. I got battered by another set, but I couldn’t go in just yet. I got back on the board and paddled out again.
I was half dead when I finally made it out the back again. My feet were freezing, I couldn’t feel my shoulder. When the set came in, I hesitated for a moment, wanting to catch my breath. The first one didn’t actually look like a good wave, but once I saw it standing up behind me I knew I had to either paddle for it or get smoked. Brett’s words rang in my head. Four strong paddles – one two three four! I paddled for my life and felt the water pick my board up, sending me flying. I jumped to my feet. I didn’t fall off.
I looked left. The wave was breaking there. I looked right. It was breaking there too. I’d never surfed a wave that broke both ways. I had to go left. I only knew how to go left. I grabbed the rail and leaned left. The board sped up and I put a knee down and held the rail tight, my mouth wide open. I looked left again, right again, the rumble of the water roaring behind me. All of Brett’s words ran through my head; “Watch the wave, move with it, keep the board on trim, stay low, chin knee toe, always chin knee toe!” I shuffled my foot under me, trying to get a better stance. I was moving fast now. I leaned forward, and sped up even more. I took a split second to glance behind me, watching the wave crashing violently against the back of my board. But I was there. I was on it. I could see the beach, and I still hadn’t fallen off. I was surfing.
Brett was standing outside on the porch smiling when I got back to the house. His eyes were beaming and he held his thumbs up, nodding with a grin from cheek to cheek.
“Mate you were looking behind you, looking to the side, nice and low, leaning left and right!” he beamed, re-enacting it all on his imaginary surfboard in front of me. He’d been watching from the kitchen window.
“Shit mate. That was real surfing right there. I was up here saying to myself, ‘Welcome to the club buddy.’”
That night, we devoured our pot of tuatua. We must have had over 100 but we demolished it all in about ten minutes. I usually buy my tuatua in bags of ten from the supermarket – getting them fresh from the beach is like an impossible dream, at least in my neighbourhood.
As we sat at the dinner table that night, chatting away like old friends, I thought back over the week. I’d seen a different New Zealand up here, one that I’d never seen during my years growing up in my own community. Up here, everyone knew how to strap boards to the roof. Everyone knew where to find shellfish in the sand. Everyone knew how to tie a bowline. And, everyone knew how to surf. The New Zealand I knew was different. My friends can all cook the shit out of some fried rice by their 7th birthday, but ain’t none of them ever owned a surfboard.
New Zealand’s a funny place, really. Lots of skin colours, lots of cultures, but we’re not really thrown in a mixing bowl; we’re still stored separately in little tupperware containers in different parts of the country. Things like the All Blacks and fish and chips can bring us together sometimes, but we tend to keep to our own a lot, too. That’s New Zealand, and it’s not necessarily the New Zealand that I like or want. We pride ourselves on being multicultural and diverse, but there’s still a lot left to learn from each other. Being multicultural requires a lot more than just ‘same country, different neighbourhoods’. Being open is easy when you’re travelling the world – everything’s new and exciting – it’s easy to embrace it all. It takes a bit more effort at home. You have to go look for it. You have to want to find it. You can spend your whole life adventuring in faraway places, but sometimes the greatest travel lessons are waiting for you in your own backyard. I learned that in Ahipara.
That was our final day. The next morning we were heading back to Auckland, but not before one final surf.
“If you want to surf tomorrow, you’ll need to get up at around 6. You’ll have around an hour in the water. We need to be out of here by 9.”
My alarm went off at 6am sharp. My whole body hurt and my shoulder was practically in pieces, but I wanted to shake hands with the ocean one more time, if only to say goodbye. I didn’t know if I’d ever be here again.
It wasn’t a warm morning. The sun wasn’t out yet, and there was a classic morning chill that reminded me of the early winter mornings from my 9-5 days. Half asleep and shivering, I squirmed as I pulled on my wetsuit, still damp from the day before. I had to be quick. I only had an hour.
As I grabbed my board and headed towards the sand, Brett came out in his underwear and gave me a few pointers.
“Look at the waves. See how much softer they are today. You’ll have to catch them on much less of an angle. Keep that board much straighter when you paddle today.”
I nodded and headed towards the sea.
As I walked across the sand, I scanned the beach on either side of me. The sun was only just starting to rise, and there wasn’t a person in sight. I had the entire beach, the entire ocean, to myself.
When I finally got to the water’s edge, I set the board on the sand and kneeled down to tie the leash around my ankle. I felt my toes sink and stopped for a moment, watching the sand swallow my foot while the ocean washed over it. It was icy cold, sending a sharp chill through my body. I welcomed it. It was refreshing, in a way.
Wrapping my leash, I pulled it as tight as I could. As Brett said on the first day, “it’s impossible to tie your leash too tight,” so I tried two or three times, getting it a little tighter each time. When I finally stood up to head into the water, I looked back at the house one last time. The sun had half risen now and our blue roof and walls shouted against the reddish tinge in the sky. In between me and the house lay fifty metres of golden sand, empty and spotless, other than my footsteps running down the middle.
I looked left. Nobody.
I smiled. For thirty seconds, I just stood there, taking a moment to soak it all in. Peaceful. Happy. Beautiful. Doing what you love. These were the kinds of moments we live for. It was the ultimate postcard shot and I didn’t have my phone or my camera with me, but I didn’t care. I just took a deep breath, smiled, and told myself to be grateful for how fucking awesome life is.
Then I grabbed my board, turned, and ran into the water.
Shout out to my surfing teacher Brett, to his friend Evan for not beating me up, and to all the surfers at Shipwreck for being cool. For anyone interested, a few photos of the trip are on my Instagram.