There is a feeling you get when you surf. It’s a mixture of many feelings – the spray of salt water in your face, the thrill of zooming across an open wave, the sight of a curving ocean spreading in front of you, the sound of your heart pumping faster and faster against your rib cage, the feeling of knowing you can tumble to your demise at any moment, the head rush jolting through you when a wave finally picks you up, and maybe most thrilling of all, the adrenaline rush from all the ocean’s boundless beneath your feet, making you forget about everything else in the world for those precious few seconds.
This feeling, is known as the stoke.
This week is about chasing the stoke. I’m in Ahipara, a little gem hidden in New Zealand’s north, on a five day surf tour with the boys from Rapu Adventures. And I’m ready. Ready to wake up before sunrise. Ready to paddle until my arms fall off. Ready for the stoke.
On the first morning we are at the beach by 6:30. It’s empty. Tide is low.
I jump out of the van and stare at the ocean. It looks small. But I know better. It’s an illusion. When you get out there, it’s bigger than you ever imagined.
This is not my first surf camp, nor my first time in Ahipara. I’ve surfed with Rapu quite a few times – I caught my first wave with them back in 2015. And every day we hit the ocean together I learn something new.
Still, I’m not a very good surfer. But if I catch one awesome wave this week, I’ll be happy. Just one. But to catch that one awesome wave, you have to chase it. I stare at the ocean, wondering where I should be chasing it today. Maybe over there? Or there? Just one metre too far to the left or the right, and your wave is going to leave you behind. Hmm. Tell me, wave. Where are you going to be today?
Brett, the coach, sees me staring at the water and comes over. Brett is the head honcho – he runs this whole shit. He’s a scientific surfer. Everything in his camps is calculated. Which beach, what time, which board, down to the exact spot in the ocean he wants me to paddle to – he figures it all out, creates the gameplan, and then comes and divulges it all.
“If you look closely, you can see the ocean drifting to the right. That’s called a longshore drift. That means we need to start way out over there – and then we’ll end up way out over here.”
His arm drifts slowly from the left to the right as he says it.
We suit up and walk out, over the rocks. I walk as if on egg shells, my feet still soft, accountant’s feet, you could say. The others bounce along it, as if running on sand. I guess I have a few years to go before I earn my surfer’s feet.
When we get to the paddle out spot, Brett turns and waves me over.
“Okay look, that’s where you want to go.”
He points into the water, about thirty metres out.
“To get there, wait for a lull, and then just paddle full speed, right there. There’s a drift, remember. So paddle with it, 45 degrees.”
Easy. I wait for the lull – the calm period between the swells. When it comes, I go. Paddle, paddle, paddle. After a few minutes, my arms start to burn. I look at the spot I need to get to. Still not there. I paddle harder. One wave nearly bowls me over. I turtle roll under it, and keep going. Jelly arms. Still not there. After about ten minutes, I sit up on my board. I can’t paddle any more. I look around and scream a few swear words. I’m nowhere near the spot. In fact, I’m halfway down the beach already. Miles and miles away. How the hell did I get here?
Then I proceed to get pummelled by the ocean. I miss a bunch of waves. Get smashed by even more. I catch a grand total of…zero.
After two hours of abuse I pick my board up and walk up to the van, breathless. Brett, and Ben – the other coach, are already up there, loading up the trailer.
“How’d you go?” Brett asks as we drive back to the house.
“Just got demolished the whole time.”
I laugh, but secretly, I’m disappointed in myself.
“That’s cool! That’s what it’s about half the time.”
We get back to the house and have some breakfast. Everyone chooses a different fuel for the day – cereal, toast, fruit, coffee, juice. I stick with green tea and a few scrambled eggs.
“Pack a lot of water guys, we’re at the beach for the whole day today,” Brett says.
At around 10 o clock we get back to the beach and set up a gazebo on the grass above the sand. The surf is cranking. It feels like everybody in Ahipara is here today. I rummage through the snack box and then go lounge in the gazebo with the others. For the first hour we eat muesli bars and watch everyone else in the surf; pointing, laughing, lots of oohs, ahhs.
Eventually Ben takes off for a surf. Then Laurissa, a Canadian girl, takes off too. We watch her for a little while. Brett pulls out his camera and takes a few photos. It’s her first time surfing, but she’s pretty resilient. Wipes out, gets back on. Wipes out, gets back on. Trooper.
Finally, I decide to suit up. I slip the wetsuit on and grab my board. Brett always gives me this board. The magic carpet, he calls it. Apparently it really flies if you surf it right. I am yet to experience this magical ride.
I paddle out to where Ben is waiting for me. We bob up and down on our boards, waiting for the sets to come in. I’m like his little poodle in the water. When Ben paddles left, I paddle left. When he paddles further out, I paddle further out. When he sits, I sit. Then when we’re lined up and a wave is standing up behind us, he nods at me and whispers go, go, go.
That’s what he’s doing right now. Go, go, go. I turn around and paddle furiously. I look behind me. It’s right there, towering above me. Everything Brett has ever taught me runs through my head in a matter of seconds. Four power paddles! Lean on the inside rail! Look down the wave! Chest up! Board flat! Feet out of the water!
In every wave, there’s a split second where you either make it or your don’t. If you were a little too slow, a little too fast, too much angle, not enough angle, leaning too left, leaning too right, the wave leaves you behind. Or swallows you up and dunks you. Either way, you missed it. On this wave, I don’t know what I did wrong. Probably everything. The wave flips me over and slams me underwater before rumbling on without me.
When I come up, I pull my board towards me and climb back on. Next time, I tell myself. I look back and Ben is already up on a wave, zooming along. He swooshes right past me as I paddle back out. It looks like he’s out walking his dog on a Sunday morning. How does he make it look so easy?
That night we all help put together a big feast for dinner. Brett cooks the steaks on the barbecue outside while Laurissa roasts some potatoes and makes up a big bowl of salad. Ben sets the table. Myself and the other Swiss dude on camp with us, I forget his name, we stand around and watch them. Teamwork.
I love dinner at Rapu camps. We always eat good, and we’re always hungry. We sit around the table feasting and in between wave stories the others tell us about life in Canada and Switzerland. And then of course Brett always has a funny story or two to share. After that, I do the dishes with Switzerland, we study some photos with the coaches, and it’s off to bed to recharge. Tomorrow, another early morning surf awaits.
Day 3. I am trying really hard to see what Brett sees. He looks out over the ocean and it’s as if he sees numbers, patterns, a secret code. He explains it to me, the swell, the drift, the period, the break, the peel, and I can see parts of it, but I can never see it as a whole picture. I always wonder, what exactly does he see that I don’t?
This morning’s surf is better than the day before. I get up on a few waves, small ones, before we head in for breakfast. The second session is pretty much a repeat of the day before. I do something wrong. Brett tells me what I did wrong. I go out and do it right, but then I do something else wrong. Brett tells me what else I did wrong. I go out and…yeah, you get the picture. Eventually the sun starts to set. Home time.
That night we all crowd around the laptop and look at more snaps from the day. Brett goes through a few with Laurissa and Mister Switzerland. Then it’s my turn. It goes something like this:
“Alright Brendan’s up. Here we go, he looks good.”
“Brendan mate, where are you supposed to look when you’re paddling in?”
“Down the wave.”
“Where are you looking?”
“At my board.”
“Why are you looking at your board bro! [giggles]. You can’t ride into the wave if you don’t look at where you’re going.”
“Look at what’s happening here. This happens to you on almost every wave eh. This wave is going to flip you right over. I’ve told you how to stop yourself flipping over like that eh, how do you do it?”
“Lean on the inside rail.”
“Are you leaning on the inside rail here?”
“Yeah. So you’re gonna get smoked eh.”
“Boom. Got smoked. That’s happening to you a lot. You picked a good wave too, if you were leaning on the rail you would’ve been in that wave easy mate! Alright next one.”
“Alright I can already tell you’re going to get smoked here. What’s wrong with this wave?”
“Yeah mate. Way too late eh. Let’s take a look at what happens.”
“So it’s just gonna swallow you. But also look at your feet! Get your feet outta the water mate – that’s a real bad habit of yours. It’s like two anchors you’re dragging along. That’s why you struggle to get speed sometimes.”
“Where are you looking? Why are you looking at your board! Look down the wave bro!”
“And boom. So just timing on that one. But still you can see all the things you need to work on in that wave too eh. You’re almost there! Just a few things to fix and you’ll be there.”
And that’s pretty much how it goes for the next hour. At least for my waves. Switzerland got some good ones. Laurissa too. And Ben. But I’m amped for tomorrow now. I can’t wait to lean on the inside rail and get my feet outta the water and look down the wave.
We wake up to a flat ocean the next morning.
“The swell might pick up in the afternoon. Until then, there’s no surf.”
We decide to head out to nearby Mangonui for the morning and bust out the fishing rods. Hopefully we’ll catch a few fresh ones for dinner.
After about an hour we’ve caught 3 pieces of seaweed and an octopus which Ben somehow managed to let go, to the heckling of the small crowd watching. We leave the wharf empty handed. Well, not quite. Brett’s Maori genes give him a sixth sense for shellfish and he stops by the side of the road on the way out.
“Look down there bro, oysters.”
At first I just see rocks, but I look closely and I see them. Oysters. I lick my lips. We both climb down the rocks in the rain and grab a dozen. Fresh oysters right out of the ocean. Does it get any better than that?
On the way back to the house Ben suggests we stop by the nearby waterfall to do some cliff jumping. The surf is still flat, why not? We take a little detour through a few rural backroads until we reach a mini waterfall nestled in a cliff face. The jump is eight, maybe ten metres high.
We all slip into our wetsuits and peek over the edge. Laurissa immediately shakes her head. No way. I’m on the fence, but secretly I know I have to do it. After all the shit I’ve written about facing your fears, there’s no way I can’t jump.
Ben goes first. My heart thumps as we watch him. He breaks into a sprint and launches himself off the edge, arms flailing. 7/10. +1 for style.
I peek over the edge. It’s high. My guts are fluttering. I’m usually not afraid of heights, but usually you’re just looking over the edge. It’s a little different when you’re leaping off. But then I get to that point, where all my nerves are bundled into a little ball, ready to be thrown off the cliff with me. I run. Jump. Whoosh. Holy crap this is high.
We spend the next hour chilling by the waterfall, jumping off some of the smaller cliffs into the river below. But soon it’s time to get moving. Swell is coming in. Time to surf.
That night, after dinner, I catch Laurissa sitting out on the deck gazing at the view. Our house is up on a peak, we can see 90 Mile Beach stretching out into the horizon as far as our eyes will let us. The sunset is an orange blue. No cars. Other than the crash of the ocean, it’s silent. I stand behind her and take it in for a moment. Beautiful. But for me, this is home. I’ve seen this many times before. I leave her there to have her moment, and go to eat something. I check some emails. I take a shower. Read 50 pages. When I walk past the deck two hours later she’s still there, staring into nothing. At first I’m surprised. And then I’m jealous. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t from New Zealand. I wish I was from somewhere else, so I could see New Zealand through their eyes. I wish I could fly to New Zealand from halfway across the world and discover this strange country in the middle of the Pacific. I’m sure it would be the most beautiful place in the world.
We wake up early again on our final day. The surf is booming.
“Just stay next to me,” Ben tells me as we walk out.
“You just need more waves. A hundred more waves and you’re going to have it down. I’ll get you into as many waves as possible.”
I paddle out behind Ben. He paddles faster than me. A lot faster. He has long arms, like Spiderman.
We get out to the spot I was supposed to get to on the first day. It’s easier to get here when you have someone to follow.
Ben and I get into position and sit up on our boards. Almost instantly he looks at me. Go, go, go.
I’m not actually fully awake yet. But I am now. I spin around and paddle. Too slow. That’s alright. That was a warm up.
We spend the next two or three hours surfing Shipwreck Bay’s famous left-hand break. My perfect ride is so close. I can smell it. But every time something is just a tiny bit off. I’m too fast, I’m too slow, something. But it’s motivating. I keep thinking that if I paddle out one more time, I’m going to get it. But then we get the dreaded “one more” signal from Brett. One more wave. Last chance.
Then I see it. I don’t even need Ben to tell me this wave is good. I already know. Go, go, go. I turn around and paddle. In my mind I know, this is the one.
I paddle furiously. Everything I’ve got. As I paddle, I can hear Brett’s voice in my head. Look down the wave! I’m looking. I’m looking down the wave and I don’t even think about looking anywhere else. If you offered me a million dollars, if a thousand beautiful women were dancing naked on the beach, I still wouldn’t dare stop looking down the wave. The wave picks me up and I see myself shooting down the wave face. Wow. That’s what it looks like. Then I hear Brett again. Lean on the inside rail. I lean, just in time, just as the wave tries to flip me over. Brett was right. It really works. Then with every bit of strength left in my arms, I pop myself to my feet. Boom. I’m on it. This is it. This is my awesome ride. This what I’ve been waiting for all week. Zoom. But I only feel it for a second. Maybe less. The wave closes out on me and I drift away in the whitewash.
We ride into shore and drag ourselves up to the van. Ben and Brett strap the boards on the roof while I stand there, gazing out. Who knows when I’ll be back here. Maybe next week. Maybe next year. I say goodbye, and then pile into the van with the rest of them, ready for the long drive back to the big city.
I spend most of the trip silent, chilling in the back. Five days surfing in Ahipara feels like a month. I’m tired, hurting. But I feel energised. Refreshed. Happy. Maybe this is the stoke. Maybe it’s not about catching that one awesome wave. Maybe it’s just about smelling the ocean every morning, eating sunshine for breakfast, laughing, hearing the waves crash from your doorstep every single minute of the day. Maybe it’s about the escape. Maybe it’s about the challenge. Maybe it’s about chasing something, giving everything you’ve got, and not even catching it, yet still wishing you could go out and do it all over again.
Because really, that’s exactly what we always do.
To the ocean,
Want to take a surf camp??
I did my surf camp with Rapu Adventures in Auckland. Rapu is a local New Zealand business run by a few awesome coaches. They’re very particular about finding the best conditions each day, and know all the best surf beaches around Auckland (and will take you there!). I’ve been on many tours with them, and my surfing has improved by a huge amount. I’ll definitely go on many more.
If you’re interested in learning to surf, Rapu is now offering Bren On The Road readers an exclusive reader discount on all surf tours! One and two day tours are available, as well as longer 5 and 7 day tours. Simply use the code BREN10 at checkout or mention “Brendan’s discount” during your phone booking, and you’ll receive a cool 10% discount! If you’re thinking about learning to surf in New Zealand I’d definitely recommend checking them out – they’re one of the few schools accredited by both Surfing NZ and Water Safety NZ, and easily one of the best schools in the country. I’ve got no doubt you’ll have an awesome time.
To book a surf tour simply head to their website.
See you on the water,
Note: This post was not sponsored and I paid for my surf camp in full. The discount partnership has been arranged after being a happy customer of Rapu for several years now. I cannot recommend them highly enough and I’m sure you’ll have an awesome time. In the spirit of disclosure, I do receive a referral fee for anyone who uses the code above. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.