Tasmania might not be front of mind for those thinking about learning how to surf, but it should be. It has a robust local surf scene and is home to numerous breaks with plenty of space for all levels of surfing – including adult novices like me.
Learning to surf in Hobart
With 48 hours to burn in Hobart, I decide my husband and I can fit in a morning surf lesson at Clifton Beach, which is our Coastrider classroom and one of Hobart’s most popular surf spots.
The beach is 25km southeast of Hobart on a southerly facing ribbon of land that looks out to Storm Bay. The other side is a lagoon. In between are gorgeous modern homes and cosy beach cottages.
Anyone who has learned to surf as an adult can tell you that it’s intimidating, not least of all because surfing can seem like a members-only club with its own jargon, rules, look and attitude. Awkward noobs like us in ill-fitting wet suits can easily feel out of place.
First, there’s the physical stuff – my 30-something body doesn’t snap back after a wipe out as easily as the bendy, fearless bodies of that pack of kids learning to surf down the beach.
No matter how many push-ups I do in anticipation of the pop-ups, my arms burn after an hour of exercising muscles that haven’t been used much for more than a decade. During our lesson, I realise that surfing is largely done from the waist up.
It’s also obvious that we’re giving off dozens of silent signals that alert locals to our novice status. My ego is hell-bent on not looking stupid, telling me I should instead just read a book on the beach. It’s hard to look stupid doing that but I ignore the voice and carry through with the lesson.
It becomes clear – mercifully quickly – that no one is watching me except for Jono, the instructor, who has been paid specifically to watch me surf, down the beach in the ocean equivalent of the shallow end of the pool, away from the line-up of locals.
This Saturday morning there are four of us learning to surf – a local dad and his young son along with my husband and I. Lucky for us the beach is wide open, even with two dozen or so locals bobbing up and down in the water on their boards. The air is brisk but the sun is warm. Jono offers us booties and hoods.
We decline and wriggle into wet suits in the car park before smearing a thick layer of Invisible Zinc onto our exposed skin. We tuck our boards under our arms and head to sand, taking in the grassy bluff that rises to the right.
A pack of girls jog into the surf and I shiver just looking at them. The water in Tasmania can be icy and it is. The average water temperature this month is a brisk 12 degrees Celsius.
Jono drives a pole with the Coastrider flag attached to it into the sand. It serves as a warning to the locals that there are amateurs about and provides us amateurs with a focal point to keep from drifting towards the rocks. Jono talks us through flash rips, safety and surfer etiquette.
After we wade into the water, and the shock from the cold wears off, we slither onto our boards, belly down, and paddle out, peering at the small ripples on the water’s surface in the distance.
Those will eventually become waves we attempt to ride. But first Jono teaches us a brilliant trick.
We tread water with our legs while sitting astride our boards, noses pointing up slightly as we hold on. I can suddenly whip my board around in mere seconds. And the mystery of how surfers get into position instantly is a mystery no more.
Jono is a brilliant instructor, set on getting us up on our boards and on teaching us how to properly surf – the latter not always a given with a lesson.
Go to any touristy surf spot and you’ll see students on boards the size of mattresses – giving them the chance to tick surfing off their bucket list without really learning any technique.
We whirl around in circles for a few more moments and Jono talks to us about timing and getting up on the board.
Timing a wave is tricky
Then there’s nothing left to do but surf.
Timing a wave is tricky, deceptively so. Newbies often pop-up early, with the nose of the board still pointed down, causing him or her to, in surfer speak, go over the falls – tumbling head first into the water. It’s not pretty and best avoided. But it’s bound to happen at least a couple times while you’re learning. One time is enough to teach me the virtues of timing and the clearing effect of salt water on the sinuses.
The pros make it look effortless. I paddle and attempt to catch a couple of waves. No joy. I’m not paddling hard enough, even though my arms burn from exertion. I swivel around and paddle again to head back to Jono and the gang, arms still on fire.
I’m able to catch the next couple of waves thanks to Jono’s helping hand on the tail of my board. I don’t quite get to my footing and abort to the right before sliding back on the board to paddle back out again. Filled with a burst of motivation, I decide there’s no way I’m going to float around in this freezing ocean for more than an hour and not stand up on my board.
Within a few minutes of waiting and watching, I spy a series of waves in the distance and pick one that looks just right (not too big, not too small), deciding to catch it.
I start paddling, looking back to time myself. Paddling as hard as I can as the wave lifts me, I spring up and feel the board’s tail just start to drop and the peak starts to near the front of my board. Miraculously, I’m on my feet!
It’s exhilarating; although I’m sure the sight of a slightly wobbling woman surfing in a straight line on a tiny wave, arms flung wide a la Gidget, is unexceptional to onlookers. But it doesn’t matter how I appear, I feel like a bad-ass on that board. I am – in a surf-appropriate word – stoked.
I start to get a feel for waves and paddle without Jono’s turbo boost to the tail of my board. After an hour, no matter how hard I paddle, my board seems to be moving at a snail’s pace and my arms feel like noodles. Fortunately, our lesson is up in five minutes anyway. It feels like an achievement to have made it through the full lesson.
I imagine myself surfing to shore in a final blaze of (mild) glory but instead I contentedly paddle a bit and coast until I can touch the bottom and hop off my board, guiding it to the beach.
We carry our boards to the van and peel off our wet suits. We hop around under a cold shower before bundling up in our warm gear. Then we exchange goodbyes and thank yous with Jono before driving away for a hard-earned lunch of oysters and beer at Barilla Bay.
It is a morning that leaves me with a new-found desire to find a way to continue surfing, ill-fitting wet suits, wipe outs and all.
Where to surf in Hobart
1-Howrah Beach gets low swells that locals say are good short waves for beginners, protected by Howrah Point. It’s the closest surf spot to Hobart city center at just a 13-minute drive, sitting just inside the mouth of the Derwent River north of Storm Bay.
2-Eaglehawk Neck is a popular surfing beach (1.8km long) that spans the isthmus connecting the Tasman Peninsula and the Forester Peninsula, one hour southeast of Hobart.
3-Between Clifton Beach and Eaglehawk Neck is Park Beach in Dodges Ferry with a good beach break that’s accessible to all levels. It’s a 45-minute drive from Hobart.
4-Cloudy Bay on Bruny Island has consistent (if slightly bigger) beach breaks with great views. Access Bruny Island via the ferry at Kettering.