Surfing safaris
Stand-up surfing coach Peter Cuff on Gnarabup Bay.

'It's lovely when you get the hang of it, Mark." "I can imagine," I thought. "But is that likely to happen anytime soon?"

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I'd just fallen off my board for the third time and getting the hang of stand-up paddle surfing seemed a long way off, even in the placid waters of Gnarabup Bay with barely a ripple to disturb the surface.

As for riding the famous breaks off Prevelly, my teacher, Peter Cuff, would need a heap more time and patience if that were to eventuate.

But then patience (and experience) is what Mr Cuff, a wiry septuagenarian, has in spades. A former physical education teacher in South Africa, he's been stand-up paddle surfing since 1948. And there's me thinking it was a recent phenomenon.

On my daily commute up the west coast, I've watched paddle surfing grow in popularity these past few years. Once it was a novelty to see a surfer with a paddle off Cottesloe; now it's common to see as many as a dozen upright surfers gliding serenely over the Indian Ocean or majestically riding the waves, paddles in hand.

It all seems so straightforward: stand, paddle, enjoy.

I heaved myself on to my board and practised again the kneeling position, which was becoming my position of choice - and which was, to be truthful, very pleasant. Then I raised myself gingerly to an upright position. I gripped on for dear life (back on dry land, my sore knees would tell me how hard I was straining) and realised I'd drifted further out to sea than I'd paddled.

The wind was to blame, of course, and as Mr Cuff explained, the upright body presents a relatively big surface area. "It's something you have to watch out for all the time," he said.

Mr Cuff shares the teaching of stand-up paddle surfing with his daughter, Cinde Fisher. Children can start at around seven or eight, he says, and the sky's the upper age limit. "If you can paddle a canoe, you can paddle one of these," he said.

Well, sort of.

I finally managed a few minutes of standing, though I was by no means confident of maintaining a vertical position. Anybody watching from the White Elephant Cafe would have enjoyed their fair share of free comedy for half an hour.

I told Mr Cuff I found it hard to move my feet once they were planted on the board and he agreed it was difficult - except when riding waves. "When you're moving in a wave, you can run up and down the board," he said.

Right.

Back on dry land and Mr Cuff expounded the benefits of strengthening such as core body exercise, improved balance and general fitness.

"And you're out of the water. You don't get the chill factor all the time as you do with surfing."

I looked at his body. The only evidence that he'd been out at sea was two wet feet.

The next day I tried my hand at conventional surfing - another sport I hadn't experienced in almost 30 years of living in the vicinity of some of the best surfing breaks in the world.

My teacher was former surfing professional Josh Palmateer, who runs the eponymous surf academy at Margaret River and has done so since he quit the pro tour in 1995. He was getting frustrated at not getting above number 45 in the world but surfing was his life, so he decided to teach it.

Though he lost a trailer and its 50 or so (uninsured) boards, a heap of wet suits, 25 of his own boards and a shed full of his fishing gear in the bushfire, another trailer with enough boards to continue his business was spared. Plus he hadn't lost his house, as had some neighbours, or his zest for surfing.

Mr Palmateer was the epitome of an enthusiastic teacher and I could easily see why he'd be good with school kids. "We trick 'em into learning about ocean awareness and safety by letting them have fun while they learn to surf," he explained.

After 15 minutes or so talk on rips, the theory of surfing and its joys, he'd managed to get me almost as pumped up as he was. By the time I'd squeezed into a wetsuit and slapped on the sunscreen, the previous day's less-than-successful stand-up surfing experience was a distant memory.

That it was a glorious day with picture-perfect waves helped.

I pushed my foam Malibu out to the sea, riding over and through the oncoming waves as instructed, turned around when told, jumped on to my knees when ordered, and then (no kidding) climbed on two rather unsteady feet and rode the white water to the shore a few metres.

We whooped, hollered and high-fived like two grommets and a woman sitting on the beach with her family applauded, and then I went out and did it twice more.

Then I fell off ("the more you enjoy wipe-outs, the more you'll love surfing 'cos you'll relax, go to a happy place," he said) and the rest of the session was a mixture of growing confidence and spectacular flops.

It was all good fun and left me bemoaning the fact it had taken me almost three decades to experience the fun and with one burning question: was it too late to ask for a foamie from Santa?


FACT FILE

• Josh Palmateer's Surf Academy: mrsurf.com.au and 9757 3850.
• Stand-up Paddle Surfing: standupsurfing.com.au and 9757 0220.

The West Australian

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