One day, I’ll be like Gerry Lopez. Image via Getty

Jonathan Seidler is an Australian author. This is his column for Esquire.

I AM ALMOST certain that I’m the only person who gets worse at surfing the more they do it. Every time I go out in the water, whether it’s double overhead or mostly flat baby waves, I end up looking like a doofus. Surfing is supposed to be an egalitarian, low stakes form of exercise that’s almost always fun (or so I’m told). The promise contained in the idea of surfing is to become effortlessly cool simply through the act of doing. It’s a bit like walking into a room with drumsticks or a guitar even if you can’t actually play either. People look at you differently when you’re holding a board. You have transcended the realm of the ordinary, non-amphibious folk.  

Yet having had lessons both here and overseas, and with the big blue on my proverbial doorstep, why do I continue to fail at it? Why is being goofy-footed the least of my worries? And why, next to the long-haired, eternally suntanned guys who frequent my local beach break, does it make me feel like I’m the definition of a deficient Australian man?  

Failing at sports is not a new phenomenon for me; I cycled through almost all of them in high school, from the active (basketball; too short) to the mostly sedentary (cricket; no hand-eye coordination) as well as those sports that aren’t really sports unless you’re watching ESPN at a bar after 10pm (bowling, chess, pool). But I had high hopes for surfing. For one, it’s a mostly solo pursuit; there’s nobody to let down but yourself. Secondly, the barrier to entry is pretty low; get a board, learn to stand up, run into the ocean Kelly Slater style.

Much like running, surfing is a workout you can decide to do in the moment, or at the very least, the morning of. You don’t even need shoes, and there aren’t loads of drills like there are with ball sports; to surf is, in essence, to practise surfing. It’s the dream, until it isn’t. 

To be clear, I’m not a total kook. I have the fundamentals of surfing down pat. I know how to read the tide, catch friendly waves that arrive in a timely fashion and not kill anyone in my slipstream (mostly). But that’s on a good day. Most days, I’m floundering around near the shore, getting smashed by shoreys or dumped on by whitewash that takes me hours to get past. I understand this is how it goes with a variable like Mother Nature. You don’t get to choose; even if you check the forecasts, anything could change in an instant. It just seems like when I paddle out, everything that could go wrong does go wrong. Last time I surfed, I spent 45 minutes on the wrong side of a perfect set. The only time I stood up was when I returned to dry land, and that was for approximately three seconds.    

Keanu Reeves, the definition of cool, calm and collected on a board, in 1991 film ‘Point Break’.

Embarrassingly, I can deploy more surfing metaphors than I can catch waves. I once wrote an entire character in a book who used slang like ‘shredding’ and ‘carving’ and ‘party foam’ and ‘left hand breaks’, despite rarely being able to put these words into practice myself. I know all the different terms for surfboards and fin set ups (‘log’, ’gun’, ‘thruster’, ‘two plus one’, you name it), even though my own board is 7’6, looks like a mango Splice, weighs a metric ton and, if I turn left too suddenly when waiting at the traffic lights, will wipe out a small child.  

The prevailing wisdom is that surfing, unlike many physical activities, is age-agnostic. I’ve definitely seen this in action, having been pipped at the post on the lip of a perfect set by seven-year-old girls and 65-year old men alike. They ride fibreglass boards half the size of mine, nudging the nose like they’re somehow bored of being excellent. Meanwhile, I’m swallowing gallons of saltwater, convinced that this is all part of the process and one day I’ll miraculously downsize to a board that doesn’t make me look like I have no idea what I’m doing.  

Since transitioning from boy to man, which, at a conservative estimate, happened about two years ago, I have discovered that pursuing awesomeness is great, but it’s also acceptable to realise that there are some things you will never be awesome at. Surfing, despite what the ads for board shorts, Sex Wax and Jack Johnson songs tell you, is something anyone can do but only certain people can do well. I will likely stay an average-at-best shredder for the rest of my life. But look, I’m already better at it than I was at basketball. That’s enough reason to go get frothy again this weekend.   

Jonathan Seidler is an Australian writer, father and nu-metal apologist. He is the author of a memoir called It’s A Shame About Ray and a novel titled All the Beautiful Things You Love, to be published in April 2024. Jonno has some interesting things to say about music, fatherhood, Aussie culture, mental health, problematic faves and the social gymnastics of group chats. This is his column for Esquire. You can see all of Jonno’s previous columns here.