Wave riders

By Danielle Wright

A big wave surfing legend helps Danielle Wright and family take on the small waves at Omaha Beach

A surfing lesson demands every skerrick of a learner's attention - whatever their age. Photo / Supplied
A surfing lesson demands every skerrick of a learner's attention - whatever their age. Photo / Supplied

Sometimes you get lucky. Today was one of those days. It sure wasn't because of the surf report, which had "Flat as a Pancake" scrawled in chalk on a sign as we arrived. It was our surf teacher.

Only in New Zealand can you turn up to a surf lesson and end up being taught by a surfing legend. He's Doug Young, the man famous for being the first surfer on the front cover of the New Zealand Herald, riding a monster wave. He has a big personality to match.

Omaha Beach is home to Doug's surf school after he spent eight years in Christchurch building a successful business, particularly with local schools. Now surfing is part of the NCEA.

"We had to move in the end. It was a hard decision but they kept pumping raw sewage into the waterways," says Doug.

"I grew up there and lost all my memories of the place after the quake. People are different there now. The smallest shake and there's hysterics."

For a big wave rider, where keeping a cool head is everything, living with "neurotic messes", as he calls some of the kids, would be almost as hard to take as the dirty water.

Omaha Beach is not a bad place to end up and almost too beautiful to recommend. Surrounded by two marine reserves - Goat Island and Tawharanui - the water is fresh and, as Doug says: "It's as glassy and clear as Bali. Last week a film crew were shooting an ad here, making out it was an Australian beach."

The surfing doesn't start for an hour because, first, we need to spend time learning about the ocean. Doug teaches us about rips using a clever bit of sand sculpture on the beach. It's not a monster from the deep, you just need to swim to the side until you're out of the flow, he tells us.

"Surfers love rips, we use them to ride out into the waves so we don't have to paddle," he says, always ready with a reasonable explanation to reassure nervous students.

There's a reason he's so scientific about the ocean, as he has a Bachelor's degree in PE from Otago University under his belt (or wetsuit) and a lifetime calculating risks surfing monster waves.

Having grown up opposite a surf beach, I feel a bit of a fraud when asked about surfing history. Unlike the others, I've surfed a lot. As a child, surfing was one of those things I'd do to impress my big brother, Aubin, to try to bond with him, but I never really "caught the bug".

With a 7-year-old son keen on the sport, I've found myself going back to it. It's hard to find a sport the whole family enjoys, especially something we can all do at different skill levels, at any age. For our family, surfing ticks all the boxes, as well as being a good stress-reliever.

"You could be losing your job, then you catch a wave and you don't think of anything else. It's a real distraction," says Doug. "Afterwards, everything becomes clearer. Surfing's a real healer and puts everything into perspective. It's good for a hangover, too."

We do some warm-ups - a quick game of bullrush, in which our 4-year-old daughter is the only one speedy enough to make it through without being tapped, as well as some stretching, such as digging a hole and jumping in and out of it.

Before we take to the waves, Doug gives us one last piece of advice: "If you get dumped, relax, enjoy being down there, you're only going to be under a few seconds so don't panic but make sure you cover your head. When you've got confidence, water is a much safer place."

When I catch a wave, I'm surprised how much I enjoy it. Somehow Doug has changed my perception of the ocean completely. I've finally learned to relax and see where the wave takes me, rather than trying to control it. After years of surfing, I finally understand Aubin's replies to my pleas to go home: "Just one more wave."

I feel lucky, but perhaps not as lucky as Doug, who says: "It's a pretty good lifestyle, to always be surrounded by happy people."

His love of surfing, and of life, is infectious and a good Saturday morning tonic for the whole family.

Surf's up

• Phone 0800 4 SURFING (0800 478 734) or see pacificsurfari.co.nz

• $80 for an all-inclusive two-hour Surfari, $120 for a two-hour one-on-one lesson, $30 for kids lessons (ages 6-13). Doug will be running the school until the end of April, before he goes to Mexico for a couple of months.

• Stop at oob organic on the way home for blueberry sorbet or ice-blocks (oob.co.nz). Don't forget to take some money for the produce stands' honesty boxes dotted between Matakana and Omaha Beach.

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