Helen van Berkel wipes out more than she hangs 10, but she finally gets up on her surfboard.

Sooner or later, I was going to have to exhale. I knew it. My daughter, literally rolling on the grass laughing, knew it. And so did the bone-tight wetsuit I had managed to force myself into with more elaborate leaps than a contortionist in a Cirque du Soleil performance.

The rubber torture suit squeaked softly as the air left my lungs and my internal organs swelled to take its place.

An overstretched seam under my left armpit let out a pained squeal. But then, the air was out, I was still standing, my strangulation device in one piece. But my soon-to-be-sold-on-TradeMe daughter, slim in her wetsuit, elegant and flexible as all teenagers so blithely are, was still laughing herself into hiccups: "It's inside out!"

And no, said the surfing instructor, I couldn't "just leave it". Finally correctly kitted out and inhaling and exhaling safely, we carried our surfboards, one under each arm, to the prettily curling surf of Tawharanui, just north of Auckland.


I was finally honouring a long-ago promise to take my girl surfing, a promise derailed by weather and assorted commitments until a hot post-New Year's weekend opened up a window of sunshine after days of torrential rain. I was also wondering why I so often put myself through this kind of humiliation.

The 10 of us in the group dutifully lay on our boards on the sand and pretended to swim like we were in water. I didn't feel at all stupid to then leap to a surfing stance, one arm forward, one stretched back for balance - but only because I was too focused on not looking like a beached walrus.

After about 10 minutes of land-surfing we were ready for the swells. Theoretically.
I was immediately grateful for the wetsuit as it formed a snug barrier between me and the chilly water. I velcroed the board's strap around my ankle immediately, otherwise I knew I would immediately lose it.

Grace Jack, 14, took to the Tawharanui surf like she was born with a surfboard beneath her feet. Her mum (Helen Van Berkel), not so much. Photo / Jessica Gee
Grace Jack, 14, took to the Tawharanui surf like she was born with a surfboard beneath her feet. Her mum (Helen Van Berkel), not so much. Photo / Jessica Gee

And more than once over the coming nearly two hours, I was grateful for that little security line.

Even in standing depth, the waves were big enough to surf so, picking my moment,
I clambered aboard like a walrus on to a rock and paddled gently in the waves. I turned my head slightly to pick my wave. And rolled off the board, like a walrus off a rock.

My daughter appeared, her arms pistoning as she prepared to ride her wave. And suddenly she was gone. And suddenly I was gone, too. The wave grabbed us and shot us to shore with astonishing speed. I could hear someone shrieking with laughter and realised it was me.

It was the most exhilarating, hilarious, tumultuous, rollicking, breathless moment of my life. It felt like I'd gone so far that I'd sailed clear across the island to the West Coast. Again! Again!

I wish I could say that before my two hours was up, I was standing on my board balancing like Paige Hareb but with more tummy rolls, but I wasn't.

I wiped out more than I hung 10. But finally, I knew why I put myself through the humiliation. If there is anything more fun than charging to shore at blinding speed
on the crest of an ocean wave, I have yet to find it.

Fact File

O'Neill Surf Academy's two-hour surf lessons at Tawharanui cost $70 for adults, $45 for children and include wetsuit and surfboard. Bookings are essential.

To book:
email: surf@oneillsurfacademy.co.nz
Phone (09) 434 3843
Website: www.oneillsurfacademy.co.nz
Tawharanui is about a two-hour drive from Auckland.