When I first started learning to surf I naturally defaulted to the waves in the middle of Bondi. This, I have to admit, is purely because I have a steady fear of rocks. The further I was from the shoulders of the lazy rollers of North Bondi and the rip-heavy mess of South Bondi the better I felt. I wanted no obstacles, especially not of the full body graze kind.
But there were other benefits to sticking to the middle ground. For one, over the Winter and Spring, hardly any surfers surf the middle waves. Each day I would turn up to find just one or two others flailing about in the white water. And before I really started to understand the waves I just used to look for where the Let’s Go Surfing kids were learning – if it was safe enough for them, I thought, that would do me.
Once I started getting out the back the other major pull that kept me in the middle of Bondi was the fact that I assumed there was no line-up. In my blissful ignorance I just thought it didn’t exist. Line-ups were for the real surfers in the South. With just a handful of us out in the middle water, I assumed that we did what we wanted. And I did. My surfing was only preset to right-handers. That’s not to say I could only surf right-handers, that’s to say I could only surf right – whether the wave was that way inclined or not. In the spirit of full disclosure, I actually just thought that was the way it worked. If you were regular-footed you went right, goofy-footed you went left. In fact, I thought the line-up was akin to apartheid – the goofies in one cluster, the regulars in another. Yep, I was that girl looking at people’s feet.
Humiliation aside, the onset of daylight savings and the onslaught of summer surfers means that the middle of Bondi is no longer line-up-less. It is now rammed with surfers, middle of the day or breaking of the day, Sunday or a Monday. So kicking and screaming I’ve been forced to negotiate the line-up.
As a word, it sounds non-threatening enough. Line-up. You could be in a bank, getting petrol, forming ranks in the gaol cafeteria. It conjures waiting. It appears all democratic and without hierarchy, time being the only measure of when one will be served. But when it comes to surfing it seems Abraham Lincoln knew a thing or two about the Bondi summer line-up when he said, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” Which is to say you can ask any surfer to explain to you the intricacies of the line-up or you can spend some time rifling through the internet but the reality is that every line-up is different and some are decidedly more flexible than others. The only way to learn is to spend a good deal of time in the water keeping an ear out for who gets hauled over the coals, and why. In Bondi, for instance, and I’m sure this is the case at most crowded breaks (with a diverse mix of abilities), there are some days when the line-up appears to be merely a serving suggestion.
But wherever you are in the world there is one steadfast and never-changing rule when it comes to the line-up – and surfer or not we’ve all heard it – DON’T DROP-IN. So if we reduce the line-up to its simplest terms the big question is, “How do I not drop-in?” If you can avoid dropping-in then you basically have the nuts and bolts of the line-up all tied up. Technically, just one surfer should be on each wave and the surfer closest to the crest of the wave, the first part of the wave to break, has right of way. So if you’re surfing a left-hander you need to give way to anyone coming from your right. Likewise, if you’re surfing a right-hander, you need to make sure you are not dropping-in on anyone coming from your left.
Sounds straight forward, right? You get yourself in a position to catch a wave, it’s a left-hander, you want to surf left, you’re looking left, you’re thinking about popping up on your board and then you need to look right and give way to anyone coming your way. Oh, there’s someone there? Pull out. If you don’t pull out, you are blocking that surfer’s path and you guessed it, dropping-in. No wonder surfing takes all your needless daytime worries away. There’s hardly a stinking moment to think about anything else.
But when I first started figuring out the line-up I was that gidget waiting on the edge of the break, all patient and polite, mostly shivering from a whole heap of sitting and not a whole lot of surfing. My feet would go numb, my fingers would prune and my wetsuit tan would get worse. If you wait in Bondi, I can tell you, you’ll never get on a wave.
One consistent rule of the line-up is that you shouldn’t paddle onto every wave. And I believed this to be up there with dropping-in as a serious no-no. I would sit on the outskirts of the line-up, hesitantly wait for no one to paddle and then take my turn on the scrappy leftover wave that no one wanted. Eventually I started to notice that at Bondi everyone paddles onto every wave. It’s a paddle hustle and you need to be very good on the multi-tasking pull-out. And yeah, much like that other method of pulling-out, it involves about the same amount of risk.
I think the most important lesson when you’re learning about the line-up – especially if you trek off to surf somewhere you’ve never been before – is to remember to take the time to watch the waves, the surfers and the line-up before you barrel straight in. At some breaks I’m sure paddling onto every wave would probably get you punched in the face. Or if we go back to my previous analogy, pregnant. Be confident in your surfing ability but also respect your level of ability as a beginner. I’ve realised now that my birthright as an Australian, the well-known fact that we pop out of the womb all ocean-aware and water-ready (true story), has actually been one of the elements that has let me down in the line-up. As soon as I could stand up on my board in the white water I was straight into the rip and out the back. I am a strong swimmer and I am confident in the waves but this does not a surfer make. So after too many sessions of catching too few waves in the line-up I decided to swallow my pride and head in a wave. From this vantage point you can see very clearly the intricacies of the line-up, you start to understand the direction of the waves and most importantly, you can see the smiles or stink-eyes when someone drops in.