My impulse to surf with strangers from the internet was a social experiment gone very right

·5-min read

I learned to surf in California, and continued to develop after moving to Hawaii. By the time I left, moving back to Sydney during Covid, I could still pull off a sweet wave, even where the big boys surfed. At least on a good day. Surfing makes me feel powerful, connected and happy.

Starting life again in Australia – a place so familiar, yet so foreign – was really hard. I found myself a boyfriend who gave me a sweet longboard for my birthday, but then we broke up. I was a mess: lonely, lost, stressed and sad. I tried to enrol friends who surfed to come out with me, but everyone was too busy with their robust lives of children and work. I tried to make friends on the beach, but surfers can be surprisingly solemn. I tried going alone and I found it too intimidating.

So one night I posted an ad on Gumtree: “Wanted: Patient surf buddy from Maroubra to Bombo who is fun and nice.” That ad would become my welcome mat, the best way into and out of lockdown.

I got a few replies – all men and mostly hitting on me. Then there was Rodney Raice, no photo, keen to surf but with zero experience. The note was pleasant and unthreatening and didn’t lead with “your hot” (sic).

I cross-checked Rodney on Facebook: he looked like a nice guy, and kind of like a sea otter, so I reached out. Rodney had a busy schedule as one of the prime caretakers of his elderly father in the west, and his aunty in Coogee. He was also a massive fan of Gumtree, it turned out. It’s where he’d gotten himself an old board a few months back, but until my ad, he’d never used it.

Rodney suggested we enrol a grommet to the gang, to help us navigate our bad-arse surfer dreams. A grommet is young surfer; and the ones about to graduate into the official role of just plain “surfer” are the sweet spot of skill and enthusiasm. Enter Sam, 21. He’s from Bondi and has been surfing since he was six. He looks kind of like a shark.

The grommet turned out to be an important component. When it comes to water we Australians need someone fearless to take us places where perhaps we shouldn’t be.

The first time we met up it was at my favourite spot – South Maroubra. North Maroubra has its own gang, and the Eastern Beaches are hectic.

I immediately liked them. They are two of the most positive, open and friendly guys I have met in ages. It felt exhilarating to have set this up, and there was an air of jolly between us.

The waves were big that day, and Sam led the charge. Rodney struggled, but he kept his smile and pushed himself well beyond a beginner level. Sam had the skills, without any air of arrogance, and fed us both great tips.

Rodney said he replied to the ad because he had always wanted to surf. Then Sam joined because Rodney said he’d met a chick on Gumtree who wanted to start a surf gang. Sam was like, “sweet!”

My impulse to surf with strangers from the internet was affirmed by the camaraderie we started to form. When restrictions started to tighten, the Gumtree Surf Gang became a saviour for a stressful time, a social experiment gone very right. Each time we’d choose a Sydney beach, and after the surf we’d go grab a coffee and talk about life, acting, dying, adventures in water and Rodney’s new Gumtree finds.

I’d never surfed Bronte. And when we did, it was as gnarly as I had imagined. That moment you know you’re on the wrong side of that massive wave breaking, that sends you into pummel? Where you know what is coming – the next, and the next? All you must do is not panic, hold your breath, and repeat as you inch toward the safety of shore. Sam is 20 years younger than Rodney and me, and it really helps motivate our fitness to act like we’re the same age. That’s probably why after my Bronte wipeout, we trudged up to Tamarama to get hairy again, on a massive swell of a day. I’ll meet you out there, I said. I just need to vomit a little, I didn’t say.

Surfing makes me feel amazing. When you catch a wave and you are towering over that beautiful aqua water, cruising along 16ft above ground, I’d say it’s the best free buzz you can get. When I leave the ocean after a few good waves with my gang I feel exhilarated, liberated.

Before our 10km got sliced into five, and our group exercise was deemed illegal, our sessions were the best part of my week. It was one of the things I missed most through these recent, trying times. Certainly my mental health suffered.

But now, we’re back at it again.

The formation of Gumtree Surf Gang has inspired me to be the change I want to see in Sydney. There’s this thing out in the surf sometimes – when it’s mostly dudes and they’re all really good, and sometimes some kids and a few women – where we’re meant to be doing something fun, but actually everyone looks like they are about to perform heart-surgery.

So when I’m out there, I make eye contact and small talk. I smile at everyone. I say hello. I hoot and holler, praising the beginners who catch a good wave. And now I’m doing the same on the street. Eye contact. How you goings.

As long as your resting face is smile, membership to our gang is open. We don’t even request a tattoo (though you can get one if you want to). Your only hazing is wiping out, and being able to laugh it off.

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