The Early Bird Catches the Wave
'Morning, Markus.' No response. Again, a little louder: 'Morning, Markus.' Still nothing. Then, at the top of my voice: 'GOOD MORNING, MARKUS.'
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'Okay, man, I'm coming, I'm coming.' Two minutes later the front door opened and there stood Markus, bleary-eyed and unshaven, holding a tray with three cups of coffee. Surfers are used to early mornings, and Markus was adamant that he had been awake for at least half an hour before I arrived. 'Yeah, I was getting your boards ready. Where the hell is Tony?'
It was 6.45am and I was the only student for this morning's surfing lesson. Tony was to be my instructor, and we were due to leave for Playa Encuentro, the Dominican Republic's 'surfer's paradise', at 7.00am - early enough not to miss the best surfing conditions of the day: energy-conserving conditions where the wind is light and the sun is still low in the sky. Later on the trade winds set in and the north coast becomes the realm of surfers with sails and kites; but at the crack of dawn the waves belong to people like Markus and Tony.
My instructor showed up at a little before 7.00am, by which time his coffee had gone cold. Like Markus, he was bleary-eyed and unshaven, which, I was starting to think, was all part of 'the look'. The length of his hair and the bagginess of his shorts also inspired confidence that, when it came to riding waves, Tony knew what he was talking about. Slipping into journalistic mode, I begun to test his knowledge with a few questions. 'Are we here to do an interview or surf,' he said rather abruptly before I had had time to scribble down more than half a page of notes. 'Surf, of course. But I just thought -'
'Good. Then let's go.'
Markus is the man in charge and Tony one of the instructors at Take Off, a Cabarete-based surf school which places the emphasis on personal instruction and development. Even if there is a group of eight people (the maximum number), every lesson involves at least 10 minutes of one-to-one tuition, and the number of students who manage to stand up on the board and ride some waves during their first lesson is testament to the efficacy of such a teaching method.
Arriving at Encuentro, we unloaded the truck and began to wax our boards. All the while I kept an eye on the small figures bobbing up and down on the waves some way from the shore. There is something quite special about Playa Encuentro in the early morning when the surfers are out. Whether you are an expert or a curious beginner, by paddling out through the surf and on-coming waves to wait in deeper water for the 'big one' which will carry you back to shore, you become part of a special community - a family almost - and although most of your fellow surfers are strangers, they could just as well be your best friends. Indeed, the unique thing about surfing in the Dominican Republic is the atmosphere or, to use Markus' words 'the friendly vibe'. And so it was that, after preparing our equipment and a brief lesson on the sand, Tony and I paddled out to join the handful of other surfers who were sitting on their boards waiting for waves.
Before leaving the shore, Tony had explained that the first lesson was more trial by error: he would tell me the basics, but then I had to get on with it myself. 'Stay close to me, watch me, then copy me,' was his parting advice. Achieving the first two of these requirements was relatively straightforward; however, copying him as he managed to stand up and ride what were not much more than ripples over the surface of the ocean was somewhat more challenging. The secret is to catch the wave at the highest point of its break and get up on the board as you feel yourself slipping down on the surf. Spotting the right wave to go for is, of course, part of the game and something which comes with experience. When all was said and done, I had managed to stagger to my feet and surf for about a second-and-a-half on two separate occasions, which I thought was a good show until I realized that Tony's sympathetic smile at the end of the session was his way of wishing me better luck next time. Personally, I couldn't wait.