Dancing on waves

It's mid-November and a sharp westerly is slicing through the carpark at East Wittering beach, carrying the rain with it.

Dancing on waves Behind our car, my 14-year-old son Rafe and I are standing on a square of sodden towel in our boxers, pulling on our wetsuits. The public lavatory might have offered shelter but it's padlocked shut for the winter. "Remind me why we are here," I ask Rafe. "We're living the dream, Dad," he answers wryly.

Surfing on the English south coast is not what you'd call an Aloha experience. The waves are flat in summer and only really pick up with the autumn and winter swells. But then, on the right day, they can be quite something, barrelling in off the Channel in shoulder-high sets, their peaks wind-blurred and their curving faces dark. And if you're there on that day, lying out on your board, it can happen. You see the wave rolling in towards you – your wave – just a shining mound of water at first, but hollowing fast, and you start to paddle shorewards with your arms. And then there's the moment when you feel the momentum of the wave take over, driving you forward so that the nose of your board is clear of the face and racing over the trough below. At which point you swing yourself to your feet and you're flying, the hiss of the unfurling wave beneath your board.

That's the dream: glassy sets rolling steadily in, delivering wave after surfable wave. The reality is more often scrappy, irregular sets. Sea the colour of concrete. Hard wind and rain. The forecast today was for 3ft waves from noon, and there are a few of these, but not many. But we've made the three-hour trip from north London, and the photographer's setting up his kit, so Rafe and I paddle out to see what we can find.

We are wearing 5mm wetsuits, hoods, gloves and boots. Some hard-core surfers disdain hoods, or "twat-caps" as they call them, but there's a lot to be said for not having an icy flush of seawater down your back every couple of minutes, or ending the afternoon with an "ice-cream" headache.

Seeing a set coming in we turn round on our boards. I'm on a 9ft 6in longboard borrowed from Nick Cheshire's Wittering Surf Shop; Rafe's on my eight-footer. The smaller the wave, the longer the board you need. "Come on, Dad!" shouts Rafe, starting to paddle, and we go for it.

I started surfing about five years ago. When I was younger, a lot younger, I trained at the Rambert School of Ballet and became a professional dancer. I retired at 30 and have been mourning the physical life ever since. I remember the intensity of performance, the feeling of being fine-tuned, alive in every fibre. It all came to an end in 1983, on stage at Covent Garden, in the opera Faust. Lifting my partner high overhead while running down an angled slope, I'd felt an excruciating jolt of pain in my back. I'd ruptured a disc, lumbar five, and it never really got better.

I did the round of NHS specialists, and tried acupuncture, physiotherapy, osteopathy and the rest, but was finally forced to accept that the machine was broken, permanently. I was just going to have to live with it.

I started to swim and to run. The swimming made me feel better, the running worse. I talked an orthopaedic specialist at the local hospital into putting me down for a CT-scan, and when she looked at the result she gave me the first constructive piece of information I'd received in a decade and a half. Due to the nature of the herniation, she told me, any rounding of my back would force the lumbar disc outwards, worsening the condition, but arching would push it back into place. So if I wanted relief from the pain, I should try some form of exercise that involved sustained arching of the back.

I'd tried surfing before, during my dancing years, in Australia. I'd made friends with a bunch of guys in Cottesloe, near Perth, who divided their time between the beach and the bar. They drank hard and surfed harder, snapping across the head-high waves on 6ft shortboards like their heroes Cheyne Horan and Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew. Offered a go, but having no idea what I was doing, I'd been wiped out again and again in the punchy Cottesloe surf, until finally, thrashed into submission, I'd given up. Twenty-five years later, and by now with three sporty children, I happened on an advertisement for a surf weekend in Newquay. The rates, for accommodation and lessons, were minimal. Baz and Rafe were keen. We watched Endless Summer and Big Wednesday to get ourselves in the mood. Off we went.

It was early April, and cold. The night we arrived, there was a stag-party group staying at the hostel. Nice enough people, but noisy, and certainly not interested in sleeping. The following morning saw a dozen of us shivering on the beach. As a snow-flurry whipped about us, we pulled on sodden Dettol-smelling wetsuits, and I noted that mine had a long rip in the armpit. The stag-party group was determined to keep things going. One guy was wearing a pink curly wig, another a bra stuffed with socks, a third was throwing up among the rocks. Endless Summer this wasn't.

It was a low moment. I was 52 years old and felt every minute of it. Apart from my back and the lack of sleep, I had a fractured toe. Getting that foot into its neoprene boot was no picnic, but finally we hit the sea. It was brutally cold and the wetsuit leaked badly. After 10 minutes, though, I stopped caring about my numbed extremities and started to enjoy the sheer madness of what we were doing. From time to time either Baz or Rafe would make it on to his feet for a few wobbly seconds. Yelping with excitement, the guy in the bra managed a full 10 seconds' ride, and we all cheered.

The instructors were encouraging, but I was finding board-riding hard going. When I tried to stand up, my brain would send the message, but my body wouldn't take the call. We went out for three successive mornings and by the last lesson the boys were riding waves all the way into the beach. Not me, though. I was falling off the back of the board, nose-diving, somersaulting, swallowing seawater. My toe had swelled to twice its usual size and I had somehow developed a condition called Surfer's Rib, which caused a stabbing pain when I breathed.

On the plus side, the boys had had a great time. Here was something which, if I persisted, we could have a lot of fun with. And my back, for the first time in years, felt great. All that arching, all that Sphinx-like pushing-up, had done it a world of good. Surfing, if I could crack it, might just be a way to fill the gap in my life that dancing had left.

Back in London, I brought a back-stretching device and corresponded with Roy Earnest, a Californian who had produced a film called Surfing for Life about older West Coast board-riders, and he gave me specialist exercises to work on. I studied YouTube, watching and rewatching clips of longboard surfers such as Beau Young and Robert "Wingnut" Weaver. I swam, lifted weights and took yoga classes. It was hard, the old duel of pain and gain, and I'd often wake with every muscle screaming. But as an ex-dancer I knew the difference between good pain and bad, and this was OK. This felt like home.

That Christmas we went to Florida, to hook up with my wife's family. We stayed at Cocoa Beach, birthplace of Kelly Slater, the world champion surfer, and the boys and I hired boards from Ron Jon's surf shop. The sea was warm and the waves small, but late one afternoon some decent sets began to come in. Lying out I let the first few waves go, and then went for a good one. The moment came, my mind emptied and I was up, racing along the wave-face, the board alive beneath my feet. As every surfer will tell you, it's a moment you never forget.

In Wittering, Rafe and I catch a few and fall off a few more, and then the waves flatten out and we goof around in the mush, striking poses for the photographer. But it's not just the rides that make the day worthwhile. Lying out on our boards beneath a grey midwinter sky, rising and falling with the swell, talking of everything and nothing, all this is part of it, too.

According to Nick Cheshire, the sport is becoming increasingly multi-generational. "Most of my customers are in the 20-50 age-range," he says. "Parents come in with their kids, and everyone learns together." There are the health benefits – nothing leaves you quite as wiped out as a long winter session – and surfing's equalising: it's hard, but the challenges are the same for everyone. And he's right; every child should see his or her parents catapulted into ice-cold water at least once. Carrying our boards up the shingle, Rafe and I hit the Drift-In café for tea and pancakes. We are, after all, living the dream.

Wittering Surf Shop, 13 Shore Road (01243 672 292; witteringsurfshop.com)

Luke Jennings is the Observer's dance correspondent

Cold play: The world of sub-zero surfing

"We've done five trips to Iceland now," says Tim Nunn, "and never slept in anything but a tent – or, in Ian's case, a bivvy bag." Tim and fellow UK surfer Ian Battrick are at the forefront of a new wave in surf travel. They are looking to destinations in the search for empty perfection. With the aid of modern wetsuit technology, these pioneers are journeying to the planet's frozen fringes and finding new backdrops where classic point breaks peel in splendid isolation. The empty beaches of Alaska, the boulder points of Nova Scotia, the frozen sands of Norway and the lava reefs of Iceland are the new playgrounds.

For Nunn and Battrick, the search for the perfect ride means braving temperatures that routinely drop below freezing. "In Canada, we were dropped off on an island where we camped and surfed for two weeks," says Tim. "It was a wilderness adventure beyond all others. There was even a bear that would come in and raid our camp while we were in the water." Of all the cold-water destinations they have visited, Iceland has been the most remarkable. "It keeps sucking you back," Tim explains. "You could be there and the tide and the wind are just right and something special happens. Last time we were there was during the recent volcanic eruption, which was spectacular." Chris Nelson

Arctic Surfers offers guided tours to Iceland's waves (arcticsurfers.is).
Chris Nelson is author of Cold Water Souls (Footprint, £24.99). For a 30% discount, go to footprinttravelguides.com and enter the code "observer"

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Luke Jennings, for The Observer on Sunday 26th December 2010 00.05 Europe/London

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