Water is rushing above my head and the last thing I see, before scrunching my eyes shut against the saltwater, is a row of people holding their boogie boards like riot shields. Rather than being on the wave, as I should be, I’m in the wave, swept up like a piece of debris.
Accidentally, I wiggle the tiny surfboard strapped to my right hand and find myself spinning inelegantly in the water. I haven’t tried surfing for a good 10 years, but I remember this washing machine feeling very well. It’s surreal and seems to go on for an interminably long time. I hope that I’m not going to hit anyone on the head with the surfboard. Or that anyone is going to hit me.
Eventually the wave spits me out. I emerge, spluttering, hair plastered over my face, eyes blinded by seawater and feeling completely disorientated. Some teenage girls on boogie boards laugh at me. “Ha,” I think, “you’ll be trying this next year.” As nonchalantly as I can, I head back out to sea again.
Described by The Extreme Academy at Watergate Bay, as turbo-charged bodyboarding, hand planing is hailed as the next craze. It’s not brand new: I can remember people doing it about 15 years ago, fashioning their hand boards out of wood, but apparently it’s getting trendy across all the world’s hottest surf spots now.
When I was growing up we didn’t have surfboards or boogie boards, so body surfing is what we did. I thought it would be like that, but with more oomph, thanks to the board and fins. And it is: I even find myself catching waves unintentionally. Well maybe not catching, but being swept along by them.
“It’s all about timing,” says Josh, my instructor, who duck dives, seal-like, beneath the incoming waves and emerges a few seconds later, somewhere completely different. “When you are at the base of the wave, kick like mad and paddle with your free arm, Or push yourself off from the bottom. You need to stay in front of the wave.”
The surfboard-enhanced arm is stretched out in front and, if you’re any good, you can use it to steer across the wave. Once you’ve caught the wave, you tuck the free arm in next to your body and head for the beach, streamlined. Like a spear being thrown by the wave.
Hand planing feels like a cardio workout, because you’re always swimming around and you are in the mix with the waves, without a board as a barrier. Not to mention having to hold your breath for ages when you get it wrong.
Lots of adrenalin sports seem to require overcoming a few challenges and facing down some fears before you get the buzz. For me, hand planing was no exception. But for all the seawater I swallowed and the discomfort of having waves breaking on my head, the thrill of riding the wave in to the beach was worth it. There were several happy accidents when I managed to get the timing right and felt myself riding majestically atop the wave, the theme tune to Blur’s Song 2 in my head.
If you have some skill, I’m sure that hand planing is even better, but I liked the fact that even if you’re rubbish, it’s good fun and gets the endorphins going. Afterwards, I walked up the beach with smarting eyes and feeling slightly battle weary, but utterly exhilerated and ebullient.
Two hour lessons in hand planing cost £20 per person at the Extreme Academy.