Learning to surf feels like a pretty levelling experience, doesn’t it?
For most, it involves a well-pissed-in surf school wettie, a mostly waterlogged foamie and the waving arms of a cock-shore instructor from the Home Counties.
However, if you’re in the upper echelons of the world’s super-rich, there are places that provide entry into the sport of kings complete with all mollycoddling and elite indulgences you’re used to.
For a window into some of the specific absurdities that accompany surfing for the 1%, we sat down with a guy who’s just returned from a two-year stint teaching our fine pastime in some of the world’s most luxurious resorts.
The guide, who we’ll call Tom, grew up in a bustling Aussie surf town, following the well-worn route through the local boardrider comps and into the pro juniors, until a series of injuries saw him seeking new modes of employment as he entered his twenties.
What could be better, he figured, than holing up in tropical paradise, earning a couple of hundred bucks an hour pushing rich kids into bath-water warm peelers, with ample time for free surfs in between?
The reality was a little different.
The thing that surprised Tom most upon arrival was that, despite having pumping tropical waves in his direct line of sight, (morning, noon and night,) he almost never got to just paddle out for a free surf.
At one resort, although the waves broke just across a small lagoon, easily paddle-able at high and walkable at low, staff and guests were banned from heading straight out from their villas.
Instead, all of their surfing had to be conducted through organised boat trips.
“You’d usually go out on two trips a day, surfing with the guests, but the rest of the time, even if it’s pumping, you can’t go out,” Tom explained. As a result, you spend more time watching longingly as perfect waves reel off from across the lagoon than you do actually surfing them.
“Especially at last light and in the early morning,” he continues. “Because a lot of the people who stay in these places are hard-working business people on their holidays who don’t want to get up till 11, so first thing no ones out there and its pumping.”
“If I wanted to take a private trip, I’d have to pay about a day’s wages for the two-minute boat ride.”
With some companies, there are also strict rules about how much surfing you can actually do while you’re out with the guests.
“They used to say, if a bomb comes through, don’t go, because it makes them look bad. If your client’s caught 4 waves, you haven’t caught any, if they’ve caught eight then you can catch one when they’re paddling back out.”
Doesn’t sound quite sound like the unrestrained communion with nature we all signed up for does it?
One of the more luxurious resorts Tom worked at was just a short flight from the Middle East and was the destination of choice for various Arab royal families and oil barons, who would pitch up and rent out the entire resort.
“They’d arrive in their private jets, with no credit cards, just bucket loads of cash and shit loads of luggage. One lot brought so much stuff for the trip it took four lorries to bring it to the camp.”
“You’d know when they were there,” he explains, “because suddenly there would be loads of security; like five-year-old kids being followed by ten guards. Or, if it was just an adults trip rather than a family one, you’d walk down the beach and there would be 50 of the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen in your life.”
Tom would never see the Sheikhs or princes themselves out wandering on the white sands or paddling in the sea, as leaving their villa compounds was deemed too much of a security risk. So, for the weeks they were there, he’d have to try and sell his surf lessons to the harem of escorts they’d brought with them instead.
“Once one of the dive boys went into the villa for a lesson and they were having a full sex party,” says Tom. Apparently, the instructor ended up taking the class in the pool, where the guest and his escorts all insisted on being naked, but for the required breathing gear.
“The escorts were usually pretty interested in surf lessons because they’re bored,” Tom explains. “They’d usually say ‘ok let me check if I can spend the money,’ because they were given a set budget that they could spend on food, but anything else they had to ask permission.”
On one occasion, when an entire extended royal family descended on the resort, Tom was assigned the task of teaching a dozen heirs to the Arab world how to become little shredders. However, like their elders, it was deemed too dangerous for them to actually get in the sea, even if it was dead flat, which according to Tom, it usually was.
“So we’d have all the kids in the pool on foamies, 20 meters away from the ocean,” he says. “And they’d want do an hour every single day and they’re there for two weeks. So you’re there with all these princes and all these security guards around you and about ten nannies per kid, the Sheika and her private butlers. After the second or third hour- you think well there’s only so many times you can practice a pop-up or turtle roll, so by the end we were just playing hot potato in the pool in front of all these people.”
At the end of each day, Tom would present a bill for several grand to the Sheika and she’d scribble her name without even looking. “On the first day I showed it to her and she said: “Why did you write the number on there? Don’t ever show me this again, I’ll just sign it.”
“By the end of the week, the Sheika was convinced the kids were smashing surfing, even though they hadn’t even been in the sea,” he recounts. In fact, they were so pleased with Tom and his girlfriend’s tuition, they decided they were moving them back to their home nation, where the pair would, of course, have to marry, before becoming the family’s personal surf coaches.
“At first I was like ‘don’t we get a say in this?’ But then I thought ‘hey we could be in here, the prince wants to pay for our wedding.’ Luckily, they left and it just fizzled out.”
In Fiji, Tom worked at a resort more geared up for lovers of luxury with a vague interest in surfing than die-hard surfers.
“Basically, if you know anything about surfing, you’d stay on Tavarua and Nemoto,” he explained, “whereas our resort catered to those who wanted the best of the best in terms of luxury.”
“So with that being said, most of the guests who did surf, hadn’t surfed since their last holiday there. And some people had only ever surfed on holidays with the company I worked for.”
As a result, the clients were used to a level of service and guidance that seems baffling to the everyday surfer. Tom’s morning routine consisted of getting the guest’s boards ready, waxing them up, packing their lunch and making sure they had ice-cold water and pressed towels waiting for them when they got out. “I didn’t suncream them,” he adds. “but I did have to make sure they had suncream on.”
Once out in the lineup, his role intensified.
“For a lot of the guys it’s a case of pushing them into every wave, then paddling them back out again to the peak.”
“Stuff that seems absolutely bizarre to us, but they expect it from you. So you’re out there, and they’re like, ‘hey Tom, where do I sit?’ And you say ‘sit right next to me.’ And then you tell them, ‘we’re looking for these sorts of waves, and you say here one comes, and then you say ‘start paddling!’ Then you give them a push without them realising it, and as soon as they’ve caught the wave, you have to be on the next one. So I always prayed it was a good one! And then you give them feedback and take them back out.
A lot of the guys haven’t paddled for a year, so they’re like ‘oh I can’t get back out’ so you say alright grab my leash so then you’re paddling a 15 stone guy back through the channel. Then the current’s pulling him down, so you’re paddling him back up the point.”
“That was about 70% of the guests,” says Tom. The rest of the time is total learners, which usually involved towing five people around in the currents and trying to get them to stand up on a little bit of knee-deep whitewash without landing on the live coral.
However, very occasionally, he’d get a competent surfer.
“They’d say; ‘I don’t really care, the father in law is paying the bill, I’ll come out every day, but I don’t want any coaching.”
“So you’d take the guy out and not see him the whole session, because you’re just surfing and he’s surfing, you’re getting barrelled, he’s getting barrelled. And that’s when you’re like yes, you’re paying me to go surfing and it’s pumping!”
While Tom was out in Fiji, rumours were flying around that Google co-founder Larry Page and his research scientist wife Lucinda Southworth had just bought an island nearby. As it turns out Lucinda is super into surfing and on glassy days on Namouto, their giant superyacht would turn up in the channel.
“Back then they had two there,” explains Tom. “One called the Dragonfly which used to be the fastest and most economical superyacht in the world. And then one called Senses, which they’ve recently sold.”
As mega-yachts go, ‘Senses’ is about as opulent as they come. “They had a helicopter on it, six tenders, a sailboat, 8 jet skis,” he recounts. “Basically every single toy you could think of.”
According to Tom, you’d know when Lucinda was about to arrive in the lineup, as the helicopter would launch off the yacht, along with two jet skis. “She’d have three surf guides with her in the lineup,” he says. “There’s the main one in the water like me, sat next to her, pushing her into waves. And then there’s another one out the back on the jetski and another one at the end of the point. So she’d get pushed in, picked up by the jetski and then dropped off back onto the peak.”
It turns out an almost paddle-free surf experience is highly conducive to rapid-improvement. “She progressed so much,” Tom continues, “when she first started she was on a longboard and by the end of my time there she was surfing three-foot days at cloud break on a shortboard.”
We often hear of the plight of gig economy workers, carting urbanites around in the back of their Prius’ or confined to sweaty warehouses as they toil for online shopping giants, unable to stop for a piss break. And as it turns out, the same is true for at least some of the service people fulfilling the whims of the rich and famous (minus the piss break bit).
During his time at all the resorts, Tom and the other instructors worked on an entirely freelance basis, meaning if they didn’t sell enough lessons to the guests, they could end up owing the resort money at the end of the month. “There’s surf company commission, surfboard rental, tax and then little things they mess you over with, like training- although I never received any,” explains Tom of his outgoings. “All that stuff adds up, so you have to make a couple grand before you’d make anything.”
While sales acumen is rewarded, a lot of your success comes down to the luck of the draw.
“Most of the guests don’t prebook holidays. If it looks nice in the Maldives, they’re going to the Maldives, if it looks like it’s going to rain for the whole week, they’ll cancel it. And you might have a really busy resort, but if it’s windy as shit for the week, you can’t go surfing.”
“I know someone who had to pay the resort four grand on two consecutive months,” says Tom. “But on a good month you could make five figures,” he concedes.