Travel Story Rips and history all in a day’s lessons at a Bali surf academy

It turns out that being a surf instructor is a whole lot of fun, but also a whole lot of hard work.

Leaning on a bar in the sweltering noon heat of Bali, Dean Gough has the casual clothes and straggly long hair of a laid-back surfer but the focus and no-nonsense attitude of a teacher. 

He’s trying to catch some of his pupils off guard, rapidly firing questions in all directions.

“What are the warning signs that there’s a rip tide,” he asks, pointing at a sunburnt young Australian man. 

With a drawl that would make a Narrogin farmer proud, the student explains he’d look for a section of darker-coloured water, ripples on the ocean’s surface in a patch of otherwise smooth water, and a lower number of breaking waves in the area.

Dean is pleased. The sleepy-looking student may not have appeared to be paying attention but he clearly was. Soon after, the Australian confidently and correctly answers another question. 

Apart from a young German woman whose memory fails her when quizzed on the history of surfing, Dean’s pupils are sharp.

So they should be, he tells me, as once they graduate from this surf instructor academy they will be holding lives in their hands. 

Dean is an International Surfing Association examiner working with Solid Surf House, Bali’s leading centre for providing teaching and accreditation for budding surf instructors.

There are dozens of surf schools all over this Indonesian island and many of their teachers have graduated from academies such as this. Solid Surf House’s academy attracts students from all over the world who come to forge careers as surf instructors.

On the day I visited the academy I met pupils from the US, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Ireland. Some told me they hoped to live and work in Bali as a surf instructor after graduating, describing this as a “dream” lifestyle.

Others spoke of plans to move back to their home countries to work at a surf school or even start their own surf instruction business.

All of them raved about the experience of learning to become a surf instructor in Bali. Solid Surf House operational manager Sjors van Leeuwen (pictured at top), a surfer from the Netherlands, said it had tried to create a resort-style atmosphere at its academy.

After finishing their lessons for the day, the students could relax by swimming in the pools at both the Solid Surf House headquarters and a second accommodation unit. He said most of its students lived on site in shared bedrooms within these two buildings, both of which were near Canggu’s renowned surf sports.

They were in the process of enlarging both buildings, as well as expanding business to Sri Lanka and the Netherlands. 

Solid Surf House already has a surfing school in Taghazout Bay in Morocco, which is where the company started its journey eight years ago before opening the Canggu branch in 2014.

The Canggu facility was its first surf instructor academy. Sjors said budding surf instructors could choose between eight-week and 12-week courses. 

As part of this program they completed not just the International Surfing Association surf instructor course but also the Surf Life Saving lifeguarding course.

Their tutelage was split between theory lessons at the headquarters and practical on the beach and in the surf. To prepare for the physicality of their new career, students were given strength training sessions and yoga classes. 

After all of that they emerged from Solid Surf House ready to mould novice surfers.

It’s a serious job, as Dean emphasises to his students. He tells them being a surf instructor is not just about having fun in the waves, or being proficient at explaining surfing techniques. 

“A good instructor is also a health and safety officer, a motivator, an analyst, a psychologist and an historian,” he says. 

“It’s a whole lot of fun but also a whole lot of hard work.”

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