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Boarding school

A wall of very cold, pea-green water is hurtling towards me. "That wave started out in Newfoundland. It's not stopping for anybody," says Patrick Sweeney. Bobbing about in its path on a surfboard on the first morning of my learn-to-surf week, I was not in a position to argue. Besides, Pat is from that part of Australia where they hit the beach with their Malibu boards straight from the delivery room, so he knows what he's talking about.

He was right, it didn't even slow down, and that was the last I saw of the world for some time. Newfoundland met Cornwall with an explosive intensity worthy of From Here to Eternity. Which is where I felt I'd been despatched. But then surfing is a sport where the learning curve can be as brutally unforgiving as it is exhilarating, and that wave is why I am here.

Cornwall, or Newquay to be precise, is a Mecca for surfers, so if you want to learn how to tell a point break from Keanu Reeves, you're in the right place. Here, even municipal cleaners have bleached ponytails and gaze at the sea with a wistful look. And at West Coast Surfari, the town's principal surfing school, Pat and his partner Glenn Crawley will teach the uninitiated not only how to surf, but also a little of what it means to spend life in thrall to the elements and a piece of fibreglass.

Day one, breakfast: weather-watching for beginners. To catch waves you need to know about winds and the conditions that surfers pray for every night before they go to bed. We also watch the first (of many) videos for inspiration. From the latter, discover that former world champion Kelly Slater walks on water, literally, and have my first surf god to worship.

We collect our boards, which are made of novice-friendly foam as opposed to fibreglass, wetsuits and, to the accompaniment of suitably loud and heavy rock music, head for Watergate Beach. Here, real surfers are basking in the sea like seals, waiting for a wave. We have to suffer the acute embarrassment of trying to emulate them - on the beach.

That surfing is a religion becomes apparent throughout the day the more you pray. The first prayer goes something like this: "Please do not let anyone who looks remotely like Kelly Slater see me trying to paddle my foam board on the sand", which I am doing in preparation for the real thing. The trouble is, all surfers look like Kelly Slater (divine) and, to be honest, paddling for an imaginary wave is really the least of my problems. The second one goes "Please let global warming happen, quickly."

It doesn't of course. But thanks to the pneumatic wetsuit, for a few glorious seconds after striding into the water, you barely feel the cold.

I cannot remember the sea ever looking this big. Waves the size of bungalows come at you from all directions, or snuggle up together, then hit you so hard the Earth moves. Between duckings, I recite Pat and Glenn's instruction like a mantra: find a wave with your name on it (this is a mystic sport); jump on your board; paddle for the beach as though the hounds of hell are after you; then spring lightly to your feet. Simple. Except the waves don't have my name on them, they have Bruce Willis's, and they have no intention of being caught by a novice like me.

After an age of being sucked in, then spat out again, bruised and battered beyond belief, something magical suddenly happens. A wave picks up the board and with what sounds like a tumultuous roar of applause, sends us both racing towards the beach on a bed of foam. It is the most thrilling, awesome experience. After that, there is no looking back.

Day two, breakfast: power of speech in abeyance as every bone in my body cries quietly over boiled egg and Endless Summer II. Although yesterday was a never-ending whirl of white water, most of which was inhaled or swallowed, I know what it feels like to catch a wave. I am a surfer.

What you need

Wetsuits and boards can be hired from numerous shops in Newquay from around Pounds 15 a day. A suit costs from Pounds 79 to buy and boards begin at around Pounds 110 each, up to Pounds 350 and above for a hand-crafted, custom-made board. A full day's tuition at West Coast Surfari costs Pounds 30, including boards, wetsuit, transport, loud rock music and infinite surfing philosophy. A week including B B accommodation costs Pounds 190. Contact Patrick Sweeney or Glenn Crawley, 27 Trebarwith Crescent, Newquay TR7 1DX. Tel: 01637 876083.

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