Deciding to surf, realizing the commitment it takes and finding a good first board.
Perhaps the best advice I ever received as a grommet on the beach with regarding to surfing was, “Don’t do it.”
Looking back on that day, well over a decade of surfing, with dozens of broken boards, enough sunburns to scare some doctors and sick days that weren’t actually “sick days”, the sport eventually took over my life. Leading me to a lifestyle completely wrapped around the next wave. That crusty old man on the sand had an invaluable point of view, I was just too naive to understand the power of surfing.
Through these years, I’ve learned a few things and would love to pass those life (surf) lessons on. I will explain, so that you don’t have the same misunderstanding I did.
Deciding to surf and buying your first surfboard is a major deal, almost matrimonial. It could change your life and if you manage to catch your first wave for real, it will in some way do exactly that. Getting the proper training and buying the correct surfboard for your short term and long term surfing goals is crucial to this decision. The learning curve of surfing is like that of no other sport I have ever tried. The punishment to reward factor is strenuous and harsh. Many beginners give up without ever catching a single wave! Not one. I have purchased hundreds of “used” boards that have only seen the water once. It’s actually kinda sad when that happens, like watching a child’s favorite Christmas present not live up to the hype of what they thought it was gonna be. I have pushed thousands of people into waves for their ‘Surf Experience.’ Waves they would never catch by their own might.
When it comes to surfing for real, the decision is just that: REAL.
There are no shortcuts and there are no magic carpets.
The point of this article is to break down and explain how to succeed through proper surf education, good training, appropriate equipment and smart decision making. So, before you paddle down the path, we have outlined some information to help your decision and set you up for success.
- Be Realistic.
Learning to surf for real is harder than it looks. It is the sport of Kings and is considered to be one of the toughest activities to achieve. It has the longest learning curve of any board sport out there. Your athleticism, age and dedication are the major factors in determining that curve. Time, weather conditions, proximity to an appropriate surf beach and cost are other things to consider. It is not the kind of sport you can “enjoy” during a weekend or two each year. It takes hard work, consistency, the dedication of a madman, and a ton of wipeouts even to pick up the most basic of basics.
When I started to surf, there were two styles of surfing: cruising and shredding. That basically meant you chose a longboard or a shortboard. Now there are many different styles of wave riding and many different styles of boards. Younger and more acrobatic body types tend to be more successful at the shredding styles, while others types are most likely going to be cruisers, like me. However they all come from the same basic set of skills.
At OneWaveSurf we teach these fundamentals as a pillar to any style of surfing. We find that even if your end goal is shredding, it is best to start as a cruiser. Babies have to learn how to crawl, then stand, then walk, all before they learn to run. Consider yourself a baby surf grommet. With few exceptions, learning these skill on a medium or large size board is more appropriate and effective. It may seem more cumbersome in the water, and in many ways it is, but it is easier to learn the fundamentals on these types of boards. A very popular beginner mistake is to go too short, too soon. This mistake can cost not only tears of frustration but missed time having fun in the ocean.
It’s true that your surfboard is probably the largest single purchase involved with surfing, however it is small in comparison to the big picture.
Travelling to and from the beach aint free. Time not being “productive”, equates to time not earning a living, then comes falling asleep mid-day, then comes calling in sick for waves. Then the extremist who gives up the grind all together.
Your wheels are gonna get ya as well. Wear and tear on your car, ocean air, extra car washes, that sand accumulates, toll roads, parking fees, parking tickets. Who’s got time to pay the parking meter when the surf is just that good. Carpooling with pals is great but then how many more heads you wanna bring to the beach.
Always better to try before you buy with an experienced surfer. Gain the knowledge that have taken others years to gather.
Fins, leash, board bag, wax, repair kits, board racks, wetsuit, surf clothes, changing mat, sunscreen, hat, towels, coffee cup, extra toothbrush, soap & deodorant. These things add up, usually more than your board. And there is always something coming out soon that you will want. Just how it goes.
As a beginner you will bang it up and even as a pro, you will still get dings. Period. If you don’t take care of those gauges and gashes, then your board will stop floating you properly and you will be having to get a new board prematurely. Take care of your stuff, respect your board, it’s the tool that can bring you so much happiness. So why not keep it happy?
As a beginner you will get banged up. Period.
At some point you will start taking vacations for waves, then you will take all your vacations for waves. Then you will travel for waves and that will be the end of you going anywhere without an ocean.
Maybe, you will want to add into this list; the attitude of your significant other. The love of your life, should probably love what you love, or else you will have some problems, specifically on the vacations, time and money issues.
A proper board
Some other words of advice from that old salty dog on the sand, “dump that piece of junk and spend your last coin on a real stick. It is worth every penny”. By the time you are an intermediate surfer you will need at least 3 boards in your quiver. One for small waves and mess around days, another for the typical good wave day at your favorite beach, and a gun,mini-gun step up, or also known as a rhino chaser for the rare big day and/or aggressive challenging wave.
- Starting from Scratch
If you are not sure exactly what starting from scratch entails, it means literally you are starting with nothing.
Surfing is not for everyone. I will never be a gymnast. Period. If you know deep down that surfing is not for you, “Don’t do it.”
I tried ballroom dancing for a period and found it was not for me. If you find out that surfing is not for you, there is no shame in giving up after you have really given it a shot. I still really enjoy watching ballroom dancers to this day.
If you are ready to learn to surf for real then you are starting from scratch. Ground zero.
Understand that just because you have a surfboard doesn’t mean you are not going to swim. The closest I have been to dying while surfing was from a snapped leash in heavy surf, nearly drowned. When you get to the beach, look out from the shore. Make sure you are comfortable swimming triple the distance of ocean between which you see surfers from the shore. If that is not possible, time to swim laps at the local pool.
Surfing is heavily relied upon your upper body and core. If you can’t do a pushup you are gonna have a very difficult time. You should get in shape before you get in the water. Then get in proper surf shape.
Spend time in the water without a board. Feel the power of the ocean. Dive under waves and jump over them. Become an excellent body surfer, It’s fun. Maybe you haven’t even done it since you were a kid. Be comfortable holding your breath and diving deep.
When you get out there with a surfboard for your first time, do not expect to dazzle anyone. Expect nothing. Nothing is good. On your first day most surfers will not even know you are there. If they do, you’re doing something wrong.
Small goals are the core of your beginner surf training and they lead to small successes which are part of any surf beginner progress and morale. Most beginners think a good goal for their first day in the water is to catch a wave, when it should be something like paddling 10 times in good form, or better yet, not getting hit in the head with one’s own board.
Making progress along the learning curve comes in baby steps, always. There can even be days you feel you are falling backward. But overall small steps forward are better than staying still, and if you are out there trying, you can even learn from mistakes.
Please take a real lesson. At least one. Don’t go out there clueless. Checking in with a good instructor along the learning curve is a great idea, especially as you make larger jumps because it is far more difficult to unlearn poor form and bad habits than it is to get you going in the proper direction from each surf milestone. Also, when it comes to board choices you instructor often knows best as he/she has seen your strong and weak points firsthand. If you call your instructor ahead of time I bet you can even talk him/her into trying a couple boards during your next lesson.
Know the difference between a good instructor and poor one based on what you have read so far and your short term goals.
Keep in mind that friends, especially significant others, are often the worst teachers for a multitude of reasons and there can be emotional baggage associated with a solid wipeout. I have seen several happy couples go in the opposite direction because of a bad surf tutorial. You have been warned.
Surfing is a flow with the fourth element. When you are skating a ramp, or snowboarding the half pipe or simply riding down the street on your bike, the playing field is static. Not with surfing. The ocean is constantly moving and morphing. While waves can be similar, they are not identical, meaning you have to hone your skills on a constantly changing enviroment.
One last thing: Surfing is a selfish sport. From the moment you start surfing for real, you are “taking” waves. Like snowflakes, that wave will never be back. All your dedication, your practice, your time and your energy is spent to put you in the best possible position to “take” the next wave. That means from day one, no other surfer really wants you out there because you mean one less wave for the pack and one less opportunity for “the best wave ever.” This takes some ego, courage and understanding to wrap your head around. Just like the physical and technical learning curves of surfing, the psyche of surfing has an extended curve to it. Really understanding it can take a lifetime, or longer, but in essence it boils down to one word: Stoke.
When you are stoked, nothing else matters.
- Finding the appropriate board for you.
There is no “magic” surfboard. Get it out of your head now and open your mind to a board “appropriate” for you, the waves you will be riding and your goals. Short term goals.
Questions to ask now:
How will it float me?
How will it paddle?
How will I be able to manage it?
How will it help me learn fundamentals?
How much room is there for progress after I get the fundamentals down?
As a surf instructor, I try to size my beginners with as much volume as they can handle, just short of being too much for them to manage. The very first technical skill set that I teach is how to manage your surfboard properly in and out of the water. Then comes paddle form and board control basics. I find it easier to learn proper form utilizing as much board as possible. This makes a possible scaling down in the future less challenging as it simply equated to less board to work with, while the body is already trained.
Most people come to my workshop thinking about the length of a surfboard as the determining factor of an appropriate board. What they should be concerned with is: Overall Volume. Surfboard volume is a factor of 3 proportions
Length = Paddle surface = How well the board can glide
Width = Straddle surface = Side to side stability
Thickness = Grip surface = Floatability throughout the board
Thus any board volume is measured by Length x Width x Thickness. Most countries nowadays label their surfboards in a numerical term of liters for overall volume as well. Very very very generally speaking, the standard surfboard measurements are:
Shortboard – 6’0feet x 20.5 inches x 2.5 inches
Longboard – 9’0feet x 22inches x 2.75inches
On a properly sized beginner board, a student should be able to sit balanced on his or her surfboard on a calm ocean surface within a few hours of attempting this skill. When determining this blindly, I base it on the size, athleticism and balance skills of the student. I often remind students that each proportion also has alternative effects on the board. This can be either beneficial or inhibitory depending on choices. The more overall volume you have the more difficult it is to manage overall. So people who tell me they have a hard time managing a board should take one a little bit on the overall smaller side for them, even though fundamentals might not come as easily.
Otherwise, more length for someone who is unusually tall, less for someone who is shorter. More width for someone struggling with balance, less for someone very well balanced. More thickness for someone heavier, less for someone lighter.
The next thing a beginner surfboard buyer should be concerned about is the template of the board. While most variations to tail, rails, nose, and rocker are not going to affect the beginner’s learning curve, a radical variation could.
In the end it comes down to this: Get a board that floats you and floats you well.
Once you learn the fundamentals you may be onto another style of riding all together and need another style board. A compromise rarely works. It is better to get a big one and then scale down in size as an intermediate surfer. This is way easier than it is to start on a surfboard way too small, the most common beginner board choice error.
Further, a board with as much volume as you can handle often becomes your go to small wave surfboard board in your quiver. Why? Because big surfboards catch small waves easier, are super fun in small conditions and there are always surf days when it is small. That means if you get a big volume board and take care of it, you can always keep it around for small days. If for some reason you can’t keep the big volume board around any longer, you can always put it back into the universe one way or another.
So, while this article may or may not pertain to everyone, there is a lot experience in these words. However, you are the only one with freedom of choice over your surfing life and you can listen to or ignore any advice you wish. I hope I have done better than the crusty old dude I met back in the day. I am certainly happy I didn’t listen to his advice.
December 20th, 2014