Anyway, I finally really started learning to surf when I was 28. You’re never too old (or young) to learn how to surf! To give you an idea of how long I’ve been surfing, I’m now… 28. ;-P I have been out once or twice over the years with some mates but don’t count that. I had to get sick of my local friends never wanting to do anything fun to put an ad on Gumtree (in the Community -> Sports section) for “activity partners… strictly no sex or romance, if you’re interested in these please do not apply” (lol) to find fellow adventurers for all sorts of activities – hiking, surfing, diving and the like. And FINALLY found some regular surf partners who didn’t mind taking a beginner out! Especially one awesome dude from Kiama who was actually looking for someone to teach how to surf!
I was trying all summer with no luck. Then suddenly, one day, I got it. Surfing went from impossible to possible in just one session, and it didn’t even take the whole session, it happened straight away. And suddenly I realised everything that had been going wrong before now, and what to do that was right.
It turns out that there are many things that experienced surfers – and even surf teachers – take for granted, that are really important for a newbie surfer who is just learning to surf. These are things they do instinctively, things they weren’t taught and don’t even think about. Or sometimes they are things that they simply wouldn’t think to talk about, and if they did, they wouldn’t say exactly what needs to be said to get the message through to their audience. Sometimes, I think, it’s good to hear from the experiences of all those ahead of you at every stage of the journey!
Anyway, enough gas-bagging, time for the tips!
1) Watch surfing videos on YouTube.
2) Practise the pop-up – at home, before ever heading out.
3) Perfecting the pop-up – start with your hands by your WAIST.
Typically instructors will get you to start with your hands by your “shoulders” (more like upper ribs), like a push-up. Then you arch your back, pelvis to the floor, then jump up, twisting around at the same time (I’ll explain why that’s highlighted soon!). But just try that, then try it with your hands by your waist, and see how much easier it is to pop up with your hands on the board down by your waist. It is a THOUSAND times easier! Ok that might be a slight exaggeration, but it IS a massive difference! You can place your hands anywhere between the lower ribcage and the waist, but the lower, the better.
4) Get a good board.
When choosing a board as a beginner surfer (including a foamie), the general rule is to stick your arm straight up over your head and curl your fingers over the top of the board – that is your minimum board length. But it’s a little more complicated than that… Some boards you have to try out first, because something wasn’t right when they were shaped (especially true for boards that are around ten years old and older, as technology has vastly improved since then). I know the board I bought wasn’t balanced properly – I even got my mates to surf on it to make sure it wasn’t just me being crap! Being a beginner, it’s better to just take an experienced surfer who has heaps of boards with you to buy one. Just make sure, in addition to being long enough, the board has heaps of float – it’s kind of fat in the middle. When standing up, beginners are heavier landers (especially me lol!) and that can slow the board down like putting on brakes in the water.
NOTE: some surf shops have a demo board scheme where you can rent a whole bunch of different kinds of boards and get a feel what suits you best. I'm not in the position to buy a new board just yet (I don't need to - the boards I use are fine!) so I haven't done this... not having my own car doesn't help, either, being at the mercy of whenever my friends want to go out! (And not being experienced enough yet for a little <6 foot short board, it's not worth buying an attachment for my motorbike just now.)
5) Don’t surf in crappy surf – and choose your beach.
So if you see waves suddenly pounding down with great force, you know the sand suddenly rises up at that point. Avoid! And sometimes the conditions (wind direction, which you always want to be offshore, and swell and tides all play a part) are simply making crappy waves. You want something with a bit of force behind it, so you want to surf in the mid-high tide period.
Now, many surfers will tell you to get out in all conditions, because everything improves your surf sense. This is fine advice, but not before you can pop up. Why? Because you’ll learn bad habits. I have some habits that are going to be a pain to unlearn, that might never have been formed if I didn’t go out in certain conditions prematurely. One of the first times I went out with my most regular buddy, there were wild waves and a huge swell. We went straight out the back and I had to fight to get there. There was a time or two I thought “I’m never going to get over this wave, I’m really going to have to go with it… I’ll definitely get smashed if I try to fight it, but I’ll only likely get smashed if I go with it, and maybe I will catch it and not get smashed at all!” What my FRIEND now thinks, however, is that I’m “fearless” and will go out in anything! Not true… I was definitely afraid lol, I just had no choice! (Beginner boards don’t go through waves well or easily.) Anyway, the combination of nose-diving or getting smashed by a crashing wave several times gave me two bad habits that hurt my surfing: pulling back prematurely, and often missing the wave; and instead of paddling, if it looks like it’s coming for you forcefully, just steading yourself with the board and going with it (again, missing the wave if there’s not enough force). These were good survival mechanisms in the big surf I was in and the low level of my surfing experience – but they hurt me now! And now I avoid smaller waves I could have caught, too! (One time after that, in smaller but psycho surf, I was very badly dumped in a way that twisted me at the same time – instead of just rolling with it as normal – and that gave me my first stun/injury, despite having had many years of ocean experience).
What are the kind of conditions you want? Not dumping waves, not wild or messy surf, not big surf; that’s for sure. Rolling/crumbling waves, whitewash that travels towards the shore for a while (to give you a longer ride), and whitewash with a little force behind it (not too gentle), and small waves are PERFECT conditions for newbie surfers. That, and experienced surfers won’t bother going out in those conditions, so you’ve got the whole beach to yourself – you don’t have to worry about getting in anyone’s way, stealing their wave, or accidentally hitting them with your board when you fall off!
I had been surfing several times with friends who’d say “this is terrible surf, you’re doing well really, look around – no one else is catching any waves”, but it didn’t help my confidence, enthusiasm or skill level. Don’t go out in bad surf til you can at least pop up. (I have a feeling – and I might be wrong – but mastering the pop-up might also help with the whole nose-diving in cranky surf thing…)
6) Get yourself a full-length wetsuit, AKA steamer.
Of course, wetsuits have a myriad of other uses… the most important one that I usually think of is sun protection. I hate sunscreen, so only having to sunscreen my face, ears, backs of my hands and maybe tops of my feet is a joy! :-) Also, obviously, the main reason people get a wet suit, is for warmth. Just make sure, when you buy one, you get a proper surf one with a good amount of stretch, especially around the joints. You don’t want it to feel restrictive, especially in your shoulders (to make paddling annoying) or your groin (to make the pop-up more difficult). You definitely don't want a big fat zip up the front, like some diving wetsuits. One with knee-pads is cool too. Mine is over a decade old, bought when I was skinnier, so I know how annoying a wetsuit can be (unless you’re super-strong)! It’s still a great suit though… but it might be time to upgrade soon, maybe not, we’ll see. I do like that rainbow wetsuit I saw once lol… but then again, I don’t think it was surf-specific, I really want to look for extra stretchy panels around the joints these days.
7) Consider buying a full-length grip-pad for your board instead of wax.
8) If everything else is equal, go for a beach with a shower.
9) Develop good habits, but ultimately, trust yourself.
But… developing good habits, as touched on earlier, is vitally important! I was just kind of left to my own devices in the beginning (before my Gumtree buddies arrived on the scene), and I’ve developed a few little annoying things that have become instinctual despite my practising and doing it right on dry land. For example, when I pop up in the surf, often my feet are facing forward, and most commonly, my front foot is forward and my back knee is on the board! Bad me! No knees!!! And something that this has evolved into, is getting up in a few steps, instead of jumping straight to my feet. Obviously I need to do more practise on land and develop a new instinct. But on land, I do it correctly instinctively! So it’s annoying to find myself doing something different in the ocean! I mean, we’re used to our feet facing forward when we walk, so to twist our feet and lower halves of our body while everything else is forward is not natural at first. (Even if you skate-boarded when you were nine, like I did, lol!) So don’t do what I did, and do what I do. Do what I’m TRYING to do, and would like to have done from the start.
10) Get up, quickly, straight away, as many times as possible.
Your wannabe mermaid,
Tiffany :-) x