When I was growing up, I went through a stage of becoming almost obsessed with surfing and the lifestyle that went with it. I doodled surfboards and designs on my notebooks at school, I visited my nearest surf clothing shop and filled my wardrobe with O’Neill, O’Shea, and Roxy (thanks Mum.) I got into yoga. I fell in love with VW beetles and shortly afterwards, VW Campervans.
And yet I had never tried surfing. I came close – picking up a leaflet advertising the O’Neill surf academy which I looked at repeatedly with grand ideas and dreams. But that was as far as that went.
Bodyboarding is probably as close as I had come at that stage. With a children’s foam board illustrated with bright tropical fish I embraced the waves at Perranporth in Cornwall – but failed to keep up with my brother beside me.
So last year, when my boyfriend suggested a camping trip to Cornwall, I realised this was my chance to finally get on that board.
We decided to go to Perranporth, a place we had both been before as children, and filled the car with one huge tent, camping utensils, clothes, and one mammoth bag of wetsuits, body boards (because at least that’s something I could do) and towels.
We hit the surf on one of our very first days in Cornwall, finding a school right on the beach and signing ourselves up for an afternoon of lessons.
For anyone who hasn’t been surfing before or taken part in watersports at all, one word of advice -be prepared to perform an intense workout just trying to get your wetsuit on. It’s not easy. Especially when your wetsuit is a thick winter one.
At the start of every surf lesson, your instructor will begin with some basics – beach safety, flag warnings, currents and riptides to be aware of. They will draw diagrams in the sand (if there’s no diagrams in the sand, forget it) and tell you how to fall off your board safely. A lot of people think this part is boring but actually, it’s fascinating. Every beach is different and I’ve since learnt that to go surfing you really need to be aware of and respect your surroundings.
So, as a beginner, the next step was to learn how to pop – basically how to jump up onto your board. Sounds easy? No WAY.
We all tried to pop – I think my boyfriend might have managed it (he’d been before). Honestly, getting your feet positioned right, and far enough up the board is hard. So, after numerous amusing but frustrating efforts, we were taught how to go from lying down and paddling, to kneeling, to standing. A three-stage technique which really works as a beginner and is something you can just speed up as you get more competent.
On the sand, this is when you really begin to feel like a surfer (even if you haven’t yet got your toes wet). You find out if you’re a goofy or regular – depending on which foot you put forward first. I instinctively put my left foot at the front of the board making me goofy (and proud!!)
My main aim of this afternoon was to get in the water and catch one wave – just one.
Slightly terrified of freezing, we eventually headed into the water for an hour of actual surfing.
I went for a lot of waves, I swallowed a lot of sea water, I almost got whacked with my surfboard numerous times, BUT I did catch that wave. And not just one either. Before long, I was riding my way back to shore, enjoying the thrill of harnessing the incredible power of the sea and feeling proud that I’d gone from newbie to goofy in one afternoon.
But, it was hard. So, what does no-one tell you beforehand?
1. It’s SO hard working out which is a good wave and which is a bad wave. Having been surfing a few times now, I’ve learnt that no-one has the perfect recipe for this. It’s all experience and instinct. But when you’re starting out, it’s difficult to remember that and frustrating when you go for waves which die out, or miss waves which were incredible. You’ll get there.
2. When you first learn to surf, you do not ‘pop’. Instead, get ready for an embarrassing display of laying on your board, catching the wave, pushing yourself awkwardly to your knees and then trying not to wobble too much as you attempt to stand up. Don’t worry. Everyone does this. And everyone falls off.
3. Surfing is tiring and your feet suffer more than you realise. As a beginner, part of the struggle is also to work out your positioning on the board when you jump onto it. In Cornwall, we were taught to hook our toes over the end of the board to root yourself there. Having had lessons since, I’ve been taught not to do that but to lightly touch my toes on the end as a point of reference. This is probably why in Cornwall, I came away from the water with severely bruised and sore toes.
4. Learning at a busy beach can be stressful when there are so many other water users out there with you. I remember catching a wave at one point and jumping off my board terrified that I was about to go straight over the head of a bodyboarder. It’s okay, I wasn’t going to, but you do feel so incredibly close to other water users that, as a beginner, with little to no control of the board, it’s hard to feel comfortable with that. But that’s okay – that’s what your instructor is there for. Let them spot your path, help you catch a wave and you’ll be cruising into the shore with no human bumps on the way…
But it’s not all hard work.
Here’s what people do tell you, which you only actually believe once you’ve been surfing for yourself:
1. Catching a wave is an INCREDIBLE experience. You see your opportunity, paddle for it, and…you’ve caught it. Standing up on that board and riding the wave as it roars towards the shore is exhilarating. Especially as a beginner when you it feels like you’ve missed hundreds of waves before you manage to catch one.
2. “It’s like the mafia. Once you’re in – you’re in. There’s no getting out.” Kelly Slater
Surfing is addictive and once you’ve managed to stand up and ride a wave, you will want to catch so many more waves and never leave the water!
3. There is a real community around surfing and you can be a part of it. When I stood up on my board for the first time, I heard cheering from all around me and as I looked up, I saw one instructor fist pump the air in celebration. When I jumped off the board and turned back to my boyfriend, he was standing there cheering, along with my own instructor. There was such a team spirit and this doesn’t disappear when you leave the surf lessons. In surf shops, staff always seem to be attentive, chatty and ready to give advice and encouragement. I recently visited O’Neill in Brighton and spent about 20 minutes in the changing room trying to decide between two outfits for my holiday. In the end, I had the one female member of staff in there with me like we were best mates, giving me advice and chatting excitedly about my upcoming holiday. I have NEVER had that in a high street fashion retailer and nor would I usually be comfortable with it. But there, it felt totally normal. Of course there are always exceptions but I think the relaxed attitude that is so often associated with surfing is more a norm than an exception when you meet other water users.
4. If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. You might be awkward when you try to stand up. You might not catch many waves. But the best surfer out there is the one having the most fun. Everyone starts somewhere and whether you’re a beginner or a pro, if you’re having fun, you’re doing just fine.
Having waited over 20 years to try surfing, I was not disappointed. And I’ve definitely caught the bug.