So I'm gonna surf. What do I need to know?
June 20, 2011 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I want to take up surfing. I live by the sea (for the first time in my life) and I used to skateboard as a teenager, so it seems a good choice of hobby for a fat woman approaching the mid-life crisis and wanting both fun and exercise. What do I need to know? Can I just get a cheap 2ndhand board and a massive wetsuit and go for it? Or should I take lessons? What sort of board should a starter surfer get? Tell me all about the fun of riding the waves...
posted by handee to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I just got in the water and went for it. I borrowed a friend's board. However, if you have a place to take a lesson or even a group lesson, I'd do that, if you can afford it. I finally got around to it and it was great to get some more info on what breaks are best during what tides, etc.

I discovered that one of the hardest parts for this heavy woman in her late thirties :) is getting up on the board in any reasonable length of time. Around here anyway, you have to get up sort of quickly (compared to when I was in Hawaii, where you could catch a wave practically like a bus and then take a good 10 seconds to work yourself up onto your feet if you wanted.) Bicycling and swimming made getting up much easier, which made surfing exponentially more fun, which is saying something, because it's very fun in any case, even if you're just on your knees or belly on the board.

Also, there is surfing and then there's surfing. When I tell people I surf they're imagining Mavericks, when really I'm happiest with 3-4 ft waves.

If you have a women-surfer-friendly beach, that makes things nice, too. It's a very different vibe.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:51 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

The fact that you are overweight might be a problem. It might not. If you can't pop up, I would lose weight, build upper body strength, and practice popping on dry land. Also if you have problems popping up it might be a good idea to start with boogie boarding. Boogie boarding is so much fun. Surfing is more athletic than boogie boarding so it might not be what you're looking for.

It seems that the foam longboards are what the beginners and surf camps use. The foam boards are less expensive. I think it would be wise to definitely start out with a longboard, since it's easier to catch a wave on a longboard. I am not a surfer but have lived in a beach town my entire life and somewhat familiar with surfing, so take my advice with a grain of salt. The good thing about lessons is that they provide the boards.
posted by Fairchild at 2:51 PM on June 20, 2011

Take lessons or if you have a buddy to teach you for free do that.
Find a place with softboards for lessons if you can, the technology exists, may as well use it.
Wetsuits ... well that depends on how cold it is.
posted by captaincrouton at 2:51 PM on June 20, 2011

I would think being a confident swimmer would be a good first start, for when you wipe out.
posted by titanium_geek at 2:53 PM on June 20, 2011

Another place you could start would be stand up paddle boarding which has super stable giant boards and doesn't require as much has the upper body strength to pop up at first as you're already standing.
posted by captaincrouton at 3:02 PM on June 20, 2011

Ok, I'm not in any great shape. I am definitely overweight. I have very little upper body strength. I swim well but am not a "strong" swimmer. I still have a great time on my board. Do NOT wait until you're in great, or even good, shape to start, or you'll never start. If you love it the way I did, you will become inspired to get in better shape to make it more fun, but even if you don't, it's still fun. I definitely recommend a long board (or, I got something slightly shorter that people tell me is a "fun board." It's 8'4" and very floaty Talk to the board shop people for advice unless they're dicks, which they can be if you're middle aged and overweight and female. Bastards.) I intensely dislike the foam boards I've been on- I can't control them AT ALL and would have gotten frustrated if I'd started out with them, but most lessons use them.

You don't have to be a great swimmer. If you're fat, you're bouyant already, PLUS your wetsuit adds boyancy (and weight and awkwardness) and anyway you'll be leashed to a big, floaty life preserver (aka surfboard.) Don't swim out past your strength, and keep an eye on your entry point so you don't discover a current has knocked you down the beach two miles.

I want to stress that you should not be put off by anyone telling you how athletic it is. Like bicycling, it's athletic as you decide to make it. Pick small wave days. If you have a break that's shallow enough (and sandy enough) to take off from standing instead of floating on the board, that's even more fun.

It will be more fun if you can find someone to go with you the first few times (and even after that). If you have no friends that surf, post on craigslist or something, explaining your situation.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:16 PM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Around here anyway, paddle boarding is expensive and they are hard to rent. Unless you have a big 'ol car, they're hard to transport, too. They also (I believe) require a lot more upper body strength. I have also heard people complaining of butt bruising, since when you fall you tend to fall on your butt on the board, which is less pleasant than falling in the water. I haven't tried it, but I don't see too many people starting out with the paddleboard- they usually get into it later.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:19 PM on June 20, 2011

What do I need to know?

1) When you fall and get thrashed, and the wave is over you, spinning you around like you're inside a washing machine DO NOT FIGHT IT. You can not win. All fighting it will do is make you panic when you realize the wave is stronger than you are and use up all your oxygen. Go limp, relax, and let the wave do what it will with you. When it passes you will be able to surface.

2) Call it quits when you get tired. You don't want to be stuck in the inside and suddenly realize your arms are jello. This just happened to a friend of mine on the LAST day of a month long surf trip we took to Costa Rica. He wanted to catch one more wave, fell... leash broke... and he realized he was a lot more tired than he thought he was. Got hit by a couple waves, arms gave out, didn't get back to the surface after one and took on water. It was a bad scene.

3) Your leash WILL break eventually.

4) Paddling out is going to really, really suck at first. Like, the first week or two, even if you're in shape to start out with. You're going to be using muscles you're not used to using. Eventually you will be strong enough to do it, but not if you don't try your hardest every session.

5) When you do get all the way out (after you've mastered getting up in the white water! Don't just go all the way out and start trying to ride six footers), stop and rest. Don't be tempted to try to catch the first wave you can. When you do decide to catch a wave don't try to catch the first wave in a set. When you fall, which you will, you will then get nailed by the subsequent waves in the set. If you try to catch the last wave in a set and fall getting back out will be much easier.

6) Ask around what the best time to go out is. It makes a huge difference, both in how hard the paddle is and what the waves are like.

7) Don't let any of this scare you away from trying, it's an amazingly fun and challenging sport. But respect the strength of the ocean.
posted by nathancaswell at 3:36 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

What nathancaswell said. Also, when I'm tired and can NOT seem to get out past the waves and things are generally just getting frustrating, go sit on the beach, have some water, have a snack, and watch the other surfers for awhile. You'll learn things and if you're like me, you'll discover (for instance) that the place you were trying to paddle out is the one place that's impassable and every other surfer has figured out to go 5 yards to the left, or whatever. Once it's not fun, take a break. ok, maybe this is just me, but when I want to learn something, I often try to muscle through the frustrating parts and sometimes that's not the most efficient approach.

I catch whatever wave seems like a good one. The waves I ride are small enough that if the rest of the set hits me I will still be okay.

When you fall off your board, cover your head with your arms so your board's fin doesn't do any damage when it inevitably lands on your head. And yes, just go with the tumble of the wave. You'll have cleaner sinuses for it :)
posted by small_ruminant at 3:41 PM on June 20, 2011

handee: "Can I just get a cheap 2ndhand board and a massive wetsuit and go for it"

I don't surf, but I've lived around the beach most of my life and know a lot of surfers. Regardless of what you decide, for safety reasons please take the time to learn general surfing etiquette and any customs specific to your area. Do that, and I'm sure lots of other surfers will be happy to help you out.

And have a GREAT time!
posted by Room 641-A at 3:55 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd definitely recommend taking lessons, just a couple of hours really, to save yourself the trouble of figuring out some of the basic things (or at least have a long chat with someone who's familiar with the location). Such as how to get through the white water with the least discomfort when leaving the shore, where to catch the wave and how, what you'll need to watch out for in the location you choose (currents, tides, underwater topography, optimal take off zones and weather conditions, other people etc.) and how to choose your equipment. The basics include learning to recognize some things you'll want to avoid (such as waves closing out near the shore) and how to deal with stuff like getting wiped out. It's nicer if someone explains them to you beforehand, as trial & error may involve swallowing a pint or two of seawater and other unpleasant experiences. The ocean can be incredibly powerful.

Surfing etiquette is important. Surfers in busy spots usually have rules for who's next to take the wave which you should definitely learn (the person closest tot the curl), who should yield, how to communicate directions. Wave hogs get yelled at, some people may even be assholes or get territorial when they notice you're new, and depending on the location it can be a bit of a boyzone (while the stand up paddling scene where I'm at is mostly girls and women, although very few seem to be into waveriding). Don't let that get to you. Oh, and let people know before the first time you head out and when to expect you back.
posted by sively at 3:58 PM on June 20, 2011

Couple more I just thought of:

8) Each time you fail to catch a wave think to yourself "was I too shallow or deep?" You're too deep if the wave is passing under you, you're too shallow if the wave is already broken by the time it reaches you or if it breaks on top of you. Adjust accordingly. Sounds obvious, but it's easy to forget in the thick of it.

9) In my opinion it's better to be too deep than too shallow. The hardest you're going to get thrashed is if a wave breaks right on top of you. If you're six feet too deep it's no big deal, there will be another.

10) When you're trying to catch the wave keep paddling for longer than you think you need to. You shouldn't stop paddling until the wave is physically lifting you up. A lot of time beginners stop paddling way to soon.

11) When the wave starts to catch you and you feel yourself rising, don't forget to place your palms on the board and steady it. You'll feel the wave catch you and you'll start to accelerate. Steady the board and then try to pop up in one smooth motion. A lot of times people forget this step because they try to get up as soon as they feel the wave catch. Without steadying the board for a second it'll start to wobble and you'll fall as soon as you stand.
posted by nathancaswell at 3:58 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely get the longboard to make it easier to sit it and to get up. And get a lesson if you can.

I had a surf lesson and one morning of surfing back in college and while there's lots to learn, the single most valuable thing for me was just the technique of how to pop up - what to do with your arms and how to draw up your leg and where to plant your foot and then how to pop up and place the other foot. I was surprised that I was able to get up so quickly. I couldn't stay up very long but while I was up it was absolute magic. You can't predict how amazing that weightlessness feels. It's like nothing else.

I too moved to the beach and after all these years and an extra 35 lbs. I thought I'd give it another go. They told me to get a longboard but I didn't want to. It's not what I used back in the day and it was just sooo huge. I didn't want to cart that thing around and wanted to be more nimble. So I had read about "funshape" boards that are shaped more like a longboard but are sized in between longboards and the prototypical hot dog cool guy surfboards we envision. So that seemed like the thing. Well I guess surf shop owners know what they're talking about after all. Because it wasn't like I remember. What I noticed was that it was harder to sit the board than I remember, to sit there and wait for waves without wobbling and tipping over. I think I'm just too much bigger and heavier now and really needed more buoyancy. I don't know how fat is fat when you say fat, but I'm 6 feet and when I tried this I was maybe 220. So maybe the best advice is to let the surf shop guy advise you.

Also be aware that you can rent a board from most shops. You might start watching the surf forecast for a weekend that looks promising and then go pick it up on a Friday evening and have it at the ready to go out first thing Saturday morning. You can just experiment with paddling and catching waves laying down and then rest and then go back out later and the next day. I'm just saying before you buy even a used one that could become a really big useless piece of clutter at your place if you don't take to it, try a weekend or two of renting to see what you think first. [Wait, OK I see you're in Wales - don't know how surf shops are there but I assume you can hire a board].

Also go out on the surf sites and blogs and watch the lesson videos on youtube. There's a lot you can learn from your couch. None of it will substitute for getting out there, but there is still a good bit of info to get you primed.
posted by Askr at 5:27 PM on June 20, 2011

As a beginner surfer I will second the call to just go for it and try it and don't be shy. It is super fun even when you are just riding the breaking waves lying down or on your knees, never mind standing up or turning or anything, which is about all I could manage my first couple of times out.

I did take a lesson and found that it was very helpful for teaching me how to balance myself on the board (where to lie) and how to get the timing of the strokes right (when to swim and when to try to stand).

It would probably be wise to check with local surfers for a good beach for beginners. Some places are great for beginning surfers, some are great for advanced surfers, and some will be very dangerous due to rip currents and stuff, and you want to make sure you don't end up in the wrong place.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:28 PM on June 20, 2011

I took one morning of lessons, and at the end of it I feel like I could have just kept practising for a few days and got the hang of it. But I wouldn't have known where to start without that one lesson. I feel like it was good value.
posted by lollusc at 5:28 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

For safety, take a few lessons.
posted by theora55 at 6:41 PM on June 20, 2011

Indeed, if you are not knowledgeable enough about the ocean to recognize rip currents and know how to free yourself, please get some pointers from those who know!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 7:17 PM on June 20, 2011

Nthing take a lesson or two!

Nthing get out there and enjoy yourself! DO IT!

(also, I was pleased to discover that surfing is an excellent way to pass grey or rainy summer days. You're already wet, and the suit'll keep you warm. Duh, right? Well, it never occurred to me.)
posted by TangoCharlie at 12:16 AM on June 21, 2011

Also also, while I'm sure surfing attracts it's share of obnoxious dicks, I imagine you shouldn't have too much trouble finding a fem- and body-positive slice of the community that (if this is a concern) might make for a more welcoming introduction to the hobby/sport/whatever. At least, that seems to be what it's like over here in the northwest.
posted by TangoCharlie at 12:23 AM on June 21, 2011

When you're starting to surf you will always be surfing with other people. Talk to the people around you. You'll learn about surfing. When you do something dumb that interferes with some other surfer it won't be a big deal. It'll give you something to do while waiting, which there will be a lot of.

You'll probably start off with a longboard. Just get a beater. You're going to ding and the patch the thing so many times while you learn how to carry it, how to surf, and how to put on the top of your car that you might not want to invest too much in it.

Wetsuits are important. You don't want a massive wetsuit because it will make it harder to paddle. Paddling is everything. You don't want a wetsuit that's too thin because cold water will suck the life out of you. Having some extra body fat is an advantage in cold water.

Take a lesson or two but do not waste your money on group lessons.
posted by rdr at 12:28 PM on June 21, 2011

I disagree with the advice about no group lessons. If the group is 4 people or under, I get a lot from watching what other people do the teacher's feedback about what they're doing wrong and right.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:45 AM on June 22, 2011

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