What's the best way to learn to surf?
July 25, 2005 12:13 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to learn to surf? Can I teach myself, or should I pay for lessons?

I just moved to the Bay Area, and want to try my hand at the great Californian sport. Lessons ain't cheap, though. If anyone has suggestions for locations or establishments, they'd be much appreciated.
posted by allan to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Take a lesson. One is probably all you'll need. After that you can progress on your own. Without an initial lesson (or a helpful friend) you're going to waste a lot of time figuring out the basics on you're own - a recipe for frustration.
posted by zanni at 1:35 AM on July 25, 2005

You can teach yourself. I just moved to Honolulu and recently learned to surf. I'd rate myself somewhere between beginner and intermediate.

The hardest thing about learning to surf is mastering the one second or so you have to get your board on the wave and then stand up. It is completely a matter of timing, and comes only from practice. Basically, when the wave starts to break, paddle like hell; when it "catches" you, stand up.

The first few times you go out you'll be tired late in the session and sore afterwards from paddling and being prone so much. Rent or borrow a 10-foot or so board; they're easier to paddle and balance yourself on. After you get better you'll want a shorter board, but that won't be for a while.

I've found that the advice you can get in "Learn to Surf" books is pretty reasonable. There will be advice on how to size up water conditions, how not to be rude (stealing somebody's wave for example), how to stay out of the way, what kind of camraderie to expect, safety, and so on. Experienced surfers will recognize you instantly as a beginner (and a hazard to them) and navigate around you for the most part.

Alot of surfing is respecting local customs. One way a lesson can help is if your local surfing spot has hardly any beginners. An instructor will help you feel more legit out there.

I'd recommend going out a few times before trying an instructor. You may find that you're a complete natural and don't need any instruction whatsoever. If you're having a hard time standing up though, an instructor can help by giving you a push as the wave comes. This can help you get a feel for the timing. After one lesson though I'm not sure there's alot an instructor can offer.
posted by ldenneau at 1:54 AM on July 25, 2005

I participate in many adrenaline sports; from skiing and mountain-biking, to wind-surfing and kite-sailing. Lessons always helped immensely. They reduce the learning curve dramatically, and can save you countless hours of pointless frustration making the same rookie mistakes, over and over.

Take a lesson or two, then hone your skills on your own. I've been a skiier for 30 years, and I still take a couple of lessons each season.

( I learned to surf after first wind-surfing, BTW; there is a lot of cross-transference of the skill-sets involved) .
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 2:16 AM on July 25, 2005

I agree with PareidoliaticBoy and zanni. A lesson or two in the early stages of learning to surf are immensely helpful. Whether you pay for these or get a surfing friend to teach you for free is immaterial.
posted by jonesor at 6:06 AM on July 25, 2005

My surfing leaves something to be desired, I admit -- no freakin' waves in Korea, that I've been able to find, and I've been here wayyyy too long -- but I'd recommend learning to body surf first. Getting a feel for the way of the waves without a board (I'll spare you the nature-boy handwavery, but you can imagine what I'd say about the sea and the water in fluent zonkerspeak, if we were sitting on the beach with a bottle, probably) can help you to focus on the specific skills necessary for the board, after.

Did for me, at least.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:31 AM on July 25, 2005

Short Answer: Depends on where you are.

Some beaches are much easier to learn on than others. This is mostly a factor of how "fast" the wave is, but also how readable the break is, that is, how consistently it breaks in the same place (at least over the 20 minutes or so you're in the same spot). When I learned to surf in Jax Beach and Cocoa Beach (Florida), the waves are slow and mushy (and very small), so it's a good learners break. Hawaii also is blessed with warm water and some very very forgiving beaches. Espeically in waikiki / Honolulu. So ldenneau's experience is not indicative of every beach.

My story:

I learned to surf with minimal supervision or training as a 11 year old kid. A kid let me borrow his 8' board for 1/2 an hour and sometimes yelled "paddle! paddle!" when he wasn't getting busy on my boogie board. I stood up my first time out, though not well. And I'd been boogie boarding for a few years beforehand, and body surfing since forever. But yeah, it can be done.

That said, I'd take a lesson. I think that 2 hours is plenty for your first day of surfing (unless you're already a very good swimmer -- you'll be very worked out in the back and arms after two hours), so it's best to spend that as productively as possible. Most lessons are taught at very good breaks, and they basically guarantee that you'll get up your first day out. It might not be pretty (yet), but you'll probably get up that first day.

You'll learn the following things

[begin lesson voice]

1. Board terminology, parts: Nose, tail, rails, stringer, fins, leash, etc.

2. Paddling position: Keep your head and chest lifted from the board. Paddle with slightly cupped hands a bit out in front of where you'd paddle if you were doing freestyle. Go for short, powerful strokes, especially when you're trying to get a wave (as opposed to paddling "out" or moving around).

3. If the surf is big, you'll learn to duckdive, or to roll your board to avoid getting crushed by incoming waves. This probably won't be on your first day. And you can learn a bit about this by watching others...

Remember, if there's a surfer on a wave, he's / she's got the right of way. So if at all possible, get out of her way!

4. How to stand up. When I took a lesson recently (in Maui), I was instructed to do four steps, which you can reduce later as you get comfortable. First (step 0), Paddle like all hell. You'll feel the wave "catch" you, but KEEP paddling. Don't try to stand up too fast, because the wave will pass you by. You'll know when it's time to attempt to stand up... First, grab the sides of the board, but don't grab all the way down by the rails -- it slows you down. Second, push up into a pushup position, with your knees down, but your arms straight. Get (or just keep) your balance. Third, slide your front (usually your left but maybe your right if you're "goofy footed") leg to an upright position with the foot flat and near the center of the board. Your back leg will still be down, with your knee on the board. Fourth, stand up but stay low. Arms out for balance. You're surfing brother!

5. Advanced Stuff (toward the end of your first day): Wave selection - picking better waves out of a lineup. Turns - using your back foot to push, you can pick a line in a wave and follow it. Most waves break either right or left (or they're a point break that breaks in a point that has a right and a left), so you'll want to get better at looking at the waves and following the line. Watch for other surfers who will drop in on you.

[/ end lesson]

Surfing is quite possibly the best sport in the whole world.

It's got the camraderie of basketball, the solitude of fishing (sometimes), the excitement of, well, there's nothing more exciting than surfing -- because most sports (skiing, skateboarding, mtn. biking, etc.) are gravity sports, they all have that gravitationally-bound acceleration -- surfing is a different sensation than any sport, an excitement that is like grabbing onto the tail of a comet, of riding pure energy. It's also quite elegant in its simplicity -- no lift tickets, no gear except for a pair of shorts (a rashguard on your first days is key, though!) and a shaped piece of fiberglass. It's almost spiritual in its simplicity, and rhythm, and flow.


In SF, I'd surf at Cowell's beach in Santa Cruz. It's a great beginners break and a sandy beach. Plus you can use one of the stairs down to skip the (first) paddle out.

I've surfed at Pleasure Point and these shops are recommended by me.

Arrow Surf and Sport (East Side), 312 Capitola Ave., Capitola, 831-475-8960

Freeline Design Surfboards, 821 41st Ave., Santa Cruz, 831-476-2950

Just go to the front and ask or call about group lessons. Should be around $50 for your first day including gear rental. It will be worth every penny. Enjoy!
posted by zpousman at 7:55 AM on July 25, 2005

You'll definitely want someone to show you the ropes, and help explain wave etiquette. Always yield to the deepest guy on the wave, and if a wave is coming to you, don't waste it or you won't get another one. Never let go of your board unless you are absolutely sure noone is going to get hit by it. After a wipeout or letting go, always surface with your hands covering your head, in case that board is coming at you. A friend almost lost an eye that way, and I've been whacked once or twice.

I always start people off on a sponge (aka boogieboard) at an uncrowded spot to get a feel for catching waves. Then transition to a surfboard at the same spot. You don't need a good wave to learn the transition to standing. Once you are confident at standing up, you can move to a real break. I recommend sticking to beach breaks, as opposed to point breaks until you really know what you are doing. At a beach break the peaks (point of takeoff) are scattered, and you can get your share without too much competition. At a pointbreak, everyone takes off at the same spot, and once you blow a couple waves, noone will let you have another.

Good luck, I don't surf much anymore, even though I live within walking distance of one of the best SoCal breaks. Its just too damn crowded these days unless you get up early, or catch a surprise swell. Dang surf reports...
posted by Manjusri at 10:23 AM on July 25, 2005

« Older Help me make a sensual dinner.   |   Indian in spanish? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.