My surfing journey began recently when I started college in Southern California. Watching the surfers carve through sheets of blue waves had me itching to try it myself. So I grabbed a giant foam Wavestorm board without a second thought and attempted a paddle out at Torrey Pines beach in San Diego. After taking quite the beating, I realized there are a couple of things any beginner needs to know before catching the first wave. Continue reading if you want my (nonprofessional) advice for beginner surfers and tips on how not to be a kook.
WHAT TO WEAR AND BRING
The Gear to wear is all dependent on the water temperature or which season you are in where you're surfing. In San Diego, typically, February is the coldest water month, whereas late August is typically when ocean temperatures are warmest. For the cold months, I recommend a wetsuit with a greater thickness (4/3 or ⅚) that can ensure long days of learning the surf. In the warmer water months, I suggest a swimsuit and an SPF protection rash guard. Not only will it keep the sun's rays at bay, but it will protect your stomach and chest from chafing on the board. Sunscreen is always a must, the higher the SPF, the better, reef-safe is the only option when taking advantage of our oceans. An excellent board for beginners is long, thick, and wide. A foam Wavestorm is perfect because it floats well, allows wobbly movement without throwing the surfer off their balance, and is relatively inexpensive.
OUTSIDE THE WATER PREPARATION
Before even entering the ocean practicing basic surfing motions on the sand with your board is crucial. A great technique is to mimic catching a wave on the beachTo do so, lay on your board belly down, pretend you are paddling to catch waves, and practice your pop-up. A pop-up is essentially an explosive pushup that transitions a surfer from the lying position to an active stance position to ride the wave. Whatever foot is your dominant foot goes toward the back of your board, and your other foot goes toward the middle and they are wide apart. (Your leash goes on your BACK foot). As for the rest of the body, knees are bent to maintain balance. Always look in the direction you want to go, not down at the board or at people you are trying to avoid. Your upper body also faces the direction you want to go with arms out on either side of the board (not on the same side and parallel with your legs). Practicing on land will give you muscle memory and confidence once you are out in the ocean.
When beginning, you want to find a spot where waves are breaking slowly, are on the smaller size, and that break semi-shallow, so you don’t have to paddle out too far. When learning, it is best to catch the white water ( the white and foamy part of the wave after it breaks. Practicing on the whitewater will help you build confidence to catch waves when they are breaking. The best place would be somewhere that isn't super crowded, where you can catch lots of waves.Riding the waves on your belly to get the feel may look a little silly, but will help you in the long run.
There are some simple things you can do to keep yourself from getting banged up when you are starting out. The most important being: when you fall or finish your ride NEVER dive head first off the board and ALWAYS cover your head with your arms. ALWAYS. Never put your board between you and the breaking waves- keep the board on the beach side of you, especially when you start out. Let the board float towards the beach until you are shallow enough to grab it and get out. Even when you stand on the beach- get to the side of the board, otherwise you risk a nasty shin bruise. Even if you think it looks calm- wait and watch the waves for several minutes. Sometimes you can paddle out with no problem, but then a set comes and you are literally in over your head. If you do find yourself in this position you can get in safely by holding onto the back of the board and riding in on your belly with your legs hanging off the back. A rule of thumb is that you will go in the direction you are looking so if you notice someone in the water, look away from them and you have a better chance of avoiding them.
UNDERSTAND THE RULES AND ETIQUETTE
Depending on where you are surfing, locals can be a bit territorial over their waves or surf spots. Don’t let that discourage you, but be respectful and know your etiquette. Don’t paddle to the most crowded spot and start going for everything. Let the surfers that have been there take a few. Be friendly. Give them some space. The person the closest to where the wave breaks has “priority”. People generally like to ride the waves by themselves so if you see somebody coming down the line towards you, do not go. Sometimes multiple people are catching the same party wave, they usually know each other. If someone calls you into the wave they are riding- go for it, and if nobody is on the wave, most certainly go for it! And if you do “drop in” on someone, politely apologize and assure them it won’t happen again. Most surfers will be cool with that. If you are practicing in the whitewater, it is a bit different. Make sure you have enough space on your right and left and catch as many waves as possible!
GET OUT IN THE OCEAN
Now that you know what to wear/bring, where to go, how to practice on land, and have a greater knowledge of surfing safety and rules, get out there! In my unprofessional opinion, the essential part of surfing is confidence and courage to go for it, learn from your mistakes, don’t be afraid to ask for advice or take a proper lesson, and have fun! The ocean is calling. Get out there and shred!