I’ve been surfing for a little over a year. Although the first three months were largely spent awkwardly hanging out in the white water and can hardly be described as “surfing,” I still consider myself very much a newbie, particularly where I live in Southern California.
Of course, those who learned to surf before they could walk aren’t intentionally holding back any secrets; they just cannot remember what it was like to not know what they know. They’re a little like parents who “just don’t understand.”
1. Surfing is Fucking Scary
Surfing can be really scary. Depending on your level of comfort in the ocean, just walking out into the ocean can increase your heart-rate by a few beats per minute, particularly if you’re in a spot with a strong current that seems to have more control over your body than you do. Then paddling out and getting beat-up by the waves is scary. Sitting on your board is scary – “do I really look like a seal to sharks?” you think.
Eventually these fears dissipate and you laugh at them. Sitting on your board becomes a relaxing exercise and when you see something pop up above the water line you think “I hope it’s a dolphin!” rather than “It’s definitely a shark. Fuck, my first and last time seeing a shark. I’m going to die!”
But for the most part, the fear never completely goes away, it just evolves and becomes less frequent. You will surf in different locations, maybe even different countries, you will surf bigger waves, and you will wipeout badly, and it can all be scary. But you will remember when two-foot waves were also scary, and you will push on and get better.
2. There are Rules
There are rules to surfing. You need to know them. You need to follow them. I took two surf lessons, in Florida, where I learned little more than to cover my head when I fall off the board. Perhaps it was because the area wasn’t very populated, so there was less risk of running into other surfers or because the instructors never thought anyone in the class would do more than sit on a foam board in white water.
Fortunately, I had a friend tell me, “don’t ever take someone’s wave.” Honestly, at first, I didn’t know what he meant, but I asked and he explained. That was the first time I had any inkling that there were rules of surfing, designed to keep everyone safe and happy. I subsequently learned more rules from patient friends, who probably thought I had a mental deficienc, but who gently explained things like what the peak is.
Even knowing the rules, you will screw up sometimes and you should apologize. If it was a particularly egregious act, you might even want to put yourself in “time-out” by getting out of the water.
3. Don’t Listen To Anyone
Including me…or rather, especially me. Even this piece of advice should be taken with a grain of salt–there are some tips that you should listen to because they’re tested and they work. For example, if you arch your back hard as you’re catching a wave, it will help prevent you from going ass over feet when you catch it. That’s good advice. Listen to it.
But overall, surfing is a sport where you truly have to trust your own judgment and make decisions based on your comfort level, risk tolerance, and goals. I switched to a shorter board after a few months on a 7’6” fun-shape and got chastised a lot, but it was a great decision. I’m pretty petite, and a smaller board allowed me to feel more in control and to paddle out on bigger days (which, at the time, basically meant days that weren’t flat). Of course, for others, switching to a smaller board might have been a terrible decision. It’s what works for you.
The most important time to use your own judgment and ignore everyone else is when deciding whether to go out on a particular day. There will be days that people tell you that it’s “fine” to go out and it’s “not that big.” And that may be true… for them. But if it feels too big or rough for you, then it probably is. When you paddle out, you may be with friends, but the reality is there’s not a whole lot they can do to help you. You have to learn to find that balance between pushing yourself to improve and staying safe. It’s not always easy.
If you’re a newbie, I hope you either learned something or can simply commiserate. If you’re semi-pro and you’re reading this to boost your ego and/or make fun of those less talented, then you can suck it.