10 tips for learning to surf

Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Surfing is so much fun and with summer well on its way there’s every excuse to have a go, whatever age you are (I started at 33). It isn’t easy though and takes practice and perseverance. I’d like to say it’s like riding a bike but for me it’s not. It would be easy to blame living in the land-locked Midlands but surfing is tricky, however the rewards are worth it.

Most beginners start by riding the white water straight into shore – which is great fun and enough to get you hooked but before you dip your toes in the water it pays to be prepared.


1. Learn with a surf school.
You’ll be on your feet faster. The fewer pupils to instructors the better. I learnt with Surfing Croyde Bay and Surf South West – both of which are based in Croyde, Devon and were brilliant and now is a great time of year for beginners (advanced surfers prefer the bigger waves from September to April). They’ll see if you’re ‘goofy’ or ‘regular’ footed and show you how to position your weight and pop-up effectively. It makes sense to get it right or you’ll be getting bad habits like going to your knees first, habits that will only slow you down.

Early days

Early days

2. Bigger is better – choosing a first board.
When you learn to surf it’s a very bad idea to pick a fancy short board thinking you’ll look cool. You won’t. A big 9 foot plank is much easier to stand up on, it’s

more stable and floats better (great when you’re exhausted for hanging on to). I’ve never seen anyone jump on a short board and surf first time but I’ve seen lots of grumpy stag parties trying to – and thrashing around like beached whales for a while before giving up. Opt for a longboard or ‘mini mal’ (at least 8ft preferably 9), the schools usually use ‘foam-tops’ for added safety. And don’t forget to put your leash on – around your ankle on the back leg as you stand. It will stop you losing your board and keep you and those around you safe.

3. Stay safe – take a surf buddy.
If you hire boards and go off to find your own beaches then always go with someone, a friend is invaluable if you get into trouble. You could get stuck in a rip or get hit. A board in the head can be lethal and the fins are razor sharp, so always cover your head when you surface. I learnt on beaches with Lifeguards – it’s nice to know there’s a fast swimming, fit guy around should you need one. Taking a friend also means you’ll have someone to share your best wave or best crash-out with in blow by blow detail.

4. Stay warm – in a winter wetsuit.
A bit of sun and we all run into the water like we’re 7 again. But if you want to stay and play for longer a wetsuit is vital, you soon get cold, especially when you have paddled out to the back and are bobbing about waiting for waves. The wind feels colder when you’re wet. I use a 5x3mm Cskins winter wetsuit and booties, you can stay in as long as you like then, although a thicker suit is slightly harder to paddle in than a summer suit so try before you buy.

5. Embrace the great outdoors.
Most surf schools will have their own changing rooms and once you go it alone, you could hire a beach hut (the one below was my first beach hut experience at Saunton Sands) but you’ll find many surf spots have toilet blocks where you can get changed into your wetsuit. You’ll soon ditch this as an option. They’re small and it’s hard to get kitted up in such a cramped space, especially if your suit’s damp (plastic bags on your feet help). They’re also wet-floored and dirty when it’s peak season. It’s actually far quicker to wear your bikini or trunks under your clothes and change in the car park with a towel. Take a spare towel to put on the floor so you don’t get sand and stones stuck to your suit – especially once it’s wet, or try a changing mat/bag to stand on such as a Moonbag (although not 100% waterproof so you might get wet carrying it).


6. Grab your gear
Once you get the surf bug you’ll probably want to invest in a wetsuit and boots. Boots are a great investment as you can walk over pebbles and they keep your feet warm as well as helping you grip the board. Add gloves and hood for winter, and a surf bikini, rash vest and board shorts for summer, I love Billabong’s sealegs below, great for abroad. A beach bikini will soon be ripped left and right to show off everything you’ve got, so choose a sports, secure bikini – try anything with a cross back and crop top style front, oh and very, very snug bottoms, check out Roxy, Quicksilver or I like sweaty betty for adult women’s sizes and secure fastenings.

Image: Sweaty Betty

Image: Sweaty Betty

Boden Rash vest. Billabong Sealegs

Boden Rash vest. Billabong Sealegs

Other goodies you might want are; Cold water wax for surfing in the UK, try Sexwax. A wax comb. A 9ft board (hiring one is easy). Now, will that big bruiser fit in your car? If not you’ll need roof bars fitting. Or, you can use soft racks. I’ve used Ocean & Earth with ease – but putting sandy racks on your roof will mean you get circular scratches no matter how careful you are. A first aid kit and a beach towel should always be in your car, along with a Snickers bar or banana – you’ll come out starving. If you’re carrying your wetsuit far you’ll want a waterproof bag. I love the Overboard 20 litre bag. They’re designed for sailors to keep gear dry if it falls in the water, but they’re great to put wet gear in. Finally – if you must pee in your suit (once you own one you’ll try not to – but who wants to miss a wave for a 2 mile run to the loo?), wash in hot soapy water, such as wool washing liquid or a delicates type (never use a machine) and you can add disinfectant or tea tree oil to the water. Dry quickly to stop smells – especially boots, if you don’t keep them clean they’ll have to live outdoors…. you have been warned!


7. Car keys and valuables.
As most modern cars have electric locking, you’ll probably reach the beach car park, get changed then wonder what to do with the keys. Personally I wouldn’t leave them under the wheel arch, people know where to look. I also never feel confident leaving them with lifeguards, it’s far better to get a spare cut without the electronics or buy a waterproof pouch to wear around your neck tucked inside your suit, Overboard’s isn’t the cheapest but it’s a bit stronger than most. Take off any jewellery, when you’re cold your fingers will shrink!

8. Check the conditions.
Many people think if it’s windy you’ll get bigger and better waves. Not true, onshore winds (when you feel it on the beach) will mess up the waves and just make lots of white mush. You really want wind out to sea, to give you waves with sloping fronts that you can learn to ride easily.

Too flat (small or no waves) and there won’t be the power to push your board forward and you’ll go slowly and be less stable (think riding a bike really slowly – much easier to wobble and fall off). But equally, waves that are too big and dumpy (where the waves curl and drop strongly) and you’ll need to be really quick to get to your feet or you’ll have missed it.

So before you go, check the surf forecast for the beach you’re heading for. After a few long journeys to the coast and millpond smooth seas, I learnt to use Magic Seaweed, it’s a website and app for smart phones, with a star rating and wave heights. You may not understand all the detail, but you’ll know if it’s better to stay home.


9. Practice
It sounds obvious but time in the water makes a better surfer. Surf holidays are great for giving you maximum chance of good waves and building your confidence. You can help yourself before you go by improving your fitness and swimming plenty. Building your upper body strength with press ups and the dreaded burpees makes a difference too. Then when you reach the sea learn from others, watch how they time their take offs and where they position themselves on a wave. But don’t go too far out or tackle waves too far beyond your ability – yet.

10. Find a good beginner’s beach.
Don’t hit Fistral Beach in Newquay unless you like crowds – much better to find a quieter spot to give you room to practice your technique. Check out my favourite beaches in my post: My top 5 beginner’s UK surf beaches.

Finally just enjoy the escape of the sea. Oh, and don’t start calling everyone ‘dude’ or say that things are ‘rad’ and that you’re ‘stoked’ or use lingo to describe the wave conditions unless you’re under 20, local and know what you’re doing – you’ll just look like a plonker.

If you want to read up on techniques, surf spots and what the surf scene’s like try these books:
Surf UK, The Surf Girl Handbook and Riding the Magic Carpet and Grey skies, green waves.