The Inside Scoop on How to Learn to Surf

Barreling Wave on Bluff Beach, Panama

The waves are always breaking somewhere! Bluff beach, Bocas Del Toro, Panama.

“And then the lightning bolt struck me: surfing is more religious than religion”

-Rob Gilley, excerpt from Surfermag article The Church of Yew

For the last five weeks of my trip and since returning to the US I’ve been surfing almost daily. I’ve re-fallen in love with the sport after a 5 year hiatus during which time I surfed only a few times each year. Work, family, friends, interest in other activities and general laziness  all contributed to my lack of surfing. Since giving myself the time to get back into the sport in Panama my conditioning and flexibility have improved, my energy level is great and my skills in the water are as good if not better than they ever have been. Right now I cannot imagine a life where my hours are restricted to the point where I am unable to surf when it is good. When it’s good, I should be in the water. So for now I am working on a surfing related project that I believe will help me achieve this goal, more to come on that later. For now, although I am not an expert at surfing I think I can give you an idea of what its like to learn to surf, and what it feels like to be out in the water.

To be honest, learning to surf was a struggle for me. I started surfing at age 16, as soon as I could drive. I had always body-boarded as a kid so I grew up comfortable with the ocean and had some intuition when it comes to reading waves. When I wanted to learn I started reading as many surf mags and watching as many videos as I could. I bought a short board that I thought looked cool but in retrospect was probably too small for me. As soon as we could drive my friends and I spent a summer going to our local break two to three times a week, paddling out, and getting smashed by the waves. It was at this point that I decided the sport should be called paddling, as thats what you’re doing 90% of the time. By the end of the summer I could legitimately catch a wave, stand up, and ride the wave face for as long as it lasted. It was a frustrating experience and it took a lot of beginner’s enthusiasm to get me through this period. I think I had the benefits of youthful energy, time and enthusiasm on my side, which could be in short supply for most learning adults. If you are a bit older you may get frustrated a bit quicker realizing that it’s not as easy as TV makes it look. You sometimes have to get up early, drive, put on an awkward wetsuit, walk across a sharp reef or rocks, paddle through pounding surf, avoid other “aggro” bros in the lineup and try to catch a wave. If your local spot is crowded you may go out and get nothing, especially on the better days. You’ll need to be able to pick the correct size board for your skill level and the surf size, you’ll need to develop your paddling strength and technique to get out to the break, you’ll need to learn to read the water to understand when the wave will break and where you should catch it and you’ll need to learn to stand up and surf. All these things will come with time in the water.

I have a few tips that will help you work through the steep learning curve of surfing:

  1. Maintain your beginners enthusiasm. Watch surf videos, read surf mags, talk to other surfers about surfing and try to be in the moment when you are out in the water. Take a look around and appreciate the natural beauty of your spot.
  2. Make friends with other surfers that are enthusiastic about going out and that will push you to go out with them. If you don’t have friends like this, you’re not likely to get out of bed on your own on a cold February morning when you were out drinking the night before. You’ll wake up under the warm sheets, not feeling well, thinking about the contorted pretzel you have to make of your body to get into your wetsuit just to paddle out in the frigid water where you may or may not have to fight other bros for a wave, and you’ll stay under those sheets unless one of your friends slaps you in the face and forces you out.
  3. Go on a surf trip where you can dedicate some time to surfing consistently good beginner breaks. Do some research – if you’re living in the states a good option is Central America. There are great, uncrowded breaks all over the Pacific Coast of Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. All of these places offer classes as well. It could take you a lifetime to learn to surf on the East Coast of the US if you never travel to surf because the surf if so inconsistent, you simply cannot catch enough waves to get a good feel for it. You’ll put your learning into hyperdrive if you can go somewhere where you can surf every day for a month.

Once you’ve mastered the art of standing up on a wave, and you’ve felt the addicting rush of riding down the face of a moving wall of water, you’ll naturally flow into the next stage of surfing knowledge, which is to begin to analyze surf conditions. To be a good surfer you need to be a good weatherman (or be friends with one). Most surfers are checking the swell size, swell direction, swell period, tide and wind direction constantly, deciding which of the breaks within range are best. They also know which direction each beach faces, what the bottom conditions are like (sand, rock, reef), what the crowds are like, what the parking situation is like and where to get the best fish taco post surf session. Some resources to help you understand surf conditions:

  1. Surfline
  2. Magic Seaweed

After you’ve combined these skills – ability to read conditions and catch a wave you’ll begin to really experience what its like to surf. You’ll realize the absolute beauty of your surroundings and where you are. You’ll have time to think and relax while sitting on your board between sets. You’ll understand how to let go under the water, remaining calm to conserve oxygen until you can kick back to the surface, always weary of the reef or other dangers below.  You’ll paddle into a wave and really feel it as it picks you up and pushes you along, like you are one with the water. It’s exhilarating and addicting and one of the best sporting activities you can participate in from a mental and physical health standpoint. There is nothing like paddling around and surfing for 2 hours only to hop out of the water feeling totally drained of energy, your upper body consumed by that relaxing muscle tension that only comes after a solid workout. And that’s when you crush some fish tacos.

Wether you are a wannabe, new surfer or old vet I hope your stoke remains high. There’s nothing like being in the water so get out there!