I’ve Always Wanted To Try That: Surfing

The best way to look awesome just by standing up

Photo:haniamir

If you live anywhere near the ocean, odds are there’s at least a small surfing community in your area. People who will go to great lengths and brave temperatures and conditions in the water most people would only consider dealing with if, say, the ground were on fire. This unconsciously affiliated band of people, men and women, old and young alike, seem drawn to water as moths to flame, not just wanting waves but needing them in their life. You have to wonder, what do these people know that I don’t? What is so powerful a draw that ties them to this sport?


Despite spending my teenage years in Hawaii, the global mecca of surfing, I never actually got into the sport while I lived there. The Big Island, my home island, had no real reef break to speak of, instead generating swells off of rocky point breaks and short shore breaks often ending in jagged, puncturing lava. I got my ocean fix with bodysurfing and body boarding the beach breaks, but nonetheless surfing seemed to be it, the ultimate ocean sport, especially at the Wailing Wall of this place, the north shore of Oahu. Instead, it wasn’t until I moved to Australia that I decided to properly try my hand at surfing. (As it happens, Australia was one of the first places outside Hawaii to take up the sport under the teaching of Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian ambassador of surfing. Even today, a statue of him stands over Freshwater bay in Sydney.)

With my past experiences in the water, I already knew part of the draw of the ocean and riding its waves, but surfing is another level altogether. Even as beginner, I quickly came to appreciate the sheer thrill of standing on a board, skimming across the surface almost weightlessly, propelled by nothing more than gravity and raw energy in liquid form. I got it; I knew what kept people tethered to their board beyond just their leash.

Reality Check

While the energy of the ocean is what propels you, it’s also what makes surfing difficult and even dangerous. Even in relatively calm surf conditions, hazards like hidden rocks, rip currents, and even other surfers can still be dangerous if you don’t pay attention and learn what to look for. While to the untrained eye the ocean may look anything from simple and orderly to incomprehensibly chaotic, knowing how to read and interpret the landscape and conditions can let you determine a lot about even hazards you can’t see.

For more info about ocean safety, check out http://www.surfinghandbook.com/knowledge/ocean-safety/

Can I Do This?

Put simply, surfing has a lot to do with physical fitness. All those buff-looking surfers you see on the beach and in photos? They don’t have shoulders swollen like a nasty allergic reaction by chance, you rely on your arms for most every part of surfing except for actually riding the wave, which is the easy part. And while you are strapped to massive flotation device, strong swimming ability is a must, because when it comes down to it, the ocean is just a whole lot more persistent than you.

But surfing isn’t all what you see in movies, it’s not about massive waves and even bigger wipeouts. With patience and the presence of mind to observe and learn your surroundings, and the willingness and ability to get a bit of real exercise, it’s not that difficult to join the global community of people who live for the next set.

The Gear

There’s a reason the term “surf bum” was invented; you really don’t need a lot of money or equipment to get into surfing, and even less to actually keep surfing.

A board is the most obvious, otherwise you’ve just decided to go swimming. To start off, you really barely even need a board, you just need something large that will float. When you get started with surfing, a small expensive board is actually bound to make learning that much harder; your first challenge with surfing is learning to actually get up, and a small board is going to feel like trying to stand on a yoga ball in the water. Finding a large (7-foot or longer) used board is your best option to start, since as you improve, you’ll inevitably want to upgrade, and the less money you’ve sunk in your learner the better. Not to mention, any damage you might do to that first board is going to sting a lot less. My first board was a 6’2″ short board, and I could barely get to my knees on it. I later switched to a 7’2″ epoxy behemoth, and finally managed to find my feet.

There are two main deciding factors about what you need to wear while surfing, and looking hot is not one of them. Well, not at first, anyway.

First thing is going to be temperature, both water and air. Given you’re not constantly submerged in the water while surfing, you can get away with less protection than say when scuba diving, but you still may need some kind of wetsuit. “Shorties”, 2mm wetsuits that stop at the knees and elbows, are usually enough for most moderate climates and oceans, with water temps between around 75-60 F (24-15 C). Colder than that, or if you get cold easily, and a full-body wetsuit, boots, and even a hood may be necessary to keep you from being miserable.

Second is skin sensitivity. Even in tropical weather with bathwater-warm water, risk of sunburn and what’s called “board rash” may make a rash guard a wise purchase. “Board rash” is what results from the friction of paddling while laying on a well-waxed surfboard, and it can be pretty painful if you’re out long enough. A rash guard is simply a thin, stretchable shirt that doesn’t offer much insulation, but does take care of the rash problem, and keeps the sun off your shoulders.

Getting Started

Your local surf shop is always going to be a good wealth of information on local surf spots, surf conditions, and places to start. However, pick your advice from locals carefully; surfers can often be extremely territorial about good breaks (surf spots), and if what they’re telling you is confusing or conflicting, there’s good odds they’re messing with you. Taking a surfing intro course isn’t that critical if you’re comfortable in the water and a good swimmer, but you’re much more likely to get sound advice that way, and can save you a lot of grief and time trying to learn on your own, not to mention keep you from developing bad habits early.

If you do want to jump in on your own, start somewhere sandy with small breaking waves relatively close to shore. This will let you flail in safety as you start out, which everyone does. However regardless of whether you’re close to shore or out in “the lineup” where the good waves are, always be mindful of other people. You are in essence riding a large stick with a pointed end of varying sharpness, and you don’t know how to control it very well. Being aware of who might be in your path or who’s path you might be in yourself should always be considered, especially when its crowded.

Overall, when you first start out, surfing may feel much more complicated than it looks, but a lot of it is simply getting to know your new environment, like learning to walk again. There are new hazards, new skills, and definitely new muscles involved, but in the end, you’ll find persistence never felt so fun.

Useful Links

The Surfing Handbook
Surfline.com: Worldwide surf conditions
110% Surfing Techniques: A great video for studying surf conditions and techniques
 

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