Learn To Surf As An Adult – You Can Do It!

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Learn To Surf As An Adult – You Can Do It!

I’ve always been envious of people who learned to surf as a kid; there are so many benefits to learning young. Kids are light, really light, meaning they can take more waves than everyone else, and manoeuvre around on a one or two foot wave in a way that most people can only dream of. And when kids get good young, they inevitably stay good. Learning anything as a kid is beneficial; your brain is like a sponge, and once something is committed to your procedural memory it’s hard to forget. So not only do they get to dance around on waves as well as anyone, but they learn the sport when it’s easiest to learn, and can retain the skills throughout their entire life.

Contrast that with someone like me, who didn’t touch a board until adulthood. In my childhood, I was far from a minority in that respect. I grew up over an hour away from the beach, and surfing wasn’t even spoken about. A couple of kids did it, but for the most part it seemed like a distant, unattainable skill, one that was reserved for Californians and Hawaiians. It was only when I ticked into adulthood that I began to develop an interest in the sport, and even then that interest was predominantly in watching the pro’s, rather than actually doing it myself.

When I did start trying to pick it up, I quickly realised one thing: it’s pretty difficult. I always imagined learning as being the simple process of figuring out how to stand up on a moving board, but upon entering the water and copping more than my share of waves on the head, I found out that it’s a lot more than that.

The first 12-18 months of my ‘learning process’ didn’t see a whole lot of progression. As someone who was still living a significant drive away from the coast, I didn’t actually get into the water that often. Once a month, occasionally twice, I’d head down to the beach with some friends, expecting that today would be the day I would take a big leap forward. Invariably, I didn’t. I didn’t progress at all. After over a year of ‘learning’, I was still every bit as incompetent as I was when I first started.

For a while I denied it, imagining that every little thing I did was a minor improvement on the last time I surfed, and that I was getting better. Eventually though, this became futile. I wasn’t getting anywhere, and there was a very good reason for it. Maybe if I was learning as a 10-year-old I would have the luxury of spending a month or so out of the water, getting back in and still being able to progress. As an adult, though, things didn’t quite work out.

I realized that learning to surf as an adult isn’t something you can commit to half-heartedly. If you want to progress, you need to practice regularly, and further to that, you need to practice properly. A majority of the time I went surfing during my initial, unsuccessful learning period, I was going with friends who were accomplished surfers and trying to match it with them. My logic was that if I threw myself in the proverbial deep-end, I’d progress quicker.

Not so. Instead, I’d enter the water with my friends, end up at the line-up about ten minutes later than they did after getting continually pounded by waves, then mostly just sit there watching the waves go by. Occasionally, I’d begin to paddle into one, then pull out for various reasons: that one was too big, there was someone in front of me, I wasn’t properly aligned on my board. Even more occasionally, I’d actually paddle into one, and invariably eat a whole lot of water before I even had the chance to try to stand up.

Even though I shouldn’t have, at times I found this humiliating. The prospect of going into shore and learning in the whitewater, though, was even worse. For whatever reason, I had a sense of pride that was stopping me from learning the way it was becoming increasingly clear that I needed to learn.

One day, I went down to the beach with a friend of mine who was similarly inept at surfing. For all intents and purposes, he should have been much worse than me. Though I couldn’t yet stand up with any regularity, as far as I was concerned I’d at least been trying to learn for a while, whereas he’d been surfing about three times in his life.

We entered the water, and started trying to stand up in the whitewater. He had a 9’0” soft board, while I had a 7’6” epoxy, and lo and behold he stood up with ease while I flailed around in the one metre water. I assumed it was because of his board; after all, I was better than him. Then he asked to swap boards, and I obliged, thinking I would now be able to show him up. I didn’t. Again, he stood up with ease, while I fell more often than not.

At this point I realized beyond doubt that the way I had been learning was largely futile. So I swallowed my pride, and decided to learn the proper way. I took a couple of lessons, started from the bottom – the bottom being with the longest board possible in the softest whitewater I could find – and gradually refined my pop up.

It would be easy to say the rest is history, but it was much harder than that. I slowly progressed to the lineup, and surfed the wave straight to shore rather than turning. Some days I fell 95% of the time, other days I stood 95% of the time. At times, it was immensely frustrating. I remember one day when I surfed better than I ever had before, and thought that something had clicked. The next day, I surfed as badly as ever. What became noticeable, though, was that more often than not I was surfing better than in the past; my average day was becoming better and better.

Of course, as I progressed, I began to surf more. I was fortunate enough to spend some time living by the coast, during which I was able to surf numerous times a week, and when I was back home away from the coast I made an effort to have a session at least once a week.

Kids have to deal with many of the same issues, but learning as an adult, these problems are exacerbated. So what’s the moral of the story? There are three.

The first one is surf to your level. There’s no point in trying to be a hero and surfing in a way which is way beyond your capabilities, and it will have absolutely zero benefit in your development. Surfing is a sport which needs to be learned in steps, so start at the start and you’ll find yourself improving much more quickly.  Take some lessons!   I promise it’s worth it.

The second is to commit. If you decide half-heartedly to learn to surf, chances are you won’t progress a whole lot. Trying to become a competent surfer as an adult needs more dedication than a few sessions here and there over the course of the year, so if you’re going to try to do it, do it properly.

The third, and probably the most important, is to be patient. Surfing is hard, much harder than I ever imagined before I learnt to do it. It’s also one of the most enjoyable and rewarding pastimes on the planet, and unequivocally makes your life better. So when the fifth successive wave is about to break on your head, and you’re wondering why the hell you’re doing this, remember: it will be worth it.


  1. Art Tabata March 1, 2018 at 12:10 am - Reply

    At the age of 67, after a 35 year break from surfing and not even going into the ocean, I got my stoke back! Marriage, raising three sons, going back to school, career change, etc., life just seemed to get in the way! When I retired, I got my stoke back! I looked back and remembered how much I enjoyed being in the water and the total exhilaration of surfing a wave. I went “All in”. I bought a brand new board, new car racks, and a new wetsuit. I was amazed how the technology had advanced on the board and wetsuit! The only thing I retained from surfing on a regular basis, from the age of 16 to 32, was I could paddle out without falling off and I could sit on my board without falling off! The first few months was getting back into paddling shape. I would go out and just paddle, paddle, and paddle. All that paddling caused an old shoulder injury, from work, to become very painful. So much so, I could hardly lift my left arm! Oh great! I thought my “Comeback Tour” was going to end after just a short time. After some tests, the doctor assured me, it was a combination of babying the shoulder since the injury and now putting it to use. I had to stretch and retrain the muscles in my left shoulder. The doctor told me to keep on surfing, if it got worse, come back and see him. It has been six months now, and my left shoulder hasn’t felt this good and had such a wide range of motion, in years! I have now been able to start a regimen of doing push-ups, something which caused great pain in my shoulder in the past. The shoulder problem was affecting my pop-ups. I discovered the “Sprinter Style” pop-up on the internet where you put you back foot down first, as you pop-up, which helps you bring your front foot forward. It was developed for those with weaker upper body strength. I practice on the taped bedroom carpet, but have been limited to how many I could do because of my shoulder. Now my reps have increased. I still have to work on getting all the other muscles and tendons to become flexible. I stretch, do some yoga on my entire body, practice my pop-ups, and go out into the ocean. I also spend about twenty minutes stretching on the beach before going into the water. What is so frustrating is, I remember what it was like making bottom turns, slamming off the lip, and zooming across the face of a wave. I will continue to do what I have to, which is “Just keep going!”. I have a new found appreciation for surfing and I am humbled about just what it takes to surf. I just love being in the ocean again! I know I won’t be able to “rip” like I did, but one day, I’ll be riding a wave once again! I understand, indeed, sometimes life gets in the way, but it’s all good! I am so happy I got my stoke back, but then again, I believe it has always been with me… just waiting for me to want to get it back!

    • Jade Sheppard April 8, 2018 at 2:55 am - Reply

      Wow that’s awesome! So glad you got your Stoke back, it’s sad when people lose it. I feel like being in the ocean puts the rest of life in perspective. Surf on!

  2. Donald Skinner March 24, 2018 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    Jade, this is a good story. I am almost 70 and I am taking surfing back up. I haven’t been surfing since the 1960’s. I bought a 9’10’ longboard. Used to have a 9’6″ when I was young. I do plan on taking lessons and starting all over in the whitewater, When it gets warmer here in Santa Cruz, Ca I plan on taking my board out and just paddle around in the ocean get my old muscles used to it again. I thank you for your story and enjoyed it.

    • Jade Sheppard April 7, 2018 at 11:01 am - Reply

      Wow Donald, that is so inspiring! All the best and it’s never too late to get back into the ocean!

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