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.