When I was first learning to surf, I didn’t know that I needed to be selective on where I was to first try surfing. I was a competent and competitive windsurfer, so I figured surfing would be a piece of cake. However, with windsurfing, you are standing on the board, which provides a clear view of any set waves coming in and you have the ability to either jump over the waves or do a quick jibe (turn the board around) to get out of the impact zone (where the waves break). With surfing, you are lying on a board, which makes the waves look much bigger, and you don’t always have the ability to see the next set of waves coming. And if you’re stuck in the impact zone, you are pretty much stuck there, unless you can paddle like mad and make it over the waves before they break. So windsurfing had given me a false sense of security when I first started surfing.
I remembered my very first surf session at Huntington Beach. There was a lot of wave action, but I didn’t pay too much attention to the size and where the waves were breaking. I didn’t know about NOT paddling out right into the peak of a wave. Nor had I learned about channels that tend to make getting out a little easier. On this particular day the waves were breaking pretty far out and they were pretty good size. As I was paddling out an overhead wave broke a few yards in front of me and when the whitewater hit me in the face, all I remembered was being knocked off my surfboard and getting held down until I hit the sandy bottom. I struggled with the turbulent water until I grabbed my board leash and pulled myself back up to the top of the water. Luckily, I had the smarts, after that episode, to realize I was way over my head and I paddled back to the beach.
The moral of this story is it is much better to go with an experienced surfer you can trust or go to your local surf shop for recommendations of beginner surf locations. It also helps to know what you are looking for in a beginner surf spot. If you do find yourself at a surf break for the first time, keep an eye out for the following:
• Look for a lifeguard or other surfers and ask them about the surf conditions.
• Are there any rip tides or undertows you need to be aware of?
• Go small: no bigger than waist high when you are standing on your surfboard.
• Look for gentle, mushy waves, instead of a halfpipe looking wave.
• Waves that are breaking in deeper water. If it’s too shallow, the waves will break too quickly and you could hit your head on the bottom when you fall off your board.
• No wind. Lots of wind makes the surf choppy and bumpy, which is harder to ride. Look for clean, glassy conditions.
• Peeling, gentle waves. You will have more time to stand up, balance, and ride along with the wave.
• Uncrowded: You don’t want to be fighting for waves to ride, nor trying to not run over other surfers when you are first learning. Definitely surf with others, but look for breaks that aren’t crowded and you have plenty of space around you.
Check out our Surf Report section to see what the surf is doing in your area.
The best waves are the ones you ride with your friends so go with a group of other surfers. Have fun and be safe.