It is 240 years ago that the Old World got a glimpse of the sport of surfing. It was on Captain James Cook’s third expedition to the Pacific that crew members witnessed something they had never seen before.
At Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island of the Hawaii chain, where Cook was to lose his life, the European sailors saw surfboarding from the decks of HMS Discovery and Resolution.
Lieutenant James King of HMS Discovery was tasked with carrying on Cook’s diaries and logged an account of the surf riding for posterity. He describes men laying on a piece of wood about their own size waiting for the swell and then pushing forward and climbing atop. Sounds familiar?
Surfing is now the favourite pastime of millions of people around the world, with Australia and the USA boasting around 2 million participants each. The sport continues to grow in popularity, but beginners are often concerned about what equipment choices they face and whether they will be able to cope with the physical techniques required in surfing.
A common mistake is that beginners often choose the wrong kind of board. A larger board is better for someone starting out. A larger board offering a more stable platform and more floatation will help with the transition to a standing position.
Foam boards are popular with beginners as they are the most forgiving. The downside is that they have limited use as you progress through the learning curves, and so it is best to hire these boards rather than make a purchase.
Once you are through the early learning process and are standing on your board, you might like to make your first purchase. A pop-out board is a good first buy. Staff in the surf store will be able to advise you. An eight to nine feet board is typically used by novice surfers. This will be easier to paddle and will help you to catch more waves.
Depending on the climate you are going to be surfing in, you may need a wetsuit, and again, get your local retailer to fit you out with the right size.
Next, you are going to need a leg rope, or leash, that attaches your ankle to the rear of the board. It will be at least as long as your board to ensure that in the event of a wipeout, the board will be out of your way as you come back up to the surface, but it will still be close enough for you to haul in.
You will need wax for your board and the type you need will depend on the water temperature you are likely to encounter. Again, check with your retailer or online to find out if you need a cool or cold weather wax.
Once you are set with gear, novices should seek out a surf club. These organisations are geared to grassroots surfing. Clubs provide knowledge on a range of issues, whether you are a complete beginner or someone looking to hone skills and develop your technique. They can also introduce newcomers to a competition schedule, which can increase enjoyment of the sport if you have a competitive nature.
Organisations such as Surfing England are a good start, but if you are travelling to take up the sport, check other countries’ clubs online. The surfing fraternity is open and welcoming, so do not be afraid of the initial approach.
Once you have made these steps, the training you will be able to access will move things along.
One of the keys is learning how to paddle your board. A skilled paddler will catch more waves. Body positioning on the board is key to this. Too far forward, and the board will sink at the nose, and the flatter the board is positioned, the easier it will glide. A good coach will ensure that you are well centred and this will improve the glide.
Once you are able to start catching waves, the surfing experience really begins. Spending time in white water enables the novice to learn how to pop onto the board and land in a position which allows you to ride the wave. The sweet spot on the board will soon become familiar and it is then a question of hitting it regularly.
Good coaches will teach you how to spot the wave which will carry you a good distance, giving confidence for tackling fiercer waves as skills develop. Wave spotting is key to improving skills and a big part of the learning curve. Learning how to point your board, when to paddle and when to stand on the board are the skills which will mean you are going forward in the sport and will ensure you are enjoying the experience.
Paddling out and tackling unbroken surf beyond white water will be the next step and experienced coaches will be central to this development. As a beginner, you will find that a larger board can make this journey tricky, but persevere and listen to your coach.
Learning safe surfing also involves understanding the etiquette of the sport. Talk to more experienced surfers and they will help you out, as it is a tight community. Not interfering with other surfers’ runs is the first rule of the road. The speed you are travelling means that it can be dangerous if you interfere or collide with a fellow rider.
You do not want to steal a fellow surfer’s wave and sometimes novices will paddle towards a group. Maybe try to spot a wave formation where you can claim it to yourself. Novices do not need the best wave formation to enjoy the experience.
Lots of the skills and physicality you will need for surfing can be practised on land, as good coaches will point out.
There are lots of resources online, as outlined above. So, if you are ready to imitate the Hawaiian chiefs, choose your club and get ready to ride the waves.