Learning to surf as an adult

Maybe you’re not particularly athletic, maybe you hate the beach or are scared of the ocean, or maybe you don’t think you fit the surfer “type”. Whatever your reason, learning to surf as an adult can be daunting, so here are some notes on my experience as a 30-year-old woman who hated the beach, isn’t athletic, and does not fit the surfer “type”.

The image of the “surfer girl” is changing

Woman in a wetsuit, holding a longboard, walking along Muizenberg beach on a sunny day in Cape Town, South Africa.

The archetypal surfer girl is lean and tanned, with tangled, sun-bleached locks, effortlessly duck-diving perfect tropical waves on her zippy little shortboard. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being any of those things, but if you are none of them, it can make surfing feel a little out of your reach. I’m here to tell you that surfing is for you.

For starters, depending on your region, you’ll probably be in a wetsuit. So who cares what you look like in a costume, bikini or otherwise. You may even end up wearing a hood and booties to keep you warm. You will resemble a seal, and you’ll get pretty specific tan lines, but you will not care because you will be having too much fun.

If you have bad eyes, you can surf with contacts. If you hardly exercise, a chonky longboard will do most of the work for you. If you don’t know how to swim, you should probably rethink this whole thing and get comfortable in the water first. That’s really the only person that I would discourage from surfing. The rest of you have no excuse.

It’s dangerous to go alone

A beginner group of surfers carrying their boards to the water at Muizenberg beach, Cape Town, South Africa.
Heading out for a group lesson from Surf Emporium. Photo author’s own.

When you’re ready to hit the waves, take a friend with you and join a couple of group lessons. Down here, in Cape Town, there are a number of great surfing schools that offer surf lessons with qualified instructors. Plus, you get to hire a board and wetsuit so you don’t have to commit to expensive gear straight away.

Lessons will teach you surf etiquette and basic technique so you can safely navigate the water and have a happier, less frustrating, time. I was fortunate to find a women-only surf group which made the whole being-in-a-wetsuit thing slightly less daunting. Which brings me to…

The unexpected wonder of the wetsuit

Neoprene top to toe, heading into the chilly waves for a misty morning surf at Muizenberg beach in Cape Town, South Africa.
Dawn patrol at Muizenberg. Photo author’s own.

Where I live, the most popular beginner surfing beach is Muizenberg. The water temperature there can range from 21C (70F)  in summer to 14C (57F) in winter. I’m always in a wetsuit and, for the most part, so is everyone else.

Surfing wetsuits are meant to be tight, not tight enough to restrict movement, but they do take a little getting used to if you’ve never worn one before. There will be much grunting, wriggling, and wrangling before you’re all suited up. Just stay calm and work from the bottom up, like putting on a full-body pair of tights. Once you’re zipped up, and feeling very much like a sexy sausage, you will experience a magical thing: you will feel like the ocean can no longer harm you, you will shrug off its cold embrace, you will become one with the waves, sleek as a seal, wondering what just touched your leg…

The ocean is full of things

Underwater shot of surfboard fin in clear blue water.
Photo by Mark Asthoff on Unsplash

This may seem obvious, but there’s a lot of life out there and the vast majority of it wants nothing to do with you. Seriously, the drive to the beach was, statistically, far more dangerous.

False Bay is famously home to the most unfairly reviled creature in the sea, the Great White Shark. Because of this, an organisation called the Shark Spotters was set up, just to keep an eye on them. A siren sounds when one of the spotters, notices a distinctive shadow in the water. Will you have a mild heart attack when you hear that siren? Probably. Will the waves conspire to flatten out just when you need to get back to shore? Almost certainly. Will your mind’s eye conjure up scenes of your imminent dismemberment as you try to calmy paddle towards safety? Yes, indeed.

Smug looking seal floating in the water.
The actual worst.

This is just something you’ll have to deal with if you’re going to have a go at surfing. There are going to be moments where the ocean tries its best to give you a panic attack using seaweed, seals, or your very own leash. Just remember that millions of people visit beaches across the world, every year without incident, it’s them you need to worry about.

The ocean is also full of people

A busy surf beach on a sunny day.
Photo by mauro paillex on Unsplash

If you are learning at a popular beginner beach, you will often find the waves quite crowded. Between the aggressive weekend warriors, oblivious stand-up paddlers, and your fellow surfing noobs, it can get a little harrowing at times. While surfing is a low impact activity, that doesn’t mean it’s completely safe with most surfing injuries coming from collisions with your own or someone else’s board. Try to keep control of yours and hope everyone else does the same. Be brave. I know everything tends to hurt more after 30, and you’re more aware of your own mortality, I’ve taken a board to the face myself, but it’s worth the risk.

It’s not always going to be fun

Woman in the ocean, seen from low on the water's level.
Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Unsplash

Surfing is what you make of it, you’re responsible for your own happiness, and that’s part of the appeal, but, damn, the ocean can be a real bitch sometimes. There will be days when it’s going to be scary; you will gaze up at an unexpectedly huge wave, utter a shocked expletive, hold your breath, and hope for the best as it breaks on top of you. You’re going to slip and fall, you’re going to take plenty of waves to the face, and you’re going to be held underwater as the waves tumble you along the seafloor. If this makes you angry, you can rage all you want, the ocean doesn’t care. She’ll wrestle the fight right out of you and leave you humbled. It’s weirdly cathartic, I promise.

The stoke, however ridiculous it sounds, is real

Photo by Jack Antal on Unsplash

I’m not trying to sound like a hipster, but people that haven’t tried surfing, probably won’t get it. I’ve been asked by non-surfers, after watching me struggle all morning, why keep paddling out when all that happens is you get pushed back in again?

Sure, it can be discouraging, paddling forever, barely moving forward, falling off every time you actually managed to catch a wave, and feeling like you’re the most useless surfer in the world, while that old man, there’s always an old man, casually glides by for the 50th time. Then you’ll catch one. You’ll feel the power of the wave catch your board just so and you’ll push yourself up into a wobbly, but solid, stance. You won’t fall; you will ride. You will grin your widest, saltiest, grin and when you eventually hit the water you will come up laughing. You’ll drag yourself from the ocean, tired and shaky, meet your friend for coffee, and talk about that one time you caught a wave. Then you’ll do it all again, next week.

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