Surfing For Beginners | Everything You Need To Know

Learning to surf, or going surfing for the first time? There are certain things you really ought to know...

Surfing, the sport of kings. Or, if you subscribe to Noel Gallagher’s school of thought, the sport of arseholes!

Perhaps you are a king, or an arsehole, or both, and reckon this surfing lark might be for you? Or maybe you fit neither description, but fancy giving it a bash regardless? What follows is a guide to surfing for beginners — a brief introduction to the matriarch of the boardsports family, from whose loins sprang such illustrious offspring as skateboarding, snowboarding, golfboarding, scrabble, etc. Obviously it doesn’t actually contain “everything you need to know” about surfing, but maybe, say, a solid 35% of it, along with a few select nuggets of non-essential information.

Surfing For Beginners: History of Surfing

The history of surfing — from its not-so-humble beginnings in Polynesia, where the activity was closely bound up with social class and customs, the nobility enjoying exclusive rights to the best surfboards and best waves; to its discovery and subsequent suppression by the conquering White Man in the 18th and 19th century; to its resurgence in the first half of the 20th century thanks to Olympic swimming champ Duke Kahanamoku, and the hedonistic counter-culture it spawned in the second half; all the way up to the contemporary clusterfuck in which information on what and how and when to surf is freely available on the internet — is wonderfully rich and varied. It is probably more interesting than the history of, say, badminton, at any rate.

Surfing For Beginners: Surfing equipment

Wetsuit boots, wetsuit gloves and wetsuit hood – the harsh reality for most UK surfers in winter. Photo: iStock

You will need a surfboard, of course, and preferably one of the right shape and size for your particular needs, which will depend on who and where you are. Keel-like fins, usually three, are affixed to the bottom to provide stability and forward drive, and a leash prevents the board from washing away in the surf.

And unless you’re a committed naturist and have uncommonly hard-wearing nether regions to boot, you’ll also require at the very least some sort of bathing suit, ideally one purpose-built for wave-riding activities to avoid chaffing/slippage/general discomfit and embarrassment. The reality for surfers in the UK and Ireland generally involves a layer of insulating but movement-restricting neoprene, often extending from head to toe: a wetsuit, sometimes wetsuit boots, if it’s proper chilly then wetsuit gloves and a wetsuit hood too.

Surfing For Beginners: Waves

Small, gentle waves – perfect for beginner surfers. Photo: iStock

Waves are generated by wind blowing far out to sea; as a general rule, the further out to sea the better the quality of the resulting waves. For optimum or “clean” conditions, when the waves reach the shore the wind will be blowing either not at all or back out to sea, ie. in an offshore direction.

As lines of swell near the shore they rear up and eventually break. The steeper the gradient of the seafloor as a wave approaches the beach, the steeper the wave will be when it breaks, and the more likely it will be to “barrel”, ie. to produce a hollow tube inside which a skilled surfer is sometimes able to ride. Advanced and intermediate surfers look to ride laterally along the “open face” of a wave, which requires a wave that peels left or right, but to begin with it’s best to learn in the white-water – that is, on waves that have already broken. There are several different types of waves; for beginners, waves breaking over sand are preferable to those breaking over rocks, for fairly obvious reasons.

Surfing For Beginners: Staying safe when Surfing

If you’ve never surfed before, you’d be stupid not to invest in several lessons with an accredited surf instructor, under whose guidance and watchful eye you’ll not only improve much faster but also be far less likely to drown. The stronger you are at swimming the better, but hours put in at the pool are still no substitute for experience in, and respect for, the ocean, where the added elements of waves, currents, wind, tide, etc. can catch out even the strongest pool swimmers. Don’t be embarrassed to ask lifeguards about potential hazards, which will vary from beach to beach; getting rescued by them later will be far more embarrassing.

Other surfers also constitute a danger, and it’s important to remember that you and your surfboard pose a threat in return. The single most important thing you should learn before setting foot in the water is surf etiquette. Try your hardest to keep hold of your surfboard at all times unless you can be absolutely sure that no one’s behind you, and to begin with use a foam surfboard with no hard outer layer, for surfboards are unwieldy things and can cause serious damage. Don’t paddle straight out beyond the breaking waves to where the best surfers are sat — you’ll be both a nuisance and an accident waiting to happen — but instead stay closer to shore with your maladroit brethren.

Surfing For Beginners: Surfers

Are by no means a homogenous bunch, but perhaps exhibit a general tendency to be selfish bastards: territorial, wave-craving, resentful of the newcomer hordes. Take the time to learn about proper surf etiquette to minimise your chances of being shot.

By far the greatest surfer of all time is Kelly Slater, who has won eleven world titles — the first one aged just 20, the most recent aged 39 — and at 44 still competes alongside the best surfers in the world. Some go so far as to call him the greatest athlete of all time, greater even than Muhammed Ali, Steve Redgrave, and Phil “The Power” Taylor.

Kelly Slater, GoPro in mouth, demonstrating why he’s the greatest surfer ever – and possibly an even greater athlete than Philip Douglas Taylor – at Teahupoo in Tahiti (definitely not a beginner’s wave). Photo: iStock

Surfing For Beginners: Surfing Competitions

Most surfers go through their whole lives without ever partaking in any sort of codified surfing competition, and many take no interest in competitive surfing as a spectator sport, which can be uneventful and difficult to follow, and is often bedevilled by poor conditions. But it can also be addictive once you know what to look for, and is occasionally thrilling, especially when the waves cooperate.

The world tour, run by the World Surf League, consists of 11 events every year, beginning in Australia and culminating in the most prestigious competition of all, the Pipeline Masters, held in December on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The surfer with the most points at the end of the season is crowned world champion. The competitions, which are broadcast live online, follow a knockout format and begin with 36 surfers, who compete against each other in a series of two-man or three-man heats. Waves are scored out of ten by a panel of judges, with a surfer’s best two scores contributing to his overall heat total.

Mick Fanning at the 2015 Billabong Pipeline Masters. Photo: WSL / Laurent Masurel

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