Despite what you see in the glossy magazines, learning how to surf isn’t as glamorous as it may seem. Expect tousled hair, sand everywhere, and a few wipeouts for good measure. We’ve caught up with 16 bloggers who share the story of the time they caught their first wave.
Or, when the first wave caught them.
Learning How to Surf: What’s it Really Like?
Surf Like You Mean It
My first time surfing was in Westward Ho!, Devon, UK. I’d always loved the idea of being a ‘surfer chick,’ so we added a surf lesson stop at the beach into our Devon and Cornwall road trip itinerary and off we went.
As with any new experience, there was a learning curve. Luckily, we already knew how to put on a wetsuit (zip at the back, people) and we’d been advised to bring wet boots as the waters around Cornwall are cold if you’re not used to it.
Westward Ho! (yep, the exclamation mark is part of the name) is on the North Devon coastline. It’s a gorgeous, shallow beach but you have to walk quite a way to get to the water– especially during low tide. You also need to walk over a sand dune and a pebble dune… all while carrying a big, heavy foam surfboard.
First lesson: surfboards are not easy to carry.
I was sweating in my wetsuit by the time we arrived at the water’s edge and I tried very hard not to think about how many other people had done the same in the wetsuit before me.
Then came the ‘let’s see if you can do this on dry land’ practice, where we were taught how to pop up from our bellies to our feet.
I couldn’t do it on dry land.
I have long legs and there was just no way I was bringing my knee between my arms, whilst keeping my balance.
That should have been my first clue that surfing isn’t my sport.
Undeterred, the instructor pressed on, getting us all into the water and urging to catch some of the waves.
Westward Ho! is famous for its surf. I’m grateful we only had a gentle swell on this particular day. We all dutifully paddled out, turned our boards (with difficulty) and pointed ourselves back towards the beach. Now the fun really started.
The aim was to catch a wave, pop up (stand) and ride the wave to the beach.
If you manage to do that on your first session, crown yourself a surfing god. It is not easy. I’m a fairly sporty girl and I snowboard. It should not have been as hard as it is, but my legs, arms and general balance just would not work together.
I fell off. A lot.
My husband, on the other hand, discovered a talent he never knew he had and managed to stand up pretty much every time. I’m starting divorce proceedings imminently. All joking aside, surfing is a lot of fun, even if you’re rubbish at it. Nobody cares if you fall off a lot. It’s also a great way to meet and talk to people if you’re travelling alone- many people in our lesson were solo or had partners who didn’t want to join in. We all had a hot chocolate and a chat afterwards. I have surfed three more times since this first lesson and I am sad to report that I haven’t gotten much better… but I probably need to go more often than once every three years. Still, fourth time’s the charm… right?
- Follow Kat from Wandering Bird on Instagram
Party Wave in Sri Lanka
Hiriketiya Beach in Sri Lanka will always be a destination close to my heart. Not just because of the incredible location–who doesn’t love waking up to palm trees and the sound of waves crashing nearby? But because it’s the place I learned how to surf.
The small bay along the south coast of Sri Lanka attracts wannabe surfers in numbers as the waves are perfect for beginners. Better yet, you’ll learn to surf with other travelers who are just as inexperienced as you are.
I rented a longboard and awkwardly headed towards the shore, trying to look like an “experienced surfer gal”–a look I totally did not pull off! Two hours later, I was still in the water, surrounded by fellow amateur surfers who were now my friends! We cheered each other on, laughed together when we missed a wave and sat outside the break, taking in the gorgeous views, chatting about how much we loved Sri Lanka. The highlight of the day was our attempt at a “party wave” which is where you ride the same wave together.
We managed to get a group of about 10 people, who all knew nothing about surfing. As you can guess, we wiped out so hard but got plenty of cheers of support from those watching from the beach! We certainly did not look as good as the surfer family who went before us but that didn’t get us down. We gave it a few more goes before realizing that our efforts were not going to see results considering we could barely catch a wave, let alone stand up! After a few too many nose-dives, and paddling so much that my arms couldn’t move, I decided to call it a day!
- Follow Carryn from Torn Tackies on Instagram
Look Mom, I Made it on Magic Seaweed!
We moved to San Diego with the expressed goal of learning how to surf. Jenn was a ski instructor, and I played hockey for years. Even though we were pushing forty, we figured it couldn’t be that hard? Let’s say it’s a good thing that the California oceans are cold enough so you can always wear a wetsuit. Three millimetres of neoprene serves as both body armor and waterproof Spanx.
My first surfing trip was at Tourmaline surf park with Jared, the cool guy from the office with a gorgeous wife at home and a picture of his dog at his desk. He earned the nickname shirtless Jared from his favorite attire and the physique it revealed. My surf lessons consisted of Jared yelling paddle harder as a wave approached, only to pass harmlessly underneath me. Then repositioning me closer to the break, so I was Maytagged after my first stroke. To say it was a dumpster fire would be an insult to flaming trash receptacles everywhere. To make matters worse, the Magic Seaweed surf camera filmed the morning surf snippet of me flopping in the waves. Jared made sure to forward that link all across the office.
I eventually learned how to surf, and the joy of riding broken waves. I brought Jenn out for her first-day surfing in our new city, intending to be a kinder and gentler teacher than shirtless Jared. As we were standing in chest-deep water waiting for the perfect wave that had already broken but carried enough power to put our middle-aged bodies up on plane, she got hit by a stingray. On the bright side, there was no video evidence to rue the day. After that, we focused on biking in San Diego for our couples’ adventures.
- Follow Ed and Jenn from Coleman Concierge on Instagram
Sharing a Wave With the Locals in Florida
I visited my sister, Meghan, for a month in St. Augustine, Florida during my summer vacation.
Meghan had one mission that summer: Teach me how to surf. She was excited to teach her big sister something; I was apprehensive about looking like an idiot in front of her.
During our first lesson, we sat and stared into the ocean. When a good wave approached, Meghan swam behind my surfboard and pushed me into the wave, yelling, “Paddle! Stand up!” Dozens of attempts later, I felt clumsy, and embarrassed. The few times I managed to catch a wave, I wobbled as I tried to stand. The board refused to stay under my feet. I fell, slamming into the water and hitting the sand over and over again. Beyond frustrated and on the verge of tears, I was about to quit and go sunbathe.
Then, I spotted a fin.
There must have been about ten dolphins swimming around us, unafraid, bobbing up and down in the surf. I forgot my frustration and settled into the moment. Maybe I would never be a good surfer, but I was here with my sister, in this majestic ocean, surrounded by dolphins. After several minutes of watching the dolphins, Meghan said, “Let’s go again.” Meghan pushed me into another wave and I stood up! I was only up for about five seconds, but it was such a rush! My sister told me later that a dolphin rode that wave in with me.
Years later, whenever I visit my sister we’ll go surfing together. She’s amazing, and I’m still a beginner. I love the feeling of riding a wave, admiring the ocean and all of the creatures, and spending time with one of my favorite people in the world.
Sacrificing a Tooth for Surfing
The first time I took surf lessons was in Mossel Bay, South Africa. I was traveling with my brother and a friend at a time and we wanted to give surfing a go.
We only took a 2-hour class, but I loved it. Not that I was catching any waves–I wasn’t even able to stand up every once in a while. Oh no, I was absolutely terrible, I kept falling and paddling was exhausting. And while I was struggling, my brother rocked it, even though it was his first time surfing, too.
Despite the fact that I wasn’t quite gifted when it came to surfing, I still loved it. And of course, I couldn’t let my brother be better than me. I needed to improve. I decided to go to Puerto Escondido, Mexico for two weeks of surf lessons.
Again, I had a lot of fun, even though progress was slow as I kept falling and falling. And I even lost part of my front tooth in the process! But, I still enjoyed it. After one week, I improved (slightly). And by the second week I was finally catching some waves!
Alright, maybe my instructor still gave me a little push because I couldn’t paddle hard enough. But compared that first time in Mossel Bay, I was rocking it. And was I finally able to say that I was at least about as good as my brother.
Keeping it Cool in Canggu, Bali
If you’ve been to Canggu in Bali, you’ll know it’s one of the best places on the island to learn how to surf.
Being a digital nomad, I’d also heard Canggu was a great place to set up base. I checked into a guesthouse only 10 minutes walking distance from the beach. Surfboard hire stalls lined the sand. It seemed like hundreds of surfers were here–most of them seemed amateur level. One surf stall offered a two-hour lesson for 350 IDR. Intrigued, I decided to give it a go.
Things did not start well. Having my tiny five-foot frame meant I struggled to carry the board down the beach. My arms were barely long enough to wrap the width of the surfboard. After a little while, I awkwardly managed to drag the board down to the water’s edge. We started by practicing how to paddle out to sea and I then learned the steps to standing up on the surfboard.
It only took a few minutes to get the hang of it, so things were looking up. Having a background in gymnastics, I assumed I’d be able to balance on the surfboard easily in the water. But, I was very wrong. When we were out at sea, I could barely stand on one knee (in a lunge position) before toppling over! And to make things harder, all the amateur surfers had to try and dodge each other. We spent most of the time bobbing around, lying face down on the board. Regardless, it was such a fun–albeit slightly frustrating experience. Surfing is something to try again soon, hopefully I’ll have improved by then!
- Follow Delilah from Our Travel Mix on Instagram
A Surf Trip to Tahiti
My first surf experience was in Tahiti, French Polynesia. We planned a 2-week trip of exploration and relaxation in early October. My partner likes to surf from time to time on the Basque coast in France so for this trip he had a bucket list of best surf spots in Tahiti while I was more than happy with the B plan (sunbathe and relax by the hotel’s pool).
One day, however, he convinced me to go surfing with him, to give it a try. This is the chronicle of my first (and last) surf experience
For my surf baptism my partner was kind enough to choose one of the easiest surf spots in Tahiti. We went to Papara, on the south side of the island, which is a pretty black sand beach with a cool vibe. Because it has easy access and it is suitable for all surf levels, Papara is a quite popular spot to surf.
It has to be said that that day the wave conditions were not the best for beginners and that the surfboard was slightly short for my size. However, my partner gave me some essential first tips and we tested some things on the sand before heading to the water.
Basically I did well with the paddling but I could not learn how to do the pop-up, even on small waves so I was falling from the surfboard all the time. Before taking any surfboard I should have remembered that I am not good at any sport where my feet don’t touch the ground! Skiing, roller skating, or surfing may sound fun or fancy for some but I am definitely happier with basketball or tennis.
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Crazy Waves in Colombia
The first time I tried to surf was on the East Coast of Australia. I scuffed my knees and the salty water nipped them so badly, I only lasted five minutes. I opted for chats with onlookers on the beach instead while my pal continued with the lesson.
The second time, at Costeño Beach in Colombia, I was not going to be defeated.
Why? Because my husband had signed up as well.
Before the lesson began, I practiced on a balance board at the hostel.
The lesson was over before I knew it and we were in the water. Well, the instructor and my husband were. I was still trying to paddle through the breaking waves to get to the outside section. Fierce waves and lack of experience resulted in me being left deserted and frustrated. The instructor kept waving at me as if he had a magic wand. Fellow backpackers offered to help me get by the first set of waves.
Eventually, I managed to paddle outside but all of my energy was consumed punching my way through the water. Total waste of time and money. Surfing at Costeño is not recommended for first-timers. Those waves are crazy! The hostel is great though! Relaxed atmosphere, nice meals, yoga, and friendly people.
- Follow Gemma from Two Scots Abroad on Instagram
Surfing Success in Sri Lanka
The first time I went surfing was at a surf camp in Weligama, Sri Lanka. I signed up for a week-long package and pictured myself catching waves all week before arriving.
The first day of the camp didn’t go as well as I envisioned. While most of my classmates were already getting the hang of it, I kept wiping out over and over again. Although it was frustrating, I still enjoyed being out in the water next to the beautiful beaches of Sri Lanka.
Despite my slow learning, the instructor at the surf camp was amazing and kept pushing me to try and try again. Eventually by the third day I caught my first wave, and I think he was more excited then I was!
I wasn’t the surfer pro I hoped for by the end of the week, but I was proud of myself for being able to stand up on a semi-consistent basis. It was challenging but definitely made me want to try it again. I have since surfed in Costa Rica and am happy to report that it went much smoother the next time.
- Follow Lora from Explore With Lora on Instagram
The Cape Town Challenge
My first experience learning how to surf was in Cape Town, South Africa on a trip to visit my boyfriend, Campbell. I always wanted to learn how to surf but never had a chance. I watched many surf movies and YouTube videos and got the idea that surfing couldn’t be that difficult. After all, I used to do gymnastics and dancing. I was sure my good balance would make surfing an easy sport to quickly master.
The first challenge I encountered was cold water. In Cape Town, the ocean is between 14-18°C (57-64°F). My dream of surfing in a bikini was completely ruined as you need a wetsuit to surf in Cape Town if you don’t want to freeze. I hated pulling my wetsuit on at the beach and getting into the icy water when it was 35°C (95°F) outside. The second challenge I encountered was the strong wind. It happened to be summer, the windiest time in Cape Town. The sea was very choppy, and it was difficult to paddle out.
After several attempts to get beyond the break, I was exhausted and very annoyed. As it turns out, surfing is not that easy and even paddling out is very challenging. Catching the waves was even more difficult than paddling out. The best I could do was to catch the whitewash, jump up, and ride a couple of meters in the shallow. This was not what I imagined; it was freezing and tough and I decided not to surf in Cape Town anymore (there were plenty of other things to do in the city to keep us busy). Still, Campbell and I managed to take some nice photos of me with a surfboard on the beach.
Next time, I’ll learn to surf in a place with warm water and no wind.
- Follow Alya and Campbell from Stingy Nomads on Facebook
Surf’s Up in Sydney
My first time surfing was during a short trip to New Castle on the East Coast of Australia. Water is definitely my element and I am a strong swimmer. However, I must confess that finding myself struggling with big waves with an out-of-control board attached to my foot was quite scary.
I paddled for hours, managing only to stand up for a few brief and unstable moments before being tossed underwater by the waves. I remember feeling totally exhausted but since I am a stubborn girl, I kept trying until I was overthrown by a big wave and the board spun over my head before landing on my right hand. Nothing serious but I am still carrying a small scar (the only one on my whole body) to remind me of my first time surfing.
I like to think that my failure was mainly due to the location and surfboard I used–it wasn’t really suitable for a first-timer. Despite my unsuccessful experience, I really enjoyed myself and I look so much forward to trying surfing again because I think it gives you a unique feeling of power and freedom.
Catching Waves and Cuties in Costa Rica
I have always had a tense relationship with the sea–a fear of waves and the unfathomable size of the ocean was too much for me. Add to that an extremely bad sense of balance and surfing was off the table.
But when I went to Costa Rica with a cute guy who loved to surf, it was clear that we would have to visit the country’s many famous surf towns. We chose Dominical, a popular surf spot on the west coast of Costa Rica.
We booked a room at a laid-back surf school and I signed up for private lessons. My surf teacher, Dillon, had moved here from Hawaii because he loved surfing in warm water. At least I would not have to wear a restrictive wetsuit or brave cold water. After some dry practice on land, I navigated the whitewash with the dedicated help of my teacher. And when I say “navigated the whitewash” I mean: fail miserably at standing up on the board and diving headfirst into the water. Over and over again. I never managed to ride the waves for longer than a split-second–but that split-second was glorious!
To my surprise, being in the water was not scary at all, but it was hard. Easily the toughest sport I have ever tried. Each lesson left me absolutely exhausted and a bit more disappointed in my lack of natural ability and balance. But I did not give up.
A week-long surf retreat in Fuerteventura a few years later got really scary when they took me to surf on a rocky reef. However, my latest attempt on the Scottish Kintyre peninsula was the first in a long time that I felt that thrill of riding a wave. Maybe it was the kick I needed to try again in the future?
- Follow Kathi from Watch Me See on Instagram
Let’s Go to Lagos, Portugal
I’d been living in Lagos, Portugal for a few months, working in a bar to save up money for the next leg of my travels through Europe. One of the regulars at the bar owned a surfing school, and he invited me to come out for a lesson on my day off. I’d never been on a surfboard before, but I was up for any kind of adventure.
Before hitting the waves, we started off by practicing balancing on our boards in the sand. It probably wasn’t a good sign that, when the instructor asked if I knew how to ride a bike, I said “no”. That’s not strictly true; I can manage to stay upright on a bicycle, but I’ve never been very comfortable on one. I guess you could say that balancing is not my strong suit.
Once we got out into the water, I tried over and over again to stand up on the board while catching a wave, but I never did manage it. Eventually, my arms were so sore from pushing myself up that they refused to cooperate. So I gave up on trying to stand, and instead, I used the surfboard like a boogie board, riding the waves while lying flat on my stomach. That part was actually a lot of fun!
I never tried surfing again after that, and I doubt that I ever will at this point. Even though, as fate would have it, I now live in Portugal once again. And Nazaré beach, which famously has the biggest waves in the world, is less than an hour and a half from my apartment. But even though I never surfed again, I did keep my surfing school t-shirt and wore it proudly for many years!
Seven Miles in Heaven
My first learning how to surf was off of Seven Mile Beach in Australia. I was teaching in Sydney at the time and the school I worked for sold tours with a company who brought our students down the coast. Several other teachers and myself all organized to hop on the bus for a weekend trip away.
And as for the surfing? It turns out that it’s easier to surf on a longboard rather than a shortboard. That’s what our lovely Ozzie coaches told us. But, the challenge of a longboard is getting the board out past the waves in order to surf the waves back to shore. I did it though, a few times!
The waves were little, thank goodness! But it was tough. My arms were sore as all get-up and I was out of breath every time I made my way in only to have to face the waves again. But I stood up! I even got pictures of myself standing up, check me out!
But, it really didn’t take long until me and most of the women I went with started fooling around in the shallows taking pictures standing, crouching, rowing, doing yoga on our boards. We had an absolutely smashing weekend, but the surfing was truly only a part of it. Regardless, there were no bumped noses, no jelly fish stings, plenty of moments standing up, and loads of laughter.
Taking Off at El Tunco
I had my first surf experience in El Tunco, a small surf town in El Salvador. While traveling solo in Guatemala, I meet two Finnish girls and we decided to head to El Salvador together. All three of us checked into a hostel by El Tunco’s long and beautiful beach.
On our second day there, we got to talking to a local who said he would take us out surfing. Neither of us had been surfing before, but we were more than excited to try. After breakfast, we went to try our luck in the whitewash. But first, the three of us had a small introduction on learning how to surf with our new friend. All three of us got down in the sand, paddled our arms, and pushed off the ground, jumping into a surfer squat.
Then we, one by one, went into the water with our coach and a big board to try surfing for our first time. I went last and spent quite a bit of time watching my friends fall off the board in all kinds of ways. When it was my turn, I ended up falling off at least as many times as my friends. We all left the water with some cuts and scrapes thanks to the sharp volcanic rocks on the sea floor. By the end of the day, we all managed to stand up. Even though it was just for a few seconds, we were all super excited to wake up and do practice again the next day.
By the end of our stay there, I even got to try my luck in the bay with proper waves. So much harder, but also so much fun. After my first surf experience, I have tried my luck several times, mostly around Central America. However, I still find it extremely hard. It seems to me, like a sport that needs to be maintained regularly to make progress. In other words, it’s definitely not like biking. I have such fond memories from my first days of surfing and am very motivated to surf more in the future.
- Follow Julie from Why Not Ju on Instagram
Worth the Wipeout in Spain
Let’s say I have had several first times when it comes learning how to surf throughout my life. You cannot succeed without trying! So much so, that I don’t remember exactly where the first attempt was. Maybe on some beach in the wild Death Coast, in Ferrol, or near my hometown Ribadeo. Honestly, I can’t remember.
What I know for sure is that one of my most memorable times was in Galicia, a Spanish region in the Northern West Coast full of stunning Galician landscapes. What I do remember is that in one of them, on the beach of Riazor in Coruña, when I was studying at the university, and after getting up on the board and surfing a few meters, I fell and found the board on my head. It wasn’t pretty, my nose started bleeding, and being soaked made my face turn red in moments. The joys of trying I guess!
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Learning How to Surf: What to Expect for Your First Lesson
Surfing is one of the few sports that you can teach yourself–as long as you have a safe and calm place to learn. However, it’s best to join a surf camp or sign up for a dedicated surf lesson. This will prevent you from making some of the most common mistakes beginner surfers make.
First, the your surf instructor will help you set up your equipment. If you’re in a cold water destination, you’ll need to wear a wetsuit to keep you warm. You’ll also be given a surfboard to use during the lesson. Typically a good beginner board is at least 8 feet long and 30 inches wide. Many are made from foam–preventing you from getting too injured if you fall. A leg rope (or leash) attaches the board to the ankle of your back leg. Your surf instructor will help you determine whether you’re goofy (left leg back) or regular (right leg back).
You’ll then learn the physics and technique on how to ride a wave. Many instructors first hold a beach training session where you practice paddling and popping up straight to a squat position. If you want to train for your first surf lesson, do some push-ups, burpees, and jump squats a few weeks before you go. This will help with your agility and endurance.
Once in the water, you might spend some time in the whitewash. Don’t be afraid to catch a few waves on your belly, riding the surfboard like a boogie board. The goal is to have fun! Then, practice popping up and standing on the wave.
Finally, your surf coach will likely encourage you to go past the whitewash and into green waves (waves that have yet to break). From here, you’ll learn how to paddle, catch the wave, pop up, and turn. With a bit of practice, you’ll be surfing on your own.
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