A dog scampers along the sand and the waves wash against the shore. Insistent but unhurried, casting off behind them a salty spray that lingers in the air. The wind seems half-hearted too, whisking the chatter away from the ice cream stall, along the grassy banks and off over the edge of the Pembrokeshire coast, losing heart as it hits the Irish sea.
Men form a semi-circle on the sand, arching their backs and turning their faces towards the sun. But this isn’t a wellness retreat or a yoga lesson.
It’s surfing. And this is a surf lesson.
While it’s not the first time I’ve tried surfing, it is the first time I’ve had the good sense to sign up for a surf lesson. It came as part of an adrenaline cocktail adventure with local company Preseli Venture, along with an intriguing taste of coasteering and a dependable sea kayak along the more rugged parts of the coast.
To be honest, I was a little sceptical. Surfing to me seemed both fiendishly difficult and yet fiendishly simple. Lie on a surf board, waggle your arms around, stand up, fall over, choke on burning saltwater, repeat.
I wasn’t sure our instructor could offer much more than my friend’s version, given oh-so-many years ago:
“Swim, stand up, try not to fall in.”
He forgot to add “shiver until your bones chatter and your soul withers, you lunatic for entering the icy waters that surround the British isles, you.”
This time, happily, things were different. For a start, I was wearing a cosy warm wetsuit with fitted neoprene boots. For a middle, I had a foamy-wide surfboard instead of my mate’s hard-topped, skull-cracking machine. And last, but by no means least, I had John.
A certified surf instructor.
(I also had side-splittingly good company in the form of a stag do that wasn’t a stag do, a fearless family of teens, and a husband roped in as an under-appreciated Director of Photography. But more about them later…)
Before we’d even left the lodge, we’d had the first part of our surf lesson. A whiteboard demonstration of rip tides, weaver fish and coastguard flags, sensible precautions for a salty adventure sport.
Next up, was our yoga poses on the beach, a drill for getting us used to the timing of the waves, used to steering and even used to slowing down. Amazingly, doing it baby step at a time worked. It’s almost as though the British Surfing Association (now Surf GB) had thought this through.
At some point, of course, I had to get wet.
I try to be brave about this kind of thing. I was born in Britain, I’ve lived in Britain. I should know by now how to tought it up and suffer blue-tinged numbness as a misguided sign of moral fibre along with the rest of them. If only I’d been born in France, I mumbled to myself. Then I’d be forcing myself to taste cheese and sip wine instead.
Hey ho. Since no-one likes a whinger, I grabbed the surfboard and strode on in.
But then, something extraordinary happend. The waves tumbled over one another. The sand shifted beneath my feet. Seagulls cried overhead and the wind had grabbed itself a cup of coffee and come back with an over-caffeinated kick.
And yet. And yet…
The waters swirled around me and yet I didn’t feel cold. Holy, rapturous applause for the inventor of neoprene (Wallace Carothers, in case you were wondering.) This stuff actually works!
With my main fear behind me, I was free to learn how to surf.
As perhaps can be expected, arching your back on a surfboard is actually pretty easy. What doesn’t look so obvious is the fact that it’s great fun as well.
Catching a wave, zooming right, zooming left, racing into the shore…It’s almost a shame when John drags us back onto the beach to get on with the task at hand.
Now comes the tricky part. But it comes with a series of cheat-sheet tricks.
“Push up, twist and then try to stand,” says John, making us all practise on solid ground, an ugly display of neoprene awkwardness, demented walruses lurching around in the sand. (No offence, guys, but I have the tapes. None of us look good.)
Back in the water, things improve. Tess, the only other girl, glides through the surf, blonde ponytail catching the breeze. Next up, my husband springs to his feet and casually cruises in to the shore.
And as for me?
This is the crunch, right? The moment this article has been waiting for. Do I plummet to the depths, cursing and swearing never to try anything so ridiculous again? Or do I overcome adversity to triumph on the coast of Wales, soles of feet clinging to a foam surfboard, while this soul of mine fills with hope laced with overwhelming fresh air?
You’ll have to Watch this video to find out…
(If, for some hideous reason, you don’t see a video right here where it should be, watch How to Surf here.)
But hang on a minute. The title promised the good, the bad and the ugly of surf lessons, who cares whether I managed to surf or not?
Fair play. Here you go…
Great kit, enthusiastic staff, step by step instructions, fun group.
You’re not in Hawaii and, er, you might not be able to do it. Not too bad, really…
You change out of your wetsuit in a car park, with everyone watching.
Men may drop their towels. Deliberately. Passersby may love it, especially the pensioners. You have been warned!
Disclosure: If it’s not already obvious, Preseli Venture invited me to test-drive their adrenaline cocktail weekend. I agreed under the usual conditions. Y’know, being able to tell you that and to say what I really think. Otherwise it’s kind of pointless. Read the riveting disclosure policy here.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com