Surf Lessons: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly

Lying on the sand during a surf lesson 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.

Learning to Surf

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…)

Structure of a Surf Lesson

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.

Learning to Surf – The First Few Efforts

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.

Standing Up

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…

Surf Lessons: The Good

Great kit, enthusiastic staff, step by step instructions, fun group.

Surf Lessons: The bad

You’re not in Hawaii and, er, you might not be able to do it. Not too bad, really…

Surf Lessons: The Ugly

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.

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14 Responses to Surf Lessons: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly

  1. Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista September 17, 2011 at 12:54 am #

    I took surf lessons in Hawaii so we didn’t need wet suits, which sounds like a good thing!

    I have to say, without a doubt surfing is the hardest thing I have ever tried. I completely failed and will watch from the sand hopefully with a Mai Tai in hand :)

    • Abi September 17, 2011 at 10:27 am #

      Ah – thanks for making me feel a bit better! This time I felt I made progress, though, so I think the lesson was worth it. And…at least it didn’t hurt as much as learning to snowboard did. Ouch. That was the hardest thing I have ever tried…

  2. Claire at Preseli Venture September 21, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    Woot, thanks for this Abi :) looks like you progressed very well, shame that Stuart didn’t get you on film standing up…you’ll just have to come back! Love from us all at Preseli Venture x

  3. Abi September 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

    I shall persevere!

  4. Caz Makepeace October 2, 2011 at 10:41 pm #

    I stood up for the first time last year when I had lessons on the Gold Coast. It only lasted two seconds but a victory for me nevertheless.
    Surfing is so bloody hard, and you soon learn why surfers have such beautiful toned bodies.
    I’d love to do it some more, but not in those icy British waters!

    • Abi February 16, 2012 at 4:20 am #

      Fast forward a few months and I’ve just seen you stand for much longer than two seconds! :)

  5. Lois October 8, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    We took surf lessons in bali and the waves got pretty wild. Not exactly the conditions you would hope for beginners lessons. But we took videos and it was fun trying to stand despite the gynormous waves.

    • Abi February 16, 2012 at 4:26 am #

      No, just walking out when the waves are tough is hard enough…Still, glad you had fun!

  6. lara dunston October 22, 2011 at 2:42 am #

    Great post! Looks like you had fun! I haven’t tried to surf since I was a 16 year old ‘surfer chick’ (note: very different to a Surfer), failed miserably so continued to do little else but lie on the beach for 8 hours a day and splash around in the water every weekend. My husband, Terence, was the surfer for many years, but sadly, a life spent in the MidEast/Europe for many years kept him mostly away from the beach so he took up snow-boarding in its place. So when we were in Costa Rica last year as part of our 12 month grand tour he had some lessons on the first and felt it was the best thing he ever did. Like skiers who have a lesson on the first day of the season I guess. He was up on the board in no time and it put him in good stead for a week of surfing. I am going to *have* to try it one day.

    • Abi February 16, 2012 at 4:28 am #

      I had no idea that a surfer chick wasn’t actually a surfer…Yes – give it another go!

  7. Liv November 1, 2011 at 8:02 am #

    My last attempt to surf (in Barbados) left me with a very bruised tummy! I can only get better!

    • Abi February 16, 2012 at 4:29 am #

      Bruised tummy? How did you manage that? Mind, I had quite a sore head…I manage to fall off and somehow land underneath the falling board…Ouch…

  8. Miriam Gilbert February 15, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    Looks great fun – I took a intro to surfing lesson a couple of years ago in Scotland! People don’t generally think of the beautiful, long, white sandy beaches of East Lothian – and they are gorgeous! Although on that particular May Sunday, what I remember most of the setting was the whipping wind, on/off drizzle, gray clouds and gray seas. No, no neoprene boots here – but, like you, I was amazed how well the neoprene wetsuits works! Well nice & toasty (other then when a wave deposits cold water down my back). However, the overarching memory is the feeling of excitement and achievement when, after going through the series of exercises (and about 10000 attempts) I did manage to stand up for a split second….. Oh, and we did have one luxury: the ladies toilets doubled as changing rooms and they had a hand-dryer which worked great as a heater!

    • Abi February 16, 2012 at 4:32 am #

      Ha – that is a touch of luxury!! Much better than a car park…I agree – it’s such a thrill to stand, for however long it lasts. I didn’t know you could surf in Scotland…Maaaaybe I’ll try that one day but I’m going to need neoprene thicker than a whale omelette in order to survive…

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