Beginner surfing hotspots: six perfect locations to catch your first wave
You will feel no greater freedom then riding your first wave. Getting to the point where you can actually stand on a board, however, can be a bit tricky. Here are six places that are perfect to learn the sport
As American surfing legend Phil Edwards once put it: “The best surfer is the one having the most fun.” In other words, you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the waves.
Mastering the sport can be hard at first, but if you keep at it, not only will you get fit, but you will also eventually get to enjoy the thrill of paddling for a wave, rising to your feet as the swell muscles your board forward, and then gliding smoothly along a glittering wall of water as you ride one of the most powerful forces in nature.
You can make learning how to surf a little less daunting by being taught how to do it correctly.When I began surfing in the 1980s there were no surf schools or beginner boards, but that has changed. While it’s possible to teach yourself, you can make the process quicker and easier by signing up with an accredited surf school.
Lessons will teach you the basics of surfing: how to “read” the waves and the sea before you paddle out (thus avoiding potential dangers such as rip currents and submerged rocks), how to paddle your board and get to your feet efficiently, and how to master simple manoeuvres such as duck diving (paddling through an oncoming wave) and turning the board once on a wave.
You’ll also learn how to avoid fundamental errors such as kneeling before you stand, and the cardinal sin of surfing – dropping-in. This is when you surf a wave already being ridden by another surfer, and if you “drop-in” on the wrong person at the wrong surf break, you may find yourself in very stormy waters.
A surf school will also provide you with all the gear, including a wetsuit (if needed) and the right board. A purpose-built, softshell beginner’s board makes the learning process quicker as they aremore buoyant and stable than a regular surfboard, and the softshell means it will hurt far less when you collide with it (which you almost certainly will).
Ideally, when choosing a destination for your first foray into the surf, it’s best to head for where the water is warm enough that you only need to wear a lightweight, thin wetsuit to stay warm, or better still, no wetsuit at all. This will make paddling easier, which is a major consideration since paddling out through line after line of breaking waves is invariably the most physically demanding part of surfing, whether you are a beginner or expert.
It’s also important to listen to your instructor and follow their advice closely. As British big wave surfer Gabe Davies told me, to nail the sport involves a blend of focus, training, ocean knowledge, fitness and the correct equipment. “The best surfers are so in tune with the ocean it's like they know where the best waves will break before they actually do,” says Davies.
That may all sound a bit serious at this stage, but the more focused and committed you are, the sooner you’ll be cruising the curl in style.
And don’t be embarrassed about wiping out, which you will, frequently.
As Hawaiian big wave surfer and tow-in pioneer Laird Hamilton, who has surfed some of the world’s gnarliest waves, once pointed out, wiping out is an under-appreciated skill. This means there is actually a way to ensure that you fall off your board as safely as possible.
Of course, there are dangers associated with the sport, but surfing isn’t as hazardous as you might think. For a start, your wetsuit and board both act as very efficient buoyancy aids.
Another concern of many beginners is sharks, but attacks on surfers are rare, and extremely unlikely to occur on the sort of beaches where you’ll be learning to surf.
Indeed, the biggest danger in surfing may be addiction. I’ve known people who have given up their career and moved to the coast just so they could surf (myself included). As multiple world champion surfer Kelly Slater from Florida said in the 2003 surfing documentary Step into Liquid: “You’re done. Once you’re a surfer, you’re done. You’re in. It’s like the mob or something – you’re not getting out”.
You have been warned.
Where to learn
The island province of Hainan is the centre of the Chinese surf scene, and in recent years has seen professional surf contests on its shores. It has the advantage of year-round warm waters and pretty mellow waves. The Riyue Beach Surf Club on the island’s southeast coast offers lessons and a friendly welcome to visiting surfers. For more information: surfinghainan.com
2. Sri Lanka
Warm waters and a fascinating culture are part and parcel of surfing in Sri Lanka. From December to April the coastline around Hikkaduwa on the southwest coast has great beginner waves, and in the summer months the area around Arugam Bay on the southeast coast is the place to head. Reef End Surf School (reefendsurfschool.com) offers one-on-one lessons at an area of Hikkaduwa Beach set aside for beginners.
You’ll find the world’s first wave park in the heart of Wales’ Snowdonia Mountains, where machine-made waves are produced to suit everyone from beginner to expert with a consistency that no natural surf spot can match. In summer, the water temperature in the surf lagoon is very bearable, often in the low 20s [degrees Celsius, or low 70s in Fahrenheit]. You can also surf along the Welsh coast although it tends to be chilly. Surf Snowdonia (surfsnowdonia.com) has surf packages that include lessons and accommodation, whilst West Coast Surf (westcoastsurf.co.uk) has access to a variety of beaches on the Llyn Peninsula that are ideal for learning.
With surfing spots unaffected by Mount Agung’s eruption last year, the ever-popular island of Bali is still a fantastic place to learn to surf thanks to warm waters and good-value package deals. These will put you next to classic beginner spots, such as Kuta Beach. It will be busy in the surf, but being among fellow novices can be less daunting than being surrounded by experts. Visit between April and October for the best conditions. All of the instructors at Odyssey Surf School (odysseysurfschool.com) on Kuta Beach are certified by the Australian Academy of Surfing Instructors.
The Philippines has a stack of exotic, world class surf spots which between August and December act as magnets for swells generated by typhoons. The best-known locale is Siargao Island in the southeast of the archipelago, where along with classic expert waves like the famousreef break known as Cloud Nine, there are also more mellow reef and beach breaks where you can learn the basics or improve your technique. Viento Del Mar (vientodelmar.com) offers boutique hostel accommodation and surf packages within easy reach of some of Siargao’s best waves.
There are good waves on all of the islands in the archipelago, but Lanzarote and Fuerteventura are the two that get the best surf. These volcanic isles, off Africa’s northwest coast, rise straight up out of the Atlantic Ocean and from November to April they have very consistent waves, along with water temperatures in the low to mid-20s. Beaches such as Famara on Lanzarote and Playa del Cotillo on Fuerteventura are great spots for beginners. Surf School Lanzarote (surfschoolanzarote.com), close to Famara Beach has over 30 years’ experience in surf coaching and is renowned for the quality of teaching.
Alf Alderson is the author of Surfing; A Beginner’s Guide (third edition published in April 2018 by Fernhurst Books).