Surfing for Dummies — How To Survive Surfing in Northern California

Photo courtesy of Tai Grey, 2010 (click picture to view source).

Photo courtesy of Tai Grey, 2010 (click picture to view source).

When Ben and I made the decision to take a three hour beginner's surfing lesson during our two week California road trip, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. It was one of the many ideas we'd put on our bucket list years ago because ... well, what sounded more bad ass then riding the gorgeous, salty summer waves of the wild, wild ocean?

We purchased two lessons from Adventure Out, a company that specializes in surfing, survival camping, rock climbing, and mountain biking, among other things. They had great reviews, which was relieving since we were complete surfing newbies. If we had to put our lives at the mercy of the ocean, we at least wanted instructors who probably knew how to navigate the waves and maybe do CPR.

They had one and two day surf lessons as well as surfing "camps." Since we were only going to be in the area for a couple days, though, we went with the three hour "Adult Surf I" lesson. Three hours felt like a decent amount of time to spend in the water for two people who only swim on occasion (and in a calm pool, no less).

Getting Ready To Surf

On the day of the surf lesson, we hopped in the car and drove to Pacifica State Beach, which is located just south of San Francisco. When we arrived, we found parking next to a Taco Bell (just in case you get hungry after surfing!) and met with our formidable group of eight surf newbs and two instructors.

We noticed right away that the beach was packed with other surfing groups. As we put on our wet suits and picked out a pair of soaked shoes from a basket, our instructors explained that Pacifica has the only beginner's surf beach in the area. Saturdays tended to be busy as a result. There were some seasoned surfers there too, but they tended to stay out where the waves were larger and carried them longer.

Being in full surfing garb was quite an interesting experience. Southern California boasts warmer waters, so wet suits aren't always necessary. But the father north you get, the colder the waters get.

The suits we wore were wet from a previous class. They stuck to our skin but bloated out at the waist. We pulled on some orange rash guards (shirts that protected us from chafing and gave us a little more warmth) and stuck our bare feet into equally wet shoes that had individual toes.

Note: If you've worn toe socks before, it's a similar feeling. If you've never worn toe socks or toe shoes, just take it from us... It's something that needs getting used to.

After dressing, we were introduced to our surf boards. They were blue and made of foam—a safety precaution to make sure we weren't clocked in the head with a board of wood and glass. We hiked them over our head and walked down to the beach. It was a particularly windy day, which made holding onto the boards a challenge. (Mrs. Nerd struggled to keep the board from taking her away, like Mary Poppins with an umbrella.)

It only got harder from there ... but a good kind of hard.

The Lesson

We started off the remaining two and a half hours by plopping down on the sand and going through some quick lessons and safety reminders.

Safety Reminders:

  • Use common sense in the water.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings.
  • Stay close to shore and always keep your group in sight.
  • If your feet can't touch the sand, you've gone out too far.

We were taught when to catch a wave and how to do a pop-up on the board, which involved a lot of digging our hands into the sand and using our abs to do springy push-ups. We were unprepared for the amount of balance, swiftness, and strength surfing would require—but it was fun to watch the entire group practice on their boards. We were all pretty winded after a few rounds of "one ... two ... three POP UP!"

Eventually, once the instructors felt confident that their group understood the basic concepts of catching a wave, we were released on the ocean like a pack of baby Krakens. We ran into the shallows and were immediately greeted by a wave that caught our legs and knocked us under the water.

The very salty, very cold water.

The rest of the two hours we had to surf went very much like this:

  1. Secure surfboard in front of you and wade toward deeper waters.
  2. See approaching wave while still in the shallows.
  3. Try to jump over approaching wave. If knocked back (which happened every other time), repeat steps 1-3. If successful, continue.
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 at least three more times.
  5. Eventually make it to deeper waters.
  6. Turn surfboard to face shore.
  7. Climb on surfboard.
  8. Spot gigantic wave hurtling at you.
  9. Paddle like hell.
  10. Paddle even faster than hell.
  11. Get lifted by wave.
  12. Attempt pop-up.
  13. Fail miserably and either a) ride to shore on knees or b) get dragged to shore by a fierce, tumbling wave as your surfboard floats around somewhere above your head.
  14. Dispel water from lungs and collect surfboard before it hits someone else.
  15. Rinse. Repeat.

We very quickly harbored respect for the seasoned surfers who watched us at a distance from their surfboards. Surfing was HARD WORK. Since it was windy that day, we battled constant waves that came every 10-12 seconds instead of the 20 seconds that were preferred for beginners. We got salt water and sand in our mouths and lungs (and lots of other fun places), and by the end of two hours, we were exhausted.

Surfing is definitely not as easy as it looks.

You also don't know fear until you see a massive wave towering above your head and hear your instructor go "oh, shit." There's no point in trying to jump over those waves. They will take you down.

Despite all this, we absolutely loved our attempt at surfing and wish we'd had the time to take more lessons. We got to strike surfing from our bucket list, sure, but we discovered that we enjoyed it so much we'd do it again.

How to Survive Surfing in California

If you're a beginner, like us...

Surfing is all about practice

You can learn all the theory you want and try pop-ups at home until you're a pro, but once you're in the water, all of that washes away. Even if you're exhausted and the waves have beat you down one too many times, keep going. Take advantage of all the practice you can get. It's the only way you'll improve.

It's OK if you don't stand up your first time

Neither of us managed to stand up on the surfboard during our lesson. We got to our knees, and we even got onto one foot. But the moment we attempted to stand up straight, we lost our balance. Instead of getting frustrated, take time to get used to the board, the water, and your posture. Take time to get comfortable with the process. It will help in the long run.

Take frequent breaks

Surfing is exhausting. Period. It's like an intense workout. You're using muscles you didn't know you had to peddle your surfboard through the water, to jump over the waves, to pop-up on your board, and even to get back up on two feet after you've been knocked down. It can feel relentless at times. If you feel like you need a break, take one! Sit on the beach and watch other surfers for a while. Breathe and relax your muscles. Trust us, it helps.

Eat something afterward

Even if you didn't feel it before, you'll probably get hit with hunger pangs after you've dried off and changed into regular clothes again. Surfing is a lot of work and can work up a monster appetite. After we finished our lesson, we immediately drove to a delicious BBQ place and had a dinner of brisket and french fries. Best meal ever!

Enjoy yourself!

This is a big one. Despite how demanding surfing can be, take a moment to really enjoy the process. Riding a wave, even on your knees, is an exhilarating experience. It can almost feel like you're part of the ocean. Every time we rode a wave to shore, we took a moment to breathe in deeply and enjoy the buoyancy of nature surging around us. It made surfing very memorable—more than just an item crossed off our bucket list.

If You Want To Surf In California...

We suggest doing a two or three day Surf Camp, if possible. There are several great companies that provide surfing lessons all along the Coast (easily found via Google), but we really liked Adventure Out.

The instructors had a vast wealth of knowledge about surfing and answered all our questions (ranging from technique to safety). They accompanied us 100% of the way and helped people in our group mount their boards. Without their expertise in the water, we wouldn't have gotten very far.

If you decide to try a surfing lesson, we suggest going in the morning and during a weekday. On the weekends, Pacifica is packed with beach goers, surfers, and other surfing lessons, making it harder to get more wave time. Also, the more people who are swimming in the shallows, the more likely it is that you might hit someone.

We also suggest you watch the weather. Look to try surfing during calm, sunny days, especially if it's your first time in the water. While you can surf anytime, it's much harder to learn technique if harsh winds are trying to push you off your board. Wind can also make waves choppy, which crumble at the tops instead of forming nice peaks. These, consequently, are much harder to ride.

Have you been surfing before, or is surfing something you're interested in trying? What fun things are on your bucket list? Let us know in the comments!

Important Note: We purchased the surfing lessons with our own money. We are not affiliated with or sponsored by any of the companies mentioned and linked to them simply to help other travelers get a feel for what companies we discover while traveling.