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Learn to Surf with Urban Surfer: A Beginner’s Guide

This isn’t a replacement for surf lessons, and if you have any uncertainty always learn to surf under professional supervision! But if you’ve had a few introductory lessons and need some pointers for practising on your own, or if a friend has promised to teach you but you want to pretend your claims of being a semi-pro are really true, “Learn to Surf with Urban Surfer: A Beginner’s Guide” is the place to start!

Learn to Surf, Lesson 1: Basic Safety

Yeah yeah, I know it sounds boring, but you’d be surprised what’s often forgotten that seems blindingly obvious in retrospect.

Firstly: if you can’t swim, learn that first in the safety of shallow, lifeguarded water. (Yep, we had someone join DU Surf, sign up for lessons, hire a wetsuit and board, and wade to knee depth with us before mentioning “Oh by the way, does it matter that I can’t swim?”. We then proceeded to forget about her for half-an-hour after we’d all got out finished our hot chocolates in the cafe, but that’s a story for another time / never to be mentioned again… we found her, by the way, so no legal action please.)

And I don’t just mean being able to swim a width of your local pool before clinging onto the side. Neither do I mean joining the all-too-common herds of pensioners swimming questionable (don’t think your feet are supposed to touch the ground) breaststroke and chatting about tomorrow’s luncheon club in the “fast lane” (no, I’m not bitter).

Open water swimming is wayyy harder than pool swimming, so always follow the mantra if in doubt, don’t go out. The same goes for doubts about rips or wave size.

Another potentially obvious point, but one I can’t stress enough… never learn to surf alone, and look out for your buddies!

Likewise, don’t learn to surf too close to dark. You never know when a lull or freak rip is going to pop up, and you don’t want to be stuck hunting for your last wave when you can barely make out the ominous shadows making their way towards you! (For the purposes of this article, we’ll ignore the solo sunset surf I just had after a rum and coke…)

As long as you’re responsible and come in when the light fades, a sunset surf can offer some magical moments

One final hint for the most pleasurable surfing experience is to check Surfers Against Sewage for water cleanliness and up-to-date reports of sewage spillages. Most UK beaches are drastically improving, but always try to avoid river mouths after heavy rain if you don’t want to risk a mouthful of anything dumped upstream.

Learn to Surf, Lesson 2: Planning your Session

Ok, so you have some free time coming up and you’re physically able to learn to surf; now it’s time to pick a date and get out there.

The worst thing about surfing is pulling up to your favourite spot, amped for the session, only to find a wave resembling the slosh when you get into a bath too quickly (and to make matters worse it’s usually 10 times colder, with no rubber ducks, scented candles, or ambient rainforest music to help enjoy the experience).
If this does happen to you, check out last month’s article: Things To Do when the Surf is Flat: Urban Surfer’s Top 10 Activities !

We all regularly get it wrong, but you can drastically improve your chances with the help of Magic Seaweed.

Nope, not that kind of seaweed; this kind:

If you see this, expect cancelled plans, sick days at work, and potential breakups if your SO tries to get in the way

For now, the easiest way to get a rough idea is to check out the weekly bar chart at the top of the page, along with the daily estimated wave size and star rating (a solid star means their algorithms predict a good session with all elements lining up, whereas hollow stars show that the swell has potential, but is going to be messed up a bit by the predicted wind).

As you get more practise reading charts, you’ll soon learn to take note of primary and secondary swells, their direction (yes, not all swells point directly towards the beach!), wave period (the time between set waves – a few seconds’ difference can turn a solid 4ft swell into 8ft waves, or similarly reduce it to mush! 7 seconds or above is usually acceptable for a surfable session), wind speed and direction (light offshores are typically the best), and tide times. If you’d like me to go into more detail on this, leave a comment below and I can write an entire blog on forecasting!

It’s also worth checking the Stormrider spot guide icons (under the description of each break on the MSW website) to determine key beach information, such as seabed characteristics, optimum tide and ideal wave size!

Learn to Surf, Lesson 3: Picking a Board and Wetsuit

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you own neither a surfboard or a wetsuit yet. Fortunately, hire shops are abundant (especially at popular summer beach resorts). The staff there will be able to tell you what you need; typically a large 7ft+ “foamie” surfboard will do the trick.

Wetsuits are categorised by thickness (e.g. a “4/3” means 4mm of neoprene on the torso, with 3mm on the arms and legs for flexibility). In the Atlantic, a 3/2 will be fine through summer, a 4/3 better for autumn, and a 5/4 for winter and spring (you’ll also want to start considering hood, boots and gloves, by this point).

In the North Sea, you’ll probably need an extra millimetre or two to stay comfy. (Especially for those sub-zero February sessions where you can’t see the beach under last night’s snowfall!)

“Hold up, guys. I forgot to put sun cream on”

Not your typical winter session; check out the full snow-surfing video here

If you’re still unsure, there’s plenty of online recourses detailing average ocean temperatures and corresponding recommended suit thicknesses.

You‘ll also notice the extortionate price of surf equipment hire (most notably in Cornwall) – so if you hope to start surfing regularly, investing in a second-hand board and suit will pay for itself much sooner than you think.

Learn to Surf, Lesson 4: At the Beach

Woohoo! You have your wetsuit on (the right way round, I hope), a board under your arm, and the sand between your toes.

But wait! There’s a final few pre-flight checks before you can gallop into the ocean and awe the beach-bound onlookers.

Find a good vantage point and watch the ocean for at least 20 minutes before paddling out. You want to check that you didn’t arrive during a lull (and the waves are actually twice the size you originally thought), and that the rogue bigger sets are still manageable if you were to get caught out!

Giant concrete pipes aren’t the most common hazard in most line-ups, but are well worth avoiding

Also, make note of any rips (look for choppy water or a trail of white water leading out to sea) or other hazards (rocks, piers, shark fins, et cetera). If you do end up caught in a rip, don’t fight it, and most definitely DO NOT abandon your board and try to swim! The best thing you can do is paddle perpendicular to it and you’ll be out in no time. Worst case scenario: the rip will only pull you so far, so stay calm and signal to the lifeguards (raise one arm and wave it side-to-side).

Check out the potential rip to the right of the bay as the frothy water is making its way back out to sea

Have a chat with the lifeguards if you’re in any doubt – they’re always more than happy to help out (it’s a lot less effort than rescuing you 20 minutes later) and can tell you things you might not spot on your own. Make use of them, and always learn to surf between the black-and-white flags for safety.

Lastly, give one final check over your equipment and strap your leash to your back foot (right if you’re regular, left for goofy).

If you don’t know which foot you lead with, imagine you’re on a skateboard and which way would feel most comfortable. If you still don’t know, stand with your feet together and ask a friend to give you a gentle push from behind. The foot you first put forward to stop yourself falling is typically the one that will feel most comfortable leading on a surfboard!

Learn to Surf, Lesson 5: Surfing

This is the reason you’re reading the article. So pay attention.

Again, I’m assuming this is either your first time or a very early stage in your surfing progression, so feel free to skip ahead if you feel like it’s too basic. 

After a quick warmup and stretches (which you should do, too), every surf school begins by lining up their students on the beach; the reason being there’s a few things you need to practise with the stability of sand beneath your board if you’re going to have any hope of perfecting it on the water.

Trying to look like I know what I’m doing

Start by lying on your board – you’ll need to work out the exact body placement once you’re in the sea (shuffle forwards and backwards until the nose is floating a little above the surface), but typically your feet should be just touching the end, and your torso around 2/3rds of the way up the board.

Now place both hands flat on the board in line with your chest, and pop up in one fluid motion – pushing from your arms and toes (or knees, if your feet are off the board) – bring your front leg between your hands and plant your back foot somewhere on the back quarter of the board. Keep your knees bent and stay low to the board for balance, then spread your arms a little and keep looking forwards – congrats, you’re surfing! Time to get wet.

a) White Water (catching already-broken waves)

It’s helpful to get a feel for the waves prone, then progress to your feet as you feel more comfortable.

When you’re ready, wade into the white water (around waist-depth) and lie on your board, facing the beach.

Paddle strokes should be long, deep and close to the rails of the board. Arch your back a little to free your shoulders, and aim for slow powerful strokes. (Don’t just flail around slapping the water like most beginners do when they feel the excitement of a wave approaching!) You want about 5 of these strong strokes before the wave reaches you.

You’ll know when you’ve caught the wave because you’ll suddenly feel ‘weightless’. At this point, take one more stroke and try to pop up like you did on the beach!

There’s nothing more annoying than being lazy, missing the wave, and wishing you’d put in that one extra paddle

Look where you want to go and apply pressure to your toes or heels to turn slightly. Adjust your weight distribution by trimming your feet up or down the board if the nose is going under or sticking too far out the water.

When you feel yourself falling, always protect your head, fall feet first and avoid your board (and others)!

b) Green Waves (catching waves before they’ve broken)

After a few sessions (or maybe sooner if you’re lucky with the conditions) you can progress to paddling out further; it’s time to learn to surf green waves.

You now need to be more careful where you enter the water. Find a spot that looks calmer, and time your entry with a lull in the waves!

When you do get faced head on with a wave, there’s two options:

  1. Raise yourself into the top of a push-up position, push the nose slightly beneath the water and take the wave on your chest (between your body and the board)
  2. Apply some pressure with your knees and feet so the whole front of the board raises above the water and aim for the wave to hit the bottom of the board, about 1/3rd of the way from the tail

But NEVER ditch your board without first checking if anyone is behind you!

Some paddle-outs are easier than others

If you do make it ‘out back’, note a reference point so you don’t get swept too far down the beach. (If the current is too strong, swim in and walk back along the beach to retain your position.) Now you just need to wait for the waves!

Timing is a lot harder with green waves; it’s difficult to explain in words, so your best bet is to learn to surf with a qualified instructor! after that it’s just down to practise and a lot of trial and error!

However, once you’re out of the white water you need to be mindful of other, more experienced surfers. Check out this link for a rundown of how to stay respectful in the line-up.

Perfect falling technique. Abysmal surf etiquette

Don’t be surprised if you get shouted at for breaking any of the rules, especially on a particularly good day; just apologise and learn for next time. (Unless you’re at this not-so-secret-anymore New Zealand break, in which case you should probably invest in a bullet-proof vest…)

Check out these products from Urban Surfer to help you look the part for your new favourite hobby!

I hope this guide has been useful. As always, direct any questions to me on Instagram, @willdavies11, or in the comments below!
Will x

Aaron Carr

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