How I Learned To Surf (Without Living Near the Ocean)

Surfing is difficult to learn for anyone, especially people who don’t live near the beach.

Acquiring and then maintaining the skills needed to paddle out into the lineup and catch a wave can be a long process. This is especially hard for someone with a limited window of practice time.

When you do get a chance to go surf and conditions are subpar, a local might say “I’ll wait and try again on Monday” but that’s not an option for you as you may will be back in your non-surfable home on Monday, and may not be able to try again for weeks or months.

Growing up in the Midwest, I know this feeling quite well. I once struggled to make any real progress in my surfing, with practice reps being so few and far between.

But with some intentionality, I’ve been able to get some traction and really improve my surfing in the last couple of years.

How did I do this?

First of all, as a preface, I’m no surfing prodigy. But I am happy with how far I’ve come given my non-coastal roots. In fact, I still live almost 300 miles from any surf spot. (And that’s if you consider Galveston, TX a “surf spot”)

If you are an inlander like me, the amount of time you spend surfing is somewhat outside of your control. (Travel budget, work schedule, family responsibilities, etc.) However, the way you spend that time is just as important (if not more) than how many hours you log in the water i.e. the effectiveness of your practice is more important than it’s duration.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.”

I don’t claim to have the “secret sauce” on surfing development, but I do feel that I have found some ways to maximize learning. Some of these include the locations I choose when traveling to surf, the mentorship I seek out when I’m there, and the analytical mindset I bring to every wave.

Where to Surf (To Learn)

I first learned to surf in Cocoa Beach, FL which is perhaps the world’s most forgiving wave. (Very soft and mushy) Lack of quality aside, I think Cocoa Beach is actually a great place to learn (and continue to learn, I still go back)

Cocoa Beach/ Brevard County offers a ridable wave almost everyday, is relatively uncrowded, and has very little “localism.” Despite the lack of quality there, there are many exceptional surfers in the greater Brevard County area. Unlike in CA where beginners are often relegated to entirely different surf breaks than the experienced surfers (which are the surfers you should be watching, and trying to emulate) you might be lucky enough to surf next to an highly skilled surfer, who, if you stay out of his or her way, might give you a couple of pointers.

Once you have the most basic fundamentals down, a wave pool is, in my opinion, the greatest place to progress your surfing very quickly. I’m lucky enough to live near BSR Surf Ranch in Waco, TX and have had my surfing go from a 4 to a 6.5 in just a few sessions. Wave consistency, high reps, and the removal of all other distractions and variables can truly revolutionize your surfing. 1 hour of surfing at BSR is equal to 100 hours of surf time at a beach break as far as progression goes.

Another great learning spot is Cowell’s Beach (Santa Cruz), which is perhaps the most user friendly wave that exists. However, this place is an absolute ZOO, even on many weekdays. Cowell’s is unbelievably crowded and is filled with Wavestorms even in the dead of winter on a Tuesday morning. But this can actually be good for acquiring spatial awareness in a low risk environment.

For a novice, Cowell’s is a perfect wave for learning how to generate paddle power and catch small waves. 

Seek Out Mentorship

This is easier in some places over others, but finding mentorship in the water not only makes surfing more fun, but also garners free coaching provided you can find the right individual looking to give it. This is of course not likely at certain breaks, but I’ve been lucky to receive amazing impromptu coaching from other surfers in the lineup who are generous with their knowledge. (You could also pay for a surf lesson as well)

15 minutes of having an experienced surfer give you feedback wave after wave is worth hours of Youtube tutorials. (You can make adjustments and try again on the next wave!) I’ve also made a lot of friends this way as asking for help is sort of an indirect way of saying “I think you are good at surfing, and would like to emulate your techniques because I see them working.”

What surfer doesn’t want to hear that? It (deservingly) stokes the ego of someone who has worked very hard to refine their craft. Also, this can increase your wave count by developing repoir with an experienced local in the lineup. You might ask a question like “how do you cross-step like that on that inside section? I really struggle with…..”

Mindset (And Some Other Techniques)

Bringing an analytical mindset is something I do to almost every area of my life. (Sometimes to a fault) but it seems this has been useful in learning to surf. After every wave, I like to ask myself “how could I have maximized that wave? What went wrong? How can I adjust for the next wave?

Looking for opportunities to add more style or just increase your wave count not only helps you progress, but also adds a level of mastery to your surfing experience regardless of conditions.

Another powerful technique is to watch yourself on film, this can be an absolute game-changer. There’s a reason that athletes watch game tape in order to improve.

You may learn that you feel a lot different (better) than how you look riding a wave. (Humbling at first) But watching yourself on film (even if you have to pay someone to shoot you) is a very effective way of discovering areas of your surfing to adjust. BSR is one of the best places for this as the waves are 100% consistent and visibility from land is much better than most (real) surf breaks.

Conclusion

Almost every part of learning to surf is difficult, but this also makes it more rewarding. Adopting a student mentality seems to make the journey much more enjoyable. You will never master surfing, so learn to embrace the mindset of being a student.

“If you are not willing to be a fool, you can’t become a master.”

Jordan Peterson

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