5 lessons I learned when I bought my first board
Buying a surfboard must be one of the most exciting things you can do. Even the simple act of browsing surfboards, touching the smooth surfaces and admiring the different designs can leave you excited and lustful.
I bought my surfboard as a treat to myself, just as my sabbatical started. And the truth is, that despite desperately trying not to fall into the pitfalls of beginner surfers, there were probably some things I could have done better. As a result, I wrote the below to try and help motivated and determined beginner surfers when it comes to that first exciting purchase. I would like to emphasise that I am not by any means a good surfer (yet), and perhaps more experienced people will disagree with what I have established (perhaps even I shall disagree in years to come!). But the simple truth is that these are my learnings so far. As the saying goes, everyone’s a genius in hindsight. Perhaps what is more interesting is the bit just before we see the light, while we are still staggering in the dark trying to make sense of the choices we have made.
Lesson 1. Do not be scared of The Surf Shops
Oh, the surf shops! Even before I had so much as considered buying a surfboard, I was drawn to these beautiful spaces full of delicate and powerful looking merchandise. Like a moth to a flame though, every time I got too close I felt dangerously out of my depth. These shops are often staffed by savvy surfers who see an endless stream of dewy-eyed holiday surfers coming in and gawping at the rows of surf gear. As a result, surfboards are often stored behind some sort of protective barrier, with a sign pinned to it stating clearly ‘do not touch the surfboards’. Depending on the season, the staff generally come across as slightly aloof, and at the height of summer, probably very stressed. Surf shops exude cool. The problem with that is you sometimes do not feel cool enough to be there.
I am exaggerating slightly, of course. But truthfully, the most important thing you can do if you are buying a surfboard is talk to the staff. Browse the boards, get a feel for prices, get a feel for different brands and offerings. There is a confusing array of board types when you first look at surfboards; fish, Malibu, funboard… Find a staff member, and pick up the boards. Ask questions.
As with all things, research will make the surfboard purchasing much less daunting. I was very specific when I bought my board that I wanted something ‘progressive’. I wanted something I could be on at the early learning days but also something that I could still be surfing in ten years without issue, and I made that very clear to those helping me.
Lesson 2. Be honest
I hesitated with whether to call this lesson ‘Be honest’ or ‘Why are you buying a board?’. Because, at the beginning, it is extremely important to be honest with yourself about the following : why are you buying a board, what is your level, what do you want to be able to do, how much money do you want to spend?
These questions seem blatantly obvious until you are in the surf shop and surrounded by the beautiful boards. You may have a kindly (and probably quite cool) sales assistant who is offering to help, and suddenly you have an overwhelming desire to convince this person that you are a better surfer than you are. It is an extremely strange part of human psyche. It is, however, extraordinarily important to remain honest, with yourself and with whoever is helping you.
The problem, in my opinion, is that you are unlikely to be buying a board after a single surf class. More likely is that you have been surfing for a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months, and you are starting to feel comfortable in certain conditions. This was most definitely the case for me. I bought my first surfboard before I had ever been to the outside. I was extremely confident in the white water, and able to stand up in most circumstances. In the right conditions, I was even able to catch tiny unbroken waves. I now know, this does not mean I knew how to surf.
Good staff will — hopefully — be able to pick up on small things that give your level away and make sure they sell you the right board, but you sure will make everyone’s life easier if you can be truly honest about your abilities. The wrong board will make your progress so much more painful, so the discussions you have with surf shop staff is critical.
Lesson 3. Size matters!
I will repeat myself, because it is important : the wrong board will make your progress painful. Buying a first surfboard is a tricky matter. Boards are expensive, and if you are going to make an investment, you probably do not want it to be in an enormous, thick, unwieldy foamy. It is probably part of surfing’s rite of passage that people get boards that are too small for their skill level.
I understand the logic perfectly. In a lot of sports, if you are serious about the practice, you will buy the best equipment in order to help you improve; you buy the best pair of running shoes when you are serious about running a marathon, you buy the best tennis racket when you want to be the next Willam’s sister etc.
Surfing is not the same. The slickest looking board will not help you improve — no matter how serious you are about it. There are a number of size factors to bare in mind when buying a board : the width, the length and the thickness. Altogether, these things make up the volume of the board (there are other factors too but lets keep it simple). You may hear a lot about volume. Volume is essentially the buoyancy of the board. More volume means more stability and that usually means easier to catch waves.
If you are a beginner surfer taking lessons, you have probably been on a board that is at least 60L. These tanks are fantastic for surfing; you can scramble to your feet by any which means come to you and ride the wave comfortably. It is however, hard to do any sort of maneuvers on the wave. When buying your own board, it is normal that you may want to decrease the volume. This will make it easier to actually turn on the waves as the board will be much more responsive to your body’s movements. But, you lose too much volume too soon and suddenly even lying on the board can be an intensive core workout you were not prepared for. And despite everyone talking about volume, length is just as important. Unless you are a surfing prodigy, you probably do not need to be reducing your length by more than half a foot at a time, maybe a foot if you were previously on an 8′ and want to go to a 7′.
My little Jasmin (yes, I named my board) is a 7′ epoxy board with 46L. Now, I am able to ride her, and she is nifty as could be, but when it came to heading to the Outside for the first time, I sure was glad I was on a 7′ foamy with 60L of volume and a spongy surface to mitigate against broken noses when I wiped out.
Surfing is hard, lets not make it harder than it needs to be.
Lesson 4. Go browsing
Oh come on! Beyond actually surfing your new board, the acquiring of it is one of the most exciting things you can do, why wouldn’t you go browsing?
But seriously, checking out various shops really is a wise decision. I can give you three reasons why :
- You get an understanding of what you are buying and what it should be costing you
- Smaller shops sometimes offer you a discount that the larger brand headquarters cannot get away with offering you. And no, the smaller shops are not necessarily selling at a whacked up price, it is just that they sometimes need the cash flow the sale will provide (sad but true).
- You end up talking to more staff, thereby increasing your chances of finding a truly knowledgeable human.
One thing I will add here is that it is important to check exactly what is included when you buy your board. More often than not, you are buying the board and nothing else. Always make sure you ask about the fins, the leash or a board cover. Often shops are happy to throw something in for you, but you need to know to ask. When I bought my board, the fins were already included and because I bought a board cover he gave me the leash for free. It may only be a small thing but those little pluses saved me enough money for a week’s groceries.
Lesson 5. Used boards
Yes, new boards are really beautiful. They glisten in the sun and feel so smooth. They hold all sorts of promise of good sessions to come. But you know what the first thing you need to do with a new board is? Wax it.
It feels almost sacrilegious to stain such a beautiful piece of equipment with wax, and yet, you will be doing absolutely no surfing if you do not put some sort of adhesive layer on the beautiful deck.
To spare yourself the pain of this step, and for the financial benefits, it is absolutely worth considering used boards.
You can find used boards on second hand forums and facebook groups online, usually particular to a certain geographic location. This approach can involve quite a bit of trawling through pages, finding boards that suit your size, price checking etc. Usually you have more room to haggle but there is no guarantee that the board hasn’t been thoroughly bashed up before and is one nasty wipe out away from breaking in two.
You can also find used boards in surf shops. These has the advantage that someone has probably given them a fairly good once-over and decided they are good enough to sell. The price is unlikely to be negotiable but you can feel slightly more confident about the quality.
Finally you can also buy brand test boards. These are boards that have been used a couple of times by store staff and good surfers to make sure there are no glitches and then get sold on. It is the equivalent of buying a garage car rather than a new one. The dial may have 50km on it, but the price has a couple of hundred knocked off. A test board is what I bought. The man who sold it to me had actually ridden it, and could give me a clear understanding of how it performed in the water. It was roughly 200 euro cheaper because it had already been ridden but aside from the wax on the deck, it was pristine.
It is worth mentioning that used boards are a great option but also extremely seasonal. Normally at the end of the season, when all the long term holidayers who came and bought leave there is a high selection of boards at good prices. It is also when shops will be more keen to sell off stock, so as well as a better selection you can probably get a better price.
These are little things that I figured out while researching and buying my board. I think the biggest thing for me was research and chatting with people who know. If you still have a surfcoach, they are your number one best person to talk to. They know your surf level and know if the board you have your eye on is completely ridiculous or not. If you can, ask them to come along to the shop with you. Chances are they have bought many boards themselves and understand the intricacies of the purchase. If you are in a country where you do not speak the language, they can help translate. And because there is such a thrill when you buy a board, they will probably love being included in the process.