Surf lessons when you can already surf

A friend of mine recently asked me why I take surf classes when I can already surf (his words, not mine). This is a question that I get so often, I thought I would write about it and unpick some of the reasons…

Standing up isn’t surfing

I have taken many many surf classes over the years. Because surfing is an activity that needs to be practiced regularly in order to make progress, I found myself attending classes, improving over the course of a week or two, and then, after a prolonged hiatus, starting from scratch again. I think what was so frustrating about this cycle was that the classes always covered the same elements. There was never any new topics adapted to those who had already some notions of being in the ocean. As a result, I started to paddle into the water with just my boyfriend for company, to get the practice we needed so much of. We would observe each other and correct one another based on our learnings from previous classes or simply observing other surfers in the water. It felt rather like we had learned all we could learn from the classes and now we had to figure it out alone.

When we arrived in Ericeira, the conditions were such that we needed help if we were going to surf at all. We conceded to taking one class.

Because of the season, and because of the conditions (looking back, they really were awful!) the surf classes were small. As part of my concession, I was extremely determined to get as much from the class as I possibly could; I asked questions, listened closely when being given direction and regularly asked for feedback. The coaches recognised that I was there for a reason and they adapted their teaching accordingly. Very quickly one surf class became two became a ten-pack. I rapidly learned that surfing is about a lot more than standing on a board; it is a discussion, a negociation between you and the ocean.

The Push
One of my first lessons in Portugal, relearning the basics

When I first started to take surf lesson again, I was only really surfing the white water. I was able to pop up on every attempt, and could even reduce the stability of my board (i.e, my boards got smaller) while still making the take offs. I knew however, that to make it to the next level, I was going to need help. I found paddling out of my depth extremely nerve wracking, and besides the mellowest smallest unbroken waves, I was not able to catch the green wave. If I was to burst out of my comfort zone, I was going to need someone to, quite literally, push me.

This push, it turns out, came in different forms. Partly because of conditions, and partly because we were not ready yet (despite, perhaps what we thought), we spent a lot of lessons working on our technique on the inside of the break. What we were crucially learning, slowly slowly, was that surfing is not about popping up and standing on the board. Surfing is about reading the wave. Even on the small unbroken waves we were riding, we were being challenged to adapt our surfing to the different types of waves. These are lessons that eventually I am sure we would have worked out ourselves . There are many people who have learned to surf and never took a single lesson. But that being said, here were people who have an expertise and experience that they are willing, and excited to share…

The expertise and feedback

This is the most obvious reason someone would take a class; for the instructors expertise and for your own safety. You can very easily pick up bad habits when you surf, which will ultimately hinder your progress as your level improves. Small things like a knee on the board when you take-off, a misplacement of your feet on the jump, can, if not corrected be extremely hard to shake later. Having someone to check and correct the small mistakes made the world of difference.

The classes is also where I learned about turning my board, or riding waves with the rail of the surfboard rather than the bottom. I learned about putting pressure on the tail to turn, about working my knees to get some speed, about changing my position on the board to get speed and overcome sections, about trimming on the wave, riding backside. Now that I have learned these things they seem self-evident, and I probably would have eventually worked it out on my own, but being shown meant the progress was massively sped up.

Riding backside on small waves

Surf instructors are more often than not locals who have spent a considerable amount of time surfing the local spots. They know what specific conditions will do to each spot, where the currents run, what sort of a break it is and what to look out for (hidden rocks, most of the time!). This sort of information is invaluable, and takes an extremely long time to learn. Especially if you are not an expert surfer, taking even one class familiarises you with the spots and gives you a chance to chat to locals who can advise on other places appropriate for your level. In my mind, there is little worse then being caught out in huge swells with wayward currents and being clueless.

Friends

It turns out that almost all the friends I made here came from these surf classes. Perhaps this is because I have been taking classes in the winter, when most of the people I met were truly eager to learn to surf (you very probably mean business if you’re thinking about getting into the winter Atlantic – even here in Portugal). We shared the same passion and this meant we all had something in common.

Classes to improve

The true reason however, that I still take surf classes, is that they are fun and I am still improving. Every wave I take elicits critical feedback, of which I almost certainly only manage to absorb 2 percent of, but always has me striving for more.

I think it takes an extremely special instructor who would be able to give you a quality lesson at the height of the peak season. There are simply too many classes, too many new faces and too much chaos for them to effectively pass on their knowledge. If you are to taking a surf class because you are serious about learning, I would recommend doing so as out of season as possible to be able to develop a proper connection with the coach and have time to practice what you learn.

I believe there is still a stigma attached to surf classes. It ties in closely with the inherently secretive nature of surfing; secret spots, empty waves, locals only. For me however, shelving my pride and understanding the humility of my situation has left my surfing unrecognisable to six, or even three months ago. I do not belong in every lineup, but I have certainly found a place in some of them.

This is why I still take lessons.

Take-offs are not always the most elegant affairs!
Photo courtesy of Salty Spirit Photography

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