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The First Lesson


A comic first-time attempt at an adventurous, eco sport.


By Lucy Frears


Ahhh…surfing…body and soul in harmony with earth, sea, and sky. I longed to master this guilt-free way to enjoy nature without damaging it in any way. Let’s face it, dolphins even surf for kicks. Cornwall, surf-central UK since the ‘60s, with clean, clear water and the carbon-neutral surf school Global Boarders, felt like the place to be at peace with the water, the landscape, and myself as I rose out of the ocean like an elegant sea nymph glistening in my wetsuit, balancing on my board. But anyone who wants to try surfing has to understand that the effortless gliding through waves smiling in the sun with a Beach Boys soundtrack is not quite how it works for everyone the first time. 

Step one: Get into a tight wetsuit (quite a challenge). Looking good in it is harder, although I have learned to rely heavily on the slimming qualities of black. Carrying the beginners' huge foam-swell board was daunting until I paired up with another beginner. Even with two of us we tottered towards the beach like a rehearsing slapstick-comedy duo.  

As we plonked our yellow boards at our instructor's feet to join in with the warm-ups, I was glad that I'd chosen to make a fool of myself with a women-only group. We huffed and puffed our way through gentle stretching. Of course it must have been the layer of tight rubber making it harder—surely we weren't that unfit? Then came the surf positioning: lying down to paddle (tricky in the water, even harder on sand) and lifting our upper bodies with elbows-out, chicken style, ready to hop up.

The instructor demonstrated by springing up, one foot in front of the other, the front arm guiding the direction of the board through the surf. Gulp! I've heard the grumblings of many great surfers who took over two years to stand up. Having a teacher helps you reach surf-god status sooner…but was it going to take a miracle to make me surf?

As I tried to head for the sea, the endorphin rush of a standing ride seemed almost unattainable despite the endless great waves. Having a slight build, the wind caught the board and buffeted me around so that I ran and dithered at the water's edge like a scatty sea bird. Finally, I got in and immediately forgot to have the surfboard between me and the beach so that a wave would wash it away rather than let it bash me. Barely avoiding unsightly bruising, I then got tangled and tripped over the strap that attaches board to ankle. I began to wonder whether I was made for this coolest and most eco of sports. But as soon as we started catching waves, the tingle of fun throbbed through my veins as we sped along.

After body-boarding our way in a few times, we were advised to start trying to surf. Yes, get up ride those waves. My assessment of surfing is that there's a moment of mad paddling, then a hop (or frantic scramble) onto knees or feet and an instant thrill…or a disheartening splash. Speed and strength of paddling seems to be key.

My top tip would be not to stay in the sea too long—even if a full-standing ride, rather than the achieved two-second Neanderthal crouch while whooping with joy, seems like it will come any minute. The skill will come if you just chill out, enjoy the beach at sunset, and try again.