New wave: surfing for absolute beginners

Surfing is the coolest thing a human being can do. Fact. We’ve watched them from the shore, riding the Atlantic rollers like rubber-clad sea-gods. But can anyone learn to surf? In the spirit of ‘old dog, new tricks’ we sent a total beginner into the Welsh waves to find out. And he had a blast…

Anyone can do it

A group learning to surf on Caswell Bay beach

A surf school at Caswell Bay, Gower Peninsula by Surf gsd
There comes a time in a chap’s life when he realises there are certain things he’ll never accomplish. It’s unlikely that I’ll play for Wales, or headline Glastonbury. But hey, I’m not that old. I’m the same age as Kylie, for heaven’s sake. If she can walk in those shoes, then I can surely learn to surf.

So where to begin?

A group of children learning to surf at a surf school in Cardigan

A surf school in Cardigan, Ceredigion
So where to begin? Gower is the obvious spot, but I’ve seen the surfers there, and they all look a bit tasty to me, lolling around their camper vans, with their cool hair and tribal tattoos, using a weird surfy slang that sounds like Californian-Dothraki.

Plenty of other places in Wales, though. Maybe I’ll nip down to the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, or along to the wide-open spaces of Porthcawl. Or perhaps try the easier surf around Aberystwyth, or somewhere quiet on Anglesey or the Llŷn Peninsula. Or – yes – Pembrokeshire, because I go there every summer anyway, and if it all goes horribly wrong, it’s not far back to the cottage for beer and sympathy.

Whitesands near St David’s is a cracking beach. One of the very best, in fact. The Cool Water Surf Academy run lessons from the beach, supplying all the gubbins (wetsuit, board, etc) that a middle-aged man needs when going to make a tit of himself. 

Taking the plunge

A man surfing at Colhuw Beach on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast

Surfing at Colhuw Beach, Glamorgan Heritage Coast
I’ve booked a two-hour beginner class. My fellow novices range from smallish children to fattish dads (one bloke is even older than me). We’re kitted out, and off we go to a quiet stretch of the beach where the waves are less lively and, more importantly, there’s nobody else for us to blunder into.

Before getting wet, there’s a safety briefing, and a bit of theory. Basically, we’re aiming to wade out to around waist-deep and practice catching waves. When we’ve mastered that, we’ll try standing up. Sounds simple enough. Our instructor leads us through a few stretches and a trot along the beach to warm up (which I’m glad of, because the sea seems much warmer if you go in with a bit of a sweat on) and away we go.

Catching waves is pretty easy, I find. Wait for a big enough one to arrive at breaking-point, push yourself towards the shore, and wiggle onto the board. Lie down, enjoy. So far, so very much like body-boarding.

Now for the tricky bit: standing up. There are two ways to go about this. Firstly, by getting onto all fours and then carefully wobbling upright. It’s a manoeuvre I’ve done hundreds of times, usually while retrieving dropped snack items while drunk. But it’s quite a bit harder when you’re riding along on the froth of a breaking wave. I fall in, a lot.

The other way is the all-or-bust approach, springing from prone to standing, and missing out the kneeling bit. This is quite hard (go on, try it NOW on the carpet). But in the spirit of ‘what could possibly go wrong’, I go for it. And fall in.

Anyone can do it

A man surfing at Llangrannog, Ceredigion

Surfing at Llangrannog, Ceredigion by Taracy
An hour passes, moistly. It’s all good fun, but I just don’t get it. Some of the children are already standing. The old fella (he must be a good three years older than me) has come close a couple of times.

Then it happens to me. I catch a wave, crawl inelegantly to my knees, and slowly rise, like an unfurling tropical flower, to my full - and if I may say, magnificent - erectness. I am borne aloft on a magic carpet, feeling the entire might of the Atlantic beneath my feet, like some primeval sea-god. From the shore, it might look like a grey bloke is wobbling along at walking pace on a 25cm pile of froth BUT I DON’T CARE FOR I AM SURFING.

Three seconds later, I fall off. But in those golden moments, I understand what the fuss is about. It’s like when you’re skiing, the first time you rise up through the powder. Or your feet first leave the ground when you’re paragliding, or you nudge a motorbike over 100mph, or step out of the aeroplane with your parachute. I’ve done all of these things, and I see how surfing fits with those experiences.

I know why people get hooked. Why people devote their lives to it, and spend icy winter dawns on the boiling shore, mumbling in Dothraki and waiting for the perfect wave.

Yes, anyone CAN surf. This summer, I’m going back for more. See if I can last for five seconds.

More surfing operators in Wales