I always think learning from someone who is just a few steps ahead of you is useful because the advice they impart is often the most accessible and immediately relevant, so I wrote this post to pass on my “first board” experience.
Bear with my double entendres below!
1. Big and thick is always better
More experienced surfers often misjudge (or forget) how difficult the mere act of standing up on a board, or catching a wave, can be for a beginner. When I first started surfing, my Surfer Ex (with all the best intentions) bought me a 7’0″ foamie because it was what he started out on as a grom (minus the foamie part – apparently back in the day they didn’t have the luxury of “safety” and surfing was pure Darwinism in action). So I spent a frustrating 5-day surfing trip unable to stand up on the board at all (even in whitewater), ludicrously wobbling from side to side as I paddled, and embarrassingly falling off every time I tried to sit up with any hint of surfer-chick swagger.
Then, Surfer Ex took pity on me and bought me a 8 foot Shakka foamie for Christmas*. The Shakka is super-floaty, a wave-catching machine, unsinkable, virtually indestructible, cheap, and took many a beating without complaint in my inexperienced hands. If you are just starting out surfing, I highly recommend it. It is practically a boat for someone who is 50kg and 160cm tall (you now know my dimensions!). This is what you want when you are learning because the bigger the board, the more stable you will be, the more likely you will be able to a) catch the wave (probably the most important factor for a beginner and to keep you surfing); and b) remain standing on the wave when you do catch it. The downside is that it is unwieldy and less manoeuvrable, but in the early stages, this is not your priority anyway.
When picking your first surfboard, take your weight, age and height into consideration. The bigger you are, the bigger your surfboard will generally need to be.
2. Go soft, not hard
If you’ve ever had a surf lesson before, chances are you’ve ridden a soft-top. These things are super floaty because they trap little air-pockets (unlike hardboards), adding buoyancy and stability. Again, like size, it makes wave catching so much easier for beginners.
Plus if it far less painful when, as a beginner, you inevitably lose control of your board and manage to smack yourself (or someone else for that matter) in the face with all 8 foot of surfboard glory. During my totally-out-of-control learner phase, there were so many times when I was grateful that my board was soft. This is especially true if you haven’t had much experience in the ocean, as learning to predict what it is going to do, and how your board will react to it is all part and parcel of the beginner experience.
3. When to go hard – upgrading
It took me almost a year (of sporadic surfing) to step up (or is that down?) from my 8 foot foamie to a fibreglass board.
Eventually, and after copious (and obsessive) amounts of research and trying out different boards, I bought a second-hand 7’4″ fibreglass mini mal, and it surfed like an absolute dream. By the time I bought my “real” board, I had been catching green waves in the lineup for a while. I think the hardened surfers were amused by the sight of me, on my big blue “boat”, sitting high above the horizon. It did make for a nice stable lounge though!
I don’t know why it took me so long to upgrade, other than perhaps a fear that I still couldn’t control my board properly and therefore if I upgraded to a fibreglass board, I would cause serious injury to myself (by way of a nicely planted surfboard to the face) or others in the water.
My one regret is that I didn’t upgrade sooner, as it is just so much more manoeuvrable than a foamie. However, judging from my daily collection of bruises, not stepping up sooner probably saved me from quite a bit of pain. Take these things into consideration when you make the “when should I upgrade” decision. Generally, I believe you should upgrade when:
- When you can confidently handle the foamie
Having a foamie is a “safety” stage. Try to upgrade as soon as you feel you are able to surf safely without severing a vital limb.
- When you want to start progressing from surfing whitewash to green waves
As a beginner, you won’t notice performance differences as much as more experienced surfers, however you will definitely notice the upgrade from a foamie to a real surfboard. A hard surfboard is easier to turn and manoeuvre and will slice into the wave and hold the rail much better.
- When you don’t need the extra volume and stability anymore Foamies definitely help to give you that much needed stability and ability to “get on” the wave in the beginning stages of surfing. If you’re popping up most of the time, and able to stay on the board (even if it’s with a bit of wobble every now and again), you can probably start thinking of an upgrade.
Stay tuned for my next post – all about buying your first “real” surfboard and what factors I found helpful to consider when making that decision.