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Beginner's guide to surfing

A beginner’s guide to everything you need to know, from choosing a board to falling off to not ‘dropping in’… and always having fun.

Words and photography: Sam Crosby

Book your lesson with Wavehunters at the Extreme Academy

A child stands on a surf board on the sand

It’s a human trait to be drawn to the sea. The mystery of surfing, in particular, nags at the uninitiated. As with a fleeting glimpse of wildlife, fear mingles with an impulse to edge closer.

I felt its pull years ago – and I followed it. I can still remember catching my first clean ‘green’ wave in Devon when I was 19. And yet, even before then I dubbed myself a ‘surfer’. I thought surfing was wearing Hawaiian shorts, a beaded necklace and a holier-than-thou smirk. The cool-factor outshone the act of surfing itself.

Fortunately, I grew up. Now 30 and living in Cornwall, I’m nearly ready to drop the inverted commas when I call myself a surfer. I’ve put in the time and energy to get surfing. I’ve stuck it out, gaining balance, strength, confidence and experience along the way. This year I earned my level 1 surf instructor qualification.

My mission now is to encourage others to try surfing – at its core an open, accessible pursuit – for no other reason than to have fun in the water.

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Tips for getting started

Jump in.

Sometimes the best advice is the simplest: give it a try. There’s a chance you'll stumble into surfing on holiday, in the same moment you might go coasteering or try a new food. My advice: if the opportunity comes along, take it. You need no more than a couple of hours and an entry level of fitness to get started.

Hire a coach.

The sea is a changeable environment where experience is everything. Some basic tips and a watchful eye will give you the best, safest start. A good coach will show you that the early stage of surfing – falling off your board and jetting around in the white water – is one of the most fun (there’s that f-word again).

Extreme Academy surfing lesson

Use a big board.

Surfboards can make or break your experience. Getting hung up on style makes it all too easy to end up with a board that looks better under your arm than it feels under your feet. You’ll progress more quickly, and have more fun, with a board suited to your ability. Start with a ‘foamie’ – the surf coach’s go-to – then, after some progression, get hold of a second-hand Mini Mal or longboard.

Make sure you get a good wetsuit.

Modern wetsuits are incredible pieces of kit – they will surprise you, even in the coldest winter months.

Save on travel.

You don't have to go far. For beginners, the UK coastline has conditions comparable to some of the best in the world. Breaks on sandy beaches, soft underfoot, are best. Popular beginner beaches with surf schools on site (some seasonal) include North Cornwall’s Fistral and Watergate Bay, Woolacombe in Devon and Llangennith in South Wales. Further north, Tynemouth beach in Northumberland, Scarborough in North Yorkshire and Belhaven Bay in Scotland are well-known surf spots.

Catching a small wave

Check the conditions.

When it comes to surfing, no two days are the same. There are windy days, dreamy days, beige days, friendly days, rubbish days, difficult days and somewhere-in-between days. With a change in swell and local weather conditions, a spot can shift overnight from 10ft-plus of unapproachable swell to beginner surf heaven. Surfers use online surf forecasting apps like Magic Seaweed to check ahead. They’re reliable, but only to a point. Always check in with a lifeguard.

Beware surfing’s egos.

Aside from basic techniques and some rules of engagement (read on for these), there is no right or wrong approach to getting in the water. Surf culture changes with the wind. Ignore it. Likewise localism, whereby a minority of individuals lay claim to a surf spot out of a misplaced sense of ownership. If you’re surfing safely, respectfully and within your ability, you have every right to do so – wherever you are.

A person sits on a surfboard smiling at the camera in the sea at Watergate Bay

Remember the rules.

There are a dozen or so universal rules of surfing in place to promote safety. Any good coach or surfer will teach you to:

  • Hang onto your board when you fall off, in case it hits someone else
  • Stay between the black and white flags when surfing, and between the red and yellow flags when swimming and bodyboarding
  • Never ‘drop in’ (i.e. paddle into a wave someone else is surfing already)

Keep surfing.

There is no ‘aha!’ moment. After that first stage of learning to get up on a board and ride a white water wave, you’ll progress to green waves, and then the learning curve begins to level out. Don’t get frustrated (if you find a way to remember this, please let me know). But if you do, play the long game.

Why? Because when you’re getting surfing, with all its freedom, frustration, aloha and everything in between, failure means progress. Keep going to the beach. Keep surfing. And soon enough, you’ll be experiencing what, for me, is one of the best, purest feelings in the world: riding green waves.

Sam Crosby writes about learning to surf at

A surfer rides a wave

Read on…

Three more surfing reads selected from the Watergate Bay blog:

Why Watergate for surfing? From flexibility with different states of tides to consistent swell, find out more about what makes Watergate a reliable spot for surf.

Discover more

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