Travel: Ring of bright water

The tube is the holy grail of every surfie - but for the first timer, mere mastery of the board has a very steep learning curve, as Eric Kendall found out

At first glance there is not much to surfing. First catch your wave, then jump to your feet, do some tricks and soak up the glory back on the beach. Simple - just you, the board and the waves - but not easy.

To bring the dream to life, meet Darren, your reassuring surfing instructor. He's the perfect mix of surferish relaxed affability and not so much cool as to make you lose yours completely. He's certainly bronzed enough to look the part but much of that tan is on top of his head, where stereotype suggests a flowing blond mane should sprout.

Now meet your board, enormous and obviously buoyant - stick on a mast and you could call it a dinghy. Like Darren, it's perhaps not quite as sleek as you might have expected, but it's all the more confidence-inspiring for that.

With one of these bright yellow foam blocks under your arm, there's absolutely no chance of anyone mistaking you for a real surfer, least of all when you file like a duckling across the sand, wearing a damp wetsuit, behind Darren in his Day-glo Surf South West instructor's bib.

There is no chance of charging into the waves, either, which I thought was de rigueur for all surfers.

With an onshore gale, it was all we could do to claw our way to the water's edge, which is where you cover the basics. They don't take long. Darren knows you can swim, because the booking form said you have to be able to do at least 50 metres, though it hardly applies to start with, in the shallows.

Probably more important, is knowing what to do the instant you fall off - cover your head with your arms - because even these soft-skinned boards can give you a battering. The advice on currents and rip-tides is also essential listening.

The key thing, while you're still dry, is to learn the position to adopt when out on the waves, lying face down on the board. Too far back and it pops out and upwards, too far forwards and it nose-dives as it accelerates, dumping you head first into the water and quite possibly on to hard sand.

It's worth paying close attention to avoid having to learn these vital stages by trial and error.

Hugely prematurely, you then learn the technique for jumping to your feet, a sort of cross between a press-up and a squat thrust in reverse, only more tiring.

In an ideal world (where the water's a constant 25C and the sun always shines) you go from lying down to a side-on stance in one smooth move.

In practice, it's more likely to be a fumbling on to one knee manoeuvre, followed by a shaky phase before falling off. Hawaii will just have to wait. Out in the water, it can be a struggle to make even a few yards through the surf. You don't go out anything like as far as the big boys, who deserve respect for their prodigious paddling ability alone, and you do not need to; long before you can try any of the real deep-water stuff, you need to practise catching waves that have already broken.

When you spot a likely looking wave (a big, foaming wall of water coming straight at you will do nicely), the technique is to point your board straight towards the shore, jump on and paddle like crazy. Faced with my first large wave, this response felt pretty well instinctive. The paddling action feels futile and looks hilarious.

Like most funny things, it's all about timing: paddle harder as the wave hits - either it lifts you upwards and forwards (good, you've caught it) or surges over and buries you (bad, it caught you). When that happens, just remember not to breathe until you surface and (timing again) don't take your first gasp just as the next wave arrives, or it could be the beginning of a downward spiral.

It's about now that Darren cruises casually past (standing up - how does he do that?) to impart some pearls of wisdom (and talking at the same time). The fact that you're coughing up four or five gallons of seawater and have green things running out of your nose reinforces the pupil-teacher relationship; it's a very long time before anyone gets too big for their boots when learning to surf.

But the sensation of catching that first wave - smooth power, speed and pure fun - is in a league of its own, topped only by each surfing breakthrough that follows: clambering tentatively to your feet, standing up and staying up, and learning to turn.

Finally, you can graduate to a real glass fibre board and head out into big waves. This is the ultimate goal, what all those songs have been written about and what otherwise normal people reorganise their lives for. And it's such an elusive grail that Darren is as happy as his pupils when they make it, even if they still have slimy green things running out of their noses. MUCH of Britain's coast has surfable conditions at various times of year, if your wetsuit is thick enough. In practice, the West Country is where it's at, but you don't need to go all the way to Newquay to find excellent, consistent conditions. Surf South West (01271 815888), www.britsurf.org/SurfSouthWest, is based at west-facing Croyde Bay, in north Devon, which has consistently good conditions and clean water.

For details of other approved schools and information on learning to surf, contact the British Surfing Association (01736 360250).

Surf schools provide wetsuits and beginners' boards as well as tuition; you provide a swimsuit, waterproof sunscreen and determination.

Other than during flat calms or raging storms, surfing will always be possible - don't be put off just because rain is forecast. Since the surf is a free, natural resource that doesn't get used up, it's a relatively cheap sport. Even qualified coaching tends to be excellent value.

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