Surfing for beginners: From Thanet to Huntington Beach, California

Novice David Lewis had never been near a board, so would a trip into the chilly waters off the Kent coast prepare him for a lesson with the pros in Surf City USA?

‘Why are we waiting, Rocky? What are you looking at?” I beseech my instructor. “Oh, I just saw a fin. Probably a dolphin.” I’m lying across a surfboard several hundred feet out into the Pacific Ocean. Probably? Draped across my longboard, I quickly feel like a tasty-looking turtle. “A wave is coming in now!” my man suddenly roars. “Ready?” Before I’ve responded he’s hurled my 10 foot steed towards the shore. “Power those arms, David! GO! GO! GO! GO!” I’m powering (more; flailing) my limbs like a neoprene windmill and brace to haul up to my feet...

Part I: Broadstairs, Kent

My surfing adventure starts among the blue rinses, red tops and grey skies of a traditional English seaside resort. At the end of the Isle of Thanet, Broadstairs is postcard pretty in a stubbornly British sort of way. Glancing around at the B&Bs and rock shops it looks decidedly more Bergerac than Baywatch.

But it is in these frothy brown waters that I’ll need to master the basics in surfing. My task is to learn some key moves of the watersport in England before jetting off to mix it with the real life surfer dudes in the sun-drenched Pacific waters of California. 

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David practising in Kent

The waves should be just right here. They are traditionally small (less than three feet) and inconsistent, but on the right tides, Thanet is a surprisingly good place for a novice like me to learn some skills, with the north-east facing beaches picking up choppy North Sea swells as well as milder Channel waves.

It’s not a great start. The doors to the Kent Surf School are bolted shut and I wonder if I’ve got my days mixed up. That is until I see a wetsuit-clad man emerge from the sea like a waddling Neptune. (Fortunately clutching surfboard rather than a trident.) “Hi, I’m your instructor Andy!” he beams. I shake his sodden hand and notice tendrils of steam whipping off his shaved head.

Soon I am clambering in to the correct clobber. My teacher recommends a 3/2 wetsuit; 3mm of coating around my chest, 2mm around my limbs. It doesn’t feel too thick or restrictive. Although the winter wind is blowing a bracing gale, the waters licking at our Viking Bay training spot are a temperate 10°C. I heave on some booties over my size twelves. “Those are to keep you safe from rocks,” Andy offers matter-of-factly.

He guides me through some vital safety drills at the water’s edge. He carves diagrams into the brown sand with fingers and thumb: which wave is best to surf, when to start paddling and how to get to my feet. Lying flat on the sand, we proceed to practising popping up, using my upper body strength to get from horizontal to standing, supposedly in one smooth movement. 

I’m braced for the sting of freezing water as we stagger in to the North Sea, but the wetsuit does its job. We half-wobble-half-paddle fifty yards out and bob patiently waiting for the right wave to carry me towards the shore. Andy holds my board as I lie across it, primed, facing the beach. Suddenly he barks to paddle and make it up to one knee. But in a flash I’m fish food. My balance is wrong and I smash face first in to the brine. The next attempt is a little better. Andy cautions to crouch further when I stand and the process slowly pieces together. A low centre of gravity is key; feet around three feet apart, legs bent, straight arms splayed, eyes looking ahead. An upright Englishman doth not a happy surfer make.

I build up to five seconds upright on my steed. Then ten. Popping up – and staying up – is exhilarating, but soon becomes tiring. My upper body is bashed from the board and my arms burn as the lactic acid pulses through my muscles. After less than an hour I make my excuses and head for dry land.

I think I’ve got the basics nailed down and Andy agrees. On the M2 back to London, I sing along to The Beach Boys. The next day I will be jetting half the world away to take my new knowledge to the next level. That is the plan anyway.

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Part II: Huntington Beach, California

I would be converting my new skill set among the perfect white teeth and chiseled abs of Huntington Beach, the strip that clings to the Pacific, dissecting LA to the north and San Diego in the south. There’s no doubting the surfing pedigree of this tranche of Orange County; dubbed Surf City USA (after it won a legal dispute with Santa Cruz, further north, where the sport was first recorded in the 1920s), it hosted the inaugural United States Surfing Championships in the 1950s.

The chilled out beach vibes seem to suffuse everything here, from the board shops that cluster round the ocean through to the surf shacks and countless sunglasses stands that line the beach. I’ve got some time to kill ahead of my lesson and take in the buzzy beach from the grand old pier. On first inspection, the contrast between the Cali and Kent coast is startling. Sunshine replaces gloom, golden sands replace brown and silicone replaces rouge. 

Out to sea the milky waves are heaving with bobbing boarders pulling off snazzy moves. Everyone around me looks healthy and handsome; that’s everyone apart from me...  

I meet my guide Rocky by one of the many lifeguard towers that snake up the shoreline. He is a typical Californian; over six foot tall, permatanned and lacking an ounce of fat. He’s so upbeat it’s almost unsettling. I ask him if he thinks my training in northern European waters will set me up nicely for these American swells. “Any experience you can get in the water is great,” he assures me. “It’s no different really.” Rocky obviously hasn’t been to Broadstairs.

Even though the air temperature is a good 10°C balmier than UK, I am handed the same 3/2 wetsuit before Rocky goes over some tips on the beach. He teaches a four-point plan to surfing success; paddling, identifying the correct wave, catching that wave, riding it. It seems fairly straightforward.

Just before we go in, I anxiously make an inquiry about sharks. Should I be fearful? “No!” Rocky laughs. “It’s the incompetent surfers you should worry about.” That would make me more dangerous than a Great White, I think to myself. 

We wade in. It is striking how different this Pacific current feels. It’s squally and strong and I’m quickly knocked off my feet. As we shuffle deeper and the waves crash by us I’m forced to rely on my turtle roll technique; flipping on to my back and holding my foam board as ballast. All of a sudden the break feels big, and I feel vulnerable.

We wait 50 yards or so out to sea. He assures me the ideal wave size for someone like me is two-to-three feet. I struggle to spot which is the right swell and rely on my teacher to make the call.  

Rocky guide readies me. “OK David. Get ready…” and then he launches my board towards the beach and I’m popping up – and staying up. I keep upright but low and coast towards shore. 

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Lifeguard on Huntington Beach

I pop up efficiently several times, each time for a little longer. Curiously, surfing in bigger Californian swells feels easier than the calmer Kent seas – the glassier waves make it easier to balance. It’s not long before I get cocky and try a classic “hang five” move, standing near the nose of the board and dipping my toes in the sea. I fail to see it through and tumble into the water a moment later.

Eventually, the adrenalin wanes and I decide to wade back to the sand. Rocky catches up with me, full of praise. “You did great!” He’s overblowing it but I agree I’ve built on the basics. 

My time as a surfer dude is up and I’ve loved it – but I think I’ll always be more Bergarac than Baywatch.

Getting there

David Lewis travelled with Hayes & Jarvis (01293 762 456; hayesandjarvis.co.uk), which is offering a seven-night holiday to California from £1,199pp. The trip includes three nights at the four-star Grafton on Sunset in West Hollywood and three nights at the five-star Fairmont Newport Beach, both on a room only basis. The offer also includes car hire for the duration and return flights from Heathrow to Los Angeles. 

David flew with Virgin Atlantic  (0344 8747 747; virginatlantic.com), which flies twice daily from Heathrow to Los Angeles and offers return fares from £586pp. LA is also served by Air New Zealand, American Airlines. British Airways, Norwegian and United.

Surfing there

A two-hour beginner surf lesson at Kent Surf School in Broadstairs, including all equipment and safety lesson, costs £35 for adults (01843 871093; kentsurfschool.co.uk). A two-hour surfing lesson at Huntington Beach costs around £60pp with Rocky Mckinnon  (mckinnonsurfboards.com).

More information

Visit Thanet: visitthanet.co.uk

Visit Huntington Beach:  surfcityusa.com

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