Learning how to surf in Hawaii as a total newbie

Learning how to surf in HawaiiWe drove along West Maui’s southern coast, nodding our heads to the local reggae station, which blasted the latest island jam. The bright royal Pacific filled our peripheries to the left.

The forest reserve’s dramatic mountains stretched out to our right. Their rugged slopes were steep and dry. Yes, Hawaii has the lush jungle of my imagining, but it also has stark, arid landscapes, made more so by extreme drought in recent years.


Ukumehame Beach Park

We were looking for Ukumehame Beach Park, eight miles south of Lahaina, at mile marker twelve. There, I would meet my surf instructor at the north end of a picnic area. The directions in a confirmation email told me to look for a white Toyota truck parked along a guardrail.

We managed to find Lucy, our Maui Surfer Girls instructor. She grabbed a couple of big boards for us from her truck—as in, nine-foot long boards, the perfect size for learning.

Learning how to surf in HawaiiWe laid the boards flat on the sand, took a seat, and Lucy explained to us why it was a perfect day to learn how to surf. The onshore wind was dead, which can break up the waves and make for a choppy ride. Today, the swell was consistent and the crests were an ideal height. No better opportunity, really, for learning how to surf in Hawaii.



Yoga and surfing philosophy

Laying flat with our bellies on the boards, we practiced hopping up to standing then reversed the motion. Lucy referred to each surf posture with its yoga pose equivalent: upward facing dog to downward dog to warrior II.

There are a lot of similarities between yoga and surfing, she said. It’s all about the practice of slowing things down. You must learn how to read the water, be patient, rise on your board mindfully, and tune into the water beneath you. Surfing is an art of connecting yourself with your surroundings and being in the present.

Easier said than done.

Learning how to surf in Hawaii 2


Slightly embarrassed … and stoked

When surfing newbies are swept up by a wave for the first time they either try to do everything at once—which becomes one big spastic ride-and-tumble—or they completely blackout, which also ends with a spill over.

I didn’t have a goal of keeping my hair dry (aka not falling off my board), but I was, for some reason, slightly anxious about plummeting with a wave, which seemed inevitable. I appreciate water, but did not grow up taking exploratory stints to the ocean from Southwest Colorado.  To quiet my ego I reminded myself of this and accepted that I was a total beginner.

Learning how to surf Hawaii 4Lucy gracefully picked her board up and rested it perpendicular against her waist. Following her to the water’s edge, I tried to mimic her moves but the rounded edge of the board dug into my hip and fumbled beneath my grip, and my toes got entangled in the safety leash around my ankle. I epitomized a grommet.

Once I was actually in the water (the incoming waves almost toppling me over), I started paddling through the channel behind Lucy.


Standing up to surf

Buoyed by my side, Lucy let me know when I should face forward and prepare to catch a wave—which is the biggest reason why I’d recommend a surf lesson for any first-timer.

In my experience, the hardest part of surfing solo as a beginner is learning how to read the timing of the water. A set of experienced eyes can help expedite the learning curve. You’ll spend more time actually practicing the motions of riding a wave, not just looking for one.

“Paddle, paddle, paddle,” she’d repeat, and remind me to take long, strong strokes into the water, versus frantic sweeps that skimmed the surface. “I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere!” I told her. She assured me that I was, and then said, “Stand up!”

Learning how to surf in HawaiiI felt the wave swell up beneath me, and pushed myself into upward dog. I tried to stay calm, but the board wobbled back and forth beneath me and I drew a blank on what my next move should be.

Instead, I rode the wave in without ever standing up, and then laughed as it sizzled out. I was obviously a blackout case and I’d been humbled by the squander.

I’d taken a surf lesson a decade earlier, and all I could remember was rushing to jump-stand, every time.

Now, rather than “popping up” on the board, I moved through the steps that Lucy showed me, which helped me stay focused and relaxed.

Several tumbles later, I linked the moves together and caught my first wave! Then I caught another, and another. I started to play on the surf, walking forward and back on the board, and turning my body to steer one way or the other.

I fell multiple times—and certainly will again—and every time it was worth it. I felt totally content and carefree in the waves.

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