2019-6-14 | Chevy New Roads Magazine
Opening a World of Waves
If you have a passion to be outside and a willingness to get wet, surf school could be the start of your next great escapade.
“Paddle. Knees. And … up!”
Instructor Justin Newton lies on a surfboard at Santa Monica Beach demonstrating proper surfing protocols to an energetic first-timer. Since the student is a newbie, Justin is having her rehearse on the sand just feet from the Pacific Ocean. After about 20 minutes of practicing how to “pop up”—that is, how to stand up on a board after catching a wave—Justin and his eager charge take to the water, where the real fun begins.
As an instructor for the Southern California instruction school Go Surf LA, Justin ranks among hundreds of licensed surf coaches scattered across the U.S. Whether it’s relatively obscure locales like Hampton Beach, N.H., or well-known destinations like Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Cocoa Beach, Fla., or the mythic Banzai Pipeline on Oahu, the country is full of surfing schools that can get you out on the waves in no time. Unlike many of its wintry East Coast counterparts, Southern California’s Mediterranean climate makes it an ideal year-round surfing stop. Combine that with the state’s legendarily smooth waves and abundance of fabled beaches like Malibu, Santa Cruz, and San Clemente, and it’s no wonder the Golden State ranks high among surfdom’s favorite destinations.
“I’ve lived in Southern California most of my life, and I’ve barely hit a third of the breaks,” Justin says. “If you were to hit a beach a day, it would still take you years to see them all.”
Year-round surfing is especially good news for tourists from the heartland looking for a coastal getaway anytime of year. Indeed, Go Surf LA instructors have even conducted private lessons on Christmas Day. “We tend to get two types—people who really want to learn the sport and advance to bigger and better things, and the others who just want the one-time experience of being able to say they surfed in California,” says Go Surf LA instructor Mike Newton, who is also Justin’s younger brother.
On this hazy day in Santa Monica, Justin’s pupil is showing tremendous promise, quickly learning basics like paddling out, standing up on the board, and balancing to help ensure a smooth ride to shore. Roughly 30 minutes into the lesson, her once-slumping form has improved considerably. Following a shaky start, she catches a wave about 100 feet out and cruises to shore on just her third try. She immediately returns enthusiastically to the water. Justin says there’s a simple reason for the new surfer’s exuberance: “There’s adrenaline attached to catching a wave.”
Mike Newton calls surfing “the poor man’s skiing,” owing to the sport’s relatively affordable cost. “The waves are free,” he says. “Just try getting that kind of value at a ski resort.”
While not exactly free, the cost of surfing is nominal—for the entry price of a board and a wetsuit, you can enjoy a lifetime of on-the-cheap thrills. Surfing also offers physical and psychological benefits, including improved upper body strength and increased confidence. Then there’s the sport’s primal appeal, which you’ll appreciate once you’re in the water having fleeting yet friendly interactions with dolphins and other aquatic life. So, if you’re ready to catch a wave, here are some pointers to help you get started.
To increase your odds of finding the best surfing school for you, the Newtons recommend researching online reviews. If you have several schools to choose from, call each one and look for the instructor who seems most excited at the prospect of teaching you the ropes. “It always helps if you love the sport, because then you’re going to translate that to the student,” says Mike.
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For kids, surf camps make a wonderfully active alternative to passive internet surfing. Most camps are conducted during peak summer months, offering parents the option of dropping off the kids for half- or all-day sessions for a few days, or even weeks. The Newton brothers have taught kids as young as 5 years old, and they say the experience can be life-changing. “A lot of kids come in a little insecure,” says Mike. “Then they attend camp, and all of a sudden, they’re a member of a private club. Having the assurance to paddle out in this huge body of water and sit on your board—that builds confidence.”
Most schools include wetsuits and boards in the cost of a lesson, but savvy students will want to bring a bathing suit, sunblock, and a change of clothes to be on the safe side. Experts recommend that beginners book shorter sessions of no longer than 90 minutes, as the constant paddling and wiping out can quickly take a toll on the uninitiated.
Recent innovations in surf gear technology have been a boon to the sport. Most folks learn on boards made of soft polyurethane or polystyrene foam. Much lighter than their all-fiberglass predecessors, the new boards don’t deliver a numbing wallop to the head when you wipe out. And wetsuits have state-of-the-art foam insulation that keeps surfers warmer and more comfortable. “Everything’s easier and much safer,” says Mike.
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Tapping a Legacy
Justin Newton and his pupil have concluded their 90-minute lesson, and the instructor is duly impressed. “She did awesome,” he says, the Pacific Ocean roaring behind him. “She showed good balance on the board and went for a good 90 minutes without stopping. Some people are just naturals.”
Naturals, sure, but even prodigies know mastery takes years. Yet for all the discipline surfing requires, the Newtons say most students reap immediate pleasure from the sport. Just as important, beginners tap an ancient art whose roots extend over thousands of years, back when Western Polynesian fishermen first devised a method of riding waves to bring their catches ashore. When Polynesian families began settling in Hawaii, they brought surfing with them, creating the sport known today around the world.
As evidenced by the hundreds of surfing destinations in the U.S. and elsewhere, the sport can confer a certain worldliness to its participants. That’s because vacationing surfers not only experience new cultures and environments, they’re also welcomed as board carrying members of a tightknit global community.
“One of the best things about surfing is the experience afterward,” says Justin, eyes gleaming. “You sit and talk about the wipeouts, the waves, the serious situations you got into. You just laugh about it. It really does open up the world to you.”
STORY: BRUCE BRITT / PHOTOGRAPHY: CHRIS STRALEY