Surfing Vancouver Island  

Learning to Surf with Surf Sister by Amy Waeschle  

From Clueless Kook to Confident, Safe Surfer

Learning to Surf with Surf Sister

one beginner's transformation

Learning to Surf With the Surf Sisters  by Amy Waeschle



It all started when my husband and I planned a dream vacation to Fiji. I wasn't a surfer then, but I had aspirations of becoming one. Originally we planned to mix our trip with a combination of surf destinations and relax-and-read-on-the-beach destinations. That all changed once I learned to surf and began surfing on a regular basis. Now our trip is planned around our desire to surf every day in as many locations as we can afford. I signed up with Surf Sister in Tofino, Canada for their beginner weekend clinic, hoping to get off to a good start. I left with the skills and knowledge to safely surf at my local break in Washington, with only a twinge of the fear that I had when I started that first day. I also left completely addicted to surfing.

I arrived in Tofino at the tail end of the storm season in late January. The town was quiet but welcoming. People were friendly. The waves, true to their reputation, were big: "extreme" proclaimed the warning sign on the highway. The morning of my lesson I got up early to shake the butterflies from my limbs. I took my morning coffee and mittens down to the beach to have a peek at what the ocean had in store for me. Indeed, the waves were huge! I began to second guess myself- what was I thinking? Learn to surf in Canada? In winter? When I spoke with Louise on the phone she assured me that despite the frigid winter temperatures I would be comfortable and perfectly safe. Still feeling apprehensive, I checked out my gear from Live To Surf and waited on the steps of Surf Sister's hut. When I met Karen, my instructor, her cheery smile and relaxed nature eased my fears. After she explained the plan for my first day (a chat on the beach, some practice on shore, and then some fun wave riding on the "inside") my nervousness was replaced by my growing sense of excitement.

Once on the beach, Karen shared some tips about the gear that every beginner should know: how to the care for my wetsuit, the reason why boards have different shapes, and how to wipe out safely. The lesson became hands-on when Karen demonstrated then had me try a "pop-up" (how to stand on your board). We practiced a few times on an imaginary surfboard we each drew in the sand. Karen told me that once the wave had me I should paddle three more times to make sure I had the speed to stay with it. She coached me while I lay in the sand, paddling my imaginary board. Karen stood behind me and enthusiastically shouted, "Here comes the wave, it's a 10-footer! OK, you've got it, now paddle three more times! " and up I would lurch, landing sideways (hopefully), with legs crouched and arms reaching into space for balance. After a few of these drills I felt like I was getting pretty good at it. Then we got in the water.

Learning to Surf with Surf Sister

Karen held my board for me and eyed the incoming waves as I lay waiting, ready to paddle when commanded. The waves seemed scary at first, but after trying and falling a few times without harm, I relaxed. Karen gave me a slight push as I paddled away from her with my three more times. Much to my surprise, it worked! I was standing up! Most times I fell after springing to my feet, but I stood up and stayed up with increasing frequency over that first session. After I'd gotten the feel for timing my paddling with popping up, Karen went in to the beach to watch me try it on my own. Catching waves without her help was harder: I had to watch the incoming waves and evaluate them while at the same time get on the board and paddle in time to catch them. At the close of that first lesson my arms felt like lead and my left foot like a block of wood - numb from a leaky boot. But I had my first taste of surf stoke, completely driven to learn as much as I could about surfing by the end of the next lesson.

The next day as I sipped my coffee and checked the surf under gray skies a pit of apprehension took root in my gut. Today we'd be paddling out to the lineup. I sat in the mist with my blood pressure peaked just thinking about making it through the heavy, breaking waves. The sets looked a little smaller but I was still nervous.

The second lesson began with a discussion about understanding surf conditions by using tide tables, buoy data, and wind direction. I learned that I would need to become well-versed in oceanography and make keen weather observations every time I went to the beach. Only after a few

seasons would the information I gathered form a sensible pattern that I could use to predict surf conditions from home. After spending a few minutes reviewing yesterday's pop-ups we discussed a new skill: the turtle roll. Making it out to the lineup can be nerve-racking: you must paddle as hard and with as much speed as possible towards the incoming waves so that you can make it over them. "Turtling" allows an escape if you can't paddle over the crest in time before the wave pitches you backwards, thrashing you in its turbulence. The trick to turtling is to grip the board's rails, suck your body onto the board and roll upside-down just before the wave curls over you, then roll back up and resume paddling. This turtle roll has served as an important safety tool for me, always providing an "out" if I can't make it over the wave's folding peak.

Learning to Surf with Surf Sister

The adrenaline pumped through my fingertips as we paddled out, Karen first, into the crashing waves. My arms felt heavy from yesterday's efforts but I pulled myself through the water, breathing hard but slowly making ground. Approaching waves threatened to rip me from my board but I kept paddling, trying my first real turtle roll and thankfully making it back onto my board. After paddling hard for what seemed like an eternity, I reached Karen and sat up on my board, copying her position. We watched the waves roll in from our safe spot on the outside for a few minutes, Karen sharing some tips on wave selection. Sitting on my board, with the windless sky above and the glassy horizon below, I could feel the joy of the experience seep into my soul. My smile, this morning shy and unsure, began to grow as the tension in my limbs released. Karen picked out a good wave, telling me with enough notice so that I could spin my board around, lay down and paddle in time with its arrival. As the peak came towards me I paddled to the rhythm of Karen's, "Go, go, go!" and felt the wave pick me up. I dug in my "three more times" but it wasn't enough and I could feel the wave continue on without me. Missing it, I turned my board around and paddled back out. Karen's rosy cheeks met my grin, "Good try! Its tough.Here comes another one, get ready!" I tried a few more waves but each frantic start ended with the same result: the wave leaving me behind, exhausted. Sadly, it was time to return to the beach and eventually, home. I wanted to try one more wave before I left. We moved in towards shore just a little. A wave traveled towards me and I spun around to get into position. I paddled with reckless abandon, knowing that it would take every ounce of energy I had left in order to catch it. I could hear Karen's encouragement as I felt the wave's push so I gave it 3 more, and noticed that I was still moving forward with the wave, I had it! I stood up, legs crouched, arms stretched out. The thrill of the ride flooded my being as I came down the wave's face, holding my balance as steady as I could muster.

After that session, I was hooked. The joy of pure speed and simple grace of gliding on clean ocean power has stolen my heart. Since my lesson I have surfed confidently in a range of conditions: from Westport's 2-4 footers to steeper, faster Hawaiian beach breaks. I'm no pro, but I feel safe and know my limits. From my lesson in Canada, I learned enough about etiquette and awareness to enter a lineup of strangers. If I get a bad vibe, I move down the line. More often, people meet my smile with friendliness. I still wipe out, I still miss waves, but each time I paddle out I feel my skills improving. Surf Sister helped shape me into the surfer I am becoming. As Karen advised, I'm surfing as much as I can, making the point of each session the purest of all goals: to have fun and enjoy the beauty of our ocean's gifts. So far, I have yet to miss those goals.

Amy Waeschle Amy Waeschle is a writer, photographer and teacher. Amy lives in Mt. Vernon with Kurt, her husband and wanderlust partner, and their two dogs. When not working, Amy is outside kayaking, surfing, hiking or adventuring.
visit Amy at

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