Walking The Walk
I hit Woolacombe with my pals so many times after my first summer there that it became tradition. No matter how far apart we ended up moving, how important our jobs seemed or how our families grew, year after year we’d call around the houses, jam pack the cars and head for Devon.
We stayed in the same budget accommodation, played endless football and drinking games with budget lager, drank in the same pubs (props to the Red Barn and Croyde’s Thatch) and ended up in the same crappy, sticky-floored club, but it might as well have been 5 star in California for how much we loved it.
We picked up more and more people on the way; new friends, old friends, friends-of-friends, usually on board for a cheap, boozy weekend getaway, but there was always a core of three of four dedicated surfers. BBQ’ing through the cold, sleeping in board-bags and going all in for the whole week.
Every year, through the endless pranks, late nights, hangovers and all the other “diversions” that come with a big group of mates on holiday, that small handful of surfers always found a way to the line up.
Fighting off the urge to stay in bed on dark mornings with arms aching and a mind full of cold water and colder wind, I’m lucky to have always had one or two buddies pushing me on or giving me a reason to push them. Oh and get the early morning tea on. Of course.
The Hard Yards
I’ve lost count of the times we made that cold, dark drive to the beach car park. Forcing our fingers to work zips and straps, we’d fight our way into damp wetsuits and leg it to the water’s edge.
Those were the times I answered the nagging question in my head. Long after the days of falling for the romance of surfing, when the seasons in smaller, manageable, warmer waves were a distant memory… Was I sure that surfing was for me? Hell yeah.
As the years piled up we started to earn our stripes as Brits in the surf. Not that we were vastly improving necessarily, but that we were taking on the challenge. When you consider the cold and changeable waves of North Devon’s late winter months, dedication to the cause outstripped which “level of surfer” we were. Of course there was competition, but more than anything this was a group of friends against the conditions, enjoying the moments as they came.
Between the other surf trips everyone cobbled together in their own time, Woolacombe was our annual check in. Which meant, with all of the guys progressing, that there was always new advice and tips to share. We’d paddle back to the line-up shouting “RIGHT” and “LEFT” as the other guys took off, wave reading got better, stances improved, paddling got more efficient, proper bottom turns came in to play, wetsuits went on with plastic bags, there was always emergency wax, new gear was swapped and tested, we tinkered with our setups, conditions were checked before we committed to sessions and the boost in overall confidence in the water was palpable.
In short, even though the main aim was to get together for the social, our surfing got better. Much better.
Being A “Bad Beginner”
The Woolacombe trips taught me another valuable lesson – it was okay to be a beginner.
I’d spent so long dreaming about being a surfer that I’d forgotten how new I was to the sport itself. I talked myself into believing that I was a far better surfer than the reality. After a few sessions or technical conversations out of my depth, I quickly learned that pretending to know what I was talking about would only get me into more trouble. Maybe even more importantly, for my personal journey, it made it difficult to appreciate small victories.
One year I remember one of my closest friends congratulating me on a wave. “That’s the best wave I’ve ever seen you catch” he’d said. I was almost angry at the sentiment. THAT was the best wave he’d seen from me?! It was a decent size, but the thing closed out almost straight away. How can he have been giving me props for that? He must’ve been taking the piss I thought to myself, shooting him a look.
In retrospect it was quite a challenging wave and could have looked kinda gnarly to his non-surfer eyes; I’d pulled in pretty late and a ratty bump had shot up under my board as I stood. I managed to make the drop, stick the landing and make my turn before the wave closed out on my chest and took me down. Being such a “bad beginner” meant I didn’t give myself time to appreciate what I’d achieved or accept the compliment from my friend, much less thank him for it.
Since that realisation I’ve learned to be humble to my ability and appreciate every small victory – for all surfers as well as myself.
Surrounded by surfing friends, our trips to Woolacombe were integral to my progress, but they only took up a week or so a year. Things were going to have to change if I was going to get any better…
- Don’t be a “bad beginner”. Be humble to your progresses as you go along and try not to act more experienced or knowledgeable than you are. That way you can better take advice, better plan trips and better equip yourself.
- Say what you see! If you’re surfing with other people and you’re inside the wave, shouting “RIGHT” and “LEFT” to guide their first turn is a really useful habit when you’re learning. You and your fellow surfer will improve your wave reading as you watch the outcome of your call.
- Paddle deep. Make sure you displace the maximum amount of water as you paddle by consciously using as much as your arms as possible. One technique is taught in swimming lessons: “Elbows Up”! Try to ensure your elbows are the last thing in to the water as you paddle, this uses your forearms as well as your hands for more paddle power!
- Bag it up. If you struggle to get into a damp wetsuit try putting your hands and feet in a plastic bag before you put it on, the plastic against the neoprene means your arms and legs will slip right through. Take the bag off and try the next limb.
- Spot check. Before you get into the water, take time to watch the waves. Keep an eye out the lines people take on the waves, how they paddle out and patches of foam left behind the waves – this is where the waves are breaking.
- Get to know tea! For every freezing morning when you need the extra nudge to get yourself closer to the line up, there’s a loyal cup of tea waiting.
- Surf with other people. If ever you get the chance to surf with other people (especially those that are better than you), jump at it. There’s only so much you can learn from your own experiences and it’s invaluable to have someone look at your surfing with fresh ideas.
- 3 days of surfing is enough to get “paddle fit”. If you’re going away for a week or so, try to power through those first few sessions of “noodle arms”. Don’t overdo it and pull a muscle, maybe taking a day off when the strain is too much, but once you’ve pushed past day 4 you’ll be set for the rest of the week.
- Make the decision a conscious one. Is surfing for you? Maybe it isn’t, maybe it is. If you ask yourself the question outright you might surprise yourself.
It sucks to look back and realise there isn’t a single photo of us in the water, but that was price we paid when our non-surfing, would-be-photographer mates tucked up in bed nursing a hangover. The hunt for a decent surf photo begins…
[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id=”1″ gal_title=”Woolacombe Tradition”]