Let's go surfin' now; everybody's learning how

A surfer waits for a wave at a surf break off Waikiki in Honolulu.
A surfer waits for a wave at a surf break off Waikiki in Honolulu. Photo Credit: HTA/Tor Johnson
It was a beautiful October day with a modest breeze but mostly calm waters at Kahanamoku Beach on the western tip of Waikiki. I channeled my days on the high school swim team and paddled smoothly through the water, moving to rejoin others in the surfing class waiting their turn for a wave. The instructor pointed me out to a struggling student, telling her to pull more water with each stroke. Then, perhaps overly enthralled with my own good technique, I rocked too much to the right and, with not a wave in sight, rolled right off my board into the water. Moments later, the struggling student caught the best wave of the day

Surfing lesson number one: You will be humbled. 

Hawaii is a wonderful place to learn the sport. There are ample breaks, no need for restrictive wetsuits, a plethora of surf schools and unbeatable scenery. Surfing is believed to have originated in Polynesia, but the first written account of someone surfing came from Lt. James King, who served under James Cook and described native Hawaiians riding waves with wooden planks in 1779. The sport thrived and flourished in Hawaii, which is now home to top professionals and multiple world championship events. 

During a trip hosted by the Oahu Visitors Bureau, I had the chance to take a surfing lesson with Hot Spot Surf School, which operates out of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort. The instructors walked us through water safety and the basics of avoiding taking waves head on, paddling, positioning on the board and how to get to your feet. Class participants had a wide range of physical fitness levels and experience in the water, but every single person caught a wave. The instructors are patient, well trained and work to ensure everyone has a good time, but there are ways to get the most out of the experience and avoid a frustrating outing in the water.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you or your client's Hawaii plans include surfing lessons. 

Take a lesson — If you have never surfed before, and especially if you are not a strong swimmer or comfortable in the ocean, it is highly recommended that you take a lesson. There is an etiquette and unwritten rule book to surfing that instructors will go over, not to mention basic safety protocol that protects you and others in the water. Far too many people who visit the Aloha State underestimate the power of the ocean. This year the Hawaii Health Department released a report showing visitors to the state drown at a rate ten times higher than residents. Between 2005 and 2014, more visitors drowned in Hawaiian waters than residents, and drowning is the leading cause of death for visitors. 

Let the experts dictate the time — The level of enjoyment when learning to surf is very closely related to the conditions. Heavy winds, choppy waves and water quality, among a host of other factors, can make getting off the beach, much less catching a wave, an exhausting ordeal. The instructors will know the best times of day to go out and if the conditions that day stand to improve or worsen. If you have a few days by the beach, try to ask what the best day to go out is as soon as you arrive. 

Fitness matters — The instructors work with everyone from couch potatoes with bad hips to CrossFit gym rats. If you cannot make it out to the break because your arms get tired, they tow you out there themselves. That said, being comfortable in the water and having a basic level of cardiovascular fitness will help everyone have a good time. The less tired you are, the harder you can paddle and the more likely you are to catch a wave. Getting to your feet is an exercise in timing, agility and balance. Maybe hit the balance ball and lap pool before the trip.

Choose your spot — Kahanamoku Beach, named for Hawaiian surf legend Duke Kahanamoku, near Hilton Hawaiian Village is a popular surf spot but it takes some effort to paddle the 250 yards out to the surf break. There are countless surfing spots on the islands, including a handful along Waikiki alone, and they all offer something different. Some breaks are over sandbars, making for a much softer landing than a reef break if you fall or need to stand up. Other rideable waves are closer to shore or, because of currents and other factors, require less effort to get into position. Puaena Point Beach on Oahu's North Shore, for example, is an easily accessible popular spot for learning to surf. Talk with a local surf pro or instructor to get a bead on the best surf spot for your ability near your accommodations. Local knowledge cannot be beat.

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