“But aren’t you worried about the sharks?” It was a refrain echoing in my head from the moment I booked our Airbnb experience, Surf with Purpose—further amplified by friends, colleagues, and near-total strangers in the weeks leading up to our trip. So much so that, even though it was meant as a surprise Christmas gift, I wound up telling Tim in a fit of mild anxiety. Should we surf in shark-infested waters? Is it wise? Is it safe? Will a Christmas gift be our doom?
Panicked jokes aside, sharks are a real problem in South Africa—and you can expect to be assured and reassured of safety precautions from the moment you don your wetsuit. I did a lot of research on shark safety at the Cape Town beaches and found a lot of good information and resources on the measures each beach takes. And our instructor, Apish, seconded all this as the lesson began—showing us the safety flags (green means coast is clear, gray means they can neither confirm or deny the presence of sharks, and red means clear the water)—and emphasizing the vigilant eyes of the Shark Spotters up in the hills. Fears assuaged, I turned my attention to the board lying in the sand at my feet and realized that in all the research I’d done on surfing in Cape Town, I’d learned a lot about Cape Town, but had no clear picture for what the surf lesson itself would involve. In case you, too, are contemplating a surf lesson or looking forward to your first, here are a few things I learned and observed in the waters of Muizenberg Beach.
What to expect from your first surf lesson
First off, you’re going to drink a lot of seawater.
Even if you’re wearing a ¾ wetsuit, make sure you sunscreen wrists and hands and face (okay, this was more something Tim learned, and the hard way at that)
If you wear contacts, pack contact solution. You’ll want to rinse your lenses after.
The wax on surfboard is rougher than you’d think.
Also, boards are heavier than you think—especially on a windy day.
It can feel very odd to be attached to the board; oddly comforting when you charge into the water for the first time, knowing you have a floatation device literally attached to you. And oddly uneasy after the first time you feel the yank on your ankle of the ocean snapping your board away from you.
You’ll start practicing on the sand, where hopping up feels easy and intuitive. It does not feel the same once you get into the water.
Make sure your feet placement matches what is natural to you—not what everyone else is doing.
You’ll probably pick up some bruises from jumping up, falling off, and/or getting whacked by the board.
You should be comfortable in the ocean, but you don’t have to be a swimming pro.
You won’t go out so far in the water (from the beach) or into any really deep spots.
Did I mention that you’re going to drink a lot of seawater?
The teacher will push you into the waves for a bit of a rev. This makes it way easier to get going.
The ocean is powerful; it exhausts you constantly. Don’t plan much for after your lesson—you’ll probably just want to veg out for a few hours.
Bigger waves might look scary, but the more power a wave has, the easier it is to stand.
Deer in the headlights have nothing on the eyes of a child with a surfboard bearing down on them.
The one thing Apish kept repeating was, “Don’t rush”. He meant that if you try to jump up too fast, you’ll get thrown off kilter. Because it kept happening to me, he recommended a more step by step process—first getting to your knees, then one foot up, then the other. This definitely worked better but felt counterintuitive—you think that the wave will run out if you aren’t leaping to catch it. And is true that if your process takes too long, you’ll lose the wave. So I guess in summary: “Don’t rush, but don’t be too late.”
We were lucky to have a great instructor in Apish—he was patient, reassuring, and encouraging. Look for a follow-up post soon about Waves for Change, the organization he works for, and the ways they use surfing to impact lives.
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All gifs sourced from giphy.com.