Surfin’ UK – catching my first wave in Newquay

Fistral beach sign
Welcome sign at beach entrance

Surfing is not something I would have normally associated with Britain.  It seemed to naturally belong to hotter climes, like California, Hawaii and Australia.  I always imagined taking my first lesson in one of these places, which are more famed for their surf culture.  Certainly, squeezing into a wetsuit and making a mad dash for the freezing cold Atlantic was not something that had ever appealed to me before.

Yet once I saw that welcome sign, I was glad I had chosen Newquay.  The word “home” resonated with me, like somehow I belonged here.

For those not familiar with the geography of Britain, Newquay is a town in the county of Cornwall, located on the south west tip of the UK.  It’s renowned for its surfing credentials.  Yet living in the south east county of Kent, it’s literally at the opposite end of the country for me and a world away from the hectic pace of daily life.

As I approached the beach, the wind whipped my hair and a pristine blanket of golden sand unfurled before me.  I took a deep breath and tasted the salty sea air.  Waves lapped the shore, beckoning me.

fistral beach 1
A sunny day at Fistral

As my first lesson wasn’t scheduled until the next day, I decided to take a recce of the area.  After strolling along the coastline, I sat down on some nearby rocks and watched seasoned surfers catch waves like it was mere child’s play.  I wondered – how many hours of practice had it taken for them to reach that stage?  How many times had they been battered by the sea, before they could confidently go out further?

Surf’s up – queuing to catch a wave

It was all food for thought, and by the morning of my first lesson, I was eagerly anticipating what I might be like as a new surfer.

First things first – gearing up.  I was asked if I had ever worn a wetsuit before.  Nope, I answered, wondering how hard it could be to put one on.  Theoretically, it was easy – like slipping on a second skin, then doing up a massive zipper at the back.  In reality, the wetsuit was so tight, I thought I’d have to be surgically removed from it.

Next, we took the surf boards and began our march down to the beach.  Safety was the second order of the day.  I was told that a good surfer will spend ten minutes or more studying the waves before getting in, working out which areas to avoid and which areas are safe.  Fortunately for us, we had the RNLI charity and surf instructors to help us, with constant reminders to “stay between the flags” blaring out from the loud speakers.

surf lesson
Newbie surfers being shown the ropes

Once we’d been taught the basics of a surfboard and how to use it, it was time for us to set out.  Encased in my wetsuit, I felt like a baby sea lion as I ambled after my instructor into the waiting waves.

How can I describe my first surf lesson?  Like fighting a Japanese sumo wrestler who was determined to turf me out of the ring.  When I wasn’t on the board, the waves pushed me in a slow, but relentless onslaught, sapping my strength.  For a novice sea swimmer, it was exhausting.

Sometimes I was successful in catching a wave, with a little (a lot) of help from my instructor.  Often, my surfboard was at a bad angle and I was turned over like laundry on a spin cycle.

Undeterred, I came back for my second lesson a couple of days later.  With just two of us in the group, we were lucky enough to each have an instructor to ourselves – essentially getting a private lesson for half the price.  And what a difference it made.  My first taste of surfing had been my baptism into the sea, dodging other learners and trying not to wipe out.  This time, I was given instant feedback and encouragement, along with a guiding hand to help my board stay upright.

My instructor had grown up surfing in Newquay and boy could you tell.  Sans surfboard, he glided sleekly through the waves like a dolphin, perfectly streamline and happy.  I remember thinking that this is what years of living by the sea looks like – he was totally comfortable in this environment, a real child of the ocean.  It was something I aspired to.

surfing levels
Surfing levels poster

As I lay on the surfboard, my instructor steadied it, preparing me for when the wave hit.  Just as it came charging behind me, he said “you’ve got this” and let go.

I rode the wave, standing rigid as a mast on a ship, and was exhilarated.  That moment felt like a metaphor for life.  Yes, at times, the waves can be frightening – they can pummel you and spin you around.  But learning to ride them is half the fun.  And once you catch your first wave, the thrill is worth all the effort.

I loved the vibe of Newquay – the fresh air, the stunning views, the way half the town seems to be running to the sea with a board wedged under their arm.  I loved the challenge of trying to surf, pushing myself physically while feeling at one with nature.  The sound of the sea, the sand clinging to my skin, the sun gazing down, all while floating on a board – it was like medicine for the soul.

sunset 2 cornwall
Sunset in Newquay

I left Newquay feeling like I had glimpsed a life I wanted to live.  This was not the end of something, but the beginning.  I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to surfing.  I wanted it to become a part of my life and vowed to reconnect with the sea back home.  The waves of Kent’s coast can’t compete with the Atlantic Ocean, but perhaps they can tide me over until my next trip to Newquay.

As my train began its long journey back to the other side of Britain, I reflected – this thing called life…yeah, I’ve got this.


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