Surf Sister sits cheerfully across the street from me. Each time I walk up my driveway there it is.
The empowering long-haired surfer chick logo that adorns their vans, storefront, and t-shirts constantly beckons me to leap out of my comfort zone and into a wet suit. It implies, “You’ve got this!” Even still, it took me a month before I was brave enough to take a lesson.
Yes, I’ve surfed before. Twice actually. Once in Lima, Peru and once here in Tofino at Chesterman Beach while on a Thanksgiving camping trip a few years ago. The first time I tried it, in Lima, I managed to get up once and ride a wave nearly all the way into shore. It was exhilarating! The waves were more like swells rather than the wild kind that crest and crash. The second time around, at Chesterman Beach, I didn’t get up for more than a few seconds each time I tried. It just seemed hard.
Although my intention when I arrived here was to play in the waves right away, I procrastinated. The ocean, after a couple of years of not being in it, seemed a little scary. After all, it’s a big vast “thing” kind of like a cliff is a big tall thing. The never-ending moving walls of water and sneaky currents that can potentially sweep you out to sea had me feeling a little apprehensive.
Nothing to Fear
Finally, last week, I forced myself to walk across the street and book my lesson. The young woman behind the counter helped me to feel at ease. She was upbeat and positive all the while encouraging me not to worry, that we’d stay in the white waves at waist-deep.
Yes!! It’s just what I needed to hear. And, her easy-going and confident demeanour is just what I needed to see. I was relieved. I didn’t need to go deep and dive through an onslaught of breaking waves with my board and then paddle to a place where I couldn’t touch bottom.
This. Seemed. Manageable.
After filling out my paperwork including my height, weight, and shoe size, I ventured back across the road and got ready. All I needed was to get into my bathing suit and meet them at Cox Bay parking lot where I’d get my wet suit and board. Easy!
About Our Instructor
Alyssa has a cool upbeat vibe. She looked the part with her sun-kissed brown skin and perfectly beach-tousled hair under her very cute hat (which they do sell at Surf Sister by the way).
Alyssa learned to surf thirteen years ago through Surf Sister. Tofino was always an add-on to her family vacation in Parksville each year. Eventually, she decided that the vibe and community was just way too good to leave. She has been in Tofino now for four years and is a full-time trained surf instructor. In the off season, she bar tends.
We pulled our wet suits on in the parking lot. The suit fits tight so that the trapped water between your skin and the suit can warm up creating an insulating membrane. If the suit is too loose, cold water flushes any warm water away and that’s breath-takingly shocking at thirteen degrees Celcius at this time of year (colder in winter). In our cold waters it’s possible to get hypothermia. Alyssa made sure we knew to leave the ocean should any of us start to shiver. My suit was perfect. It made the ocean feel like bathwater.
Once all suited up, we carried our boards to the beach “sandwich style”. Imagine a two-people sandwich with the boards being the bread.
We found a quiet spot at the south end of the beach where Alyssa explained the different parts of the board.
We were using long boards. She pointed out the fin on the bottom, the tail (back end), the rails (sides), the nose (front), the leash that straps around your ankle so that you don’t lose your board, and the deck which you stand on.
She also educated us on a few other things like where surfing originated, Hawaii, and what causes waves, wind and storms out at sea.
Safety was a big part of our lesson before we got our toes wet. Alyssa made sure we knew that Cox Bay has a deep channel in the middle of it and rip currents that can sweep you out to sea. If the waves start to disappear and you get further away from the shore quickly, you’re likely in one. If this ever happens, rather than fight the current and paddle towards shore, it’s best to save your energy and paddle parallel to the beach. Then the surf will carry you back in.
It’s always good to pick a good stable marker on the beach so that you know how far you’ve drifted. As Alyssa put it, don’t pick a family with a beach umbrella who might up and leave at any moment.
Before venturing into the waves, ensure that the “leash” is strapped around the ankle of your back riding leg and that the cord is positioned to the back. That way it won’t get tangled and twisted when you’re riding.
Alyssa explained that we should approach the waves carrying the fin end of our surf boards, lifting it above the waves. This way the board is more manageable plus its ready and pointing in the right direction when you’ve spotted your perfect wave.
If you fall off, protect your head and face by covering them with your hands and forearms. Just recently I met someone who had their nose broken when the board hit them in the face. Ouch!
We all drew a 9’ board outline in the sand and laid belly down on top of it, our feet positioned above the fin area. We drew two X’s to mark the “sweet spot” on the board under our chest and hip bones.
There is a good reason for knowing the sweet spot. If you stand too far forward on the board, the nose will sink and if you stand too far back on the board you’ll slow down and miss the wave.
As the imaginary wave approached we simulated long paddle strokes. Sand sprayed out behind me like a dog digging for a bone. Then when the wave hit, I paddled hard three more times, assumed the mermaid position (like the cobra position in yoga), brought my back foot up over the back X and then my front foot over the front X. Staying low and in a crouched position with my hands out and low below my waist for balance, I was up and imagining myself riding my perfect wave.
Don’t be a Kook!
Before we carried our boards to the ocean, Alyssa, told us about how not to appear like a Kook. In other words, “someone who tries (and fails) to mimic the surfing lifestyle”. There are right and wrong ways to carry your board to the water. One right way is to carry it overhead and the other is at your side. But, make sure that your leash is wrapped around the end of the board and not dragging in the sand.
To the Surf!
We were finally ready to venture into the surf!
Anyone can surf the same wave, but to avoid a collision it’s good to keep three surfboard lengths between you and the next person although sometimes that’s tough to do when you catch a side wave.
Alyssa also warned us that it’s best to avoid eye contact with your neighbouring surfer. Always look where you want to go. I remember this from my mountain biking days and even from my fast pitch days. For instance, if there is a tree at the bottom of a riding trail, don’t have a staring match with the tree. And if you want the ball to go to home plate from centre field don’t take your eye off the catcher’s glove. You get the point.
When I spotted my perfect wave, I positioned myself on the board with my feet over the fin area. I paddled hard. When I felt the wave hit, I paddled hard three more times, quickly assumed the mermaid position, brought my back foot up, then my front foot, and slowly straightened out. It worked! I was riding a white wave!
It wasn’t perfect all of the time. I learned first hand what happens when you’re too far forward and too far back on the board, but most of the time I got it!
Alyssa was a supportive cheering squad for us newby surfers, always yelling out above the constant roar of the surf, “Go, you’ve got this! Paddle, paddle, paddle!” Her smile was big, infectious and she always gave a high five or a thumbs up depending on how close she was to you.
She helped each one of us, gave us tips, pointed out what might have gone wrong if it wasn’t quite working, and she kept a good eye on us to make sure we weren’t drifting too far away.
Alyssa gave me additional exercises to work on including accelerating and braking techniques. To accelerate you bring your weight over your front foot and to brake, you move your weight over your back foot.
Next, she gave me tips on turning which was a little harder. I managed to get the front turn by turning my head to the right followed by my upper body. I even rode the face of a small green wave! I was thrilled! Turning back, or to my left, was harder though. I always fell off. My centre of gravity became unbalanced. Something to work on in the future!
Surfing felt really good this time around. Learning where the sweet spot was and what happens if you’re too far forward or backwards on the board really sank in and made all the difference to my success. I was able to get up most times and even learned a few more skills.
Having Fun in the Surf
Because I wasn’t able to get photos of my group while playing in the waves, I photographed a different group. What was common among all was the determination and all the smiling faces. These people were having fun!
About Surf Sister
Surf Sister formed in 1999, literally out of the back of a truck, with a few boards. The goal was to encourage more women to try surfing. Not only that, but to help women feel more included in a surf culture that at the time was predominantly male. Nowadays, loads of women ride the waves!
Today, Surf Sister is a full-fledged surf school with thirty all-female instructors. It’s also a groovy clothing and surf gear shop and a great place to learn the latest surf buzz over a freshly-made latte!
You may want to come in and check out their sales!
Surf Sister, in conjunction with the Shelter Restaurant, also initiated The Queen of the Peak annual all Women’s Surf Championships! Visit the site to see videos and to get inspired by these amazing women!
The beauty of Surf Sister isn’t just about all of the confident smiling faces and talent. It’s about their eagerness to share their passion and love for surfing with all who visit.