I have never trusted the ocean. It's too big and too deep and too emotionally unavailable. And yet, I recently found myself walking out to the shore at Playa Guiones in Nosara, Costa Rica, surfboard in tow, about to spend the next five days trying desperately to get my “Blue Crush” on.
When I got invited to join a women's surf retreat at Safari Surf School in Costa Rica, my initial reaction was a hard pass. But the more I thought about it, the less terrifying it began to sound. I'd be on a board, for one, which is basically a pool float, just shaped differently (not quite). I'd probably be able to touch the bottom because waves break in shallow water (not always). And surfing mostly happens on top of the water (definitely not).
Plus, the retreat's director, Andrea Diaz, was not only a surf coach, physical trainer, and certified lifeguard, but a two-time Costa Rican national champion, seven-year Roxy team surfer, and total powerhouse. A few minutes of scrolling through her Instagram feed convinced me that if anyone was going to teach me the ways of the water, I wanted it to be her. So I signed up.
Let's rewind from the shore a bit now. For our first lesson, we started in the pool, getting on and off the board, learning to paddle efficiently, and trying out “turtle rolls,” which are what you do when you're about to be destroyed by a wave. Then, we moved to the beach, learning the basics — the proper stance and how to “pop-up” on the board — in the sand before taking to the water. The true beginners at the retreat (my people) spent most of their time in what's called the “whitewater,” where the waves have already broken and are just rolling the rest of the way into shore slightly less aggressively. The unbroken “green waves” are what you see when you picture people surfing in your head. And what do you know, the pros at Safari Surf (hi, Dani and Mari!) got me out there in the green by Thursday.
Pardon the cliché here, but learning to surf was everything I dreamed it would be, and I wish I hadn't gone in with so much trepidation (and so little sunscreen). So, for anyone else considering taking their first surf trip, I've laid out nine things I wish I'd known before heading into and packing for the retreat.
Swimwear should be fitted and no-fuss.
In theory, you can surf in anything, but a string bikini is probably not the best bet for a beginner. If you'd like to avoid being distracted by your apparel, go for something tight and comfortable. I am not a fan of tight clothing, but I am even less a fan of having to pull my bottoms up and my rashguard down every few minutes. (The water can get particularly frisky when you're getting up onto the board after swimming out.) Ideally, I'd recommend opting for a simple one-piece and a standard rash guard with a snug fit.
I felt most comfortable in high-waisted bikini bottoms and Carve Design's Sanitas bikini top, which is essentially a sports bra for swimming in (with fun, reversible designs). The brand makes a matching rashguard, too, and you might consider going down a size on that. One more note while we're here talking surfer fashion: the half-zip on my rash guard was cute, but by the end of the session, the zipper's teeth were filled with wax from my board. Not cute.
There's no such thing as too much sunscreen.
There's no beach umbrella you can hide under during your lesson, so sunscreen is a must, especially if you're fair-skinned like me. When you're applying, don't forget the bottoms of your feet, which will be flipped up when you're laying on the board. And I found the water-resistant-up-to-80-minutes variety that usually does the trick for a beach day wasn't quite strong enough to keep the sun from eating my face out there in the open seas (or, accurately, the whitewater, where I could still touch the bottom). The only thing that did the trick was some borrowed “surf mud,” which is zinc-based, paste-like, and available on Amazon (amazon.com, $24).
Surfing is a full-body workout.
Before leaving for the retreat, I was going to a chiropractor for some long-term shoulder issues and once I mentioned to him that I'd be surfing the following week, he immediately shifted our treatment plan so that I wouldn't be encumbered by a sore shoulder. I thought this was nice of him, but in my head, I was really thinking, “OK, cool, but I probably don't need my shoulder to surf.” Well, guess what: You absolutely need your shoulder to surf. Both shoulders. And your core and your lower back and your arms and your inner thighs and your stabilizers and numerous other parts of your body you are not awakened to at your office desk job. All of these places will be sore.
Surfing is a contact sport.
There was a point during the first pool session when I thought to myself that this whole surfing thing might actually be kind of easy — you can see my sweet naiveté in the above photo. But in the ocean, it's not just you and the board; it's you, the board, and an endless supply of waves pushing you back to shore and currents pulling you every which way. At first, it can feel a bit like you're charging into battle with a nine-foot-long sword at your side. And there's a slew of decision-making that comes along with this, too. When a wave is coming, you need to determine if it's best to jump over, dive under, or turtle roll beneath the board and pray. So, know that you'll need to be on, physically and mentally.
The hardest part was getting to the waves, not the actual surfing.
This did not occur to me, but there's no ski lift for the shore, so you spend what feels like the large majority of your time in the water paddling out. In fact, a 2012 Auckland University of Technology study analyzed the videos of 32 competitive surf sessions to find that only about 8 percent of the athletes' time was spent actually riding waves — eight!
I imagine paddling out feels less overwhelming for people who are in excellent cardiovascular shape and confident in their swimming skills and comfortable in the ocean, but I was unsuccessfully faking all three of these things. So, for me, learning to pass through waves without allowing them to sweep away all of my progress felt just as important — if not more important — than learning to ride one. Metaphor for life? Perhaps. Take it if you want it.
A yoga background will be super helpful.
So many elements of the pop-up will feel familiar if you've taken yoga classes, and especially if your body is used to hanging out in upward-facing dog. Also, yoga helps you cultivate a sort of awareness of your body and its position on the mat, which is not unlike what you do when positioning yourself on the board. And then there's balance. Yoga mats, unlike surfboards, do not move beneath you, so that's a fun added element, but I was grateful for my body's knowledge that looking down usually means you're going down — whether you're in tree pose or goofy-foot stance on a surfboard. (That just means your left leg is forward.)
You will wipe out, often.
I still hold my nose when jumping into pools, so falling off the board was what terrified me most about learning to surf. If I didn't feel stable enough, I found that I could sort of kneel down on the board and just ride the wave in on my shins (effectively a cop out). When I did finally take a plunge, I was so concerned with locating my board and making sure it didn't hit anyone else on the retreat that I forgot to be afraid of tumbling into the (two-foot deep) abyss. Looking back, the worst part of wiping out for me was ending up with a water-logged ear canal. I do wish I'd brought some sort of drying aid like Swim-Ear (amazon.com, $5), so pack that, and thank me later.
The feeling when it connects is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.
I went into the week with the goal of standing up once. I knew it was going to be hard, so I set that bar low. Shockingly, I was able to stand on day one, which felt good in a wow-I'm-not-totally-incompetent-at-this way. But it wasn't until the second session that I rode a wave that made me feel like I was one with the ocean, "Moana"-style. Words like exhilarating and thrilling come close to describing what the rush of really moving with the water for the first time felt like. But the truest way I've found to explain the feeling is by telling you the second I stepped off the board at the shore, I needed to do it again. You have to try it. Especially if it terrifies you, too.
And finally, no one can tell you’re crying in the ocean.
Your face is already covered in salt water, friends! Tears of panic are totally indistinguishable from wave-battering residue and, somehow, knowing this brought my ego a much-needed shred of comfort out there.
Note: Safari Surf School Women's Retreat and Olas Verdes Hotel provided support for the reporting of this story.