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Surf's Up in So Cal
Does surfing call to mind hip youngsters with sun-bleached hair and too much time on their hands? Or big-wave daredevils with an apparently malfunctioning fear factor? Actually, much like mid-life professionals on Harleys, a surprising number of surfers take up the sport long after they’ve left their wild years behind.
If the thought of hanging 10 has always appealed to you, Southern California’s more than 300 miles of sunny coastline make the perfect place to bring that dream to life. Anyone who’s reasonably fit and can confidently swim in the ocean can learn to surf. Schools up and down the coast offer instruction for surfers of all ages and abilities, and the wave options range from mildly thrilling to seriously intense.
Many schools promise that you’ll ride a wave on your first day, but it’s not to rush things. You should practice on dry land until you master the pop-up, which takes you from the prone position to your feet in one fluid movement. Without this essential skill, you may never get off your belly, unless it’s to flip headfirst over your board into the ocean. So ignore the smirks and your flaming face, and repeat this move over and over and over again on the beach until you can pop up and position yourself correctly on your board without thinking. When you’re actually catching a wave, you’ll have other things on your mind.
Short of being a superhuman athlete, you’ll catch your first waves inside the break, close to shore. Practice on these whitewater rollers until you can stand up and ride time after time. Yes, you will feel ridiculous again, but this too shall pass.
The busy season for Southern California surf schools begins in May, after the winter swell backs off, though you can arrange private lessons at any time of the year. The still chilly Pacific warms up as the summer progresses, with ocean temperatures reaching into the 70s by August and even higher from September through November. Still, a light wetsuit can extend the time you can comfortably remain in the water. May and June might call for a 3/2 full wetsuit, while a light 1 mm shortie can work fine from July into the fall. You can rent suits at most area surf shops, along with surfboards. And surf schools often provide all the necessary gear with your lessons.
Beginners can launch introductory surf odysseys from towns up and down the coast. If you’re the DIY-type, look for forgiving waves for your first efforts at San Onofre State Park in San Clemente; at Santa Monica; north of the pier in Huntington Beach; at El Porto in El Segundo; along the Encinitas-to-Cardiff stretch of Pacific Coast Highway 101; and at La Jolla Shores in San Diego. But seriously, consider taking lessons. Trained instructors can explain technique in easy-to-follow steps. Plus, they’ll dial you into the important surf etiquette so you can feel confident in the lineup by yourself.
With hundreds of surf schools and camps operating in Southern California, the hardest part about getting started may be choosing an instructor. A tiny sample of surf schools includes the Santa Monica-based Surf Academy, which offers single and multi-day private and group lessons for women, children and 50+ adults in locations throughout Orange and Los Angeles counties. Corky Carroll’s Surf School, a family-owned and operated business, can introduce you to the sport at Bolsa Chica near Huntington Beach, then schedule follow-up lessons at their surf camp in Nosara, Costa Rica. Highly rated on Yelp, the San Diego Surf School south of La Jolla can get the whole family in on the action with group or private lessons. And in Encinitas, Southern California’s representative on the “National Geographic” list of World’s 20 Best Surf Towns, Leucadia Surf School teaches beginners at Moonlight Beach, regarded as having the best beginner waves in the San Diego region.
One warning: Like most adrenaline-charged sports, surfing can be addictive. You may find yourself repeatedly forgoing the trip to see family in favor of a surf vacation. Perhaps you could entice them to join you in Southern California, where, after getting your feet wet at surf school, you can all pay a visit to Mickey and his buddies at Disneyland, take a ride through Jurassic Park at Universal Studios Hollywood, and get up close and personal with killer whales at SeaWorld San Diego; all three attractions are included in Southern California CityPASS.