You want to learn how to surf, but surfers don’t want kooks mucking up their waters.
But in order to no longer be a kook, you need to be in the water, mucking it up and learning how to surf.
So, we have a little bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here.
Where does one learn to surf without being reviled by the surfing community?
If you didn’t grow up with a surfer father figure or neighbors that were OC lifeguards, you may not have had the chance to throw on a wetsuit and paddle out past the breakers to try your luck at the sport. Or maybe you’ve never lived near the ocean before.
Surfing is an incredible, lifelong sport that complements any healthy lifestyle. There’s early mornings, full body workouts and outdoor time that requires being completely in the moment. There’s more opportunity to find the “flow state” while surfing than almost any other activity you can think of (and certainly for a lower cost than skiing or snowboarding).
If you have decided that now is the time to learn, a perfect target is San Clemente. It’s a favorite for surfers of all levels, but it’s a spot where beginners can find spots that give them room to try things out and be around others of their same level. It’s not perfect, and you may encounter someone who’s not excited for you as awkwardly guide your foamboard into the water for the first time. That may be the case, and there may be nothing you can do about it. That’s OK. See above. You have to get in the water to get better, right?
Here is a guide that will help you to enter the sea at the right time and place and (hopefully) stand up on your first wave.
If you’ve watched a surf flick, you know that you’ll need a board, a leash, and some wax to surf. Because longboards are more buoyant and make paddling and standing (and remaining standing) easier, most experienced surfers will recommend them for first-time surfers.
A more affordable alternative is the funboard, a foam-top board that is difficult to break against rocks and does not require wax. Although they are slower and more limited, these board are easy to manage and will give you some fun first rides. To select the right height and style board for what you’re going after, go here. There are also epoxy funboards, that are shaped somewhere between a longboard and shortboard, and are a good hybrid to use as you step up from the foamboard.
A wetsuit is optional, but recommended for California’s relatively chilly waters. A 2/3 mm wetsuit is less constrictive than a 4/3 mm wetsuit and will keep you warm throughout most of the conditions that San Clemente beaches have to offer. You’ll also want to get some surf wax that’s rated for the temperature of the water you’ll be entering, waterproof sunscreen or zinc, and a wax comb (to get old wax off your board).
Surfing has captivated the imagination of Californians since 1885, when three teenage Hawaiian princes began surfing the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, California. Since then we’ve been awash in the good stuff–woodies, The Endless Summer, The Beach Boys and several generations of surfers waxing their boards to conquer the salty froth. From Mavericks to La Jolla, the California coastline has become a thing of legend.
San Clemente beaches supply waves to surfers with skill levels ranging from novice to pro. You want to hit the less-competitive spots and look for under-populated breaks when you’re just starting out. Here is a list of the best beaches for beginners in San Clemente:
San Onofre State Beach
Dubbed “San-O” by the locals, San Onofre State Beach is perhaps the only place in the world where you can drive your car onto the beach and catch waves within sight of a (now closed) nuclear power plant. The beach has cinder block changing rooms and bathrooms. It also has open showers inside bamboo grottos for purging the salt and sand from you and your gear. Keep in mind that this beach has great waves for beginners on long boards, and everyone knows about it, so…it gets crowded! Join the dawn patrol to avoid the snaking line of cars that builds up outside the parking lot every weekend.
San Clemente Pier North
If you’re looking for a conveniently located break, you’ll find one at the north side of the San Clemente Pier. Park at the lot off of Avenida Del Mar and you have arrived. The swell can get aggressive here, so be sure to pick a day when the waves are manageable for your skill level.
San Clemente Pier South
Although this beach is closed to surfers for most of the summer due to the high population of swimmers and kids splashing around, when the conditions are right it’s a prime beginner spot. Get some fins and learn to body surf or bodyboard, and beware of the rip currents that pull many amateurs towards the pier pilings.
Trestles is known as a world-class surf spot. It’s not recommended for beginners, but it is recommended as a spot where you can learn a lot about surfing simply by watching. The main spots are Church, Lowers, Middles, Uppers and Cottons. Walk from one end of the beach to the other and observe how each of these spots changes the character of the waves, and where surfers line up at each. There is a lot that you can learn at Trestles with this simple strategy, and you will take home ideas that you can try in your own surfing. The main deterrent for non-surfing crowds is the mile-long walk to the shoreline. Exit off of Cristianos on the 5 freeway and park in the lot next to the Carl’s Jr (which has a $2/hr or $15/day charge) or look for street parking along El Camino Real and Chistianitos. If you’ve never been here before, you’ll want to ask for directions or look for someone to trail. If you have a bicycle with a surfboard rack or a skateboard, these could ease your transportation experience. Also, avoid the poison oak that has been known to grow along the sides of the path.
This is a family oriented beach (complete with playground) that caters to bodysurfers and bodyboarders and even has its own restaurant, North Beach Burger, open during the summer. With ample parking and maintained restrooms, this is a good spot to consider whether you are surfing for the first time or just want to hang out. If you head south along the strand, you will come to a break known as 204. This is another popular spot, though its conditions are often in flux due to the changing nature of the sand bars that create the breaks.
Doheny State Beach
Though technically located in Capo Beach beyond the northern-border of San Clemente, this is one of the best beginner surfing beaches around. The small waves and long breaks are ideal for longboards and allow many surfers to catch the same wave (and it’s expected at this beginner spot). As an added bonus, it’s a short walk to the water–You can see the parking lot from where you’re floating. But be warned: Doheny has been nicknamed “The Boneyard” by locals due to the field of rocks you have to walk through before you can begin paddling. You might want to get booties for this one.
Advice and Tips for Beginner Surfers
- Always face the ocean. Waves stage silent attacks on unaware surfers and deck them everyday.
- Your board will probably receive a few dings the first few times you go surfing. Therefore, you may not want to invest $300+ in a new board. Scour Craigslist and garage sales for something used. You can get surfboard repair kits at any surf shop or plug your gashes with wax. Just make sure your board is waterproof before getting in the water to avoid further damage.
- Use the Surfline app or website. You want to know what the conditions are like before you head to the shore. For your first time paddling out, a forecast with waves ranging from 1-3 feet in height is your friend. Check out the NOAA Buoy app to get detailed conditions info on your favorite spots.
- Learn to read the waves for where they break, then paddle there.
- Dig in deep when you’re paddling to get under the whitewash. You’ll probably be using shoulder and back muscles you didn’t know you had, so be patient with yourself.
- Whose wave is it? There are a lot of rules about not dropping in on people when surfing, for good reason. Be respectful of the people who are surfing with you, and remember that you don’t need to paddle to exactly where others are surfing, especially as a beginner. If you are paddling towards someone who is catching a wave, adjust your course to stay out of their way. If you see a wave but someone is riding it and headed your way, let that wave go. Waves come in sets, so sometimes the first couple waves of a set will clear out the lineup and leave a wave that’s free for the taking. Finally, Southern California is a crowded surf spot. Just try to enjoy it and remember the spirit of surfing and don’t let the vibe of others ruin your own vibe. If you continue to surf a spot and stay aware of others in the water, you’ll eventually get to know the other surfers in the water, and make some friends. Surfing is a lifelong journey. Don’t expect to become a local overnight.
- Practice standing up at home. The sight of anyone standing on a surfboard in their garage would make any surfer cringe. Don’t do this. Instead, determine a foot placement that will give you good balance, mark the foot positions with tape on the ground, and then practice lying on the floor as if you were paddling on your board and “springing up” into your surfing pose. If you do this twenty or thirty times before hitting the water, you will be much more prepared to stand and maneuver the board once you start to catch your first wave.
- Remember to listen to the lifeguards, and if on your way to the shore you see a bunch of tents, crowds and people with loudspeakers, surf somewhere else because a tournament is going on.