A Beginner’s Guide to Surfing the California Coast

Taking lessons from a pro, like SoCal legend Mary Osborne, is a great way for newbies to get started.
Taking lessons from a pro, like SoCal legend Mary Osborne, is a great way for newbies to get started. Katie Botwin
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From the palm-lined, sun-drenched, sandy beaches of SoCal to the frigid, rugged point breaks of the northern reaches of the state, California has always been a bucket-list destination for many surfers. Heeding the call of the mighty Pacific, my adventure partner, Drew, and I loaded up our van with wetsuits and wax to cruise down legendary Highway 1 and jump into California’s official state sport. One of the most striking things I learned from our adventure: how much the scene changes between northern and southern California. Whether it’s because of fewer sharks or warmer temps, the farther south you go, the more surfers seemed to speckle the horizon, but I was also amazed by the dedication and passion of the NorCal crowd, who don’t seem to let anything stand in their way of catching the perfect wave. I also discovered firsthand how territorial locals can be, so picking surf spots wisely (apps like Magic Seaweed are a good resource) and being respectful are both musts. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I realized just how hard learning to surf is.

Ready to plan your first surf sojourn down California’s Pacific coast? Keep these helpful tips in mind to make the most of your travels.

California Surfing: Beginner’s Tips

Take a lesson.

Maybe your significant other can surf, but that doesn’t mean they can teach! Professional surf instructors can give you direction on form as well as theory, guiding students on how to correctly “pop up” into a proper surf stance, as well as how tides and currents work, proper surf etiquette (more on that below), and why you don’t want to find yourself in the impact zone—right at the falling lip of the wave, or in other words, where the wave is crashing—when the waves are pumping. (I learned this one the hard way.)

Big boards are better for beginners.

When it comes to surfing, size does matter. Instructors will tell you repetition is key, and a large foam board around 9 feet is what will get you there. Whether you’re in a lesson or renting for a day, practicing techniques on a boat-sized board will keep you from developing bad habits as well as frustration at bay. Bigger boards have more surface area and volume, making them more buoyant, easier to paddle, and more stable when you try to stand up. Size up, and you’re sure to catch more waves than you can handle.

Respect (and sometimes avoid) crowds.

Etiquette in the lineup is often overlooked by beginners, and a lack of etiquette is a great way to make you an enemy or two in the water. There’s no better way to learn than from an experienced surfer, so ask an instructor for tips. Rule number one is never drop in: In other words, never paddle for a wave that someone else is already riding. If you’re a total newbie and the water is speckled with more surfers than you can count, it might be best to look for another spot where competition isn’t so stiff and you can hone your skills in a more relaxed environment.

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Keeping a close eye on the weather can save you time and hassle. Katie Botwin

For the surfing set, the forecast is a critical resource: It relays invaluable information that will help dictate where, when, and how you surf. From wave size to wind direction, surf forecasts help determine when the waves are right for you. Offshore winds are you friend, while a long period means the wave has more time to build. Make sure to pay attention to swell direction as well, or the way the wave is coming in from the ocean. Though geographically two spots may be close, because of the lay of the land and the shape of the sea floor, those two spots could be working very differently due to swell direction. Any basic tips on what to look out for in the forecast? In addition, forecasting Apps like Magic Seaweed and Surfline are a godsend for surfers, since they help them suss out conditions before driving long hours to get to the break.

However, it’s also important to note that while the forecast is a helpful tool, nothing beats checking the swell with your own two eyes. This lets you see the actual size of the waves you are scouting, as well as the period length and the number of other surfers in the water. Just remember, waves may be bigger or smaller than they appear from the beach, so although you might not want to see other surfers in the water, you can also use them to gauge how big waves are.

Be patient.

Learning how to surf takes time—a lot of it. It’s easy to get frustrated after falling off your board for the fifth time in a row, arms aching from the grueling paddle out, while bleach-blond 6-year-olds surf circles around you. In the end, you’re out there to have fun, so give yourself kudos for learning a new sport. And just remember, it’s called surfing, not catching waves.

4 Rad California Surf Towns

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The California coastline is full of world-class surfing spots and towns, like Santa Cruz. Katie Botwin

San Francisco

Surfing in San Francisco is not for the faint of heart, starting with the chilly water that requires a thick wetsuit. Not only that, but thanks to the biodiversity of the nearby Farallon Islands, which are nearly 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, this zone is home to about third of the shark attacks in the United States. But hey, if your wetsuit is thick and you realize you’re more likely to die by lightning strike than by a toothy marine beast, the foggy beaches around San Francisco offer plenty of cold water surfing for beginners and experts alike when the forecast is in your favor.

Santa Cruz

Just south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz’s shores offer gentle waves suited for beginners and more hardcore spots that draw locals and pros. Before you make your way into the water, however, double check you’re paddling into a friendly spot, as dangerous cliffs, overwhelming crowds, and localism are the main hazards here. Better yet, check out Surf School Santa Cruz. Its instructors believe surfing is not just a sport, but a therapy for life, which means you’ll build your skills and have a blast doing it. In addition, their deep knowledge of the area and local surf culture all but guarantee finding the perfect conditions for whatever kind of session you’re up for.

And while you’re in town, be sure to stop by the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which offers a fascinating look at the town’s 100-year history of the sport via photographs and other memorabilia.

Ventura

With world-class points and sandy beach bottom breaks, Ventura is sure to get you the surf fix you require. Long, rolling waves enable beginners to get up to speed, and Rincon, a lauded Santa Barbara wave that regularly attracts luminaries of the sport, is just a short drive away in the northern reaches of Ventura County. Beginners should also consider spending a few days at Mary Osborne Surf Camp, an excellent surf school run by Osborne, a local whose 23 years of surfing experience, including many as a pro surfer. As an adult learner, I loved the opportunity to connect with such a talented surfer who reinforced having fun and the pure joy of a sport that can often seem intimidating to learn. In addition to instructing all levels of surfing, if you’re a lady looking to dip your toes into the art of surfing, Osborne offers women’s workshops.

San Diego

Warm waters, warmer weather, and easy access to sandy-bottom beaches all add up to a world-class (and sought-after) surfing scene. Try to time your outing during the week, when more people are at their day jobs, so that you’ll ideally enjoy more solitude, since weekends often come with packed lineups. And keep an eye out for competitions that regularly pit pros against one another in some of SoCal’s finest waves.

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San Diego's warmer temps beckon the surf set (though you may still have to wear a wetsuit). Katie Botwin

Camping

Hotels are great for the occasional getaway, but there is nothing quite like unzipping a dew-covered tent to a view of the sea. Unfortunately, in California especially, the best (i.e., convenient, most easily accessible spots with beautiful surroundings and vistas) camping spots generally require you to pay (and sometimes heftily) for your stay. National Forests do offer the opportunity for dispersed camping, and as long as you follow Leave No Trace principles and pay extra attention to fire bans, there are a plethora of wonderful spots where you can soak up the beauty of California’s coastline and have easy access to surfing spots.

Kirby Cove Campground, San Francisco

Although Kirby Cove is a little more expensive and crowded than I prefer, the breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline are unforgettable.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz

This campground is cozily tucked into a thick forest with epic views of the surrounding valley, making it seem like it’s way more far flung than just a 10-minute drive to Santa Cruz.

Dispersed Camping, Los Padres National Forest

Dispersed camping offers a budget-friendly way to sleep in some of the country’s most pristine wilderness. When it comes to dispersed camping, the Leave No Trace principles are a must to keep your stay enjoyable while leaving the National Forest better than you found it. Check out this Los Padres National Forest dispersed camping informational page for critical info, from choosing a site to disposing of waste.

Written by Katie Botwin for Matcha in partnership with RootsRated.

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