Michelle Conn took up surfing to stay connected to her teenage sons. She figured — mistakenly — she would soon master this new sport.
"The ocean is different every day," said Conn, who lives in the Mar Vista neighborhood of L.A. "You can't learn it.... It's, like, two years and I'm still struggling."
But even as the 47-year-old battles fears of crushing surf and stinging sea creatures, she sticks with surfing for the joy.
"You can be having a horrible day, go out in the water, and when you come back, everything seems better," she said. "It is the most mind-clearing, meditative thing."
Could use a little of that joy? Read on for some tips for hitting the surf for the first time.
What equipment do you need?
Forget plunking down $1,000 for a fiberglass board that could leave a nasty bump — or worse — on your inexperienced head. Soft boards retail for under $200, and you can pick up a decent one at Costco. With soft boards, said Peter Paris, a Venice-based surf instructor, "if you drop it on your head, you're going to do less damage to yourself."
Get a wetsuit. In the summer, a short one can offer some padding against rocks and pounding surf. In winter, a long one is a necessity in the chilly Pacific.
What about experience?
"As long as you don't have a heart condition or another reason why you're a threat to yourself in waist-deep water, we'll teach you," Paris said.
If you're uncertain, get used to the waves with a boogie board, said Bill Jones, a Monterey-based EMT and the executive director of the Surfer's Medical Assn.
How good a workout is surfing?
"It requires a ton of cardio," said Nick Fowler, of Venice-based Aloha Brothers Surf Lessons. "It's aerobic, anaerobic, and then some. If you surf two to three times a week, you can pretty much eat like a pregnant elephant with triplets and you'll never gain weight."
OK, I've got my equipment, I'm in decent shape. Should I just hit the waves and see what happens?
Whoa, cowboy, not so fast. There's going to be lots of other surfers out there, many of whom have been riding the waves for years, if not decades. Show respect and observe surfing etiquette.
What's surfing etiquette? Well, for one, "the guy closest to the breaking wave has the right of way," Jones said.
This is one rule that beginners often unwittingly break. "Here's the typical newbie mistake," Paris said. "You'll see a group of people out there surfing and you think they must know what's going on, so you paddle right out to where they are. But you don't want to crowd. Always keep a safe distance from other surfers."
On second thought, a lesson or two might be a good idea. Where to find the right instructor?
Ideally, you'd let the government do it for you. The city of Santa Monica runs some beaches; others are controlled by the county or the state. Each has a list of permitted surf instructors, as well as surf camps. To get a permit, you must have liability insurance, a business license and be paying a portion of your proceeds to the permitting agency. However, there are a limited number of permits (Los Angeles County, for instance, permits three providers in Malibu).
Finding information isn't easy; the Santa Monica government has this slightly outdated list. People also can call Santa Monica at (310) 458-4904. For L.A. County beaches, call the Department of Beaches and Harbors at (310) 305-9503; and for state beaches, try State Parks at (800) 777-0369.
Key tips for preventing injuries?
— Avoid days when the forecast calls for big, choppy waves. Those are not for beginners. Also, don't work out before your lesson. "I think a lot of people are surprised by how strenuous it is," Paris said. Most people, he said, are pretty tired after an hour in the water.
— As noted, stay out of the way of surfboards — yours and the person's next to you. "Getting hit by surfboards or fins is going to cause major injuries," Jones said.
— When you fall off your board, don't dive headfirst and risk banging into a surfboard, or the rocky bottom of the ocean — which may not be as far down as you think. "Shoot for falling like a tree being chopped," Fowler said, "with both arms outstretched."
— Before you push for the surface again, "I would get in the habit of staying underwater and giving it just a three-Mississippi count," to avoid a collision with your board, Paris said. Also pay attention to the leash around your wrist. Wait for it to slacken before rising for the surface, then cover your head with your hands as you emerge.
What's a good goal for a first-timer?
"If you get your feet down on the board and have control for a couple of seconds, that's success for Day 1," Paris said.
Or, even more basic: "Don't drown," Fowler said. "And have fun."
The who and the where to get set up for surfing
Thinking you'd like to give this surfing thing a try? Here are a few resources:
In the Santa Monica/Venice area
For lessons, try Nick Fowler at Aloha Bros., NickFowler9@gmail.com.
Or Peter Paris at Go Surf LA, firstname.lastname@example.org
To buy or rent equipment, check out Rider Shack Surf and Skate Shop, 13211 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. www.ridershack.com. Or head to Mollusk, 1600 Pacific Ave., Venice Beach. www.mollusksurfshop.com.
As for beaches, Fowler said most area beaches are suitable for beginners. The trick is to find a quiet spot, ideally away from other beginners.
For surf lessons, Joel Schultz at Surf the Bu, www.surfthebu.com.
Malibu Makos, one of Malibu's three permitted surf companies, www.malibumakos.com.
To buy or rent equipment, stop by Zuma Jay Surfboards, 22775 Pacific Coast Highway, www.zumajays.com.
Good Malibu beaches for beginners, said Schultz, are Zuma ("if the surf is reasonably small … it is really the only beach break [sandy bottom] available that breaks out far enough for a decent ride") and Sunset Beach by Gladstone's restaurant ("a rock bottom surf spot that is also a good choice since its waves are so slow and gentle").