How to: choose the best surfing beach for your ability

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Developing as a surfer is all about challenging ourselves and being in the ‘zone of stretch’. If the waves are too sloppy or too small, we may have a cruisey time but we’ll be languishing in our ‘zone of comfort’ and not learning enough. Contrastingly, if the conditions are too intense, we’ll be pushed straight into the ‘zone of fear’ and it is impossible to learn when we’re scared, not to mention all the risks associated with surfing become amplified.

One day in December 2012. Fistral Beach nicely over head!

Happily, we can choose different beaches to give us waves of varying intensity. Laird Hamilton once told me ‘if the biggest wave you’ve surfed is 3ft, then 4ft will seem big’, and so we should always be realistic about our fitness and experience levels and not worry about trying to keep up with our shred-head mates.

Fistral Beach to the left of the images faces west and catches more swell than the north facing Newquay bay to the right

Choosing the right beach

Newquay in Cornwall is a classic surfing town thanks to the sheer fluke of the local geography. Because of the large, solid headlands at Pentire and Towan, the beaches of Fistral and the town beaches of Newquay Bay have formed giving surfers easy access to waves of varying power. In brief, Fistral catches the most swell since it faces west into the Atlantic. The town beaches cover a sweep from north facing at the Towan, through to north-west facing at the Lusty Glaze end, with the wave size typically increasing as you go along.

Towan Beach on the same day as the Fistral photo, looking far more manegeable

This set up is not unique to Newquay and British examples include St. Ives, Croyde in Devon, and Porthcawl in Wales to name just a few. Famous examples overseas include Famara Beach in Lanzarote, the point breaks of Taghazoute in Morocco, and Byron Bay in Australia. The pattern is very easy to spot with a map and a basic understanding of swell direction. You’re looking for a ‘main beach’ that catches the lion’s share of incoming swell, and then for a ‘back beach’ which will be tucked away behind a prominent headland, facing slightly off the swell and therefore producing smaller waves.

Am I ready to move up?

The surfers you see ripping it up on premier breaks around the world will have honed their skills in mellower waves where the likelihood of them endangering themselves or others with a flying board are greatly reduced. Before you move out of the back beach and onto the more serious surf of the main beach, ask yourself:

– Can I duck dive my board when the surf is over 4ft?

– Am I able to spot and abide by a wave sharing system when the surf’s busy?

– Can I spot rips and avoid trouble when a good swell is running?

– Am I able to handle my board when the water is crowded?

Remember, surfing is a personal journey; take small frequent steps and enjoy yourself along the way!

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