Surf's up

There can be no cooler sport than surfing. Tell anyone you just went surfing and they can hardly help but grudgingly offer you their respect. And yet it still seems a sport so few are willing to get involved in.

Perhaps it’s this very ‘coolness’ factor that deters some, fearing ridicule for not fitting the blonde, tanned and toned stereotype of the surfer. Perhaps it’s the fear of the wild ocean and it’s mysterious inhabitants. Or perhaps it’s something as simple as those who want to are landlocked and those who can quietly go about it without drawing too much attention for fear their precious waves will become crowded.

Whatever the reason, Michelle Davy from Stoked School of Surf in Cape Town is changing all of that one wobbly beginner at a time. Health24’s FitnessEditor , Amy Froneman, took up the challenge of a four-week surfing course  - and fell deeply, head-over-heels in-love with it.

Back to the beginning
Michelle is the typical surfer-chic. She’s blonde, she’s tanned, she has a dazzlingly white smile, she’s toned and she’s so relaxed and friendly you feel like you’ve known her for years. She also has arguably the best job in the world… she teaches people how to surf all day, every day. And considering surfing is her passion and her love for the water almost palpable, it really is the best job for her.

Check out this slide show of basic surfing moves by Michelle.

Michelle’s love of surfing grew during four years of carefree travel around the world where she surfed waves from Costa Rica and California to Indonesia and New Zealand. Bliss for any surfer.

When she returned home to South Africa she found herself in an office job, and quickly realised that she would not survive the week in such an environment. It was shortly after this that she came up with the idea for a mobile surf school while working for a backpackers in Cape Town, and in August 2009 she launched her first lessons with rented boards on the beach in Muizenberg.

Less than a year later her little business had grown to such proportions that she could invest in all her own equipment and her school officially became mobile.

So apart from the sun, sea and sand for an office, what is the best part of being a surfing coach?

"Watching students experiencing 'the stoke' for the first time is incredible. No matter how many students I push into to two foot waves in a day, it still brings such a smile to my face when I see them stand up on their first wave,” she says, adding, “I feel such a feeling of joy when I see their big grin or hear them hooting with delight after experiencing 'the stoke'."

Michelle teaching some of her younger students the basics.

And speaking from personal experience, it’s really hard not to hoot with delight when you catch your first wave. In fact, I think it should be mandatory.

"I also find it so rewarding watching students build their confidence not only in themselves but also in their ocean ability. I have had students who can barely swim and even had students with physical disabilities, who are so fearful of the water when they start but leave feeling confident and secure knowing that they conquered their biggest fear."

A group of people on a corporate team-building surfing lesson warm up before hitting the water.

Michelle teaches people from every walk of life and has even built up quite a reputation with people in their 50s and 60s who have always wanted to try surfing and can now live that dream.

"Watching them try with such determination, knowing their physical limitations is so inspirational which is a truly rewarding and energising feeling," she says with the same unwavering enthusiasm she offers all her students.

People from all walks of life want to learn how to surf.

Speaking from experience

I have always had a healthy respect for the ocean, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had never gone deeper than my thigh into the sea. I also have a fear of the big “S” – sharks. Who doesn’t, right?

But I can honestly say that once you’re out there on your board, focusing on the dozens of little tricks and tips Michelle has just prepped you for on the beach before the lesson, your only concern is getting it right and catching that wave.

My first class was in Muizenberg, which is probably a good thing because the water there is much warmer and I’m a wuss when it comes to the toe-numbing Atlantic out on my side of town. But from the very first lesson I was hooked.

And exhausted.

Nothing prepared me for what a workout it would be. But walking out to water deep enough to catch a decent wave is tiring enough, then catching the wave, paddling, standing, balancing – it’s a complete full-body workout. But it’s such child-like fun that it’s only later on in the day when your whole body nods off to sleep when you least expect it.

You can read in more detail about the rest of my lessons with Michelle on my blog here, but I cannot stress enough how much fun it was. And anyone can do it, really. If surfing is something you have always wanted to try, I strongly urge you to give it a shot. We have some of the most stunning coast line in the world, it seems almost a sin not to at least try it.

The hardest part of surfing

I must admit that while I found surfing a lot easier than I had thought it would be – initially I was a bit concerned that the four-lesson course would be a bit ambitious for me – I am obviously still a long way off being anywhere near good. I can stand and I can sort-of-turn. But as with all things, practise makes perfect.  

"Correct wave selection and upper body strength is one of the biggest things I find that students struggle with. In the first lesson, I am there to push students onto the most suitable waves but thereafter (with my guidance of which wave to select) I encourage them to try to paddle for their own waves.

"By the third or fourth lesson, I find students have gained the confidence and ability to read the ocean so that they can select the waves they want to paddle for. The only way to get paddle fit and comfortable with reading the waves is to get out there and surf more. And to surf in all sorts of conditions from good, clean offshore waves to onshore slop. This is an excellent way of keeping paddle fit and learning to read the ocean in all its dynamic forms," she advises.

She also recommends swimming (especially ocean swimming if you're up for it)as a cross-training exercise for the cardio aspect of surfing and yoga or Pilates is encouraged for flexibility and core strength.

Why you should learn to surf

Michelle lives and breathes surfing and could not be a better advert for such a lifestyle, which is what she says surfing is.

"Riding a wave, no matter the size, gives you such a feeling of complete and intense exhilaration, termed the 'stoke', that I have yet to experience in another sport - and I have tried many. I can't think of a better way to spend few hours than in the salt, sea and sun, or even in the rain, catching waves and chatting to friends or fellow surfers on the 'back line', hooting for each other when someone catches a good wave, surrounded by the dramatic scenery which we are so fortunate to have as a backdrop to any surf along the Cape Peninsula.

So you get fit, lose weight, get a safe tan (remember that sun block), make new friends and experience the ‘stoke’.  What more convincing do you need?

Unwritten rules  for the newbies

While it’s all very well to take a few lessons and then head out on your own, nothing is apparently more frustrating for experienced surfers than newbies who don’t know the ‘rules’. No-one wants to be the obvious newbie either, so Michelle gives us some insight into the unwritten rules of the surf and how to avoid killing the stoke:

1. Respect the ocean

 Have a general understanding of ocean awareness, rip currents etc. Stay within your ability by surfing the appropriate waves for your skill level. Fellow surfers will happily guide you as to whether a spot is suitable for you, where the best place is to paddle out, take-off zones etc.

When you want to take your surfing to the next level, go surfing with a mate who is more competent than you so that they can guide you in the water and provide and advice if needed.

2. Respect other ocean users

The surfer closest to the breaking part of the way has right of way-if you take off on their wave this is a considered a 'drop in'. Not only is this dangerous when a few feet of fibre-glass is involved, but this is one of the easiest ways to lose all your 'backline' credibility.

Know where the surfing-, swimming- and kite boarding zones are before paddling out and stay within the appropriate zone to prevent any injury to other ocean users.

Always be in control of your board to reduce the risk of injury to yourself and other ocean users. At Stoked School of Surf, we teach you all of the above rules and skills so that you can venture off into the ocean on your own with confidence.

Visit the Stoked School of Surf website or their page on Facebook .

Check out this slide show of basic surfing moves by Michelle.

(Amy Froneman, Health24, March 2011)

Read more:

Surf's up!
Starting to feel the stoke
The stoke continues
Feeling stoked in all the right ways



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