Heading into the gentle waves of Waikiki. (Photo: Big Wave Dave)
Beginner surfing lessons are miserable and anyone who tells you anything different is lying to you in an effort to seem carefree and adventurous.
I believed those words for a very long time.
I’ve taken the beginner surfing lesson on 11 occasions. Ten out of those times I was miserable. Why did I keep subjecting myself to this thing I can’t stand? I did it because each time I thought it would be better.
Each time I hoped I wouldn’t be thrown violently from a wave, get salt water up my nose, hit my head on the edge of a surf board, cramp up from all that paddling. I kept trying to learn to surf because I harbored dreams of being that girl in the movie “Blue Crush” with the fantastic abs and the adorable little shorts who sits languidly on a surf board gazing out into the sunset. There’s a little part in all of us that wants to be that girl.
Don’t they say the 11th time is a charm?
Waikiki beach is an ideal place to learn to surf. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Over the past decade I’ve attempted long board surf lessons on Bondi Beach in Australia, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Montauk, the Dominican Republic, New Zealand, South Carolina, Florida and even Ireland—in October. Pro-tip—never go surfing in Ireland in October.
But I never actually enjoyed it until I tried to surf in Waikiki, the popular tourist spot on the South Shore of Oahu.
Big Wave Dave’s surf shop sits just a block from the beach. It’s so close that you can walk there barefoot and that is exactly what the owner, “Big Wave” Dave Carvalho does. Dave is straight out of central casting for a surf instructor in Hawaii—leathery mocha skin, dirty blonde hair and a wirey surfer frame. He speaks slowly and deliberately.
WATCH: That One Time I Learned to Surf on Oahu’s North Shore
Born and raised on Oahu, Dave was a beach boy from the moment he could peddle his bike to the sand and began surfing in 1976, at the age of 12. Since then he’s become the go-to guy for main-landers looking to learn to surf Waikiki beach.
Waikiki’s beach, once a playground for Hawaiian royalty, looks exactly like every picture-perfect postcard you’ve ever seen. Delighted tourists lay out underneath yellow umbrellas. Large resort hotels with big names like Sheraton and Hilton maintain prime beachfront real estate. The waves roll gently to the white sand on the shore and in the background the green peaks of Diamond Head rise up to pose for an Instagram photo.
More than anything, Dave’s staff wants you to love to surf.
Related: 9 Secret and Awesome Surfing Spots
Four of us walked into Dave’s Shop, all of us novices. Of the quartet, I’d gone surfing the most times. I announced my trepidation at making number 11 any better than the previous 10.
Big Wave Dave just laughed. “You’ll love it this time.”
The writer Jack London came to Waikiki in 1907. He’d already published his bestsellers, “Call of the Wild,” and “White Fang.” It was here that the adventurer was introduced to surfing by a crew of Waikiki beach boys which inspired his story, “A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki.”
That’s me, one in from the right. A little nervous. (Photo: Big Wave Dave)
“Where but the moment before was only the wide desolation and invincible roar, is now a man, erect, full statured, not-struggling frantically in that wild movement, not buried and crushed and buffeted by those mighty monsters, but standing above them all, calm and superb, poised on the giddy summit…His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea,” London wrote.
I’d never felt the joy of having winged heels.
I’ve always found Mark Twain’s account of surfing, also in Hawaii, about fifty years prior to London, more accurate.
“I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too,” Twain wrote in a newspaper article. “But missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.”
So, why was Waikiki an excellent place for me to finally learn to surf? Well first of all the water is as warm as a bath, not a hot bath, but an enjoyable tepid bath. Half of the beach is often marked off for surfers so you don’t have to worry about maiming a swimmer. The waves break long, sometimes as long as a football field. If you catch the right one, you can ride it for a minute or more. Because the waves are so gentle, the process of paddling out isn’t as brutal. Dave’s staff helped with that too. Those guys have more strength in their big toe than I have in my entire upper torso—literally. They’d paddle ahead of me, place their big toe on the edge of my long board, with me on it, and then paddle me out to the next wave. How’s that for service?
It was the perfect blue-bird day, not a cloud in the sky. For the first time, I found there could be true joy in surfing. I began to understand why men and women devote their entire lives to the sport, circumnavigating the globe to catch the next brilliant waves. When surfing goes right, everything else melts away—worries about work, about paying your mortgage, about your brand new marriage. It all drifts out to sea and you return to the sand feeling a little bit lighter.
If you have a hankering to stay and learn with Dave for longer than just a few hours, and you don’t have the cash to stay in one of Waikiki’s pricey hotels take advantage of Dave’s Surf & Stay listed on Airbnb. For just $129 a night you can rent a room above the surf shop. It comes with a free board and highly discounted surf lessons. It’s one of the best deals in town since you aren’t just renting a room, you’re renting access to a surf family, one that will make your stay one to remember.
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.