The joys of surfing

Canadian women are increasingly discovering the joys of surfing on our own shores’and farther south. Here’s why "hanging 10" is so good for you

The joys of surfing

Source: Best Health Magazine, Summer 2009

‘They call it the stoke’you catch that one ride of the day and you’re smiling ear to ear.’ Janine Strickland, is head instructor at One Life Surf School and Spa in Lawrencetown Beach, N.S., eastern Canada’s first women-owned and operated surf school. She’s describing the overwhelming attraction and benefits of surfing.

Ever since 2002, when the free-spirited, hard-bodied women in the movie Blue Crush propelled women’s surfing into mainstream consciousness, the sport has been riding a growing wave of popularity. In Canada, the results can be seen on both our east and west coasts. And wherever there is a surfing community, women are surfing year-round.

In the east, Nova Scotia’s 7,600 kilometres of wild and windswept coast are gaining recognition as a ‘hot’ surfing destination for even seasoned out-of-country surfers. Popular locations include Lawrencetown, just outside of Halifax, and White Point on the South Shore. In the west, surfers have long known the appeal of the waters of British Columbia, in particular Vancouver Island’s innumerable rock reefs, white sand beaches and open coast. Ucluelet and Tofino, perhaps Canada’s best-known surf communities, have exploded with surf tourism in recent years.

And the appeal is more than simply the ‘cool’ factor. Surfing can be empowering, ‘a killer workout and a welcome chance to leave your concerns behind. You’re not thinking about bills or meetings or anything other than your wave, says Strickland. ‘A lot of people come just to have fun, and I think that’s what keeps them surfing.’

It’s especially great for the spirit, agrees Bev Sanders, an American who has introduced thousands to the sport since founding California-based Las Olas Surf Safaris for Women in 1997, which organizes excursions in the warm waters of Mexico. You have to be forgiving, patient with yourself, and willing to let go. ‘You’re really not thinking about anything else and that’s hard to come by these days,’ says Sanders, who admits a fondness for her Canadian clientele. (‘They’re adventurous, flexible and have a great sense of humour.’)

Her clients’ average age, perhaps surprisingly, ranges from late 30s to early 40s’ they’re women who have given 100 percent to their career and children. ‘Now they’re saying, ‘Hey, it’s my turn’ and there’s no holding them back.’

And the fitness benefits of taking up surfing are super. It helps develop upper and lower body strength, flexibility and balance, and constant paddling provides a great cardio workout.

Amanda Stanec, an assistant professor of physical education in the school of education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., says surfing provides not only health-related physical fitness, but also many psychosocial benefits. ‘While people are improving their core strength, balance and muscular strength through paddling and riding waves, they’re also extremely focused on that next wave, the timing of catching the wave, and the joy of riding it.’ It requires focus in the present moment’everything else has to fall away’similar to yoga, and other activities that provide many emotional and mental-health benefits.

Go with the flow: User fees and wave reservations not required!

After the initial investment in gear, it doesn’t cost to enter the ocean, and anyone can enjoy surfing, says Estuardo Ventura, general manager of Pacific Surf School in Tofino. Surfers in warm-water climates need only a swimsuit and board, which can run between $200 and $1,500, depending on whether you buy new or used and how extravagant your choice is. In cold-water climates, like Canada, add another $500 for a wetsuit, boots and gloves. Krissy Montgomery, manager of Tofino’s Surf Sister Surf School, suggests looking for used gear (a second-hand board, wetsuit and accessories can be had for around $600) until your skills develop and you see what works for you. To simply rent a wetsuit and board, expect to pay about $30-$50 a day. Lessons are the recommended way to go for those looking to, well, get their feet wet, and are readily available from a variety of Canadian operators as well as at surfing hotspots abroad. Many surfing schools offer women-only lessons, as well as lessons for children.

For Strickland, it’s the Zen of surfing that appeals. She describes her favourite times to paddle out: early in the morning or in the evening when the wind has died down and the sun is setting. ‘Mentally it’s like a form of meditation when I’m in the ocean. All I think about is the waves and what I’m going to do on my next ride. The troubles of the world go away.’

How to surf

While most people need no more than an afternoon to learn how to catch a wave and stand, mastering the skill varies from person to person and can depend on individual fitness. The great thing about the learning curve is that it’s fun. ‘Unlike snowboarding or skateboarding, which can be jarring, surfing is more forgiving,’ says Montgomery. ‘It feels a lot nicer to wipe out into water as opposed to on cement or packed snow.’ Montgomery says they go over the basic theory during lessons, and practise the ‘pop-up’ technique on sand before heading into the water.

Surfing can be broken into three steps, she says:

1. Positioning. You need to find the correct spot on the surfboard so that you are lying flat and are balanced
as you float.

2. Paddling and catching a wave. You need some forward momentum so that when the wave catches up to you, you are swept with it toward the shore. To paddle, arch your back and take deep strokes one arm at a time while keeping the rest of your body still and balanced.

3. Popping up. Once you have caught the wave and are being whisked toward shore, it’s time to pop up. This is like a glorified push-up, where in one motion, you push yourself up from lying on your stomach into a stance facing sideways. Your feet, hips and shoulders should be sideways while your head faces forward. Knees should be bent and arms out for balance.

When you fall off the board, it’s important to cover your head and protect yourself from your surfboard, which will fall somewhere close since it is attached to your ankle by a leash. Leashes should be as long as your board.

This article was originally titled "Surf’s Up," in the Summer 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.