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Learning to Surf in Huntington Beach, Surf City USA

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The waves were choppy and breaking early. My instructor asked if I wanted to blow off my surfing lesson. I said, “I can’t skip this. Surfing is on my bucket list!” Before I knew it I was crashing into curling white waves and trying not to get smacked in the face with a surfboard. So started my first-ever surf lesson in Huntington Beach, a.k.a. Surf City USA. Here’s what to expect if you decide to tackle the waves in Huntington Beach, California.

Surf Museum, Huntington Beach ~ Surf City USA

Huntington Beach’s Surf Museum

Surf City USA

It seemed only appropriate that I take my first surf lesson in Huntington Beach, California—also known as Surf City USA. After all, the namesake song by Jan and Dean was written about this very town. There are statues celebrating surfing in and around downtown. The Surfer Walk of Fame is located along the town’s Main Street. There’s even a Surf Museum. But what really makes Huntington Beach feel like Surf City USA is the town’s laid back surfer vibe and intense love of the ocean.

An Onshore Lesson

After checking in at Toes on the Nose Surf Shop, I ungracefully shimmied into a wet suit and hit the beach. First, Benji my surf instructor gave me an onshore lesson. I learned how to paddle: tummy on the board, hands cupped, alternating sides, toes toward the back (or tail). Then I practiced a few “pop ups” on the sand. Lean on elbows, pull up into a plank, then pull one leg forward to the center of the board and stand up, trying to place feet spread wide along the center stripe of the board, knees slightly bent, putting weight on my back foot. Oh, is that all?!

Surfing in Huntington Beach

Ready to take on a wave in Huntington Beach

Taking to the Waves

A calm ocean might sound like a good thing for a beginning surfer. Smaller waves should be less intimidating and easier to ride, right? Wrong! We had to stay close to shore to catch waves, which meant less time on the board and more time being pummeled by the surf. It also meant less time to pop up, so I had to be quick.

The first wave came…and up I went!  No one could have been more shocked when I realized I was riding a wave!

And then just as quickly, cold water crashed all around me. I stretched one hand downward to protect my face from being nailed with the surfboard per Benji’s instructions. On the way up, I put one hand in front of my face with the other arm reaching to the sky, again to prevent being smacked by the board.

I swam over to my board and paddled back to my beaming instructor, “Up on the first wave! How awesome is that?” He said, “Some people don’t get up at all. I had a guy out last week who couldn’t catch a single wave. Poor guy.”

For a clumsy gal who can’t even ride a skateboard, that felt good.

Surfing Intimidation

There were more waves, more pop ups, more crashes into thundering, frothy water. The ocean seemed eager to eat me and my board.

It didn’t help that Benji shared some surfing horror stories with me between swells. There was the 20-something guy who lost a finger due to an unfortunate dog leash incident. No, not a leash on an actual dog. A dog leash attaches your ankle to your board so you don’t lose it.

Then there was the groom who took his first lesson a week before his wedding. He bashed up his face so badly, he had to walk down the aisle with a busted lip and two black eyes.

A healthy dose of intimidation about surfing is warranted. You can get hurt. But I needed an adequate level of naive confidence so I could accomplish the task at hand. Too much fear can make you do stupid things and get hurt even worse. Using my best surfer lingo, I said, “Dude, lay off the horror stories!”

The most enjoyable part of my lesson was when I popped up onto my knees but failed to follow through. I actually had a moment to enjoy the ride from my perch above the water’s edge. So that’s why people like to surf!

Surfers catching waves Huntington Beach

Surfers catching waves in Surf City USA

Hangin’ Like a Surfer

After several (very) short rides, I needed a rest. I paddled out a bit further into the ocean and sat up, straddling my board. This was supposed to be the good part. The part where you just enjoy the sunshine, the loss of gravity in the water…being one with nature and hangin’ like a real surfer.

But then, exhaustion struck me with a dull thud. The taste of saltwater coated my mouth. I was suddenly beyond thirsty. The rocking of the waves made my head throb and my stomach lurch. I swam to shore.

I couldn’t peel that wetsuit off fast enough.

I sat on the sand and watched Benji catch a few waves. He easily pulling himself onto his board, then teased and dodged the ocean’s break. I wished I’d had a chance to watch his moves before we got in the water so I could have wrapped my head around what I needed to do. He shouted to me, asking if I wanted to try again. But I was done for the day.

I used parts of my body surfing I’m pretty sure had never been used before. The muscles in my armpits hurt. Even my ankles ached from keeping my toes pointed on the tail of my board.

Let’s Go Surfing Now

Will I surf again? Absolutely. (In fact, I did surf again!)

I probably would have said no if you asked me if I’d surf again right after this first lesson. I had to scramble to free myself from that suffocating wetsuit, my legs wobbly with seasickness. But I want to experience the elation of catching a wave and the feel of gliding across the crest of the ocean’s current again.

Benji’s encouragement didn’t hurt either. As we walked back to the surf shop he said, “Well, Bucket List, I’m impressed.”

Have you ever been to Surf City USA? What’s your favorite thing about this town? Let us know in the comments!

A Note from The Travel Mama: My surf lesson was provided free-of-charge by the Huntington Beach Visitors Bureau. All opinions are mine, as always. All photos by Colleen Lanin. This story includes affiliate links.

About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show,, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

  1. I’m with Benji – you are an inspiration! Surfing isn’t on my bucket list, but you continue to show me that there’s no time like the present to try the things you’ve longed to do. My wish for you? That you get to surf the waves some day in Hawaii!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Oh, Debi, you are too kind! What a wonderful thought…I would love to surf in Hawaii some day! I have one more (visitable) Hawaiian island left, the Big Island. Surfing and visiting a live volcano in one vacation…paradise!

  2. I am very impressed at how many activities you are willing to try! I’d be terrified at the prospect of a surfing lesson – I’m not a strong swimmer and would drown for sure! You are making me think that I need a bucket list though – I like the idea of being able to cross items off it!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Lisa – Thanks but I don’t know how impressive I am. Truly I am a wimp at heart but I force myself to face my fears. I think travel is a great way to force ourselves out of our comfort zones and experience the world in a new way. Let me know when you get that bucket list written…I want to read it!

  3. I grew up in Huntington Beach! Good for you for trying it out. It’s sort of a daunting place to learn, I would think. Slow rolling waves in Oahu are much easier!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Katie – I didn’t know you grew up in HB! I have got to get back to Hawaii and get back on a surf board. Now, to convince the hubs this is a necessity!

  4. Melissa H. says

    Very cool, Colleen! Surfing is on my bucket list. I was born and raised in San Diego so it’s a pity that I don’t know how to surf! I just fear drowning 🙂 I’m not a strong swimmer. My friends say that the wetsuit keeps you buoyant. I hope that’s true.

  5. I’m a native San Diegan and am therefore embarrassed to admit that I’ve never surfed. Truth be told, I’m terrified of it. Every once in awhile I think I might like to try it and then I quckly change my mind. I’ll re-think my thoughts after reading this.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Mama Mary – I hope you’ll give surfing a go! I can’t wait to go again…with some better waves next time!

  6. Joann Woolley says

    I’m going right now to update my Bucket List! I have never really had an inkling to want to learn but reading your experience has inspired me! I think it will make my husband smile that I actually want to give this a try now. Perhaps I’ll even surprise him and do the lesson without his knowing hehe!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Joann – I think I surprise surf lesson to share with your hubs sounds like a great idea. Let me know how it goes!

  7. Patty Carroll says

    Colleen, loved so many of your blog posts but just had to comment on this one.I’m so impressed that you surfed! Although I must say that long board in the picture looks too “long” for your petiteness! Long boards make me think of the old saying, “Old Guys Rule”. (I’m not a surfer by any means, but I know a few old guys that surf!”) When you surf again, I wish you major gnar gnar waves, Gidget! 🙂 Patty

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Patty – Apparently long boards are better for newbies like moi. Thanks for surfing by!

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