Surfing the Nerves: My Day at Surf Snowdonia

You love the idea of this and it’s going to be great, I told myself. You’ve always wanted to give it a go.

Somehow it’s easier to tell yourself that when you’re curled up at home with a cup of tea, dreaming of the waves, than when you’re shivering with a surf board at the start of your first lesson. It didn’t seem the right time to tell the instructor that I can’t skate, or rollerblade, and can barely carry a tray across a room!

I edged into the water, and the other five learners and our instructor were soon on their bellies, paddling their boards towards the starting point. I fell behind. Great, so this is how it’s going to be… I could barely balance lying down and it seemed to require every muscle in my body to keep moving – I fell off, twisting my lower back. What on earth am I doing? I couldn’t even look up to see if I was receiving pitying looks, as I was firmly in survival mode. I caught up, just in time, and was only halfway through a sigh of relief when I fell in again. I surfaced, cleared the water from my nose, and looked behind me. The massive wave was approaching. My heart flipped.

It seemed like such a long time since Mum and I had first come across Surf Snowdonia. We were just driving up the Conwy valley one day and there it was! We went to have a nosy around and were immediately struck by the warmth of the staff and everything about the place, including the welcoming signs. I looked through the glass at the advanced surfers, who flew across the waves, and was filled with excitement: ‘I want that to be me!’

‘I just need to remember what I felt when I went there before…’ I’d said to Mum, on the way to my Beginner Surfing Course. I was leaning forward, arms crossed over my stomach, praying that I wouldn’t be sick. I haven’t been that nervous for months, or even years! I didn’t feel much better when we got there, although the receptionist was lovely (as was the latte that I had in the café). I watched the surfers again; the excitement had been replaced by fear. Hannah, you are wildly out of your comfort zone.

Yet there I was, with an artificially-produced wave hurtling towards me, and not able to get onto my board. I scrambled on just in time, fuelled by adrenaline. I held my breath. Then it hit. I surged forward and clung to the board, trying to lift my head, not able to see through the white froth. Before I knew it, I had reached the edge of the lagoon. I stood up and looked behind me – the others had barely moved. By some miracle I had been the only one to catch the wave! A total fluke, of course, but it was nice, considering how badly I’d started.

We did it over and over again. The sound of the wave mechanics turned my stomach every time – I could feel acid rising in my throat and taste it (too much information, I know, but it was part of the experience!). On the second wave I went nowhere, but unlike the first time I made it onto my board sooner, and didn’t make the instructor anxious. The third wave was the best. I caught it beautifully, lifted my upper body further, and let out a squeal – it was as if I was flying! That was the sensation I had wanted to feel.

I knew it would be hard, but I hadn’t quite prepared myself for the level of physical effort it demanded even to stay afloat. It was cold and windy, which didn’t help, and I was wearing a swimming costume, wetsuit and T-shirt. I haven’t swum for years, although I like being in the water, thankfully. I couldn’t have done it at all without my Crossfit training; this seemed like an even more intense and unpredictable workout.

We all lined up before each wave, but it was difficult to stay spread out with the wind pushing us, so I was uncomfortable with how close we got to each other, particularly as we didn’t have the skill to avoid collisions! Towards the end of the first session I had an accident. One of the men whacked into my ankle with the nose of his board. It was agony, so I had to come out. The first aid guy was really nice. He walked me back to the centre, gave me an icepack and filled in the obligatory forms – the ankle was a little swollen, but I could move it all right. Apparently mine was the first injury my instructor had dealt with. Typical!

I got dressed and went to find Mum. There was a ninety-minute break between the two ninety-minute sessions. My foot felt much better, so I decided to carry on – it would have been a shame to go home. I started to feel the cold; Mum looked a little concerned.

Both sessions started with a briefing. In the second part the instructor showed us how to stand up on the board. We were shivering and tired, so it took a lot of willpower to change into our borrowed wetsuits again, which were damp even though we were given a fresh set. I know they’re supposed to be tight, but I think mine was too small – it took me forever to get in and out. That was possibly the hardest part – I’ve never worn one before! I told them my size, but the man suggested that I have a size smaller. Dude, I really did need a 12. Oh well, at least the second wetsuit had fewer holes. The first one was riddled with them, in rather unfortunate places…

I was quickly running out of energy. I wanted to be able to stand up, but seemed to have no strength left. I managed to get detached from my board at one point, and it ended up far away! My arms and core were burning, so I sat out for a couple of waves, discussing a technical point with the instructor before heading back in. I made it to my knees twice and managed to balance, which felt good – certainly a big improvement. A few more tries and I think I’ll make it… Unfortunately, on the next go I rolled off my board and hit my head with it. It didn’t hurt too much, but I was worn out by then anyway, as were three of the others, a mother and her two children. We left a few minutes early, leaving the two men to finish their successful attempts.

It was an incredible day, although ridiculously hard! I was exhausted, aching and hungry, but also pleased that I’d gone through with it despite the nerves. I did far better than I could have expected, and was surprised by my improvement over the course: I was so close to surfing. At one point the instructor shouted something that I couldn’t hear, and one of the men said it was, ‘Hannah, stand!’

Next time…


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