Surfboard Novices Can Learn the Sport in Barbados

With some of the best waves in the Caribbean, Barbados is becoming a magnet for serious surfers. But there are also beaches suitable for beginners.
With some of the best waves in the Caribbean, Barbados is becoming a magnet for serious surfers. But there are also beaches suitable for beginners. (By Stephen Brookes For The Washington Post)
By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 4, 2009

If you need someone to dominate the power of the oceans, I'm the wrong person to call. Those surfers who glide effortlessly down 12-foot tsunamis, rippling their muscles and getting tanner with every passing wave? That's not me. I'm the pale, lazy guy sitting back on the beach -- the one under the umbrella with a book, a cooler and a lifetime supply of SPF 100.

So what was I doing this brilliant July morning, standing on a cliff in Barbados with a surfboard under my arm? Down below, the surf was crashing into the rocks with a menacing roar. By my side, five other surfing novices, from their early 20s to somewhere in their 50s, were huddled around our instructor, Melanie Pitcher, and we were listening closely. She was teaching us how not to get killed.

"The surfboard is the most dangerous thing out there," said Melanie, waving at the surging Atlantic. "Just don't be on the wrong side of the surfboard when a wave crashes on you, or you'll get nailed. And try not to jump onto any sharp coral. You probably won't remember any of this when you're out there, but don't worry about it. It's going to be fun!"

We looked at one another nervously. I'd signed up for this class at the last minute, on one of those middle-aged "things you must do before you die" impulses. I knew I'd never be hanging 10 in Malibu or riding the Banzai Pipeline in Oahu, but I didn't care. All I wanted was to get upright, yell "Cowabunga!" and then go home to impress my children with my awesome surfer-dude coolness.

And Barbados seemed as good a place as any to get started. It's still well off the beaten path, but with some of the best and most consistent waves in the Caribbean, it's becoming a magnet for serious surfers. And there are some spectacular surf spots, such as the legendary Soup Bowl on the island's rugged east coast, which, frankly, is scary just to look at.

But we were down at the "beginners" beach, Freights Bay, at the southern end of the island, where the waves are gentle and no one really expects much of you. On a grassy bluff overlooking the water, Melanie walked us through Surfing 101, which is basically just paddling on your stomach, then getting upright on the board into proper surfing position.

It turns out there are two ways to do this. You can (A) push up off the board with your toes, leaping with feline agility into a perfectly balanced pose; or (B) clamber your way clumsily upright, flailing your arms and hoping for the best.

Melanie demonstrated the first method. It looked easy. The 20-somethings tried it, and all floated into position as if they'd grown up in Malibu.

Then the rest of us gave it a shot.

"Oh, look!" said Melanie, after I'd taken a minute to lumber into a wobbly, semi-vertical pose. "You're a goofy foot!"

I looked at her, stricken. "Don't worry," she said. "It's just a term for people who put their right foot forward on the board, rather than their left." I nodded, but still . . . goofy foot? That couldn't be good.

But there wasn't time to be humiliated. The surf was up (as we surfers say), so we climbed down to a narrow strip of beach where Melanie launched us into the ocean one by one, like little ducklings. We paddled out past the breaking waves and practiced sitting on our boards, bobbing happily as the swells, no more than a few feet high, lifted us up and down.

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