Lifestyles in Military Retirement: Learning to Surf in Hawaii

Here’s an amazing statistic: I’ve blogged for over six months on just about every aspect of military financial independence and early retirement. In nearly 80 posts, what’s been the most popular topic for over a week?:  Surfing. Are you people miserable on deployment or what? Just how cold a winter has it been up there? Or are all of those hits coming from my daughter, who tremendously enjoys her Mainland college but terribly misses surfing?

Well, I’ve never had a “real” job, but I know enough about business to recognize when to give the customers what they want. So here’s everything you need to know to start surfing in Hawaii. To all you other surfers reading this (including my daughter): please post a comment if I’ve overlooked something. And if you’re already a surfer then you can skip down to the last paragraph for the next challenge.

If you want to surf then you should start by ignoring all the cool vocabulary and fancy equipment. Everyone had to start with a first lesson, and we were all clumsy. Don’t be intimidated by the challenge, but do be respectful of experienced surfers by giving them plenty of room out there. Stay well to one side of their cluster and don’t compete with them for the same wave. You’ll learn the right-of-way rules and etiquette later.

If you can swim, then you can surf. It’s that easy. (The shameful fact is that a 1990s survey revealed over 30% of Oahu’s surfers still don’t know how to swim well enough to make it back to the beach if they’re separated from their board.) I used to surf while wearing an orthopedic knee brace and I could still get up fast enough to enjoy a good ride.

Surfing with torn ACLs

If you really want to read up on the sport (not necessary but comforting) then I’d recommend a library copy of the Start-Up guide to surfing or the Start-Up guide to longboarding.  Or try a “how to” video like this one.

If you want to surf a lot when you’re in Hawaii, then work on your shoulder muscles before you get here. You don’t need much acceleration but you will need a smooth consistent stroke to get back out to the break after riding one all the way to the beach.

To choose your exercises, stand up and rotate your arms in vertical circles. Feel those shoulder muscles rippling away? Work on them. Do the freestyle crawl in the pool (half a mile would be great) and maybe try 100 yards of the butterfly. Do 25-50 pushups at least 3x week, and add some pullups if you’re feeling the endorphins kick in. Just don’t overdo it, and take a break for the last few days before you travel.

If you’re visiting Hawaii for the first time then you’re probably in Waikiki. To avoid the crowds of local surfers, weekday mornings around 9 AM are best. Look for the statue of Duke Kahanamoku by Kuhio Beach Park (on Kalakaua between Kaiulani and Liliuokalani) and then wander onto the sand looking for any beach concession with a stack of rental surfboards.

If you’re over 100 pounds then you want to rent a board that’s at least nine feet long. (That’s written 9’0″ and pronounced “nine-oh”.) If you’re over 150 pounds then you want to rent at least a 10’0″. If you’re over 200 pounds then consider a 10’6″, but they’re hard to carry around unless your arms are at least 35″ long.

Cheerfully admit to the concessionaire that this is your first surfing experience (they can already tell) and ask for a lesson. Depending on your attitude (humility helps) and their business, expect to spend $40-$75.

If you’re staying at a Kapolei beach condo (or the new Disney resort), and if you’re still carrying a military ID card, then skip Waikiki (you can do the rest of it later) and head straight to White Plains Beach in Kalealoa.  (Some of you old salts may remember when it was the Navy’s Barbers Point Naval Air Station.)

The parking lot is at the end of Tripoli Drive near the Coast Guard Station. (If you get to the USCG station then turn around and go back to the first right.) The lifeguards will be setting up after 10 AM and will be happy to rent you a board (in exchange for your military ID) and give you a lesson for $30.

A rental 10'0" for a first-time surfer. Note the fin is at the back and behind his back so it doesn't bang into anything.

White Plains Beach rental board

Be ready for a lot of sun and for sliding around on slick surfaces. Rent or buy a nylon/polyester rash guard– any style or color or sleeve length will do if it fits a bit loose under the arms and comfortably on your torso. If you don’t get a rash guard then try a t-shirt. Slather on the sunscreen and apply more after the first surfing lesson. Otherwise you’ll be too sunburned & sore to do another session in two days.

You’ll have a board that’s either slick fiberglass (with sticky wax on the deck), or plastic with a deck of foam rubber. It’ll weigh up to 15 pounds and it’ll feel awkward to carry. Take it slow & easy and try not to bang the fin into anything. Yes, everybody is watching you, but they all had to start somewhere too!

You’ll begin with the board on the sand and lay on it as if you were paddling. You’ll learn how to push up, get up on your knees, bring one foot forward and then… just stand up. Which foot you bring forward depends on which feels comfortable to you. Most surfers put their left foot forward, but a few (mostly left-handed) bring their right foot forward. You can learn either way.

When you stand up, you’ll have your feet on either side of the board’s centerline for balance. Most of your weight will be on your back foot (especially if you want to turn) and a bit of a crouch always helps. Don’t feel that you have to POP up in a hurry– your first waves won’t be very big and you’ll have plenty of time. Just push up with your hands on either side of the centerline, bring your front knee forward when you feel that you’re in control, and stand up when you’re ready. Or just stay down on your hands and enjoy the ride. Your choice.

Enjoying the ride

After practicing on the beach, you’ll strap a leash on your back ankle. That helps you keep the board from turning into an unguided missile when you fall off it. It also means you don’t have to swim all the way back to the sand to retrieve it afterward.

The instructor will help you get the board into the water. You’ll push into the shallows, lay on top, and use that crawl stroke. Keep the board’s nose an inch or two above the water and try to get a smooth glide going, but there’s no hurry. Paddle straight into the white foam on top of the wave so that the board’s momentum carries you over it.  If a wave washes over you, keep a grip on the edge of the board and start paddling again as soon as the wave passes.

Entering the water

When you’re out to the break, probably with waves 2-3 feet high and well clear of other surfers, the instructor will turn you around and help you figure out when to paddle into one. You’ll usually get a helping push into your first few waves.

You’ll start paddling when the wave is about 20 feet behind you (look over your shoulder to judge that) and you’ll keep paddling until you feel the back of the board rise up and go faster.

When the board accelerates then you can stop paddling, put your hands on the deck in pushup position, and think about standing up. Keep the nose up out of the water as you do so (an occasional splash or two is OK) and take it slowly. Try to get the feel of the wave and enjoy the ride. Keep an eye on where your feet end up so that you can adjust their position on the next ride. Some of you will stand up right away, others will need six or eight tries. You’ll have it within the hour.

When the wave runs out, or you’ve had enough, then just sit down. Don’t jump off or dive off because the water might be shallow. Get down on the board and hold on to it so that it doesn’t shoot away from you and bang into anyone anything.

Then turn the board around, paddle back out, and try it again!

Your first surf session will probably be an hour. If you don’t feel your shoulder muscles grumbling by then, stop anyway. You can do more in 30 minutes (for maybe 30 minutes tops) or wait for the day after tomorrow.

If you’re not happy with laying down and standing up then ask the instructor about a stand-up paddleboard. It’s a little more complicated than paddling a canoe but you’ll figure it out within 30 minutes and get a great torso workout. Stroking your paddle into the waves on your feet is more challenging and you might not get the hang of it for a session or two. Just take it easy and focus on your balance & control.

Paddling out with another great surfer

If you’re already an experienced surfer, then visit Hawaii between November and February when the North Shore is practically guaranteed to be at least 10-15 feet along seven miles of beaches.

Rent a board in Haleiwa or sign up for a school like Progressive Surfing. Champion pro Myles Padaca will elevate your skills and have you looking forward to those 15-footers. My daughter and I got trashed & thrashed more than once, but it was one of the best Christmas presents ever.

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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4 Responses to Lifestyles in Military Retirement: Learning to Surf in Hawaii

  1. Tomcat98 says:

    Much more important than learning how to retire early :) Great post!


  2. Mel M says:

    A couple of years ago, my daughter and I got surfing lessons in Waikiki…and it seemed so easy to catch a wave and stand up with those slow, rolling waves..specially on those 11′ boards. A month or so later, I went with a friend of mine to White Plains, rented a 10′ and was on the water for seemingly an eternity and could not stand up at all. I was so frustrated and have never gone back surfing. Maybe when my brothers in law from Cali come for another visit (both are surfers), then I might go back in the water and try again.
    But you are right about those shoulder and lat muscles screaming with soreness after less than an hour paddling out..especially if you are not used to it.

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Mel, I hear you on the shoulders & lats. My daughter and I just paddled out for our sixth straight day, and I’ve been thoroughly thrashed by 10-12 footers. I’m actually looking forward to a few “slow” rides in the 4-8-foot range.

      The White Plains lifeguards have moved their rentals to the main building (it used to be the restaurant) and they have more choices. (They’re open every weekday at 10 AM and I believe they’re open earlier on weekends.) You may find that a 10’6″ or 11’0″ soft-top is perfect for your current skill level. The more you paddle, the better it gets. The practice sure builds muscle, but you also become more efficient in your stroke and in timing the waves.

      Another option is stand-up paddleboarding. They rent several of those, too. One day this summer when the water’s warm and the waves are flat, I’m going to talk my spouse into giving SUP a try with me.

      My biggest board is a 10’0″ epoxy. Let me know if you want to try it out sometime, or if you want me to meet you at White Plains to give you a hand on the breaks with one of their rentals!

      • Mel M says:

        Thanks Nords…might have to take you up on that offer…when the waves are significantly tamer than what they’ve been lately on the south shores of Oahu.
        My wife and I do some SUP at Hickam Beach, where the waves aren’t too crazy…nice easy paddling on those relatively calm waters.

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