Think of surfing and you picture the boardwalks of California or Australia, of blonde muscled men and lithe women effortlessly hitting the waves and living a lifestyle many of us only dream about.
Yet in the past five years the number of registered surf retreats around the world has risen, with women in particular taking to the waves in increasing numbers.
But can you really learn to surf in four or five days? And can you really go into a surf camp with zero experience and minimal fitness?
Ever the intrepid explorers, Metro.co.uk decided to find out directly, and discovered that like most things, the answer is yes and no.
As someone who spends every summer on the coast, the beach is my happy place. The ocean? Not so much. One day as a teenager I decided the salt water was too salty, the sand sticking to, well, everything was uncomfortable, and don’t get me started on applying sun tan lotion at the beach when covered in that salty residue.
But now I’m in my thirties, and potentially in the middle of a third-life crisis, I’m in the process of overcoming old fears, from relearning to drive to accepting my body, to finding my water feet again.
For seven months I’ve been learning to swim and regaining confidence in the water but as I fly in to Portugal to join the Chicks On Waves surf retreat in the Algarve, I panic.
The ocean is not a swimming pool and all the tumbling and treading water practice in the world is not going to prepare me for the might and unpredictability of the surf.
Plus, I realise, I probably should have done some weight training beforehand to compensate for my complete lack of upper body strength.
But there’s no turning back now…
Chicks On Waves is a women-only surf and yoga retreat that has been running for 11 years, first in Morocco and now Portugal, in the hope of getting more women in the water.
Based out of a stunning ecolodge with amazing views out on the ocean, the group is a mix of women from across Europe, some of whom are complete beginners and other who are more experienced but only get the chance to get on the water when they take trips such as these.
Each day begins either with surf or yoga – depending on the tides – but day one kicks off with an 8am yoga class on the roof.
It’s a picture perfect start, and I imagine that this is all I need to be able to suddenly be able to jump up on that board.
Somehow it doesn’t cross my mind I’ve never been able to do a bunny hop to save my life, so how one class of yoga will make a difference, I don’t know.
After a lazy morning around the pool, we take a 20 minute drive to Praia do Castalejo where we’re promised powerful small waves – perfect for beginners.
After we struggle into wetsuits and carry our boards to the right spot, it’s time for a tutorial on the basics such as surf etiquette, how to get on the board and how to paddle. Then we’re out in the surf.
The first goal is to catch a wave and ride it in; you need to find your perfect balance on the board and try to pick the right wave by looking over your shoulder all at the same time. It’s hard.
Add on top of that trying to get on the board when you’re 5’3″ on a good day and have zero upper body strength, it’s not a good start.
Our instructors Sara and Saskia are there to help, and so once I’m on the board it’s a case of waiting to be told when to start paddling and then metaphorically crossing everything you have that the wave will pick you up.
It takes a while to learn which waves will work for you – and I have no expectations this will happen in one week – but after several attempts it’s time to get back out and be shown how to stand up.
I’m surprised we’re focusing on this as complete beginners after an hour in the water but Saskia helps to break down the process of getting to your feet, offering some key tips and tricks that add a few extra steps for those of us with weaker cores, before we’re told it’s a case of going again and again and again.
Kirsty visited her first surf retreat in 2017 at the age of 31 because she was keen to try something new.
‘What interested me was the adrenaline rush of the surfing coupled with the great location,’ she says, while Clare, 32, had surfed before her first retreat but felt that the week of dedicated time to the ocean allowed her to improve her technique.
‘The ocean makes you put everything into perspective by making you feel insignificant,’ Clare adds
‘We were able to switch off; our bodies were exhausted but our minds were relaxed.’
Katrien Kegels, who owns Chicks On Waves, says she’s seen a huge increase in the last five years of women taking to the waves for the same reasons.
‘I think women feel empowerment from surfing,’ she says.
‘The ocean cleanses, it free the body and soul and has been proven to be a good way to stop thinking and live in the moment, something that is difficult for people nowadays, to disconnect completely from daily busy lives.’
Plus, as Katrien, says, ‘surfing with other women is so much fun, we cheer for each other when we see our friend on a beautiful wave’.
After a good night’s sleep, day two begins bright and early and I realise my arms are achey and everything hurts. How have I pulled muscles in the back of my knees?
Yoga class at 8am helps to stretch out muscles I never knew I had, but before long it’s time for the next lesson.
The surf conditions are not great for beginners today but perseverance is key – 99% of surfing is paddling and attempting to catch a wave, says Sara, not actually riding the wave in.
For some of the girls, day two is about learning which waves work for them and moving on from knees to attempting to stand. I’m still trying to get on the board.
I’m slowly realising that I may not be the secret surf Goddess I’d always secretly suspected I was.
By day three – despite the factor 50 and zinc application – I have what could kindly be called ‘a healthy glow’ and I fear the instructors may have given up on me.
Note to everyone, pick up some strength training and maybe do some ab crunches before a surf retreat.
It’s a morning surf for day three at a new beach, Praia de Porto de Mós. The break is too close to shore so it’s time to go out into the green water. This is where you can’t touch the seabed so it’s the part that I have been dreading.
I decide it’s now or never and I paddle out to the others, taking deep calming breaths while also trying to keep my board balanced so I don’t fall off.
‘Paddle paddle!’ I hear shouted in my direction and I look over my shoulder to see what even I can tell is going to be the perfect wave.
Remembering the techniques we’ve been taught I let the wave catch the board, paddle two more strokes, push myself up to the yoga cobra position, keep my eyes facing forward – all of this should be done in a few seconds but it’s a big wave and I take my time – then I slide up to my knees, balance one foot down… it’s wipe out.
Caught in the tumble, I try not to panic as wave after wave keeps breaking on top of me. I make it out of the surf and attempt to bring my board back in closer but another wave breaks and I am caught inside the impact zone in endless rows of rumbling whitewater.
It’s terrifying and as I finally drag myself out of the wave hold-down and on to the beach my heart is pounding and my legs are shaking. I’m still alive but I decide I’m done for the day.
Laura Crane found fame in 2018 as a contestant on Love Island but she was previously a professional surfer who competed for Great Britain during the World Surf League’s Qualifying Series.
The 24-year-old used surfing ‘to get out of a bad place or to brighten up any down day’ and acknowledges that ‘there’s ‘something about bring in the ocean away from technology and thinking about nothing else more than just standing up on my board gliding along a wave’.
As my week comes to an end, I realise I’ve spent less time on my phone, and had to consciously remember to dig for it at the bottom of my bag to take pictures for this story.
‘This could definitely be a trigger for the rise of people getting into it,’ adds Laura, of the sport’s ability to force you to switch off and focus elsewhere.
By the fourth and final day, I know there’s no chance of standing up but as I float on the board during a lull in the waves, I am grateful for the moment, just me, the board, the ocean, and seven other women who are all searching for the same tranquility I am discovering.
And yes, the high of a chorus of ‘yewwwwwwws’ as one of us catches the wave.
‘I think surf retreats are an amazing way to get in to surfing and you really get a feel for the whole surfing lifestyle that comes with the sport, which is one of the best things about it,’ says Laura, and I can’t help but agree.
In four days, I may not have stood up on the surfboard, but boy did I have fun trying.
Chicks On Waves
Chicks On Waves is based near Burgau, an hour west of Faro.
Rates start at €865 (around £770) for seven nights accommodation in a shared room with private bathroom.
This includes five yoga lessons, five daily surf lessons, breakfast, lunch and dinner for five days as well as free use of mountain bikes, boards, wetsuits, mats, and WiFi.
How to get there
British Airways fly to Faro daily, with return flights from Gatwick Airport starting from £81.
For those early morning flights, stay at the Bloc Hotel, with rooms starting from £69.
The Gatwick Express is a non-stop shuttle service from London Victoria that runs every 30 minutes from £17 one way.
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