Patti Sheaff’s Learning to Surf over 50: 10 Tips

Maybe you were inspired by surfer Patti Sheaff. Surfing is a magical, mesmerizing sport. The surfer paddles out into the ocean, and at just the right moment slides down the glassy wall of the wave and harnesses its energy to ride to shore.

Surfing may seem unattainable for those of us who have done nothing more than body surf, especially if you’re on the north side of 50. But if you’re in good shape and are willing to work hard, it’s never too late to learn.

Patti Sheaff, who has surfed for nearly 50 years, has a friend who successfully started surfing in her 40s. But learning to surf requires hard work and dedication. “To get good, it takes a lot of motivation,” says Patti. “It’s not like snowboarding; with snowboarding, the mountain doesn’t move. It takes a while to sit on a board without falling over. It’s challenging. It takes a lot of time in the water to get the feel of waves.” With realistic expectations, surfing can provide physical and mental rewards. “I would learn to surf for the pure enjoyment of learning to surf,” says Patti. “Do it for the pure joy of being in nature and leaving your troubles on the sand and being cleansed.”

Here are 10 Tips for Older

Beginners: When it Comes to Boards, Size Matters: “The longer board, the more stability. The better you get, the shorter the board. A lot of people go out on a short board and try to surf and they can’t,” says Patti. Starting on a soft top surfboard is the easiest and safest way to learn how to surf. It will be easier to paddle, easier to catch more waves, and you will have less chance of hurting yourself. Look for a 9-foot plus foam top surfboard.

Dress Properly: A wetsuit can offer better buoyancy besides just keeping you warm. Summer in Southern California, a 2 mil will work; in the winter, go heavier, 3.5. Even in Hawaii, in the winter on a cloudy day, you will not regret having at least a rubber vest or a rubber shirt. If it’s warm, wear a rash guard, as bare skin against a surfboard can quickly become irritated and leave a painful rash. If you do get board rash, get some Belly Jelly, it helps.

Book a Lesson: Many beaches have surf schools where you can learn the proper techniques. Learning to surf without an instructor who can teach you the ways of the ocean is like going to the top of a mountain never having skied before. Doable, but hazardous to your health. The very best place to learn to surf is Waikiki, the wave of Elvis and Gidget: soft, predictable, and makes for very long rides.

Don’t Forget Your Sunscreen: The sun and surf can be tough on your skin. After years in the sun, she’s had a few skin cancers. She slathers on Banana Boat Baby Sunscreen Tear-Free Sting-Free Broad Spectrum Sun Care Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50. For really intense protection, the lifeguards in Hawaii use Shiseido Sun Protection Stick, super water resistant.

Get Comfortable in the Ocean: Surfing is actually 95% paddling. Before you consider surfing, you should be a good swimmer. You also need to get used to the rhythm of the waves and the way they break. That means getting out there on a regular basis. “Time spent in the water is the only way to know. Breaks are different on low-tide and high-tide times of day, and the wind will have a powerful effect on your ability to catch waves. Every day is different.” Go to the beach, observe the ocean for a good 15-20 minutes if you have not surfed there before; use the time to stretch. The difference between a normal wave and a big set wave can be surprisingly large.

Choose the Right Spot: “People make the mistake of paddling out to the middle of the pack at Topanga Beach [a Malibu surf spot frequented by experienced surfers],” says Patti. “Surfing is pretty territorial. We tend to protect the good spots.” If you go to an experienced locals-only spot, you are in for some hassle. According to, look for “waves where you can carry your board with the wax facing inward, put your leash on the wrong foot, or blindly neglect the rules of the lineup without major consequences. These spots are the bunny hills of the surf world.” Also, make sure it’s a patrolled beach, within sight of a lifeguard. You want to look for the beginners (kook) beaches, and stay way clear of the good surfers. Ask at the local surf shops — they will clue you in where to go and which breaks to avoid.

Respect Surf Ethics: These are the unwritten guidelines that include not dropping in on another surfer’s wave, holding onto your board to prevent it from causing injury to others and surfing on waves consistent with your ability. Surfing can be dangerous, especially to your fellow surfer if you do not control a loose board. If in doubt, ask a veteran surfer to lay out the rules for you.

Relax: Patti says novice surfers try to muscle it up. You are going to fall, everyone does, and it will be easier on you if you don’t fight while getting worked by the wave. “If you tense up, the waves will have their way with you. If you relax [think of a rag doll], you become fluid. Think of a dolphin.” Come up, get some air, grab your board and look where you need to be if there is another wave coming. Often just 10 feet out of the impact zone is all you need.

Work on the Pop Up: The pop up is the motion of moving from a paddling position to a surfing stance. It requires upper body strength, core muscles, strong legs and balance. Surfer Today recommends practicing your pop up on your beginner board on the beach or any flat surface if you don’t have a board handy. “The faster you get up, faster you can pump down the line [of waves],” says Patti.

Don’t Worry What Anyone Thinks: Get out there and do your thing, says Patti. It may take days, weeks and even months to stand up. You may spend all your time paddling out without ever catching a wave. She says there’s a saying in surfing: “The best surfer is the one who’s having the most fun.”

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