Life

Catch a wave: Hang 10 during Puerto Rico vacation

By Ted Rath, Postmedia Network

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You paddle out, turn around and raise

And baby, that's all there is to the coastline craze

-- From the Beach Boys' Catch A Wave

True enough, Beach Boys. But you didn't tell us about the nosefuls -- and mouthfuls -- of seawater after repeatedly and unceremoniously wiping out just trying to get on the board.

Or the exhaustion of frenzied paddling to catch up to a wave that's cresting just ahead of you.

In short, learning to surf is hard. But totally worth it.

As a Canadian kid who grew up on the music of the Beach Boys, I always dreamed of cutting effortlessly through giant swells and riding them to shore, where I would kick my board up at sunset and load it on my Woody for the ride home.

Only recently did I get my chance to try it out -- not in California, but in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

San Juan isn't mentioned among the string of place names where everyone is Surfin' U.S.A. But it's a beginner's paradise and only a short drive from our hotel -- the luxe San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino -- to the pretty glassy, waves where you can really get ripping once you're no longer a cook. (That's right, I even picked up some lingo).

But easy there, tiger. Let's talk about the basics before you get ahead of yourself.

The WoW Surfing School is located in the city of San Juan, which is blessed with some beautiful, clean, sandy beaches.

I was doubtful when I got to their location -- a public beach behind a luxury hotel. The waves were less than a metre high.

"Perfect," said my instructor, Emmanuel Blanco. "Great for beginners."

He was right. No point in higher waves until you learn how to get up on the board and ride one to shore. And the tides in San Juan, because of its location, only rise and fall about 30 cm at most, so it doesn't matter what time of day you head out.

Lessons start out on the sandy beach, where there's not a lot to learn but it's crucial. The physics are pretty basic: Get from your stomach into the right stance on the board as quickly, efficiently and as balanced as possible.

After some practice manoeuvres on land, it's into the water, where Blanco scouts for the right waves.

"Okay, ready?" he asks, swivelling my board around as a nice wave starts to swell. "Okay: Paddle. Paddle! Paddle!"

So I paddle, paddle, paddle, and Blanco -- standing shoulder-high in the water -- gives me a push into the wave.

I can feel it moving under me, launching me toward shore. I try to remember the beach lessons -- hands here, this foot up, quickly now, bend the knees.

My front foot is too far up the board. I pitch forward into the surf, the board flying over top as I spin under the water until the waves passes over. No problem. Blanco waves me back. We'll try another.

There are those who are quite happy sitting on the sand, sipping pina coladas, and venturing into the water only now and then to cool off. But if you've ever felt the itch to explore the surf a little more, or -- like me -- just want to know if you can do it, a surfing lesson is worth the money and time.

At 24, Blanco is a surfing veteran. He teaches five days a week, but tries to get out to his favourite beaches on the west side of the island on weekends when he can.

"I have a girlfriend I live with now, so I have to -- you know -- divide my time," he confides.

The biggest challenge for beginner surfers: "Put your ego aside," Blanco advises. "People fall down two or three times and they get discouraged."

But if you stick with it, you just might be rewarded.

"No matter how much I can tell you and teach you, when the water comes it's just you. You have to be ready," he says. "It's really about patience and dedication. You take your poundings, you fall down and you learn."

Like golf -- where that one beauty chip shot gives you hope you will eventually get better at the game -- a single wave is all it takes to get back on the board and try another.

"I think that's what makes surfing so addictive," Blanco says. "It's the accomplishment of teaching yourself, and getting better and better."

For the record, I managed to get up and ride a few waves during my lesson, including one I took all the way to the sand like a champ. Mission accomplished. I'm hooked.

WHERE TO STAY

San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino: This luxe 4.5-star hotel enjoys a central location on sandy Condado beach (also good for surfing) and has an on site casino, several dining options, lounge with live entertainment, swimming pools, and the Ocean Club Wellness Center. It's not far from WoW and other urban surf spots as well as shopping, restaurants, nightclubs, museums, outdoor activities (everything from caving to zip lining to kayaking) and the Bacardi Distillery, which has tours. Rates for the 513 rooms and 14 suites vary according to season. Current room rates start at $244 US per night for a city view room in the main tower with a balcony. Complimentary internet is included. Contact marriott.com or 1-888-236-2427.

SURF SCHOOL

WoW Surfing School: Introductory 40-minute lesson with an instructor, then one hour alone with the board is $50 US (book online for $38 US). Contact wwsurfingschool.com/wowsurfingschool or 787 955-6059. Tip: Christmas season is WoW's busiest, so book well ahead.

MORE SURF SPOTS

The island is blessed with hundreds of surfing spots. A couple of the best include Aguadilla and Rincon on the west coast, where coral beaches and off-shore winds offer the best waves from October to May. Locals rent surfboards for about $20 for the day.