I heard the thundering of the wave behind me and readied myself on my board. Paddle, paddle, paddle. It hit the back of my board square on, just like it was supposed to, and propelled me forward. A few more strong paddles and I popped up. Feet parallel, shoulder width apart, hips square, arms out. The wind in my face, I rode the wave all the way to shore, even managing to use my weight to steer left as I whizzed towards the sand (albeit, almost entirely by accident). That’s it, I thought, I’m officially a surfer.
If only it was always that easy. Rewind just a few days when yet another wave punched me in the face; knocking me off balance and plunging me headfirst into the chilly water. Determined, I scrabbled for my board, waded back out and tried again. And again. And again. Three days in, I felt like I’d never get the hang of it.
Thankfully, my instructor, Bahsine Elbaz, had seemingly endless patience while I found every way imaginable to fall off a surfboard.
“Don’t stick your bum out so far. You’ll topple straight…” [Splash] “Oh.”
“Bend your knees. Legs further apart… no, not that far” [Splash]
“Feet parallel. Why is your front foot facing forward?”
“Look forward, don’t look down. If you look down, you’ll…” [Splash].
And, my favourite: “Stop thinking so much. Just do it!”
I was in Taghazout, Morocco, where I was spending a week at Surf Maroc taking surf lessons and yoga classes all week. I’d never surfed before, so, when we were split into groups of similar skill level, I was put with the total beginners. Everyone in our group had either never stepped on a surfboard before or had fewer than five lessons. Rather than feeling offended at being in the bottom group, I was relieved that I wouldn’t be the only one at Surf Maroc with absolutely no idea what I was doing.
We started with the very basics.
Step one, catching our first wave: We paddled out to where the waves were breaking around knee deep. As a wave approached, we lay on our fronts on our board and paddled. One, two, three strokes until the wave hit the back of the board and pushed us forward. Lifting our head and upper body up (a little like upward-facing dog in yoga) and cruised to shore. So far, so easy – as long as you remember to keep your board square to the wave (at a slight angle, the wave will hit the longer edge of your board and flip you over).
But – much as I would have loved to – we couldn’t bodyboard all week. Now we knew how to catch a wave, the hard part was about to begin – learning how to stand.
First, we had to work out whether we were goofy or regular surfers – that is, whether we surfed with our left (regular) or right (goofy) foot forward. If you’re not sure which is your leading foot, ask someone to push you from behind and see which foot goes to stop your fall – this will be the front foot on your board.
Expert surfers will just “pop up” into a standing position but, for us, this approach wasn’t going to work until we’d had a lot more practice. Bahsine showed us a couple of different ways of pushing up into the right position on the board, and we practised on the sand. On dry land – where we could take our time – it seemed OK, but I knew that wouldn’t be the case once we were trying to ride an actual wave.
And I was right. It was a disaster. My morning went a little something like this: paddle, paddle, paddle, catch a wave, try to stand up, fall off, paddle back out, repeat.
There was a lot of tough love (“Seriously, what was that?! Do it again!”) but nothing beat the feeling of getting an approving “thumbs up” or high five when you got it right.
By the time we stopped for lunch, I was exhausted – and ravenous. Which seemed silly as I hadn’t even managed to do anything other than plunge headfirst into the surf over and over. Good thing I’d gone to town at the salad bar that morning when making our packed lunches and had piles of salad, hummus and fresh bread.
After some more disastrous attempts on the board, we headed back to the guesthouse to chill out for an hour or two.
I’d opted for the yoga package at Surf Maroc, so I was looking forward to having some gentle stretching before dinner to ease my tired muscles. The yoga classes take place at Amouage – the sister property of Surf Maroc just down the road from where I was staying in Taghazout Villa – in a lovely studio overlooking the pool and the ocean.
If I was expecting a relaxing yin class, what I got that evening was anything but. That evening there was a visiting DJ pumping out tunes and the floor of the yoga studio vibrated to the pumping bass. “Well, I guess if you can’t beat them, join them,” said our yoga instructor Adam. “Let’s ramp things up today with a power class”.
By the end of the hour, we were exhausted, jelly-legged and drenched in sweat. If you haven’t tried repeated planks, chaturangas and push-ups after several hours of paddling, I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re after a relaxing way of winding down. While that was by far the hardest class of the week at Surf Maroc, the others were still pretty challenging on the whole and pushed me to improve quickly.
I’d definitely earned my dinner. Which was a good thing as there was so. much. food. There were around 12 of us staying in our villa, so we sat together on a long, wooden table and dug into the steaming piles of veggies, tagines and couscous laid out in front of us. Once we were fit to bursting, we lolled into the sofas and tucked into dessert – there was a different treat each evening (as Taghazout Villa has a weekly rolling menu) and, while they were all delicious, the brownies were divine.
While some groups did switch between surf teachers on different days, I was lucky enough to have Bahsine for the whole week. After the disaster that was day one, I seemed to be getting the hang of it on the second day and managed to pop up on several baby waves. OK, so I fell off after about a second most of the time, but it was big progress nonetheless.
By the third day, I woke up exhausted and sore. We went to a slightly busier beach with bigger, stronger waves and my progress took three steps backwards. Try as I might, I was hopeless. “Mel, what the hell was that?!” seemed to be Bahsine’s slogan of the day. Realising we were struggling, he paddled out into the waves, holding the back of our boards and giving us a huge shove to push us onto the right wave, so we didn’t have to think about which wave to catch and could concentrate on trying to pop up. Despite his help and encouragement, I wasn’t getting anywhere. Wave after wave, I was knocked off before I’d even begun to stand. Trying not to be disheartened – but beginning to accept the fact I was not born to be a surfer – I waded back in to try again. And again. And again. At least I was getting the hang of the yoga!
Pushing myself to go to both the sunrise and the evening classes each day, I quickly saw my practice improve and before I knew it was knotting myself into postures I’d always thought were impossible.
Although we were pushed really hard in these classes, they were open to all levels. Even if guests weren’t signed up to the yoga surf package, they were given a couple of tokens to join a free class if they wanted a trial and it was nice to see lots of beginners giving it a go too.
I got used to seeing the amusing journey of (usually) a boyfriend tagging along for his first ever yoga class – from the knowing “I got this – I touched my toes once” look as he swaggers into the studio to the trembling, sweating mess two minutes into the warm-up. Staggering out at the end of class, he’d make a comment to his girlfriend along the lines of: “Wow, so this is what you do every week? I thought it would be mainly lying down!”
After being disappointed in myself on the third day, I had low expectations when we went back for the fourth. Today, we were heading to Imsouane, a really popular surf break about an hour’s drive from Taghazout. The longer drive today meant we had a pretty early start to catch the best waves, so, as the engine rumbled and we twisted and turned along the coastal roads, my eyes grew heavy and I curled up for a nap in the back seat.
Amazingly, though, it all seemed to be coming together today. Sure, I was still getting knocked off a lot of waves but I was popping up more often and even managing to ride some without immediately hurling myself face first into the water.
When we started, I’d found it really frustrating to be told “Don’t think about it, just do it” but now my body was used to what position it needed to be in on the board; I was actually starting to get into the right position without thinking too much.
By my last day of lessons at Surf Maroc, our group had shrunk to just two of us (with two girls too tired to carry on, one injury and a couple of hangovers). With the combination of an empty beach and some private tuition, I was really getting the hang of it and even managed to start practising turns. Like the Derek Zoolander of the waves, “I’m not an ambiturner” and currently (unlike Zoolander) I can only turn left.
In the afternoon, we drove over to another beach and (with some help) I managed to catch a couple of bigger waves. Whizzing into shore on my last wave of the day, I was buzzing at how far I’d come but slightly disappointed I hadn’t booked a few days longer at Surf Maroc to perfect my techniques before heading home. Unlike several other guests for whom one week had turned into two, three or five, I had to be back in the office on Monday and couldn’t extend my trip.
My only question was: when can I come back?