Unfair or not, surfing has earned a reputation for being territorial. Legends of aggressive locals who don’t like outsiders or beginners in their way at their breaks are more common than, say, stories of someone getting punched in the face for tracking out a ski run on a powder day or getting yelled at for going slow on a classic climb somewhere. It’s not an easy sport, either, with one of the steepest learning curves no matter where you are in your progression.
That’s why finding a gentle, friendly break will make your days as a proto-surfer far more enjoyable than, say, paddling into some dumping shorepound surrounded by lokes giving you the hairy eyeball. Friendly spots never have premium waves, but that’s kind of the point: rolling mushburgers are far more forgiving to paddling, wave selection, and the spastic origamic unfolding of limbs when you’re trying to stand up and balance.
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Canoes, Waikiki, Oahu
“This is where it all started – the birthplace of the sport,” says Chris Mauro, editor at GrindTV.com and former editor of Surfer Magazine. “While you once had to be royalty to paddle all the way out the back, these days, any pasty white, cheese-whiz eating lard ass can be escorted out by the handsome descendents we call Beach Boys. Granted, they’ll poke a little fun at you…but at least it’ll be to your face. And because they’re the best teachers in the world you’ll be up in no time.”
Waikiki also gets a vote from Ben Marcus, former editor at Surfer Magazine and author of The Surfing Handbook: Mastering the Waves for Beginning and Amateur Surfers and 12 other books: “Probably the best place in the world to learn to surf,” Marcus says.
2. San Onofre, San Clemente, California
Matt Warshaw, author of The History of Surfing and The Encyclopedia of Surfing, says San Onofre’s popularity doesn’t take away from its friendliness. “It defies all laws of nature — insanely crowded yet ridiculously friendly,” he says. “Kids, old-timers, BBQ, ukuleles, dogs, easy waves, beer coolers, lots of acreage.”
“Surfing roots run deep here,” says Mauro. “Back in the ’20s, when San Clemente was frontier land for people living in Southern California, this is where the beach lifestyle was perfected once waves were discovered here. It soon became the world’s first “Surf Camp,” frequented by weekenders who’d make the half-day journey from Pasadena. Today, you’ll likely find yourself paddling out next to an 8-year-old on one side, and an 80-year-old on the other. It doesn’t get any more family friendly than this. And the waves are perfect for learning, too. (Just ignore the leaky nuclear power plant.)”
3. Cowell’s Beach, Santa Cruz, California
Cowells gets Ben Marcus’ vote because “It’s a perfect spot for beginners: sand bottom, easy waves, lots of room. Second only to Waikiki as a great beginner break.” Although it’s wetsuit territory, Cowell’s is a well-known place to learn. Mauro says: “While the water is a little chilly, this perfectly sheltered cove north of the Santa Cruz pier makes it ideal for beginners. And while the outside lineup at nearby Steamer Lane can get downright nasty, Cowells is a free-for-all.”
BEST OF THE REST
1. The Jetty, Grand Haven, Michigan
“The waves aren’t great, but when you’re just learning they really don’t need to be, and nobody is more surf-stoked than the crew(s) on the Great Lakes,” says Mauro. “They’re a collection of hilarious surfing outliers and displaced ocean-goers keeping the flame alive. Rain or shine, they are always looking for someone to paddle out with (especially in winter).”
2. Short Sands, Oswald West State Park, Oregon
“The friendliest break in Oregon is California,” jokes year-round Pacific Northwest surfer Rick Olson. But Olson’s pick in his home state of Oregon is Short Sands, a sheltered cove in Oswald West State Park south of the town of Cannon Beach. “It’s always beautiful and welcoming,” Olson says. “Just be careful cooling your beers off in the creek or they might get mixed up with everyone else’s.”
3. Sand Spit, south of Morro Bay, California
Warshaw says: “Not sure if it’s actually all that friendly, but Sand Spit is located just a few hundred yards north of Hazard Canyon, one of the gnarliest and least-friendly breaks on the West Coast, so seems VERY friendly by comparison.”
4. Ocean Beach (when it’s 15 feet or bigger), San Francisco, California
“It’s an unfriendly break on a day-to-day basis,” Warshaw says. “But if it’s triple-overhead, and you manage to claw through the shorebreak, past the riptides, over the middle sandbar, and on out to the lineup, you’ve made your bones, and will get a wave and a nod and ‘How’s it going?’ from just anybody else who did the same.”
5. Cocoa Beach, Florida
Florida’s warm water, and Cocoa Beach’s mellow waves make this a perfect year-round spot for beginners on longboards — oh, and surf legend Kelly Slater learned here (and still lives here), so there must be something special.
6. La Jolla Shores, California
This mellow, low-power break seems to go on for a half-mile down the sandy beach at La Jolla Shores. Although it can get crowded during the summer and on weekends, if it’s not, it’s a beginner’s paradise. It is also possible that at least one AJ editor got up for the first time here, on a borrowed board and wetsuit.
Photo by Steve Casimiro