We sat on foam surfboards under a tree on the beach, waiting for our surf instructor to start our afternoon lesson. My board was yellow; Joel, my British, pre-teen surfing companion, had a blue one. While we waited, I asked him about his surfing know-how. He and I both had limited experience (I downplayed my surfing trip to Hawaii and ignored my surfing lesson in Tofino), so I would feel more comfortable. I really am not that good. There was a chalkboard nearby with the name Nikolas written on it, along with a few surfing diagrams, so I figured that was our instructor and his handiwork. (It wasn't.)
Our instructor, whom I thought of as Nikolas even if that wasn't his real name, appeared and apologized for being late. "Ikaria time—island time," he said in defence. Nikolas was a cute Greek man—brown-haired and bearded, tattooed and toned—so I forgave him immediately. It his charming accent, he told us about his love for surfing and gave us a surprisingly thorough and practical guide for us (almost) first-timers.
There are four main parts of surfing, Nikolas said: paddling technique, how to find a wave and get on it, jumping up on the board, and surfing stance. I paid attention to the whole lecture, making note of all the errors of my surfing ways.
Most beginners don't paddle enough, he said. When you feel the first "bump and push up" from the wave, paddle one or two more times and then push up. Paddle hard, not just at the surface but dig deep into the water and pull hard. As he sat in the sand, he demonstrated the difference between short surface strokes and digging deep into the water. And paddle like you're swimming, one stroke at a time, because if you paddle with both hands at the same time, the time between strokes is too long.
I smiled: I got this.
Finding a Wave and Getting On It
Nikolas didn't have much to say about how to choose which waves to get onto and which to ignore. Reading the waves, he said, was one of the hardest things to do. It takes time out on the waves and a lot of practice.
I've seen Soul Surfer; I know this is something the incredible Bethany Hamilton is very good at. But I had zero expectations for improving this skill in this lesson; I had more urgent skills to focus on.
Jumping up on the Board
To jump on the board, Nikolas said, it was hard to tell us exactly where we should be on the board. It depends on the person's size and centre of gravity, but you should always be centred. Keep on your toes as you paddle, he said, because you will be in a better position to push up. "It'll be quicker," he said, to "use the push from your toes."
He also said we should keep our backs up, like in a cobra yoga pose, when we're paddling because it's (again) quicker. "You have already started getting up" he noted, and—bonus—you'll have a better view of the waves.
Keeping on my toes? Manageable. Keeping my back up? Doable. So far so good.
I asked him about the position of my hands on the board. Should they be flat on top, like I was doing a pushup, or hooked onto the side so I'm holding onto the board? "Personal preference," he responded. Good—because that was one habit I didn't think I'd able to shake anytime soon.
When you get a wave, jump up right away, Nikolas said, because then there is less time to lose your balance. And this is where I fall apart, I thought.
Nikolas had strict instructions for our surfing stance. Put one foot in front of the other, with both facing the side. The back foot should be about 10cm from the black dots (located on the sides of our foam boards). Bend your legs, but not too much. Keep your centre of gravity over the centre of the board. He leaned forward to demonstrate how his chest, and therefore his centre of gravity, was over the side of the board.
Like all sports, look where you want to go. Look forward when you're paddling and jumping up. If you look down when you're jumping up, your centre of gravity is off-centre.
I don't even know where to begin with my Bad Habits list. I look down. My feet, on the rare occasions I manage to stand up on them, are rarely one in front of the other. And the weirdest part? I tend to jump up on my toes. I don't know why.
We spent the next hour or so practicing in the water. In terms of the surfing lesson, I can't say it was a successful hour. None of my bad habits disappeared.
But there's nothing like being out on the water. It was special, too, because as I was planning my trip to Greece, it was surprisingly difficult to find a surf spot in a country with over 13 600 kilometres (8500 miles) of coastline. To have found waves and to have a surfboard on which to ride them—whether I was on my feet, my toes, or my stomach—was exciting.
One thing Nikolas kept repeating was our need to feel the water. "Pay really attention" he instructed. "Pay really attention to the waves and how our board feels. We want the board to feel on the water as it does here on the sand: balanced and secure." And so I'll keep trying.
Ikaria Surf School is located within walking distance from Armenistis village on Ikaria island. Afternoon group surf lessons (1.5 hours) cost 30€.