10 Life Lessons from Learning How to Surf in New Zealand

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Last Updated on April 21, 2024 by Audrey Scott

This is a story about losing our surfing virginity on the beaches of Raglan, a town on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s also about taking a step back to appreciate that learning to surf is a lot like learning to live life itself.

I woke up that morning in Raglan and the rain continued to piss down. How saturated could the ground be? How consistently foggy and gray could it get here? The answer: very. It was one of those mornings when I got up and just wanted to pull the covers over my head.

But you get up because breakfast is at 6:30. And you have a surfing lesson that morning.

And maybe things will get better.

And they do.

Surf in Raglan New Zealand
Surfing in Raglan, New Zealand

You try like hell to get up on your surfboard; you watch others try too. You witness sheer joy in trying; you experience sheer joy in trying. And then you experience sheer joy in standing up.

And you learn something from it all.

10 Lessons Learned from Surfing

1. What is most apparent is not always what actually matters.

When it comes to achieving our goals and objectives, it’s not about what’s most apparent – that can be a distraction – but rather about what’s relevant.

Ngarunui Beach New Zealand
Rainy morning, but ideal surfing conditions.

Conditions are great. It’s a good day to learn how to surf,” Nick, our G Adventures leader and ever the optimist, offered as it rained through breakfast, just before our surfing lesson.

Initially, I construed Nick’s outlook as cheerleading to get us beyond the day’s superficial, wet misery. However, it turns out he was right. The waves were just about perfect. Water temperature was, too. Eventually it stopped raining, but the clouds remained. Knowing how powerful the New Zealand sun could be, I appreciated that this too was a blessing in disguise.

Learning to surf was our goal, and in that context, all that really mattered was the condition of the waves, not my stereotypical notion of what constituted good weather.

Figure out what really matters to achieve your goal and understand that your success depends as much or more on your ability to see opportunity in circumstance as it does on the circumstances themselves.

2. Celebrate the attempt.

More often than not, you have to fall down in order to stand up.

Later that day, after having conquered my first surf, I had a conversation with a bartender in Raglan.

How was your day?” he asked.

Great. I went surfing for the first time. I stood up five times!” I offered satisfied.

But you fell down a lot, didn’t you?

You might be thinking “What a jerk!” No, not at all. The bartender's intention was good, and he was right. There was also a lesson in his response. He wasn’t trying to take away my accomplishment, but to recognize what it took to surf and what it would take to improve.

The upshot: It should feel good to try. If it doesn’t, learn to enjoy trying. There's joy and satisfaction buried in there.

Surfing in Raglan New Zealand
Surfing lessons in Raglan, New Zealand

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Asking for help was one factor that separated those who stood up and rode a wave from those who did not.

Even if you think it makes you look silly, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance or guidance. Willingness to learn is a sign of strength. Or at least a sign of knowing what you know and what you don’t — also a strength. Exchange the short-term pain of looking and feeling inadequate for the long-term gain of skill acquisition and a taste of success.

4. Guidance helps.

My first time up on the surfboard – for what seemed like an eternity of a few seconds — was most likely for a nanosecond or two. It was thrilling in its own right. However, the real a-ha! happened when a surfing instructor from another group waved me over to him, took me out further into the ocean, waited for the right wave, held my board from behind, talked me through what I needed to do and steadied me into my first real experience.

Oh, so this is how it’s supposed to feel.”

Many of us want to carve our own path. But in reality, we occasionally need someone to show us the way. A dose of the right guidance from a helping hand can be the difference between understanding the target sensation and always feeling slightly off-course.

5. Support is divine.

One my fondest memories of surfing: being in the middle of our group, many of them first-timers, all cheering each other's attempts. There was little competitiveness, mainly just support for those putting themselves out there and trying over and over again. And then trying some more.

Although there was a lot of falling down, based on the cheers, you'd figure we were all riding the wave of a lifetime, hanging ten.

Success or failure, life feels better when you receive — and freely give — support and encouragement.

6. Baby steps, baby steps.

There are two approaches to surfing, broadly speaking. The first is to charge out into the waves, catch the first one, hop up on the board and hang ten. Then there are the stepwise methods for mere mortals like us. The surf lesson we were given included a yoga-like 4-step process of getting onto the board with our knees and stepping into a warrior pose-like surfing position.

Learning the 4-step process before getting into the waves.

Once out in the water (i.e., the real world of surfing), it helps to get a sense by riding the board on your belly, much like you would on a boogie board. This will help you understand how to steady yourself and to harness the wave. Then you can move on to riding the board on your knees. And from there, to standing up. Each step in the process helps you appreciate the timing, balance, and alignment you'll need to reach your ultimate goal.

Tasks that seem fluid, once broken down into steps, become less magical, more doable.

7. Balance and alignment are key.

In my brief experience of learning to surf, there’s nothing worse than being off-balance on your board. Once that happens, you are toast. If you begin your paddle off-balance, there’s a good chance you will either miss the wave or be eaten by it.

As in life, alignment will set the course for a healthy ride. Proper alignment also makes it a whole lot easier to steady yourself throughout the ride. Alternatively, if you begin off balance, much of the energy you'll need for everything else will be spent on correcting.

8. You will never know until you try. Really try.

I was apprehensive about surfing. Now that I’ve tried it, I want to do it again. And again. It's something I will actively seek out.

My fears about surfing were many. Fear of failure. Fear of being pounded upside down into the current and sand. Fear that maybe I'd waited too long to try. Fear of being uncomfortably cold in the water. (Yes, this is a real concern for me. I'm working on a permanent 11-mil wetsuit.)

Then I think of Kathy, a young woman in our group with a fear of water, and what she had to overcome to get into the waves with her surfboard. But she didn't give in; I saw her throwing herself on her board, trying again and again. Before we were done, she too was able to stand up.

Fears and apprehensions are quite normal and human. Getting out and “getting amongst it” is really the only way to transform your fear into something more productive: awareness. Perhaps we should consider consuming our fears before we allow them to consume us.

9. Nature: It’s always bigger than it looks.

From the mountains to the sea, human beings have done remarkable things to work with and harness the power of nature. Having said that, nature deserves respect — it’s almost always bigger and badder than it looks.

Walking down the hill to our surf beach, I remember thinking, “Those waves don’t look very big.”

Others echoed the sentiment. Once we got into the water, those waves, while not monster tubes, were plenty big and certainly more powerful than we'd all imagined.

Nature has a way of tricking us with distance. The further away from something we are, the smaller it looks. It’s only when we get up close and personal do we understand the reality.

And so it is often with life. What might seem simple and quick from a distance is often more complex and time-consuming when we're in it.

10. A nine-item list is OK, too.

Try as hard as I might, I couldn’t really squeeze out ten lessons from surfing, so nine will just have to do. It’s a pity, particularly since I really wanted to hang ten.

So what of all this? Why life lessons from surfing?

As I rode my last wave in standing up (it was a remarkable fluke), I remember thinking “That was amazing.” It wasn't just that it wasn't as frightening as I first thought, it was better than I could ever have imagined.

It’s taken me 41 years to find the way to get up on a surfboard. I don’t expect it will take another 41 for me to get back up on one again.

Disclosure: Our New Zealand Encompassed Tour was provided by G Adventures in connection with its Wanderers in Residence program. Our flights were kindly sponsored by Air New Zealand. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.
About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

30 thoughts on “10 Life Lessons from Learning How to Surf in New Zealand”

  1. Full agree with all of the above! Learning to enjoy wiping out is the most important step…if at some point (in the next 41 years) you a passing through the Morocco coastline I’d be more than happy to pick up from where the Kiwi instructors left off!

  2. learning to surf is the single best thing I’ve ever done!

    10 years later I’m now travelling the world working as a surf coach – keep at it 🙂

  3. Total awesomeness, I haven’t gone surfing at all in my life but learning it in New Zealand would probably the best place. Gotta go there now.

  4. This post was tubular!!! I totally love this! It was awesome seeing what you guys where up to on your travels through New Zealand. These are great life lessons. The ones that struck accord with me where, 1, 3, 5, and 8. These are things that I try my best to remember when I embark on a new adventure / task.

  5. You guys surfed New Zealand??!! Bah, more reasons for us to return. We didn’t try surfing until the end of our trip in Hawaii. I wiped out the first try but I’m totally addicted now. Would love to do this again elsewhere in the world.

  6. Great post! Surfing is one of those sports that looks so easy to do when pros do it…when we tried it in Indonesia, it was not easy, nor did we make it look easy! Fall down, paddle and repeat. Great job standing up, it’s not easy to do. We only stood up once as well.


  7. Like you Dan, I started at about 40 to accompany my 12 year old son, and loved it, the feelings – fear, accomplishment, exhaustion, nature, camaraderie, joy, progress, frustration, physical, zen – I am now 50 and may never be a great surfer but love every minute of it – it’s an addiction that is totally good for you, it’s like the do it all appliance on the infomercials for your life :)Loved the way you put it.

  8. I just picked up surfing in Hawaii last year. I never thought of surfing to be this deep. Glad you pointed it out. My biggest fear was hitting the coral under the water. I still have scars on my feet. Eeek. I’m getting water shoes next time!

  9. Fantastic article, Dan. In fact, I loved the admission that you stood up 5 times! I don’t know much about surfing, but not admitting to be a superman is a trait I really appreciate in people. Only people who know their limitations can overcome (some) of them. 🙂

  10. Surfing seems so difficult for me, but I want to try it one day. As you say I need to start from taking baby steps and as long as I ask for help I’m gonna be fine! Great tips!

  11. Nice site, and great trip! I’m envious. Originally I had what I thought were ambitious plans to hit up two continents, three South American countries (and Antarctica) in a month.

  12. @Jonny: Learning to love wiping out. One of life’s most important lessons. Thanks for the invitation. Am likely to show up on your doorstep one of these days for the next installment of Dan and Audrey Learn to Surf!

    @Chris: Excellent. What a great twist.

    @Jam: I’m sure there are other places that can compete, but learning to surf in New Zealand certainly surpassed our expectations.

    @Oliver: Tubular! Love it! Glad those lessons resonated, particularly #1…that seemed a refresher that I needed.

    @Kieu: Put it on the list. Surf’s up, New Zealand!

    @Dariece: We hear you, the pros make it look easy. It’s always that way. When you get down to it, it’s a challenge. That’s what makes anything worth doing, really. Life’s built-in reward system.

    @Heather: Yes! Our guide said that about surfing. He said there’s no plateau and you always get a little bit better. Always possible to enjoy it. Thanks for sharing your experience. Loved your “do it all appliance” metaphor — viva surfing!

    @Sutapa: I felt like a champ every time I stood up, but it was a real challenge. A lot of time paddling and working, but that’s what makes the whole thing worth it. Glad you enjoyed the piece! I will never admit to being Superman, for even if I did, there would always be Kryptonite, wouldn’t there?

    @Gerard: We were fortunate. The surf beach in Raglan was relatively soft and scrape free. The scrapes I sustained (a good one on the chin) were from the board and few less-than-graceful flips under the water.

    @James: Hell yeah. Glad you liked it!

    @Agness: Try it. Maybe you’ll like it, you’ll definitely appreciate the experience.

    @damian: Thanks, glad you are enjoying Uncornered Market!

  13. Daniel such a post!!!! @Dariece SO TRUE haha it may look easy but it’s not! However, the work to get better at it was the best part!

    Daniel I loved #6 haha! Baby steps…it helps I tell ya!

    Such a great post, the whole thing just got me in such a great mood. Surf’s up baby! Heading up to Jamaica this summer, and it is on!

  14. Wow, you guys are all awesome! I have to say I am terrified of sharks while surfing, HOWEVER I am heading out to Hawaii for my honeymoon. Me and my partner are all about new things and besides other fun options in Hawaii, we have decided to give surfing a go! I am pumped (slightly scared of sharks well totally scared) but I am going to show this blog post and read it again haha! Thanks

  15. Until now, surfing is my sport and I am glad to see how New Zealand is coping with it. Going back to those waves would be a new experience for an experienced surfer like me.

  16. Love that you tried surfing and succeeded in standing up 5 times! You are so right; the joy is in trying and try you did! I would love to try this some day; your post gives us all encouragement! Thank

  17. Great post! Now i’m getting more curios about surfing.Here in Monegro we have a beautiful sea but there is no waves and it’s is impossible to surf:(

  18. Terrific info – I’m not brave enough to venture to NZ but I am planning on hitting the waves today near my Hialeah hotel. I wonder if I’ll stand up at all?? Keep your fingers crossed.

  19. @Rob: We can only hope 🙂

    @Bobby: Time to realize that dream and add New Zealand to list of places you’ve conquered the surf.

  20. Hello Daniel. Come to Brazil. Here has hundreds of thousands of beaches with calm waters very good to practice safe surfing.

    Anyway your tips are essential for beginners in the world of surfing. Congratulations for the work.

    Thanks for sharing with us!


    Renan Ferrer

  21. Another I didn’t expect before trying surfing: the sand can grate your stomach after trying to pop yourself up on the board … it hurt, but the success of doing it helped to ease the pain…!

    • Hi Elaine, I hear you. But as you suggest, a small price to pay for the joy of feeling the first time (and more) of getting up on the surf board. Enjoy!


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