You might think of Malibu for surfing, but wet suits and smooth sands make learning to ride Northwest waves a practical proposition.
SEASIDE, Ore. — On a recent cool, hazy morning, a sandy cove on the Oregon coast was empty, its protective cliffs silent. It was too early for dog walkers or tourists, and the sun had barely lightened the gray sky.
But the water was not empty. Black-clad figures bobbed in the waves, looking like some kind of aquatic ninjas, ready to paddle like mad to catch that elusive perfect swell.
This is the “dawn patrol,” hard-core surfers who get out early to catch waves before work.
Despite its notoriously frigid waters, surfers find appealing waves up and down the Northwest coast. And the many coves, headlands and curved beaches make the stretch from Seaside to Pacific City an unusually reliable surfing locale.
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When the waves here are big, they’re world class. And when they’re small — which they often are, especially in summer — they’re great for beginners.
Coping with the cold
Why learn to surf here rather than in, say, Mexico or Hawaii? I wondered myself until I took my first lesson recently, at a beach just south of downtown Seaside.
The cold water turns out to be largely a nonissue, thanks to wet-suit technology. Somehow, surrounding yourself with that protective artificial blubber means that not only the water but also whatever’s in it, and whatever is at the bottom of it, are less scary. Bonuses: better buoyancy, no rash from the surfboard and no risk of sunburn over most of your body.
If you don’t have a wet suit, surf shops will rent you one, complete with gloves, boots and a hood, for about $40.
Oregon beaches tend to be sandy, not rocky, which reduces chances of scrapes. The gently sloping sands also mean that waves break in shallow water, which means you can easily surf waist-deep waves.
Many surfers like the cool weather and water because they mean fewer crowds. (When I told surfer and Seaside Brewing Company co-owner Jimmy Griffin that I wished Seaside were just a bit warmer, he snorted, “If this were a little warmer, it’d be Malibu.”)
My instructor, Lexie Hallahan, who runs Northwest Women’s Surf Camps and also teaches private lessons for men and women, gave me a rundown of the things surfers look for in terrain, weather and waves.
The Northwest coast is regularly pounded by wave energy rolling down from the Gulf of Alaska, Hallahan said, generating relatively predictable waves year-round. Northern Oregon’s uneven coastline means that beaches may face north and south as well as west, increasing chances of finding good water no matter the wind direction. Drive 20 minutes north or south and “it’s like being on two sides of an island,” she said.
During the summer, sandbars form near the beach, which makes for many small waves. In winter, storms create larger, more powerful waves suited to those with more experience.
Surfers have plied these waters for decades, but more so in the last decade, said Hallahan, who’s surfed here for 20 years.
Starting with basics
She went over safety, etiquette and basics such as paddling and how to sit on the board before showing me how to “pop up” on the board. Then it was time to hit the water, and I was immediately grateful for the wet suit (even though the water was warmer than usual, a balmy 62 degrees or so).
I managed to stand up and ride the board into shore on my third try, which to me seemed both exhilarating and downright miraculous.
A couple days later, I tagged along with Lauren Ahlgren, owner of Oregon Surf Adventures, as she taught Scott Rainey and Julia Urman, of Portland, at Short Sands Beach, at Oswald West State Park, about 20 minutes south of Seaside.
Short Sands, one of the most popular spots for learning to surf, is in a big cove. Its shape — broad and curved — means that it generally offers bigger swells on one end and smaller waves on the other.
Ahlgren cheered every time one of her students successfully surfed. “She’s patient and she’s enthusiastic. That’s important,” Rainey said during a break from catching waves.
Like Hallahan, Ahlgren says surfing is about feeling more than thinking; you have to get a feel for each individual wave and act accordingly. Ahlgren says that makes it a lot like life in general: “Stuff gets thrown at you, and you have to figure out how to handle it.”
The best times of year to learn are summer through the end of September or so, before winter storms bring bigger, more dangerous waves. That’s when the rest of us are happy to remain on the beach and admire those surf ninjas.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.