June 22, 2024

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In Waco, Texas, Learning to Surf in a Wave Pool

6 min read

I paddled hard to stay in front of the two-foot wave, repeating the sequence of movements I’d just practiced on land. Press hands beneath shoulders, keep chest up, drive knee forward, plant back foot, then pop up into a crouch like a sprinter ready to take off. As I eased onto my feet, the wave crested and propelled me forward: I was surfing! My heart fluttered.

And then I was flopping backward into the face of the wave.

I’d traveled to the two-acre wave pool at Waco Surf, a water sports complex in Waco, Texas, chasing an unfulfilled childhood dream. I grew up on the Jersey Shore, and every summer I vowed to learn to surf, but without access to boards and lessons, the goal always eluded me. Now, as an adult, I was determined to change that through three days of lessons. A freshwater wave pool, it turns out, was a perfect place for this newbie to get her surf legs.

“One hour of surfing waves in the pool will give you more experience than an entire summer in the ocean because you’re catching waves every five minutes,” said Will Rolph, a 41-year-old visiting from California who grew up surfing at Newport Beach but had traveled to Waco for the wave-pool experience. “In the ocean, you might have to wait another hour, or your next session, to get another shot.”

My surf experience began on land with the hourlong Beginner Surf Academy class (from $49, but must be booked with a Beginner Wave Session). Three other students — a middle-aged couple from Austin and a young professional from Houston — joined me on the wave pool’s sandy beach. Michael Irvine, a 20-something instructor with chin-length sandy blond hair and an easygoing attitude, showed us how to paddle on our soft boards then pop up into a surfing stance. “Most people feel more comfortable with their dominant foot on the back of the board,” he explained.

After stretching and practicing for a while, we lugged our boards into the shallows of the pool to work on paddling and pop-ups there. Then we were ready for the waves.

We moved on to the hourlong Beginner Wave Session ($129 plus tax, including board; wet suit rental, $25), joining around 10 other people. Mr. Irvine and another instructor, Pablo Olivo, a friendly 26-year old from Puerto Rico, took turns pushing us into the waves while the other guided the flow of surfboard traffic. As Mr. Irvine pushed me into the Coaster, a gentle two-foot wave, I listened for his cue to pop up, placing my dominant right foot at the back of the board. But as soon as I got on my feet, the board shifted, and I nose-dived into the wave. The next two rides ended the same way.

Between sets, I explained to Mr. Olivo that I felt I couldn’t keep my balance. He held the board in the water and asked me to pop up on it. Instinctively, I placed my right foot at the front of the board. “You’re goofy-footed!” he said, referring to a stance in which a surfer faces left with the left foot in back.

The new stance changed everything. I immediately rode the next wave all the way to the shallows. I wasn’t the only one jazzed about our progress. My fellow students Anh Gordon, 53, and her husband, Francois Gordon, 54, of Austin, had both been surfing waves all the way in. “I was so shocked because I wasn’t expecting to get up,” said Ms. Gordon.

Wave pools like Waco Surf’s are popping up around the world, catering not just to beginners but also to veteran surfers looking to hone their skills in a consistent environment. One of the most prominent, the Surf Ranch, about 100 miles from the ocean in Lemoore, Calif., is owned by the champion surfer Kelly Slater and promises to “recreate the best ocean waves” (reportedly starting at about $425 per wave).

For those looking for something more economical, there are options like the Palm Springs Surf Club, also in California, which will introduce a gentle open-faced wave when it reopens in late summer (sessions from about $100); Alaia Bay in Switzerland, where you can ski and surf on the same day (one-hour surfing sessions from 94 euros, about $102); and the Wave in Bristol, England (one-hour sessions from 35 to 50 pounds, about $45 to $64). The Camp at the Wave offers 25 furnished tents that sleep up to eight people (rates from £90 per tent per night).

I chose Waco because of its relatively warm climate, convenient location about two hours from the Dallas Fort Worth and Austin airports, and affordable prices. I booked a second-floor garden view room at Waco Surf’s 13-room lodge (from $139 plus tax, a $20 resort fee, and a small booking fee). It was decked out in a retro California surf vibe (all five owners are originally from San Diego). The 450-acre complex also offers seven lakeside cabins and two houses, and features wakeboarding; a water park with what they call one of world’s longest lazy rivers; lagoons filled with striped bass for fishing; and hiking trails.

After my session, I ordered a bean burrito from the poolside taco shack ($10 plus tax) and joined a group of guys who were cheering for one another as they watched video footage of their advanced wave session at a picnic table next to the main surf lodge. (Every session is filmed, and all videos from a session can be purchased an hour later on Waco Surf’s website for $34.)

I felt confident as I joined a new cohort of beginners on Day 2. Only a mother and her young son returned from the previous day’s Beginner Wave Session, and both were noticeably getting better, as was I.

I felt steadier on the board, my stance had strengthened, and I was learning how to fade into the wave to pick up momentum. That’s not to say that every time I lost my balance, read the wave incorrectly or failed to turn my board I didn’t feel racked by frustration. But the quantity and consistency of the waves gave me and the others the opportunity to work on fundamentals like pop-ups and turns.

The wave machine at Waco Surf, which generates more than 100 types of waves, is ideal for honing skills. “You won’t learn how to read the ocean swell here, but you can master how to paddle, pop up and ride the wave,” said Michael Schwaab, 39, the general manager and a co-owner of Waco Surf.

On my last day in Waco, only six of us showed up for the beginner session, so we each surfed between 15 and 20 waves — which meant a lot more paddling. I started off strong and enjoyed a handful of solid rides before my strength waned and I found it harder to pop up.

My fellow surfers Isaiah Cox, 30, and Katelynn Corniel, 30, had driven from Houston for the day to meet a friend. When we finished our session, their friend, Miggy Exconde, 30, rushed over. He had been surfing in the advanced sessions and said he was pleasantly surprised by the level of camaraderie, which surfers don’t always find in the ocean because of competition for waves. “You can come here at any skill level and you’re guaranteed waves and good time,” he said.

I barely had the power left to pop up by the time I took one of my last rides, but the consistent repetition of the mechanics I’d learned over the past few days prevailed over my fatigued muscles. The wave barreled behind me as I glided steadily along the face of the wave, reveling in my excitement. It may have taken 30 long years, but I finally felt, at least a little bit, like a surfer.

Nora Walsh

2024-05-26 09:02:02

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