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How to catch a wave in just a weekend of trying

Our Little Kahuna investigates the best way to sample surf if you've never done it before: skimboarding, bodyboarding, or surfing.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 2008

Kendra Nordin

Mary Knox Merrill – staff

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Laguna Beach, Calif.

"OK, go!" This is my cue to run down a sandy incline, launch a skimboard, land on it sideways with both feet, and glide beyond a shoreline as slick as ice. Teenage boys relish this sport. I am not a teenage boy.

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But that doesn't matter to Paulo Prietto, literally the world's best skimboarder, who's been coaching me for the past hour.

"You missed it," says Mr. Prietto. "Let's try this next wave coming in." Prietto locks his focus on a mounting swell to determine when I, with toes raw from wiping out, should take off.

As the waves hurl up and then collapse on the beach, they spread a film of water that's perfect for "skimming." The question on my panting breath is: Is this the perfect surf sport for me to be trying?

That's my assignment: Find what a reasonably coordinated person can do to best sample the waves if you only have a few days on the coast – be it Hawaii, Florida, or Cape Cod.

Before this spring weekend I'd never touched a skimboard, or any kind of surfboard. Stretching out on the sand has its rewards, but I wanted to move beyond being a "hill person" – someone who watches the surf from afar. I wanted to ride atop the froth and foam.

Just grabbing a board and jumping in doesn't work. I'd heard countless stories from would-be surfers: How hard it is to stand up, how tired you get paddling, how pummeled you feel if a wave crashes on your head.

"Would you let someone drive your car without taking a driving lesson?" asks Coco Tihanyi, cofounder of Surf Diva Surf School in La Jolla, Calif. I'd called to see if lessons were worth it.

"Surfing is dangerous just like anything else," she told me. "At Surf Diva we teach ... in waist-deep water, so it's like learning how to drive in the parking lot."

Sounded good to me.

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But I wanted to sample all my options – skimboarding and bodyboarding, too – which is how I ended up under the tutelage of young Prietto, a professional skimboarder who runs the Solag Skim School in Laguna Beach.

Laguna Beach is considered a skimboard mecca because the slope of the beach here can help skimmers "drop in" and build enough momentum to reach the wave before it breaks.

Skimboards are like large skateboards minus wheels. The light, hard-foam boards with traction pads enable the best to take off at a sprint, skim over wet sand out to breaking waves, soar off them like ramps, and land with the grace of a settling leaf. While surfers wait a long time for the perfect wave, skimmers can ride 40 in an hour.

"Skimming is a nice intro to the ocean," says Tex Haines, cofounder of Victoria Skimboards in Laguna Beach and one of the sport's modern pioneers. "You don't have to get in the water or get a wet suit. A lot of people will pick it up on vacation because the boards are cheaper than surfboards and you can store them in your closet afterward."

On my first try, the board whooshed out from under me and I landed splayed like a rag doll (watch the video to see for yourself).

Learning a new physical skill takes patience. And humility. Especially if you're wiping out across what feels like sandpaper.

Once a wave swells, "it's all about being willing to commit," said Prietto, who sensed my reluctance to hit the sand again. Eventually I land with some balance atop the board, and gently slide before falling over in knee-deep water. Prietto claps politely from his perch on the shore, five yards away. At the end of my lesson he studied the sand rash on my right shin. "You're a true skimmer now," he said with a straight face. I bloomed with pride.

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