Want to try surfing? This Cornwall based collective explain why longboarding is the way to go for a calmer vibe on the crest of a wave
By Sian Lewis
Photography by Megan Hemsworth
Have you ever heard of ‘he’e nalu’? In 16th century Hawaii, local men and women used wooden boards weighing up to 90kg to practise this ancient art – which literally means ‘to slide on waves’. Hawaiian kings and queens surfed using long, heavy olo boards, and ordinary Hawaiians rode alaia boards measuring 7-17ft in length.
As surfboards became lighter and more manoeuvrable over time, they also became smaller and faster, resulting in the breakneck turns and big wave surfing you’ll often see when modern ‘shortboard’ surfing is portrayed in the media. But ‘longboarding’ – surfing on smaller waves on boards over 9ft in length – has always had its own place in the ocean. If you’ve ever seen a photo or a video of a bikini-clad girl effortlessly dancing up and down a huge surfboard on a small, glassy tropical wave as it pulls into shore – that’s longboarding.
The sport once practised by legendary Hawaiian princess Kelea still gives a feeling of freedom to a surfer today, allowing her to move up and down the board – known as cross-stepping – and even dance right to the front of the longboard to ‘nose ride,’ putting all ten toes over the edge – the famed ‘hanging ten.’ Perhaps this creative spirit and calmer vibe explains why more and more women all over the world are picking up longer boards when they venture into the ocean; from the shores of Sri Lanka to Sunset Beach, California, to Cornwall in the UK, where British surfing has its spiritual home. The wild county at England’s southern tip is best known for its turquoise waters, fishing villages, and creative communities. And for the reliable surf which pounds its shores, attracting surfers (and increasingly, dedicated longboarders) to its 400 miles of rugged coastline.
So can you really channel ‘he’e nalu’ in Britain’s colder waters? Surf Sistas certainly think so. This female-only surfing and longboarding school offers surfing lessons and workshops from the golden sands of Fistral Beach in Newquay, Cornwall, as well as retreats all over the world, with an all-women cast of instructors who aim to create an inclusive, encouraging environment in the ocean. Surf Sistas’ tuition ranges from weekends and five-day courses aimed at total beginners to workshops for experienced surfers looking to hone their skills, but all include lessons in small groups with female instructors – both in and out of the sea.
Helen Isaacs joined a Surf Sistas ‘white to green’ course, aimed at beginners looking to advance to catching unbroken waves, in 2018. “The Surf Sistas instructors were amazing, helping me make that step to surfing bigger waves. I wished I’d done it years ago.” A year later, she was back to take a longboarding course. “Learning in a supportive female environment is the best – practising longboarding with Surf Sistas definitely made me want to longboard more in Britain and beyond.” Now she regularly travels to the coast with her van and her longboard, a confident surfer in her own right. Samantha Sunshine, one of our longboarding instructors for the weekend, has a smile to suit her name, standing on Fistral Beach with an all-girl group of students. She has a smile to suit her name and blonde hair bleached almost white by the salt water she spends so much time in. Samantha has been longboarding for a decade, and now shares her love for surfing as a teacher as well as competing nationally on her classic 9ft board.
“Being in the ocean on my longboard refreshes me every time. Bringing women together in the sea is so joyful – and all-female surf schools make surfing far more accessible for women. We’re definitely seeing way more equality in the ocean these days.” It’s early in the morning, but the Atlantic is already peppered with surfers. The group of would-be Surf Sistas gathered for a two-day longboarding course have different reasons for being here – a desire to master a certain technique, to gain confidence or to make the swap from shortboarding to longboards. But all have the same core motivators – a pull to be in the sea and in a female-only environment.
Samantha’s warm-up, designed to loosen up limbs with a combination of yoga and silly dance moves, has everyone laughing before the class paddles out past the breaking waves, clad in warm wetsuits to protect against the cold, green Cornish sea. Each day on a Surf Sistas course includes two surfing sessions and a theory class back on land. Once in the line-up (the group of surfers sitting waiting for a wave), Sam and fellow instructor Ingrid coach the women from the water. Longboarding may look totally relaxed and effortless, but it’s physically demanding to master. Participants practise perfecting their pop-ups (the art of getting to your feet in one fell swoop) and turning their boards to ride along the side of a wave before progressing to more complicated moves.
Out of the water again, Samantha shows her students instructional longboarding videos and pulls out pastel-hued illustrations she’s penned herself of a smiling longboarder moving up and down the board. This helps illustrate where a surfer should place their feet when they attempt to cross-step and nose ride on green waves in their second session. Meanwhile, a beginner Surf Sistas lesson is taking place in shallower waters where a group of women of all ages are clad in bright rash vests, working on catching their first waves in hip-deep swell. Beginners learn to position themselves correctly on the board as well as how to understand surf conditions and how to stay safe in the water. It’s all about progressing at your own pace – and a competitive attitude is last thing the Surf Sistas workshops want to encourage. This salty-haired girl gang on modern iterations of alaia boards is all about being inspired by themselves and other women – both in the line-up, and back on the shore.
If you’re wondering how to join a Surf Sistas Longboard weekend, a two-day longboarding course starts from £175 and this includes four in-water surf sessions, two theory sessions and wetsuit hire. Whether you’re a beginner or an improver wanting to catch a wave in the UK or abroad, there are also weekend and week-long courses on offer, starting from £299, with surf lessons and yoga sessions thrown into the mix that combine to provide an exhilarating and enhanced wellbeing experience.