4 Important Tips for Nova Scotian Surfers
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4 Important Tips for Nova Scotian Surfers

I’ve never made the obvious decision – in fact I’ve always made decisions that have me questioning them when I’m in the thick of it. I can think of countless topics, from the countries I find myself in, university choices, to sitting alone at the controls of a 50-year old single engine piston aircraft, that bring me back to, “what the hell am I doing?”

No time does this question run through my head louder than the sub-zero days in January and February, when I am paddling out and duck-diving under cold, brown waves before the sun has fully made it over the horizon in front of me – which I know will blind my view of the coming waves in a short 20 minutes. Sometimes I laugh at myself and ask once again, “Liam, what are you doing?” as I feel my typically old wetsuit slowly fill with freezing water of the North Atlantic through leaks at the knees, crotch, and armpits. This question, the one that I’ve asked myself my whole life, seldom gets answered in places like the classroom. This time, though, it does. Even in the middle of the winter, it only takes one wave for that question to leave my head (until I get out of my wetsuit after the surf). On the really cold days, it might take two.

Image of Liam Manderville

There’s a reason Nova Scotians take to the ocean – it’s humbling, it demands respect, and it gives us a community. Travel to any ocean faring community in the world, you’ll find the same kinds of people as you do in Nova Scotia.

People choose to stay in, or move to Nova Scotia because of the ocean. Naturally, the initial reaction of ‘I didn’t know you could surf here!’ becomes, ‘Wait, I want to try surfing!’. If you’ve made it this far and are already learning new information, and perhaps find yourself relating to this paragraph, don’t go any further. Put the phone down, look outside. Look at the thermometer. You don’t want to go surfing. Stay home.

Just kidding. Do as you please – however, if you find yourself drawn to some sort of mystic energy moving through the ocean and slowing down as it hits shallow water, ultimately to spend its last moments being used for personal gain by an individual like myself, or maybe yourself, you’re in the right place. At the request of Asher (our fearless leader) I’ve put together some tips for people that are ready to take the dive into surfing in Nova Scotia.

Let’s say you’ve gone surfing a time or two before, maybe more. You’re past lessons, you peruse marketplace for a board. You’re ready to spend a summer really getting after it. I’ve got 4 things that are crucial to entering the often intimidating, confusing, and misunderstood world of surfing.

Liam walking up from the shoreline with a surfboard in hand

1. Respect where you are

This is painfully cliché. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen someone comment on a Facebook post, or even say in the water, “Give respect to gain respect”, my wetsuit wouldn’t be leaking. But it’s true. To someone new to it surfing is a fun, perhaps meaningless activity with a mysterious draw. But in every community with access to quality (or not) surf, there is a world within that community of individuals who have had their lives shaped around surfing, most likely in that same region for decades. Nova Scotia is no different, in fact our surfing culture is particularly vibrant, established, and proud. Some of the first surfers in Nova Scotia are still
here surfing all winter. Why does this matter? Because if you’re really committed, you’re inevitably going to branch away from the surf schools. You’ll start looking for, and finding, spots that are more suited to you as you improve, which is great.

The key is to understand that while it may seem new, overwhelming, and somewhat abstract from the untrained mind, experienced surfers - who have spent decades surfing a ‘spot’, don’t see it as abstract. There is an innate knowledge that comes with spending time at a place.

I’ve heard, perhaps more times than the respect script, “Nobody owns the ocean”. Sure, you’re right. Nobody can truly tell you to leave a place that they don’t own. That’s not the point. Surfing can be dangerous – there is some sort of equation that I’d assume would look something like the following to measure danger in the ocean:

(Wave height + wave power) (# of surfers)
Number of experienced surfers in the crowd

I’m not a math guy, but it makes sense to me. The higher the number, the more danger. Experienced surfers in the crowd significantly reduce the danger. If the total number of experienced surfers is equal to the total number of surfers, well, the total danger is only the wave factor.

My point is, people have been surfing for a really, really, long time. I know lots of people who were here in the days where seeing another person paddle out meant a sigh of relief. Surfing means a lot to these people, and for it to be less safe is frustrating. So, to new surfers, having an understanding of the history, the local culture, and the importance of surfing to the community around you, is crucial to being respectful in the water. How can you be respectful if you don’t know what you’re respecting? If you want to get into it, really get into it! Learn, be interested, and geek out over it. It’s a special thing. YouTube is full of East Coast and Canadian surfing gold. There’s also great written pieces and breadcrumbs all over the internet for those who dig.

Surfers gathering on grassy land

2. Connect

This one is a bit of a piggyback from the first one. It starts at the surf schools. Connect, get to know people in the community, but don’t do it as a surfer. It really doesn’t matter. It’s no different than meeting a new group of friends. People are good.

Supporting surf schools is a good start, trying to find local surf businesses to support is also awesome. What some people find is that surf shops seem to push them away when it comes to buying initial gear: This is not because they are gatekeeping. It’s because they’ve been doing this a long time, and they genuinely would hate to see you spend too much money on something you aren’t committed to yet. But go in – talk to shop owners, ask questions, and get opinions (you’ll get wrong opinions too).

Another great way to connect is by hiring/meeting a surf coach. There’s a few around the province – I’ll let them battle it out for SEO hits instead of naming them all. They can help you in ways almost nothing else can – teaching etiquette, skills, technique, and countless other important aspects for which the only alternative is experience.

Liam surfing in Nova Scotian waves

3. Don’t rush

This one is a big one. It not only relates to skill, purchases, exploring, (and probably life), but it relates to your expectations. It’s easy to expect a lot of yourself when you start doing something new a lot – the immediate growth feels exponential, but it will plateau. That’s alright. There is no substitute for experience. Just keep surfing. Don’t overthink it.

I’ve had time throughout my time surfing, where I have been so frustrated with my surfing that I cannot bring myself to even consume surfing content – be it movies, articles, videos, whatever. Why? Because I am expecting too much from myself. I am getting ahead of myself,
and it’s removing the fun from surfing. If you really stick with it, you will have days where you feel like you are so far behind where you thought you don’t want to think about surfing for a while. It happens in everything, not just surfing. But this is a result of rushing and expectations. Just keep surfing if you’re going to do it.

Liam going surfing on a  beach during the winter

4. Don’t wait for the good days

My last tip, the big one that I discovered recently since surfing was forced into the backseat of my priorities, is to have fun – and don’t wait for the “good” days. We’re in a fickle province, we rely on offshore storms to bring us quality waves. Often these days end up not panning out to what they were hyped up to be. That said, it’s crucial to enjoy surfing as it comes. Most of the best surfers in the world are really good in ‘bad’ waves – small, weak, whatever.

I was surfing with a friend via happenstance just the other day, expressing that I was upset I’d be missing this year’s hurricane season. He made a great point to me, that this summer has had lots of opportunities to surf, and that I’ve surfed more this summer than most. Even though they weren’t huge swell events, it was better than most summers and I had a lot of fun surfs.

Somewhere in my head, I discredit small days as less of a ‘surf’ than big days. I think a lot of people do – treat it as an excuse to have less fun, to try less. Don’t do that! If you’re surfing you’re surfing. And that’s great.

As you continue, you’ll have days that aren’t fun. Try to appreciate those days – the ocean is humbling -- And that’s why we surf, that’s why we are in Nova Scotia.

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