Keeping the art of surfing alive

Want to learn how to surf in the Algarve? Easy! Well, not the surfing, but finding some place to learn it. There are dozens of surf schools especially targeted towards beginners and they can help you catch a wave in no time. But those who already know how to pop & paddle have to look a little further if they fancy brushing up on their technique. After graduating from school, it’s time for university – or, in this case, uniSURFity.

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve magazine September 2015

 

For the more intermediate or advanced surfers among us looking to improve, Jez Browning (38) is the guy to talk to. The founder and CEO of UniSURFity, (whose previous competition results include a 32nd place in Quiksilver Pro Junior world series 1997 & 1999 and an 8th place in the Euro Championships of 1997), has taught over 15,000 surfers in his coaching history. Oh, and he’s one of the handful of ASI level 4 Master Coaches in the world. Not entirely sure what that means? Let’s put it this way: if the sea was the Force and surfers were Jedi’s, then Jez is Yoda.

 

Jez quit the rat race, moved to the Algarve and surfed in his Hugo Boss suit as an act of defiance

Originally from Guernsey (UK), Jez learned surfing from his dad and first stood on a board when he was four or five years old. “I don’t remember the exact moment, but I do remember catching my first green wave (where you traverse across the green shoulder of the wave) aged 6. My father was one of the first Guernsey surfers and my older brother learned it when he was 7, so naturally I wanted to carry on the family tradition.” A decade of successful competition surfing followed, until glandular fever forced him to focus on a normal career.

Moving to the Algarve in 2004 was part of a lifestyle change. “I was working in finance; it was what some people would call successful living. But you’d express yourself through your possessions, -your house, your clothes your car-, not through what you actually like in life.” Jez quit the rat race, confronted his fears, settled in Lagos and even surfed in his finest Hugo Boss suit as an act of defiance: “It just fitted over my wetsuit.”

After teaching in Portugal for several years, he set up UniSURFity (no, that’s not a typo, it’s a wordplay), which offers boot camps to a maximum of six people at the time. “A lot of surf schools aim to get big numbers, but when group size goes over eight, quality tends to get lost.” Contrary to some other camps which are all about partying and offer surfing as a sideline activity, UniSURFity’s camps have the goal to create healthy athletes. Activities include cross training, yoga, visualisation techniques and even nutritional advice. Manoeuvres in the water are filmed and analysed, and dawn surf sessions aren’t uncommon. “Especially for high level competition surfers, nutrition is key. Although surfing is disguised as fun, it’s actually a hard discipline and a hell of a physical activity, especially when you’re in the water for a whole day,” Jez explains.

 

There’s a lot of bullshit in the industry: some surfers have got all the gear, but no idea

Ask the O’Neill ambassador about the current state of the surfing industry and he’s got some pretty strong feelings. “There’s a lot of bullshit and misinformation in the industry. This also has to do with people’s mind-set: write ‘high performance’ on a board and it sells better. I guess 80% of all people in the water are on a wrong sized surfboard. Longboards are viewed as beginner boards, a classic mistake, so everyone wants to get on a shortboard as soon as possible. But to ride a longboard well, you have to be extremely talented. They aren’t very manoeuvrable because of their size, so you have to move up and down the board in order to make it turn: sheer technique. Surfers who can ride a longboard well, can easily hop onto a shortboard and catch surf well. The other way around, not that likely.”

Combine these preconceptions with the fact that surfing is still very much a macho sport and you’ve got people in the water who’ve got all the gear, but no idea, Jez says. “Some surfers buy expensive fins in the hope they improve their surfing. Compare this to somebody who can’t draw, but purchases the best quality paper and the most expensive pencils. Guess what: even with these amazing tools he still can’t draw.” Traditionally, coaching in surfing has always been behind the scenes, but according to Jez, proper tuition is necessary if you want to up your game. “Improving your surfing can only be done by improving your technique: technique is everything.”

Still, having good spatial awareness and being very coordinated helps. Climbers, martial arts artists and dancers usually tend to make the best surfers. Previous experience in wake-, skate- and snowboarding is useful as well, although this can also mean that bad habits have been learned. “The most talented surfer I ever taught was a pole dancer, she was very coordinated and strong; in one day she got to a level that would take most people two weeks,” Jez explains.

 

Surfing is instinctual, I really had to break down my moves in order to explain them

Jez’ aim is to keep the art of surfing alive. This sounds a bit ominous, like good surfing is become an endangered activity, and maybe that isn’t too far from the truth: “Fundamental techniques get diluted and basic skills are getting lost,” states Jez, who spend a lot of time on his boot camps undoing bad techniques. “Take for example the most basic skill: standing up. There’s only one correct way: popping up. In some countries there’s the assumption that you have to stand up on your board in the first lesson. If you don’t succeed, your second lesson is free. As a result, schools will teach you everything in order to make you get up on that board. OK if you’re just having that lesson to tick ‘standing on a surfboard’ off your bucket list. But in all other cases, not OK at all.”

Because bad teaching makes for bad surfers, and because being great at something isn’t the same as being a great teacher at something, Jez also teaches other instructors. “When I first started to give surf lessons, a student asked me ‘How do you turn?’. My initial answer was ‘Well, you just get to your feet and, uh, turn’. That wasn’t very helpful,” he confesses. “As surfing is so instinctual, I really had to break down my moves and think them through in order to explain them. Only then I was able to give better advice, like ‘You get to your feet, rotate your shoulders, which causes your hips and feet to rotate slightly as well and then shift your weight from the front to the back’.”

 

Surfing is the only thing I’ve ever done for 34 years and stuck it out

For the Master Coach, surfing isn’t just a hobby or a sport anymore, it’s a lifestyle. From being an activity he really enjoyed as a kid, it evolved into a way of keeping out of trouble when he was teenager, and turned into a stress reliever during his adult life. “Now, it’s also my career and a great one, as it allows me to travel and meet people from different cultures. When watching the news on TV, you’d almost think that the world is a dodgy, hostile place. It isn’t. Through surfing, I’ve gotten to know the Berbers in south Morocco, the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. Also, surfing is the only thing I’ve ever done for 34 years and stuck it out. In the water, I can get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life; the ocean is my little sanctuary.”

Although Jez travels all over the world for his boot camps, he’s primarily based in the Algarve. “The waves here can be exceptional, especially in winter time. The good thing about the south of Portugal is that it has a rich culture which doesn’t only revolve around surfing. Yes, the Algarve is oversaturated with surf schools, but there are lots of other activities here as well. And yes, it can be busy in the line-up, but if you learn the surf etiquette you’ll be fine. I don’t get it when surfers get angry in the waves. Surfing is such a psychological sport; if you paddle out in a bad mood, you’ll have a bad surf. Just relax, chill out and smile a bit more. After all, we’re all in the water to have fun!”

Want to know more about the boot camps? Check www.unisurfity.com

Pictures by Staffan Rennermalm

 

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve magazine September 2015

Posted in Features.

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