Don’t be put off by the big waves – learning to surf is a great experience, and the kids can join in the fun too, as GARY QUINN found out when he took to the sea off Fuerteventura for a holiday packed with plenty of thrills and spills

I START TO feel the fear as we fly along the African coast towards Fuerteventura. Is this a mid-life crisis? I ask myself. Am I serious about learning to surf at my age, and taking my entire family with me? The next morning I feel that fear again.

Our coach and guide, Richie Moore, is driving along the coast of this stunning island, taking us to our first lesson. I’m watching the waves roll and crash against the land, bigger and stronger each time.

Glancing at my eldest daughter I confess my worries – those waves are big. “I know”, she laughs back, taking my hand. “Don’t worry Dad. Everything will be alright”.

We pull off the road in a lay-by overlooking an incredible beach. Hopping out of the van Moore starts to read the water in front of him, pointing out colours and hues that, to his experienced eye, reveal the speed, direction and strength of currents.

All I see are big waves. He spots reefs, rocky shores and wind directions and, with a glance at the group of old and young beginners surrounding him, he decides that this water is simply too big. I breathe a sigh of relief. There’s nothing like a display of expertise to calm the parent within.

We’re here with the Irish company for a five-day family surf school adventure which covers our flights, accommodation, transfers and surf lessons. Every morning we’ll be picked up outside our hotel and every afternoon dropped back at our door, sun kissed, exhausted and ready to eat. It’s a seamless service.

SURFERS HAVE been chasing waves along this Spanish outpost in the Canaries for decades, but it is only in recent years that the sheer number of surf schools, restaurants and operators has started to gel into a coherent lifestyle option on the island.

Surfing is a multi-billion euro industry worldwide and any tourism authorities that pass up the chance to take a slice of that (including Ireland) wouldn’t be doing their job. There are more than 20 surf schools in the town of Corralejo alone, which is our base for the week.

It’s a great town for surf newbies – packed full of surf shops and restaurants – and is already well developed for tourists since it’s been on the package holiday landscape for some time.

But don’t be put off – it’s a cosmopolitan place, with a great mix of old and new. Yes, you’ll have no trouble finding an Irish bar and a full English breakfast, but you’ll also get the best of all the other nationalities that have come and set up shop here too, including of course the Spanish themselves.

Back on the road, we’re travelling along the coast to another beach now, calmer, more suited to our mixed-ability group. Moore allocates boards and wetsuits and talks through the day ahead. We start with a warm-up – a real one.

Fitness is a huge part of surfing – you can’t have one without the other. During the exercises my two daughters, 10 and 12 years old, both fall about laughing when they realise I’m the only person in our group that can’t touch my toes. They run through everything that Moore throws at them: stretches, lunges, star jumps, they’ve seen it all before.

Dragging the board itself, almost twice their height, makes me worry it will all be too much, but by the time they take to the waves my eldest girl is loving it, declaring it the best holiday she’s ever had (she gets her over-enthusiasm from me – we’re only half an hour in after all.) But it’s exactly what I want to hear and so I launch myself into the surf too, leaving the kids in the capable hands of their coach. At least for a few minutes.

In truth, it’s hard to switch off. The girls are in the shallows and the coach rarely leaves their side, but the waves are strong and I’m back to being a parent. In seconds I’m at chest height, and while I want to leave them to it, I keep finding my board drifting back to where they are.

Chatting to our coach, we both agree that this is how it should be. No surf school can take full responsibility for safety – in a family group the parents play as much a part as the coaches. Not just in making sure everyone is safe but keeping enthusiasm levels high, recognising lunchtime and just knowing when to call time out.

The second day I’m joined by my partner and we take turns looking after our youngest, a boy of three, on the beach while the other tries to find their sea legs. This is better for everyone and just taking time out on the beach allows me to see the bigger picture.

Surfing is a lifestyle. The families and groups around me are absorbed by it. Their clothes, food, internal clocks. Everything swings with the tides and everyone is relaxed. Being a surfer on dry land is as important as being the one standing on the board. It feels right that my children should be part of this and I hope that maybe now they have tasted it they could aspire to be part of it back home.

Better to hang out on the beach watching the waves and keeping fit than hanging out on street corners. It’s a lifestyle choice and one that is as alien to my childhood as being an astronaut. How times have changed.

AS THE WEEK goes on, we get to see a different beach every day, following the tides to a formula that is invisible to me but to Moore it seems as simple as reading a road map.

The amazing thing is that the majority of the beaches we visit are empty but for surfers. Most tourists get so filled up on all-inclusive packages that they never leave the pool deck. Different strokes for different folks, but they don’t know what they’re missing.

I especially like the beach by Fuerteventura’s famous dunes. One side of the road is the open ocean, the other pure desert. On the western side of the island we spend an afternoon below the cliffs at the village of Cotillo with kilometre-long stretches of beach, the horizon broken only by the giant kite surfers leaping through the air.

Surfing is a slow process: we have to learn to recognise a good wave, then when to hop onto our boards and ride it. When we have mastered that we need to learn to paddle with the wave, matching its speed until the wave and the board feel as one – that’s the magic and it’s when you are supposed to know to leap to your feet, one smooth action.

Sounds easy right? Well, not for me. My youngest daughter gets there, on her first day, unsteady for sure, but she does it. I fall and fall again, laughing at my lack of elegance and how far my footing is from being able to ride a real wave. But the water is fantastic, the effort a fantastic release.

Moore takes time out to teach the children about rip tides, point breaks, how to recognise a disturbed tidal flow. Every piece of information another layer of experience for the girls. And my son? Well, he’s happy playing the surf dude on the beach, and it seems effortless.

On the way back to the hotel we stop off in Lajares, the so-called “real surf village” that the professional surfers call home. This village, with no bars but lots of cafes, has slowly become the quiet beating heart of the surfing industry on the island.

Here we visit professional surf shapers, people who design and build boards either as a one-off custom build or as moulds to be built in factories elsewhere. It’s where professional surfers come to find dealers to supply rental boards and where I get to hear about how quickly the sport of paddle boarding is growing. It’s also a taste of rural life on the island. Stone walls and goat farms, arid landscapes and cactus fields, all a short drive from the main street of Corralejo. And everyone I meet knows about Irish surfing. Sligo, Donegal, all along our own western seaboard. Ireland has some of the best surfing locations in the world, but for beginners there’s one problem – it’s really cold.

The Atlantic waves hitting Fuerteventura are part of the very same system as the ones hitting Donegal and elsewhere. The same force, the same strength, but with one vital difference – the water is warmer.

So for anyone trying to get over the hard “falling-in part” that all beginners have to go through, Fuerteventura offers a really attractive alternative. All the same conditions but with the heating switched on.

Building a surf dude:

The look: Boardshorts, T-shirts, hoodies, wrist and ankle jewellery, sea hair.

The brands: O’Neill, Quicksilver, Rip Curl and Billabong.

The food: Asian fusion, Hawaii meets New York – burgers, salads, fish, plenty of fresh veg, juice, fruit and energy bars.

The kit: Boards, vans, bikes, skateboards. The list is endless – just don’t spend too much.

Checklist for families 

Be prepared: Surfing is very physical – be ready for lots of exercise, but make sure it stays fun.

Chill out: Don’t worry if the kids want to spend most of their time just hanging out the first day. Let them soak up the atmosphere of the beach and the other surfers at their leisure. Don’t force them into the water until they’re ready.

Eat right: Bring lots of snacks and drinks to keep energy levels up and hang out in surf-themed cafes and restaurants.

Fuertenews is a free publication bringing you news and views about Fuerteventura. Any donations would be welcome.