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Becoming a Surf Instructor in the UK

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Becoming a Surf Instructor in the UK – one person’s journey to making the outdoors their workplace

Check out our 3 month condensed video for a flavour of what we got up to!

Just over a year ago I was sitting inside my apartment in Copenhagen, locked-in in more ways than one, with the pandemic at its height and the coldest winter I have ever experienced (even the waves crashing on the coast were frozen), I, as were many others, was struck with the urge to make a change. Don’t get me wrong, Copenhagen is a beautiful place to live, the locals will happily tell you so, it’s just that my Aussie roots were calling out for some sun and working 60 hour weeks indoors, moving between heated rooms to a few minutes of icy air and living through social media wasn’t the way I had pictured my 30’s. 

So sitting in my room, snow falling at the window, engaged in my usual mindless scrolling, I came across a post by Women and Waves. I’d been following them for a while, enthralled by their drive for women to enter the surf world whether they had any experience or not, and came across a post about an outdoor activities instructor course through their partner company Newquay Activity Centre (NAC). I clicked through, content to just see photos of happy salted people enjoying sunshine and splashing in the water, I read about the course, intrigued but not yet persuaded I closed it down. 

Cut to a month later and it had taken a stronghold somewhere in the back of my mind, popping up here and there, whispering a little what if. So I decided to ask them a question online, I can’t even remember what it was, I thought a bit more information might placate that voice in my head, and was answered by Founder and Director Rachel Murphy and we got to chatting. We moved onto a phone call and after a good 45 minutes that was it, I was convinced, I could definitely do this. (Read more about the Outdoor Activity Instructor Course)

Beginning Training

September 2021 rolls around and the course begins, we start off with brief introductions at NAC, eyeing up the other 11 students, analysing who could become a quick friend or whether anyone had any idea what to expect. After a quick attendance check we were off to the harbour, a wild swim to get used to the cool waters with which we would spend the next 3 months getting closely acquainted, a clever push to start with a shared experience and to cut through those first day jitters. That initial week was spent meeting the instructors, getting to know our fellow students, a tour of our new home and imminent playground (the majority of those attending the course were from outside of Cornwall and a few of us had ventured even further – Australia, France and the Caribbean respectively), and outlining what we could expect during our training.

Becoming A Surf Instructor

Surfs Up – Lesson Planning and Guidance from Alan Stokes

Our time in the course was a rollercoaster, 4 days per week spent in and out of the water, those initial weeks saw us concentrating on our surfing in order to get through our ISA (International Surf Association) Level 1 certification, showcasing how to deliver fun and engaging lessons while ensuring the safety of the client and our ourselves, reading the water and surrounding areas, surf forecasting and of course the best part of all, practicing on the waves. The focus in these early stages is due to the requirement of the ISA qualification to complete 20 shadow hours, what sounds a little outfacing atfirst but can be completed over just a few weekends with either the NAC or Women and Waves. One of the great things about becoming a surf coach is that you don’t need to be the best surfer in the world, in fact it often helps if you struggle here and there, gaining insight into how your clients feel, drawing on your empathy and the emotional high of catching green waves. It makes you more excited for them as you so recently felt that joy yourself and you can’t help but shout and cheer, throwing out shakas and high fives. However, if you are a great surfer, like our trainer and guide, the great Alan Stokes (worth the course fee just to hang out with the British Champion as many of those on our course can attest), it is a fantastic place to showcase your passion and enthusiasm for the sport.

The next step to completing the ISA award is your surf lifesaving qualification, a mix of first aid and fitness training with a run-swim-run and water rescues, this was one of my most intensive, and surprisingly emotional, weeks. Battling some demanding conditions, fighting through waves, reading the ocean, remembering your training and attempting to perform a rescue when time is of the essence was incredibly impactful. I realized I really wanted to do well in this and particularly after meeting with the RNLI (a possible career pathway made available through the course) I acquired an amplified respect for lifeguards and their constant state of hypervigilance. I’ve always been a fairly good swimmer, throwing off the shackles of my floaties to keep up with my older brother when I was 2 and going to some zone tournaments way back when in my school days, but adding in th unpredictability of the ocean and a real life person to rescue was definitely a challenge, but also what makes this worth it in the end.

This training can also be upgraded to the Beach Lifeguard Award – Check out the tips at the bottom of this post for further information.

Every day is something different – All the extras to learn

Peppered (or salted) throughout the weeks of training were guided coasteers where we were taught more about the ecology and history of Newquay while jumping off cliffs, negotiating sluices and saying hi to the local seal population, Super SUP (a giant stand up paddle board built for up to 8 people) where even the least competitive among us will vie to be the last one standing – it’s push or be pushed in the Super SUP world, and Bodyboarding which definitely has more skill involved than I remember as a kid running to the water with a cheap foam board, but which puts a huge smile on your face as you carve through bigger waves. Getting taught Bodyboarding by the owner and International Champion Rob Barber was another highlight, adding to the crew of elite professionals lending their hand to the course. We also did a spot of foraging and bushcraft and I am the proud nurturer of 3 giant jars of sloe gin, freshly foraged from Crantock and biding its time for holiday festivities – hit me up if you want a taste!

While we were out enjoying the spoils of the more temperate Cornish coast for most of our time we did also have the occasional ‘dry days’, usually reserved for when the weather went a little outside of our remit, where we worked through our theory sessions. Completing our first aid, safeguarding, surf theory, scenario based training and learning the basics of setting up as freelance instructors or businesses. Here we identified pathways for alternate work as well, where previous experience in our different careers could be transferable to this new industry (hello blog writing). Throughout our time we also experienced Newquay delights, group surf sessions, margarita sunsets, social events, pizza nights, boxing classes, harbour swims, pool tournaments and lots of end of day beverages, continually learning something new about each other and bonding over our new home.

Becoming A Surf Instructor
The Final Push – Paddlesports

The month’s race past and we finally end on 3 weeks of paddlesports training, kayaking and SUP’ing through the Fowey Estuary on the South Coast. Learning the ins and outs of the river, doing some rock hopping (that part was just for fun and is out of remit for the level 1 award but with expert instructors it is well worth the capsized kayaks and near miss adrenaline boost), and working on planning for our final assessment day where we take out 4 real customers and have scenarios thrown at us throughout. Next to the surf lifesaving, this section is the most intensive, with an external assessor watching your every move and questioning your decision making processes it is a true culmination of all of your learning to date. But with that, we passed, sometimes you may have a few pieces to work on but the team at NAC will continue their support to get you through to your final qualifications.

Getting to the end of the course is a milestone, with a massive sigh of relief and a huge sense of achievement, we are now provided with all the tools and (hopefully) kit required to venture off into the world and begin our lives in the great outdoors. Our final week ending with the organisation of a Charity Santa SUP to raise money for our good friends at the RNLI and pulling together all of our experience to date with the added bonus of drinking beers in the winter sun. A fitting way to complete the course and a successful event to impress future employers – if you can wrangle 30 odd Santa’s safely down the Gannel you can do anything!

Oh the people you will meet

I’d be remiss to end without stating that one of the most incredible aspects of this course are the people you will meet. From the instructors themselves – Course Leader Mark Kelly has the intensity of a man whose passion is only matched by his professionalism and desire to create activities where fun and safety are intertwined, his lifetime of experience has left him well respected in the industry. Alan Stokes, a 3X British National Champion who is as talented as he is sweet and supportive, and not a bad person to spend 3 hour sessions in the water chatting with while he is eyeing up each wave behind you (just don’t let him push you too close to the harbour wall… but that is a story for another time). Rob Barber with his balance of laid back easy to talk to personality, genuine talent, and impressive business acumen and the crew at Newquay Activity Centre, who are always checking in, offering assistance and advice, and most importantly giving a thumbs up when you want to borrow a board. More than that though, are the likeminded group of people you will lean on throughout your experience, a multitude of different ages and backgrounds, skills and abilities, personality traits and goals for the future, when it is all boiled down everyone is there for the same reason – to start a new life balancing their love of the ocean and the outdoors with a drive to do something different in a field they are passionate about. I was lucky enough to have spent my time in this course with people who offered so much to both my personal and professional development, from a previous swim coach who was always ready to give you tips on your swimming style and happily pace the length of the pool shouting encouragement to get you through your timed swims (those on the next course will get to experience this first hand as she joins the instructor team for 2022), to the Frenchie whose previous experience as a language teacher was perfectly interchangeable into the coaching world and who became everyone’s biggest supporter and cheerleader throughout the course (and always up for a whisky or wine after a long day), to the lockdown hiking and wild swimming enthusiast who created a cult like online following for her adventures throughout the UK, bringing her wanderlust to the ocean and keen to develop a new set of skills while deciding on next steps.

Becoming A Surf Instructor

I’m proud to have spent my almost frat like experience over the three months with an incredible group of people, with endless opportunities ahead of us and a slew of shared memories we are connected and I look forward to seeing their continued successes. I’m off out now to jump in the ocean one last time before heading up North to see family for the Christmas break, but I’ll be back in Newquay ready to take on 2022 with a renewed energy and excitement for the summer to come.

Final tips to becoming an outdoor activity instructor

Things to note when considering the course:

  • You can choose to upgrade the surf lifesaving section of your training to a Beach Lifeguard award, if you have the physical capabilities it is a no brainer to go for this more intensive qualification, an extra few hundred meters on your run-swim-run and slightly higher expectations for your surf rescues, this then qualifies you to become a lifeguard if you so desire (the RNLI are an incredible organisation to get involved with and are highly respected in the UK), but it also allows for 2 years on your award as opposed to the 1 year validity of your surf lifesaving qualification. The ISA award is internationally recognised as well, so you have plenty of options if you want to spend your year chasing the sunshine.
  • During the programme you will gain a wide range of qualifications readying you for a life of enjoyable work in the great outdoors. These will include your ISA Level 1 Surf Instructor Award, British Canoeing Paddlesport Leader Award (this will allow you to guide kayak and SUP tours), a Beach Lifeguard Qualification and an award in Outdoor First Aid.
  • All ages and abilities are welcome, I’m a touch older with a background in land-based activities and I still made it through! If you have the drive, you will easily get what you want out of the course.
  • Kit is important, if you truly want to follow your passion it is a huge bonus to have your own kit. I wouldn’t recommend buying it all straight away unless you have a bunch of disposable income, it can be collected throughout your training (the centre is happy to lend out what you need during the course) while you figure out exactly what you want to focus on and what is important to you. I do however recommend that you have a good quality wetsuit, even better if you have 2, the Cornish Coast isn’t known for its tropical waters and you will be spending a lot of time in your wetsuit.
  • The course is intensive, you are learning a lot of new skills over a short period of time. Parts of this course can take years for some people to master and you are compacting it all into one neat little package. Don’t be concerned if you don’t pick something up straight away, everything takes practice.
  • There are some requirements outside of the course timetable, shadow hours, homework and self-improvement all take extra time, just be prepared that you will need to do a little more and plan your time and commitments accordingly.
  • Your fitness will naturally improve over the course of the training, enjoy the changes and keep working hard!
  • There are opportunities in Newquay when you finish, the NAC is one of the only center’s in town that manages to keep operations going throughout the winter season. Have fun and enjoy yourself but also be aware that you have the potential to impress your future employers.


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