Is Cowell Beach the Best Beginner's Surf Break in the World?


A practical, user-friendly guide to learning to surf in Santa Cruz: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Bridget Lyons

Apr. 30, 2024—If you know Santa Cruz, you probably know that it is one the West Coast’s surfing epicenters—a spot so important it’s been designated as one of the planet’s twelve World Surfing Reserves. If you live in Santa Cruz, you may also know people who organize their lives around tide charts and offshore buoy readings. You may even know people who have quit their jobs and abandoned their relationships to pursue this sport. There must be something to it, you figure, so you want to give it a go.

So, where and how do you start?

Here are some tips—good, bad, and ugly.

The Good
The good news is that, if you live or visit Santa Cruz County, you have access to Cowell Beach, or “Cowells,” as it is affectionately known. The Save the Waves foundation calls Cowells “one of the best beginner breaks in the world, possibly second only to Waikiki.” It’s truly a gem.

On days with decent swell, you can literally watch the long, perfectly peeling right-hand break (meaning, the curl rolls towards the surfer’s right—the onshore looker’s left) emerge from the middle of the bay as the tide drops. The waves are often mid-shin to waist-high, and they’re typically quite gentle.

For total beginners, there’s generally a long stretch of whitewater close to shore where the bottom is shallow and sandy. In the right conditions, you can play around in these already-broken waves, learning to feel their surge, practicing your paddling, getting used to manipulating your board, and trying to stand up—all with relatively low consequences. There will be no good surfers hanging out in the whitewater zone to worry about. In fact, at the right time of day, you’ll probably be sharing the waves with the elementary school crowd.

Don’t worry; no one is watching you. They’re all on the same program! Once you feel confident in the whitewater, you can gradually work your way out to the “green waves”—the not-yet-broken ones that more experienced folks are waiting for a little further out.

To keep the good news good, you need to go to Cowells on the right day at the right time. For beginners, that means the predicted wave height is zero-one or one-two feet, and the tide is under one foot with minimal wind. When in doubt, check the Surfline webcam. If Cowells is “going,” there will be bodies and boards in the water. Don’t worry so much about the daily rating that Surfline posts; it’s largely based on an algorithm. I’ve had some terrific Cowells sessions on days with “poor” status.

The other piece of good news is that, because we have an amazing beginning surf break here, we also have four permitted surf schools. I’m a big fan of solid athletic instruction. Just a few tips from a qualified teacher can go a long way towards avoiding pain and suffering in any sport, and surfing is no exception. Instructors at Cowells will help you find the right spot to hang out in and choose the right waves to paddle for. They may even nudge you onto a wave just to make sure you get to experience the blissful and addictive feeling of catching it, and they’ll coach you once you do.

Along similar lines, we’ve got a host of local options for renting boards and wetsuits, and the shop employees should know what to set you up with. I’d recommend resisting the temptation to borrow a friend’s shortboard or even their fiberglass longboard. You want a big, lightweight, inexpensive board made of foam—known as a “foamie”—for your safety and everyone else’s. And, you probably want the warmest wetsuit you can get—at least 4mm thick (5mm is ideal for wimps like me). Monterey Bay water is cold all year!

For a list of local schools and shops, see the list below on Beginner Surfing Resources.

The Bad
We do live in California, the state with the nation’s largest population—and an active one at that. If Cowells is breaking nicely, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Super Bowl Sunday with torrential rain; people will be out there. It’s not uncommon to see 150-200 surfers on a sunny Saturday at low tide. You will learn how to navigate the crowds, which is a useful skill. Again, ideally, you’re minimizing the damage you can do by using a foamie (rather than a fiberglass or epoxy board, which can become a hazardous high-speed projectile in the hands of a beginner). And, even more ideally, you’re looking around and being considerate of others. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re paddling for a wave, but with so many people sharing a resource, it’s absolutely critical to be mindful of the people around you. As with many activities, good communication, humility, a willingness to apologize, and a ready smile can go a long way to head off or resolve potentially conflictual interactions.

And, let’s be honest; surfing is not the easiest sport to pick up. Some people might put this truth into the “bad” category. Personally, I think it just makes success all the more exciting when it happens. That said, if you know you get frustrated easily, I’d recommend even more strongly that you seek instruction. Once an instructor gets you to feel what it’s like to ride a wave—even if it’s on your stomach for two seconds—you’ll have the motivation to keep working at it.

The Ugly
Let’s be honest; as a beginner, YOU will be “the ugly!” No one looks good when they’re learning to surf. You will spontaneously fall off your board while paddling it. You will slide off the back of it when you go to stand up. You will stand up and then be flung into the water for no apparent reason. You will bury the nose (the front) of the board and be catapulted seemingly into the next time zone. And you sure as heck won’t be able to do that cool sitting-up-on-your-board-while-you-wait thing you see the experienced surfers doing. All of this is totally normal!

Flailing is part of developing the proprioception required to learn how to be in the water with a 9- or 10-foot thing under you (and attached to your ankle). Just stay in the beginner area—the whitewater or the smaller “green” waves in closer to shore—until your relationship with your board starts to become more amicable.

In time, the little muscles that help you maintain your balance on a tippy craft will get used to the task at hand and execute it automatically so you can concentrate on other things—like learning about wave energy and choosing the right waves to paddle for.

Things can really get ugly in surfing when people go out in conditions inappropriate for their skill level. This can mean going to a break that’s too big, fast, steep, hollow, or heavy. (If you don’t know what those terms mean, it’s a sure sign that you don’t belong out in the break they’re describing!)

If you are a rank beginner, there are really only three places in Santa Cruz County for you to be: Cowells, the break at Pleasure Point called “Jack’s” or “38th,” and the Capitola Wharf. At almost any other spot, you run too much risk of getting in over your head and hurting yourself or someone else (not to mention getting yelled at and getting scared).

You can also get into trouble going to Cowells on a bigger day—one with larger waves, more current, and/or more wind. Some winters, there are a lot of those days. Surfline or a surf shop will tell you what’s going on out there at any given time, but a visual inspection is also helpful. If you’re seeing people ripping out in the deeper water but not seeing any beginners on foamies thrashing around closer to the shore or the stairs, there’s probably a reason for that. Stay out of the water to watch and learn, then come back on another day when conditions are better for you.

Above all, remember you’re out there to have fun and experience the ocean! Sitting on my board and studying incoming waves while trying to decide whether or not to chase them (which is a lot of what you do in this sport, even as a skilled surfer) is one of my favorite activities in the world. I love watching waves form and trying to guess what they’re going to do and where. I love gazing out at the watery horizon and admiring the way the wind ripples its surface. And I love being amongst sea lions, sea otters, cormorants, pelicans, and tangles of giant kelp. Floating in the Monterey Bay is a rare gift; getting a handful of sweet rides is the big bow on top.

Resources for Beginner Surfers in Santa Cruz

Four schools have permits to offer lessons at Cowell Beach:

Club Ed was founded by surfer Ed Guzman and offers open group, semi-private, and private lessons.

Richard Schmidt Surf School has been around since 1978 offering open group, semi-private, and private lessons.

Surf School Santa Cruz offers private and private group lessons.

Adventure Out offers group lessons only. They encourage beginners to sign up for their “Beginner Package” which is two consecutive days of lessons, each 2.5 hours long.

All of these schools provide boards and wetsuits as part of the cost of the lesson.

Note that it is illegal to teach surfing (for pay) without a permit. Please don’t undermine the city’s efforts to responsibly manage our coastal resources.

Cowells Surf Shop is literally across the street from Cowell Beach, making it the closest equipment rental option. They have a large selection of foamies (and other boards) and wetsuits.

Most of the other surf shops in Santa Cruz will rent boards as well. Keep in mind that you will need to have a way to transport your board to the beach and that a 9-10’ foamie doesn’t fit inside many cars.

Bridget Lyons is a writer, editor, and explorer living with gratitude in Santa Cruz, CA. You can learn more about her work and find a link to her blog at