The Seminar Sessions

In a controlled situation—at a five star resort with access to an exclusive wave, working alongside one of the world’s premier surf coaches—can an average surfer improve their wave riding dramatically in just a week? One TSJ correspondent went to the Four Seasons Maldives and met with Ross Williams to find out.

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It’s early in the afternoon on a Monday in late August. I’ve spent the past 34 hours in transit. I’ve traveled more than 10,000 miles, set foot on three different continents, seen another continent from a plane’s window, crossed 11 different time zones, and lost over a day in time. As one does after such a run, I feel pretty lousy. 

Fortunately, I’ve come to a seven-day, six-night stop at just the place to shake it off: the Republic of Maldives, at the Four Seasons Resort on the island of Kuda Huraa, in room 316, an “Overwater Villa.” I’m on the edge of the room’s private deck, facing a bright sun and a warm breeze, eating pieces of a chocolate replica of this very room crafted as a welcoming gift, catching up on Marlboro Lights, and watching reef sharks chase I wayward surgeonfish in the lagoon below, where the water is the color of Swarovski glass. 

It’s maximum luxury in the very definition of paradise. The air temperature in the Maldives hovers close to 80 degrees year round. The water hangs at just about the same. The beaches are white sand, the surrounding Indian Ocean deep blue—precisely the type of natural resources that has led resorts, hotels, and camps to litter themselves across the country’s 26 atolls and some 1,200 islands. And the higher the star, the more on offer. At the five-star Four Seasons Kuda Huraa, along with togarashi prawns and Australian lamb racks and in-room infinity pools and baby-turtle feeding and manta ray snorkeling and catamaran sailing and sunset photo shoots with pro photographers, there’s surfing. 

Williams with John John Florence, a world-title-winning coach-surfer tandem. Photo by Arto Saari.

It’s the surfing that’s brought me here. There’s a world-class right-hander called Sultans 10 minutes by boat from Kuda Huraa. I can see the end of the wave from my deck. There are dozens of quality setups in this particular string of islands, the Kaafu Atoll. There are countless others, busy and not, throughout the rest of the archipelagic country, all 35,000 square miles of it, which, depending on how deep one’s pockets are, can be accessed by the resort’s private seaplane or aboard the Explorer, its 129-foot yacht. 

Only I’m not here to just surf, not in the vacationer’s sense. There’s a contest at Sultans, called the Surfing Champions Trophy, held annually by the resort. This year’s invitees include Maldivian pro Hussain “Iboo” Areef, as well as a core portion of the Momentum Generation: Kelly Slater (who will win, naturally), Taylor Knox, Shane Dorian, Rob Machado, and Ross Williams. I’m here as a media extension of this contest. I’m also more specifically here because Williams is a professional surf coach. And, perhaps out of his own curiosity, he’s agreed to help me with an experiment: He’s going to be my surf coach for the week. I’ll be a “journalist” and document and analyze my experience, like a cut-rate George Plimpton. It’s admittedly a strange concept, but surfing’s modern landscape is strange. 

Today, surf coaching is kind of a real thing—with professionals working with clients that range from world champs, to those with the talent at a young enough age to one day get there, to moneyed recreational surfers looking to speed up surfing’s long and steep learning curve. There are even sites where one can send clips and, for a fee, receive feedback from “experts.” 

As strange as all that may seem—and as strange as my experiment may seem—this is also a choice setting for such an enterprise. There’s not much to do other than eat well and sleep well, try to surf well and think about trying to surf well. Still, I’m nervous—and skeptical. And as I sit on the dock enjoying the tropical sway and sun, pieces of sculpted chocolate melting in my fingers, I can’t help but feel like one of the surgeonfish below my feet that trap themselves in pockets of reef and make for easy meals. 

Williams and I meet the following morning to outline goals. Over 6-foot and broadly built, the 49-year-old is soft-spoken as we exchange pleasantries. We sit with a pot of coffee, a pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice, and breakfast buffet items on the table between us. 

He’s quick to inform me that we’re missing an important variable for a successful coach-surfer relationship: time. Real results are seen and measured over years, not days. That’ll ultimately dictate our goals. They’ve got to be specific, and they’re on me to set. 

“My job is to help you get there,” he says. 

I’ve got something, I explain, a deep surfing insecurity: I grew up in a gross Southern California shorebreak—dumpy, short, gutless, windblown. Longer waves, like Sultans, that require linking turns and sections together have always given me fits. 

“Do you think that’s really enough?” I ask. I want the full experience. 

Williams leans back and chuckles. 

“Lots of things will be exposed in between,” he says. 

Great, I think.

Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Kuda Huraa.

I then ask him to define his particular approach to coaching, what I should expect from him. “I don’t have a blanket set of rules,” he says. “Everyone’s different. Everyone stands on a surfboard differently. Everyone swings their arms differently. There’s no wrong way to do it. But there’s things in your style and technique that give you strengths and weaknesses. What I try to achieve is identifying weak points and how to improve them.” 

His answer hits on the real crux of what we’re doing. It’s not whether coaching works. That’s a resounding yes, evidenced in the use and success of coaching in nearly every activity in which there’s competition or score kept, tennis or golf or baseball—hell, even “business” or “life.” Requirements are a willing student and a coach who knows their stuff. Williams is as fine a coach as any in surfing’s sphere, drawing on decades of knowledge and experience as a touring and free-surfing professional. His track record working with two-time world champ John John Florence and contender Tatiana Weston-Webb, among other elite surfers, speaks for itself. 

What I’m after is more philosophical: What benefit does surf coaching offer the average punter? 

Surf coaching, in the vein that Williams and many like him practice, is traditionally a service for professionals and the hopefuls. “I work with high-level surfers,” he says, “who are looking for specific info. A lot of it does relate to competing, right? Because that’s when it matters the most: being under pressure and responding how you want to.” 

It’s a job inexorably linked to surfing’s professionalization in the 1970s. With surfing a highly lucrative career path, it’s only natural that those on that path would look for any and every edge. Riding waves for a living is an enviable and thus competitive field, after all. Surf coaches—typically former pros themselves who know every inch of the game and with whom a surfer can work over a long period of time in order to maximize technique and craft and heat strategy—are a natural and obvious means to a pro-surfing end. It all tracks. Success stories abound, from Peter Townend, Rabbit Bartholomew, Ian Cairns, and others serving hard-earned lessons to each other and the generations that followed at the tour’s outset, to Williams and Florence today. 

It’s all very sporty—but surfing isn’t just a sport, at least not for me. I consider myself competent, having sunk most of my life into being so. High level I’m not. I don’t compete. I’ve got no pressure to perform, no practical reason to examine the subtleties of my technique. My surfing doesn’t have to be good. It just has to feel good. That’s my means and my end.

As I examine this exercise from a remove—and from the artificiality of both the setting and the situation—I also realize the overwhelming majority of surfers aren’t sporty either. I can’t imagine pulling up to my local beach, friends waiting for me in the lot, waves pumping in the water, and stepping out of the car with my personal surf coach. I’d get eye-rolled, scoffed at, and joked into oblivion. It’d be, I’m afraid, a little try-hard—counter to surfing’s everyman values, disconcerting at both a cultural and aesthetic level, an affront to the purists. 

“The long and short of coaching at any level is this: It’s been the single most destructive element of a century of surfer ethos—the individualism of lone wolves,” says Derek Hynd, who, along with being a former pro, journalist, and shaper over his 50-plus years in the game, was a coach to a number of surfers in the early ’80s, including Mark Occhilupo. “It’s a paradox, coaching, incredibly myopic yet so outrageously wide in span that it’s an industry unto itself. The surfing dream for kids and parents and coaches is collective conservative career engineering. Doesn’t matter the level—beginner, amateur, early pro. It’s a dull and duller stage-to-stage hook. The individual vanishes. Coaching kills art form.” 

Wayne Bartholomew. Photo by Jeff Divine.

So, yes, I’ve got some reservations. 

First, I’m worried it’ll steal the joy away from surfing good waves in pretty water and enjoying expensive things on someone else’s dime. Second, I’m sensitive. And in being coached, I’m going to be observed and studied and critiqued. I can’t think of anything more anxiety inducing for a recreational surfer like myself. But I’m already here in paradise, and my mother didn’t raise a quitter. She raised a masochist.

I try to articulate my concerns with Williams, at least the more personal ones. 

“That’s why I like to work with surfers for a good chunk of time,” he says. “I want them to trust me, and I want to have their respect. That way, if I’m criticizing their surfing, it’s okay. I don’t come in hot. I don’t have a towel on my neck and blow the whistle. I don’t think that’s beneficial. But I know I have to be very honest, otherwise they’re wasting money on me. If I’m just giving them compliments, we won’t get anywhere.” 

Williams sits back again, letting his shoulders drop. 

“And once you start ripping, guess what?” he continues. “It becomes fun and then you start looking at surfing with less egg on your face.” 

I know he’s being figurative. I look down at my plate anyway, where there was once an omelet, and lift my napkin off my lap. I wipe my face, just in case. 

Photo by Chris Stroh.

For the rest of the week, in between the event, rain squalls, $10 scoops of ice cream, staring into tropical sunsets, and napping on my room’s day bed, which overlooks my room’s pool, I surf. Lots. Always at Sultans, in a variety of conditions. 

The first session occurs on the Tuesday that Williams and I have breakfast. I wax a 5’9″ …Lost Rad Ripper, a modernized ’80s shortboard design chosen for its additional foam. It and I are loaded onto the skiff, motored to the lineup, and dumped—my nerves spinning. 

The waves are solid, 6 to 8 feet and lumpy. Sultans starts with a lumbering peak, followed by a fat section that leads into a particularly shallow patch of the reef where the wave throws and runs in a long and steep wall before wedging again on the inside until it closes out. Four hundred yards total. The good ones—the big ones out of the south— connect all the way through. 

The invitees are out, and they’re running laps. There’s no clearer way to observe a talent gap than to be alongside all-timers. It’s intimidating. And for a beachbreak and cobble-point surfer like myself, so is the coral. 

My session is spectacular, if only for my ineptitude. I’m all sorts of off. I get some waves—scraps, really—and blow each of them in increasingly embarrassing ways. Too deep. Fading out over the back. Digging rail off the bottom and skipping across the face. Stuffed drops. Stiff legs that lead to bogs. Missing waves entirely. I hadn’t been surfing much prior to this trip and it shows. It’s a frustrating cycle. I’m so desperate to do something that I don’t do anything at all. This goes on for hours. 

But in pain lies gain. Williams points out the answer, both in this lineup and every lineup: Kelly Slater. The 11-time champ is getting tubed, wrapping carves, and smashing the end section to bits at a million miles per hour. Williams’ lessons start here, at the foundational: intent and confidence. 

“Kelly’s always in the right place. And that’s no accident. He optimizes every wave, when lining up and standing up. He’s always perfectly deep. And he’s pretty aggressive, too. When he wants to go, he goes. That all comes through reps. And committing, that’s just mental, wanting to maximize conditions.” 

Following what Williams is getting at, I drift up the reef to the main peak and watch where the pros—especially Slater—are lining up. Then I wait. Eventually, a set approaches. They get theirs. Some get two. Then the top of the reef is clear, and waves keep coming. I slide over from the shoulder. I swing and dig. I lift and stand. It walls up and I stay high on the face, trying to keep my speed section to section. I milk it to the inside, where it closes out. 

I’m not proud, but it’s a start. 

Still, considering I’m surfing world-class waves next to world-class surfers and didn’t get a single ride I’ll remember, I’m disappointed—frankly, mad—with myself as I climb back on the boat, muscles sore and face sunburnt.


By the next afternoon, the swell has dropped slightly, though the bigger sets are still connecting. The sun’s out, and there’s not a lick of wind. There are about 10 people out. Long rights in bath-warm water. 

I grab the …Lost. Despite aching legs and abs, I’m hungry for it, motivated by the disaster of the day before. I take yesterday’s lesson and try to implement it: I’m “aggressive.” I wait my turn, of course, but when it’s my turn to go on the one I want, which I’ve learned are the ones that look like they’ll almost close out, I put my head down and go, sliding into them just as they start to wedge. 

Slater, prepping for a Maldivian go-out. Self-coached throughout his career, he’s a rare autodidact. Photo by Ted Grambeau.

My first few are similar to where I left off, riding from outside to inside. Baby steps in confidence. Slowly, with reps comes rhythm. As my count racks up, I start laying more into each wave. I find my legs, then my rail. I manage some off-the-tops, cutbacks, and end-section bounces. I even sneak a short tube. There are some misses—turns not completed and waves that run off. But there’s a run where I get six in a row involving combinations of turns—none of which leave me embarrassed. I quit after four hours, when I physically can’t paddle back to the peak any longer. 

It’s enough for Williams and I to start in on what we’d outlined as our goal, and we get into the technical. He starts with the positives: “You have good technique, good style. A quiet style. Your arms are in a relaxed position. Your stance is a little on the narrow side, but you use your legs well. So you have some function through your turns and maneuvers. You slide on the wave, so your speed comes natural. Your strength is you have these stylish pivots and snaps in the pocket.”

Then come the points of direction: “You have moments where you slow down, and sometimes the wave will catch up, so you’ll hit a section late. It’s a timing thing. You don’t need to hit a home run every time you come off the bottom, because you’ll burn all your speed and the wave’s over for you. You need to see your line and where you’re going to get energy back. You can fix it by, again, lining up the wave how you want and then taking some off when your speed or the section isn’t right. When you take off, ask yourself, ‘Where am I going to gather speed and where am I going to spend it?’” 

Williams, teaching by doing and still learning at Sultans. “Even today, at 49, I’m still trying to get better,” he says. Photo by Ted Grambeau.

It stings a bit. It’s easy to remember the good ones from a session and to forget the mistakes. It’s hard to know that even the ones that felt great were imperfect. I don’t say anything, but Williams notices the look on my face. 

“Something I tell surfers I work with, whenever I pinpoint things that I see, is that it’s not something I want to get rid of. I’m just trying to add layers so that you can always own what you already have, but it’ll make you more complete. And we have to get there together. I ask all my surfers, ‘Do we see this? Am I right? Are you right? Are we in agreement?’ Because ultimately I want it to be their decision, just like I want this to be your decision to implement changes.” 

Williams’ words help the hurt, and I keep them, as well as the more practical feedback, front of mind as I surf over the next couple of days. Thinking is part of the process. 

“It’s about keeping the wheels turning upstairs,” he says, “when you’re in the water,but even when you’re out of it. That way you can visualize what you want to do and build instincts. And that goes back to reps. My feedback is to make you aware, so when you’re in the water and something doesn’t feel right, you’re able to say, ‘Okay, here’s my tendency. I’m going to go out and not do that. I got to purposely go out there and try to add this new thing to my surfing.’” 

The waves stay mostly the same as the week progresses, and I’m out there at every opportunity. I switch from the …Lost to a 5’11” Slater Designs FRK roundtail, giving up the extra foam for a longer rail line that feels smoother in transitions. 

We’re way short on the time it would really take, but, over those surfs, I feel myself choosing waves I want and thus the lines I want. I’m careful to pace myself through sections until it starts to become muscle memory, then speed it up. I stay high until I find transitions that allow me to build enough speed that I can burn some without letting the wave go by. Sections then become easier to make. My turns feel sharper—more deliberate, more to what the section offers. And that lets me surf them all the way through. 

It’s not all sculpted chocolate, though. On Saturday, the swell drops way off. Sultans is 3 feet, slow, and crowded. I struggle to get anything going. The cycle of frustration reemerges. The wave’s sections aren’t connecting. The crowd has me paddling up the point, deeper and deeper. When I’m able to get a wave, the lack of power in it has me fighting through the fat spots. I have zero speed and can’t seem to generate any on my own. I bog and fall off the back, only to watch waves grow down the reef and peel through the inside. 

Gerlach. Photo by Jeff Divine.

Williams pinpoints my issue, which goes back to building on the technical tip before it and how many layers something small can involve. “You tend to slide and spin,” he says. “So if it’s a bad wave, it’s going to be tough to keep your speed. But every wave has energy in the lip. That’s where you need to stay—in the lip line, so you can get that projection. I’d work on arm swings, too, swinging through maneuvers and forward so you can gain momentum and speed. You need to be more physical with the wave to get where you want to go. You could widen your stance and get more of your feet involved—get a little more twitch. Start asking more from your fins and rail. 

It doesn’t even hurt to hear at this point. 

In fact, as embarrassing as it is to report, I heed his advice with on-land practice in my room that night. I stand in front of the mirror, spread my arms out wide and bend low over my knees, and bounce from the balls of my feet to my toes and back. 

God help me. 

The next morning, Sunday, it’s picked back up. A storm and swell are filling in, and I’m in the lineup early. There’s about 20 people out with enough waves to handle them, and there’s an hour window before it’ll be blown to pieces. 

Everything seems to click. I can feel the week’s work put into effect. I pick waves I want and stand up with intent. On sets, I feel loose off the bottom and crisp off the top, one section after another. On in-betweeners that flatten out, I feel light and bounce from rail to rail in the lip, thanks to the balls of my feet and the swing of my arms. 

At risk of a claim, my penultimate wave sums it up. I’m in early, my front foot a little farther up than normal, angled left into the trough. Off the bottom into a wrap. Off the bottom, a high line as the wave rebuilds. Off the bottom and around the corner into a snap, my fins sliding up through the lip, I come out of it on my toes, bounce once, carve down, bounce twice, and bank off the closeout. 

There are no hitches. It’s just fast—no thinking, just surfing. Or at least that’s how it feels. And it feels really good. 

I paddle back out as confident as I’ve been since I was 22 and surfing twice daily. There’s time for one more. Nearing the shallow section of the reef, the set of the day rolls in wide. I make for the corner, barely getting over the first three. I paddle hard to get in position for the fourth. Everyone deeper than me is caught, but I’ve got a shot. There’s a half-dozen people watching down the line. I stroke into it with everything I’ve got. My last ride in paradise. But it’s already throwing, and I don’t have a chance. I’m weightless and tumbling out of the lip. I’m obliterated. An unspoken lesson in humility. Luckily, I’m not kissed by the reef. I come up laughing. Thanks, Mom. 

The sky goes from gray to black, and the wind picks up to 40 knots. I can’t see, much less surf. I make my way back to the boat against the current. I feel fabulous. 


It’s a lot to take in. On one hand, I’m surfing better. It feels good, just like Williams said it would. On the other hand, I’m cognizant of the fact that this experiment is far from the norm. It’s something I’ll probably never do again. Where do I go from here? 

Becoming aware of my surfing flaws, even incrementally improving on them, has made me aware of just how much I don’t know. I’d spent 25 years thinking I knew the terrain, but a curtain was peeled back to reveal a totally different landscape. Ignorance really is bliss. To continue to work to improve is a commitment with no end. It’s a daunting thought. 

Like many of today’s great thinkers, I outsource to those who know better. I speak to Taro Watanabe, an elite professional with a real chance to qualify for the CT in the near future, whom I happen to know from outside of surfing. He’s worked with former world No. 2 and longtime coach Brad Gerlach for the past 10 years—half his life. 

“It can be easy to get discouraged,” he says. “But that’s just a part of surfing. Surfing has been my whole life. Getting better makes me happy. When you have a person that you connect with and trust—it helps to have an honest opinion. It’s like if you’re playing the guitar and you know only one song, it could be fun. But if you can play a couple more songs, or if you can play better, you’ll have more fun. And sometimes you need someone to show that to you.” 

Watanabe suggests I talk to Gerlach, who has developed a systemic approach to teaching technique over his own three decades in the game, called Wave Ki, that focuses on replicating surfing’s precise movements on land in order for their in-water application to be intuitive. 

“Coaching conjures up a weird image,” Gerlach says. “The word itself is jock-ish. It can turn people off, because it’s the opposite of what attracts them to surfing. I consider myself more of a teacher. I make suggestions and let the surfer blossom. I’m about teaching somebody something new, if they’re a really good surfer or if they’re an average surfer— even something as simple as getting to your feet in the right spot when you take off. Then you can surf worse waves with less people but still have fun. Some days you’ll have it, some days you won’t, and that’s what makes us keep coming back.” 

Taro Watanabe, a Gerlach protégé, showcasing the aesthetics of proper technique. Photo Courtesy of Hurley.

Finally, I talk to Dave Parmenter, who bore witness and was a beneficiary to the tactical lessons of PT, Cairns, Rabbit, and other tour founders as a competitor in the late 1970s and early ’80s, along with a post-pro career as a writer, shaper, and astute observer of surf culture, both industrial and grassroots. 

“Surfing’s one of those things,” he says, while referring to non-pros as “civilians” throughout our talk, “where we always think we’re doing much better than we actually are. Lots of people go out there and, in their mind’s eye, they’re ripping. If they could actually see how they surf, they’d cry. Or they do see themselves on video for the first time and they quit—just can’t handle it. Because I’ve done it with friends who just can’t get to where they want to be. I’d explain things to them, work with them a little bit, get them on different boards. If they could handle the feedback, they’d get better, and everything would open up.” 

Through these conversations, something obvious occurs to me. Surfing isn’t hard, not in principle. Stand up in the whitewater and ride to shore. Technically, that’s all there is to it. Most people who try manage it on their first go. 

What is hard is surfing well. While the overwhelming majority of surfers aren’t of the sporting variety, the overwhelming majority of surfers I know want to surf well. Not a single one of them is content to ride whitewater forever. They’re constantly pushing themselves to take off deeper, refine equipment, trim faster, cut back harder, float longer, go bigger, and on. Forever. To no end. 

“It’s just this never-ending game that you’re playing with your mind where you’re just not satisfied,” says Williams when I run the idea by him. “It can be torture, but it can be really fun, too.” He also explains, again, that coaching isn’t about following set rules in order to maximize performance on every wave. “It’s all about adding things to your surfing. So when you might need them, you have them. Once you’ve got something down, you can always go back.” 

So while most surfers will never compete in a jersey, they’re constantly competing against themselves, trying to improve how it feels. That’s what keeps it interesting. Most do it through incremental trial and error over many years, mostly subconsciously. One wave feels better than another, so they painstakingly follow what feels better. That’s how I’d always done it. But I’m on the wrong side of 30. I’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed. My life doesn’t—can’t—revolve only around surfing anymore. So if coaching can help to streamline the process of feeling better, why not make use of that edge—ego and eye rolls be damned. 

Or not. Again, it’s just about whatever feels best. Otherwise, why slide one? 

It’s early in the afternoon on a Monday in late August. I’ve got 34 hours of travel ahead of me. I’m feeling lousy about it, and about leaving paradise. Who wouldn’t? If my pockets were deep, I’d never leave. I’d surf every inch of the archipelago by seaplane and yacht, and I’d eat Maldivian-spiced coconut lobster curry for every meal and sleep like a crown prince each night—and I’d never grow tired of any of it. 

But my pockets are shallow. So my bags are packed and brought to the front desk. There’s a golf cart waiting for me in front of my room, a short first leg of a long trip. 

Florence puts a lifetime of both self-taught and coached lessons into action. “It’s not about, like, ‘Hey, this is how you do a corked-out flip,’” says Williams. “It’s way more simplified than that. And the best surfers are self-driven. I’m just delivering the information.” Photo by Ryan Miller.

I’m also riding pretty high. I’ve spent a week in paradise, enjoying expensive things on someone else’s dime, surfing good waves and surfing them better than I could’ve hoped.

I’ve spent this last morning in paradise laying feverish groundwork for a trip to Salina Cruz—long waves in warm water. I’ve also got eyes on Puerto Rico. And I’ve spent an hour looking at boards online, building myself a whole new quiver. 

I think about something Williams said on the boat after that first frustrating surf: “It’s really easy just to surf the same. It’s so hard to surf just a little bit better. I’m not really telling you things that you don’t know. It’s kind of a weird analogy, but I always look at it like if you’re an alcoholic, you’re not going to get better if you don’t admit it. But if you can, and you can work on it, that’s worth gold.” 

The first step truly is the hardest. 

I smoke one last cigarette on the deck. The weather’s bad, ugly skies and heavy wind. There’s no sharks, no fish. They’ve headed for deeper water. There’s no more chocolate, either. There are waves at Sultans, though. I can see their ends running. The wind’s offshore over that way. 

I stop one last time in front of the mirror. I get in a stance that feels wider than I’m comfortable with, bend my knees low, bounce on my feet, and swing my arms. Then I wave goodbye to the surgeonfish out there somewhere, walk the sad way through the door of room 316, and go back to sitting in coach. 

[Feature Image by Luke Patterson]