Surfing your guts out, being on the beach all day, meeting new people – being a surf instructor sure sounds like a dreamy job. We had a chat to Sophie Cotton, Millie Wilkins and Sarah Hardie, three UK girls working as surf instructors at The Surf Experience in Portugal to find out the ins-and-outs of the job. 

Sophie Cotton

From Winchester and learnt to surf in Holywell Bay when she was 15 years old. This is Sophie’s first season instructing in Portugal. 

Millie Wilkins

From Cornwall and learnt to surf in St Agnes when she was 15 years old. Millie Has been working as an instructor in Portugal for a year and a half. 

Sarah Hardie

From Swansea and learnt to surf at Llangennith beach when she was 18 years old. Sarah has been working as an instructor in Portugal for 3 years.

How did you get into surf instructing? 

SC: I worked a season volunteering for The Surf Experience where I spent the entire summer in that surf camp environment and loved it. I knew I wanted to instruct but I took my time travelling NZ and Aus, improving my surfing and getting experience in different conditions before doing my course back in Newquay and then returning to The Surf Experience. 
MW: The opportunity came up while I was staying at The Surf Experience on a longboarding week – I’d been thinking about instructing in the UK for a while but Portugal seemed like a sunnier option!
SH: Whilst on holiday I was asked by someone to get qualified to work for their surf school, I laughed at first thinking that I wouldn’t really have the confidence to go for it. But here I am years down the line still in the game. 
Photo: Sarah

What level of surfer do you need to be to be a surf instructor?

SC: I think one of the most important things is being comfortable in a range of surf size and conditions. To be a surf instructor you have to understand the ocean and also spot hazards and this only comes from spending a lot of time and experience in the water.
SH: You need to be competent in the water but I think it’s less about having a very high surfing level and more about being a good teacher. As long as you meet the basic requirements the association bodies have set out then having patience, being able to explain things well and showing people a good time in the water are more important when teaching beginners than being able to bust out fancy manoeuvres. Oh, and you need to be lifeguard qualified, you never know when you’re going to have to get your Baywatch on!

What does a normal day look like for you?

MW: We all meet at the surf house to plan the day and then take the surf crew to load up the vans with boards and wetsuits. Unless there’s south swell, we drive over to the west coast and set up a camp on the beach with a big shade. We get straight in the sea for the first lesson and then break for a tasty lunch and the crew gets their tan on. If the waves are good the instructors go for a lunchtime surf, or have a nap under the umbrella! Second lesson in the afternoon and then the evenings are often filled up with dinner plans and a sunset beers on the terrace in Lagos.

Photo: Sophie

Positives of the job?

SC: I get to do what I love everyday. I’m working with happy and smiley people who froth on their first time surfing. 
SH: My office is the beach, I get to work with people on holiday so everyone’s having a laugh and my colleagues are basically a bunch of awesome humans who really make it an amazing place to be.

MW: We get to surf loads – either on the lunch break, or with the crew if there are intermediates. A day at work means getting to hang out with your friends all day and you do loads of exercise without even trying! 

Negatives of the job?

SC: Getting cuts on your feet turning into sea ulcers.

SH: Its a very energy consuming job…you feel pretty spent by the end of the day. Having to watch awesome surf while your teaching in the white wash can be painful. 
MW: Your skin takes a big hit from the sun and wearing a wetsuit for hours at a time. 

What bought you to Portugal initially? Did you come for the job or come for a holiday and never leave? 

SC: I came on holiday with my parents and brother and stayed with The Surf Experience. I got on well with all the crew and got offered a job to come back and work after I finished uni.

SH: I came for a job after making some connections on a surf trip. I didn’t expect to still be here years down the line but I definitely just feel at home now.
MW: I came on holiday to Portugal 5 times before getting the job, I’ve always had a great time here so it didn’t seem like a crazy idea to move.

Photo: Millie

What advice would you give someone thinking of doing the same thing?

SC: Do it! Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Sometimes it’s easy to get complacent but take a risk, do what makes you happy and don’t worry about other people’s opinions.
SH: Make sure you’re ready; be honest with yourself that you are a competent enough surfer, get fit so you are physically prepared for the role…and then go for it, you wouldn’t regret it!

MW: Look for a surf camp or school where you like the team – the people I work with are the best thing about the job. 

What is your biggest tip for someone learning to surf?

SC: Don’t give up easily! Smile and have fun in the water.
SH: Enjoy it! Don’t get too frustrated, always remember that it’s meant to be fun and embrace the challenging days. You don’t turn pro overnight, so don’t have unrealistic expectations. Whenever you feel annoyed or aren’t enjoying a session, just take a moment to appreciate it’s just you and the ocean and you are always always learning and improving, even when it doesn’t feel like it. 
MW: Physically – look where you’re going. Mentally – if you love it, persevere and be patient. It might take weeks, months or years to feel confident, everyone is different!

What is the most common mistake you see people making in your classes when learning to surf?

SC: I think choosing the right wave is probably the biggest struggle for beginners
SH: Putting wetsuits on the wrong way round…there’s always one!
MW: Lying too far back on their board and trying to stand up before they’ve caught the wave.

Funniest or most memorable surfing moment? 

SC: Over in Aus, it was whale season and I was sat outback at Brunswick Heads with three others. We were the only people in the water and it was calm and glassy. Out of nowhere this gigantic humpback just launched out of the water right in front of us, splashed its tail and submerged back down below. It was a magical moment. 
SH: The funniest moment had to be our New Years Day fancy dress surf at Arrifana – seeing your bosses cruising along on foamies dressed as Batman and Teen Wolf isn’t something you see everyday! 
MW: Surfing with a big pod of dolphins at Porthtowan a few years ago, I was terrified when the first shadow went under my board and then just sat there in awe as they played around us. 
All photos by Hannah Edy, unless otherwise stated