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Surf’s up!

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Makenzie Elliott surfs for the first time during a lesson at Newport in November. [Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard]
Makenzie Elliott surfs for the first time during a lesson at Newport in November. [Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard]
Makenzie Elliott, right, takes a surfing lesson with Dan Hasselschwert, owner of Ossies Surf Shop, left, at Newport in November. [Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard]
Makenzie Elliott heads out into the Pacific Ocean at Newport for a surfing lesson in November. [Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard]

The blue sky and sunshine hung so perfectly in the sky that it would have been easy to believe it was summer on the Oregon coast as I carried my surfboard toward the crashing waves at Agate Beach in Newport.

But it wasn’t summer. Not even close.

No, I was going surfing as snow was falling in the Cascade Mountains and homes in the Willamette Valley were being decorated for Christmas.

The temperature outside clocked in at about 48 degrees. The only thing keeping me warm was my full-body wetsuit rented from Ossies Surf Shop in Newport.

I never thought my first time catching a wave would be on the Oregon Coast, let alone in November. But I was up for the challenge, and I was certainly not going to let this perfect sunny day go to waste.

Believe it or not, winter can be a great time to surf in Oregon. While summer offers more predictable waves and weather, winter waves can be more powerful and generate more consistent surf, said Daniel Hasselschwert, owner of Ossies Surf Shop, who was giving my first surf lesson. You just have to navigate winter storms.

“It’s almost unexpected that you can have this experience in Oregon. Our major metropolitan areas are in the valley, and you don't think about the coast a lot of the time,” Hasselschwert said standing on the beach looking out at the waves. “But look at this. Look at this beautiful headland, the beautiful sky, the ocean; the waves are great.”

Ossies offers a variety of lessons for all ages and levels, including private and group lessons. I took part in one day of Ossies’ “Surf School,” which lasted about two hours and cost $65.

For more experienced surfers, Ossies has tow-in surfing lessons, and for non-surfers the shop offers various kayaking trips. Oregon has plenty of other places to take lessons up and down the coast.

Once I arrived at the shop, I signed a waiver and one of the shop employees set me up with some gear, including a wetsuit, gloves, booties and a bright yellow rash guard. The equipment is included in the price when you participate in a “surf school” lesson.

The process of putting my wetsuit on was a workout in itself, but the effort warmed me up, and once I got on the hood, gloves and boots, I felt extra toasty.

Now came the hard part: carrying my board to the beach. Hasselschwert set me up with a longboard surfboard. He explained that a longboard would be easier to learn on because its size helps you balance. It is also made of foam, so getting hit by the board wouldn’t hurt as bad.

“Getting hit in the face by a softboard might hurt, but getting hit in the face with a hard surfboard will probably end in stitches,” Hasselschwert said.

It was a short walk to the beach, but I (embarrassingly) will admit I struggled to carry the board by myself. Hasselschwert offered a helping hand, and we made it down to the beach in one piece.

The day’s classroom was Agate Beach, located right next to the shop just across the Oregon Coast Highway. The beach is a popular destination for surfers.

Our lesson began with a diagram in the sand. Using a seashell as his surfboard, Hasselschwert drew out how the waves would come in and how the rip current worked. He pointed out a landmark on the shore that we could use to determine how far north or south we were drifting when we were in the water.

Hasselschwert also had us draw out a surfboard in the sand so we could practice hanging our feet off the end and popping up to stand. At this point, my mind was filled with a million questions, but Hasselschwert reassured me it’s all about getting out there in the water and trying it out.

And we did.

Walking into the water with a wetsuit felt surreal because it wasn’t cold at all. Even during the summer, I find the ocean water too cold to swim in, so being able to comfortably get all the way in during the early winter was not what I expected.

We aimed to get out to about waist-deep water, which meant navigating the incoming waves. Hasselschwert showed me how to push on the end of my board to encourage it over the waves.

After reaching the desired depth, it was time to hop on the board. Hasselschwert helped hold my board while I laid on top of it, feet dangling slightly off the end like we had practiced in the sand. I looked behind me for an upcoming wave and started to paddle forward. Once I felt like I had caught the wave, I lifted my upper body up but stayed lying on my stomach (almost like I was doing cobra pose, fellow yogis). Once I caught the wave, I could feel myself being propelled toward the beach.

I fell off the first few tries but eventually was able to ride a wave all the way in. The next step was attempting to stand up. Hasselschwert said many people make it to this point thinking “surfing is easy,” but standing is where it gets tricky.

Standing up requires all the same skills as riding a wave lying down, but now they’re amplified. Also, by then, my arms were extremely tired, which made it hard to push myself up to standing.

The hard part for me was finding the right timing to get up. Hasselschwert told me to wait until I felt myself catching the wave and then try to stand.

After a few times completely wiping out (yes, it was scary, but relaxing your body helps tremendously), I was able to pop up and ride the wave all the way in. The best way I can describe the feeling would be like wakeboarding on a stand-up paddleboard.

Over the course of about two hours, I went from never having touched a surfboard to standing up on the board. Hasselschwert said his approach is to let people figure it out on their own. Like many activities and sports, the only way to learn is to do it.

My time in the water left me feeling accomplished and absolutely exhausted. It was a full-body workout.

Back at Ossies, I gave my arms one last workout by peeling off my wetsuit, rinsing it and cleaning it.

The whole experience was unexpectedly fun. We lucked out with perfect weather, which can sometimes be hard to come by in the colder, rainier months. Hasselschwert said he gets out to surf most mornings, even in the less perfect weather.

“When you are paddling for a wave and you’ve tried to stand up, there is absolutely no room in your mind, body or soul to think about anything but that moment,” Hasselschwert said. “So that, to me, is kind of the essence of surfing and why people get so hooked.”

If you’re looking to try out surfing, you don’t have to plan a trip to Hawaii or San Diego. Just head west. With the proper gear and cooperative weather, the Oregon coast can be your own surfing paradise — even during the winter.

Makenzie Elliott was the Statesman Journal outdoors intern. She now covers breaking news and public safety for The Register-Guard. Reach her at MElliott@gannett.com. Find her on Twitter at @makenzielliott.