People who surf claim that it's one of the best ways to experience nature. While it's true that a seasoned surfer can take the time to enjoy the water and the scenery, it does require going though an initial learning stage to really get the most out of it, as with any sport. This article will help you understand the basics of surfing – the water, the etiquette and the actual steps to catching a wave. Once you've got this part down, you can say you're a full-fledged surfer, ready to paddle out and take on the swell.
It's always a good idea to spend a few extra minutes on dry land before you get in. Keep an eye on the waves – where they are, how they break and if they are coming in patterns of sets. Even if you've surfed a spot before, the ocean is always changing. So take the time to observe from a good vantage point on the beach and map out a general surf plan in advance.
The best way to plan out your entry into the water is to watch the way the other surfers move about in the waves. Often, a rip current provides a good channel for getting back out to the sets, allowing surfers to paddle out around the breaking part of the waves without as much difficulty and effort. If you don't notice such a current, take a cue from the people in the water. You may find that the only way to get to the "taking-off" area is to battle the whitewater and multiple cresting waves. Decide whether you are ready to tackle a harder paddle-out before you suit up and ride out.
Note: Rip currents can be highly dangerous, so only get in if you're sure you know how it works.
While you're on the beach checking the set, you should stretch a bit to get limber and loose. Paddling out is a real upper body workout, so pay closest attention to your arms, shoulders and back. It's not a bad idea to give take a few "pop-up" practice runs, too. Lying stomach-down on your board, jump into a standing position to get your body used to the motions before attempting it in the water. This maneuver is explored in more detail later in the article (under the "Standing Up" header).
First things first: decide which of your feet will be placed in front and which will be in back. If you've participated in other board sports, you may already know your stance. If you can't decide which feels more comfortable, try having a buddy gently push you from behind while you face forward; the foot that you use to steady your fall is probably the foot that will feel best up front.
Next, you'll need to wax your board with the proper wax for the water conditions. There are various types of surf wax to choose from, but some are more efficient in cold water, while others are better in warmer temps. Using circular strokes or a crosshatch pattern, apply wax to the deck of your board, mainly focusing on the spots where you will be standing (this may require you to check your stance again).
Finally, attach your leash to the ankle of your back foot. The leash is an important safeguard in the ocean, keeping board near you even when you bail on a wave. However, keep in mind that what flies out from under you will quickly spring back toward you… so watch your head when you do lose your board.
FINALLY ON YOUR BOARD
At first you'll carry your board into the water (don't trip on the leash!). When the ocean reaches about hip height, you can put it down in the water and hop on. Get settled on your board by moving side to side or up and down until you feel steady. Now it's time to start paddling.
Since you're probably riding a board that is bigger than you are, the question of where to put your feet might arise. While a few surfers dangle their feet in the water while paddling, more often than not you'll see people in a halfway seal stretch – feet behind them on the board, back arched, head up.
Your arms will be doing most of the work here, as you swim using "freestyle" strokes with cupped hands to push back as much water as possible. Be sure that the nose of your board is about two or three inches above the water's surface as you go; progress may be slow, but keep heading out towards the waves. Continue to refer to the mental map of the water that you devised from shore; you should know the best route out to the breaks, hopefully avoiding any crashing waves that could knock you off your board.
APPROACHING THE WAVES
Why is it always the case that the small waves you saw from the beach seem so huge from the water? It's a two-fold phenomenon. First off, yes it's true that your mind is playing tricks on you – a little fear can set off a touch of paranoia, especially when you are staring down a churning ocean. Second, consider your point of view: when you are on the beach, you're farther away from the waves and you're standing up. Obviously, these same waves seem bigger as they're charging toward you and you're lying face down. It takes a little while for most surfers to get used to the feeling of approaching a wave, but once they learn the best techniques for beating them, they feel a lot more comfortable going for it. There are a couple of moves in particular to assist you in passing a wave:
The Duck Dive
When a sea of whitewash or the bottom of a breaking wave is headed your way, you have two options: go over or duck under. The duck dive is a trick used by surfers to pass underneath a rolling wave, surfboard and all. First, be sure that your board is perpendicular to the wave. When the edge of the oncoming water is about two feet away, grab the rails about halfway between the tip and the mid-point of the board and lean forward to push the nose underneath the wave. Push down with the force of your weight on the front of the board and duck under with your head down. Next, use your strongest leg to press down the back half of your board as you begin to dive, righting your board's position and lessening the chances of hitting the seafloor. Soon, you'll begin to surface on the far side of the wave, having successfully avoided a good thrashing.
The Turtle Roll
There are times when a turtle roll is the best idea to keep you from getting battered by a wave. Keep paddling into the oncoming wave until it comes within a couple of feet of your position. Grab along the rails and flip the entire board over your body so that you are floating underneath the board, feet toward the shore, hanging on with both hands. The idea is that your buoyant board will lift you to the surface, where you'll ride the wave to safety. As soon as you can, flip back on top of board and resume paddling ASAP; the downside to a turtle roll is that you will be swept closer to shore, when the point is to be paddling out toward the set. So start moving to make up for lost time.
The Bail Dive
The bail dive should be your last resort when faced with an oncoming wave. You should do everything you can to avoid separating from your board, but sometimes it is the safest move. Remember, as soon as you hop off, you lose control of your board. This can lead to injury to you or any fellow surfers in the line of fire. The leash attached to your foot will prevent, under most circumstances, the loss of your board, but it also means that a loose board with sharp fins is strapped to your leg, so watch your head. When you bail off your surfboard, plummet your body into the wave, getting low to the seafloor if possible (this will allow the wave to roll over you). Pay attention to the pull of the leash, as it may be an indicator of where your board is and whether you're in danger of it snapping back. Break the surface of the water with extreme caution, keeping an eye out for both your loose board, and anyone else in the water who may not see you.
As you are paddling out be very mindful of the other surfers out in the water. As crazy as this may seem, as soon as someone catches a wave, they have the right of way. This means that everyone else, even those paddling out, must clear the way for the rider. If you find yourself in the path of a surfer, your best bet is to duck dive out of the way. Before it comes to that, however, try to avoid the situation entirely by paddling out of the way of the surfer's line, going over the already-broken part of the wave.An Important Note to Beginning Surfers: These tricks will put you on the other side of the breaking waves, a place that you want to avoid until you've spent some time in the whitewash. In the mushy stuff you can spend your time working on standing up and really get used to the feel of the board, which is a crucial first step in the learning process. You shouldn't head for the bigger waves until you've been in the water awhile and have begun to get the hang of it all. Additionally, a few lessons are highly recommended to help ready you for the task of riding a breaking wave. An instructor will teach you all of the basic tools you need to know before you venture much further into the ocean.
REACHING THE LINE-UP
Once you've gotten past the breakers, the water will chill out some and you'll finally have the opportunity to take a breather. This area is the waiting zone, where you sit back and watch the waves come in. Different people have different waiting "styles," but most surfers sit in the middle of their boards with their legs in the water, watching the water further out. You'll notice that you are on the higher part of the ocean here – as the waves roll in you'll feel a surface bump, but you won't be thrashing through any more breakers until you paddle out again.
Now you need to find the right take-off spot. Watch a few sets roll in and note where the curl of the wave begins. This is going to be the best place to drop in. Paddle to that area and map out your location by sizing up landmarks on the beach.
Here you'll enter the line-up, a notorious, tradition-based part of surfing wherein waves are doled out to riders based on a number of factors. Here are a few general points regarding the line-up that will keep you from looking like too big of a kook.
First, know your place. The surfer who is closest to the breaking part of the wave automatically gets to ride it. That means that anyone else who attempts to ride the wave out of position is dropping in, a situation you should try your best to avoid. Second, know your place… again. Surfing is known to be a sport with a lot of localism, so just be aware of the attitudes and temperaments of the other surfers in the water and respect their turf. Under most circumstances, you'll have no trouble as you work your way into the line-up, eventually finding yourself first in line at the crest of a wave.
Uh oh. Now what?
Catching a wave is all about timing. Just as you did from shore, you'll want to spend some time watching the swells come in, getting a feel for their breaking patterns and gauging their size. After some time, you'll be able to predict, roughly, how big an oncoming wave is and where it will begin to break. When you see a wave rolling in, and assuming you're in the proper position to catch it (remember, the person closest to the breaking potion of the wave gets first dibs), you should face the nose of your board toward shore and lie down, ready to paddle.
When paddling for a wave, you need to center your body weight across the width of the board, but scoot up a bit toward the nose to give you added momentum. While it's a natural tendency to lean backwards (you know, away from the crushing power of the breaking wave), to actually catch it you'll need to commit and paddle your heart out.
The way you paddle for a wave will depend on the size of your surfboard. It's easier to catch a wave with a longer board, because the wave has more surface to grab and move. Shorter boards usually require more paddling to get you going fast enough to catch the wave. If your timing is on, and you're paddling hard enough, the wave will pick you up and carry you as it rolls. The swell will begin to fold and you will start sliding down its face. Once you're a little under the lip, pop-up to a stand. The best way to ride down a breaking wave is to stay right in front of the break along the glassy, rising water. If you don't stand up the first few times, that's OK. Once you get the feel for dropping in on a wave, you'll be ready to stand up and ride in no time.
Practicing this move on the beach is the best way to prepare for the challenge of standing up in the water. Start off by laying on your board, face down with your arms gripping the side rails. You should be in the middle of your board (widthwise) with your shoulders about halfway between the nose and the mid-point on your deck. When you're ready to pop-up, place your hands flat on the board next to your shoulders, as if you are doing a wide pushup. With your toes curled under, your head lifted and your arms in spring-mode, you'll be ready to pop up to a full standing position. In doing so, be sure you go straight from laying down to standing up – no stopping at the knees first! This is a bad habit that wastes time and can be difficult to break. Now you're on your feet.
Your knees should be bent, your body balanced, and your eyes looking at the big picture – not the end of your board.
MOVING YOUR FEET
Any surfer will tell you that balance is a big part of the sport. Assuming that you've managed to catch a wave and have popped into a stand, you're probably going to have to adjust your stance a bit in order to remain stable as you ride. As a beginner you ought be on a longer, wider board anyway, so moving your feet should be easy to do. You should be standing with your front hip pointed straight ahead, feet perpendicular to the board itself. Keep in mind that your back foot does the steering, so if you intend to turn, you'll need to have your trail leg behind the board's fulcrum.
It's a good idea to move around a bit, testing out different stances. Keep your eyes looking forward and feel the water through your board. You'll probably use your arms for balance, and that's alright; however, sticking out your butt is never a good move because it throws off your balance and makes it difficult to shift your weight… not to mention you'll look pretty goofy.
FINISHING IT OUT
So you're balanced and comfy on your board, riding through the whitewash (first) or maybe down a wave's face (later). Now it's time to work on turning and maneuvering your board. You don't want to lean into a turn the way you would on a snowboard. Instead, think of your surfboard as a little outboard motorboat – the power is coming from behind and so is the steering. Apply pressure to the back of the board as you lean slightly with the carve, keeping a watchful eye on the nose of your board. It should be about 4 inches out of the water during a turn, but no higher (unless you want to fall off the back). Your hips, head and torso should remain fairly upright, while you use your lower body to pump and steer the board.
Practice some turns, perfect your stance, savor the ride. Surfing is all about being a part of the environment, harnessing the water's tremendous power and experiencing the rush of the ocean. It can be a really personal and soulful experience, so while you're working hard out there, remember to take the time to smell the seaweed.
Now get surfing! But be sure to check back with Tactics from time to time to see what's new in our Surf Store!