Before we go ahead and dive into the nitty gritty of how to conquer the ocean, you need to have the proper equipment. Without a decent board, no amount of waves are gonna improve your skills. Let’s get started.
In the simplest of terms, length, nose and tail shape, fin set-up and rocker characterize the board shape. Which board to choose depends largely on ability; longer, thicker and wider boards are easier to surf on and better for beginning surfers. Shorter, lighter and thinner boards are faster and easier to turn, but harder to catch waves with and require a fast pop-up and more experience to control. One of the biggest mistakes a new surfer can make is to buy a board that is too small for their ability. In order to progress as a surfer, you need to be able to catch as many waves as possible, pop-up over and over until it is automatic, and stay on the board to ride the wave as long as possible. A bigger board will allow you to do all of this much easier than a shortboard. There is nothing more frustrating for a surfer than to be sitting out in the line-up and not be able to catch waves or stand up without pitching over the falls. A bigger board provides for better glide and float to catch a wave, and more stability as you try to get to your feet and find your balance on the board to surf down the face of the wave. Finding a board to match your ability is about trial an error, and talking to other surfers to learn from their experience. Do not be lured into the cool factor of a shortboard if you are just learning, because there is nothing cool about sitting out in the line-up and not being able to catch a wave or stand up on your board once you’ve caught the wave. You will have far more fun and progress much faster if you go for a bigger board to start. How big is relative. Talk to the local surf shop employees to make this decision, but a good starting point is either a traditional longboard (9 foot or bigger), or the funboard (also known as the mini-mal), that will give you some of the speed and turning ability of a shortboard but with more float and stability.
There are many wetsuits to choose from and depending on the water temperature, can range from a thick fullsuit (5/3mm or 4/3mm which refers to the thickness of the neoprene) for cold water temperatures under 58 – 60 degrees, to a thinner fullsuit (3/2mm) for water temperatures in the 60 degree range, to Sringsuits (also known as “shorties”) for warmer water in the upper 60’s. When selecting a fullsuit, some other features to consider are taped seams and flood gates for warmth, and ultra-stretch neoprene for more flexibility. The prices for wetsuits go up with the quality, which provide more warmth and flexibility for comfort. You pay for what you get, so if you buy an inexpensive fullsuit, chances are it won’t be that warm and comfortable. Finally, a wetsuit should fit really tight, like a body glove, so if it is comfortable in the shop when you try it on, chance are it is not tight enough. Wetsuits expand a bit in the water, and if it is too big, it will allow water to flow in and out of the suit, and when the water is cold, that sucks. Remember, go tight.
The leash and wax are a must for surfing. The leash attaches at the back of the board to a small string called a leash tie found on the leash plug, and then to the surfer’s ankle by a Velcro leash cuff. The leash cuff goes on the ankle of the back foot so whether that is the right ankle of the left ankle will depend on whether you are regular-footed or goofy-footed. There are some experienced longboarders who will choose not to wear a leash because it gets in the way of cross-stepping and nose-riding. These surfers generally are very good surfers (or should be), and have the ability to control their board and grab hold of their board so that it doesn’t fly away and/or interfere with other surfers. At popular longboard breaks, you will likely see many surfers without leashes and the occasional lose board bouncing into shore, but this should not be something to try until you are a very accomplished surfer who understands how to hold onto your board without relying on the leash.
For many surfers, the selection and application of wax is an art form unto itself. There are many brands and water temperature-appropriate waxes from which to choose, and ask many of these wax connoisseurs which they prefer and how they apply it, and you will get as many different answers as there are waxes. The basic application of wax, however, involves applying a base coat to create a light, tacky coating, followed by a generous application of the top coat for true traction. The base coat is not water temperature specific, meaning that it can be applied to any board for any kind of water temperature, but the top coat is water temperature specific. This means that you will want to choose a wax that corresponds to the water temperature in which you will be surfing (Costa Rica or Santa Cruz?). These temperatures generally break down into the following categories and will have the degree range they are meant for on the packaging: cold, cool, warm and tropical. Why? Cold water wax is softer and tropical wax is harder so that the cold wax will stick better to the board in cold water and the tropical wax will stick better to the board in warm water. As for application, again, there are many styles and theories as to how best to apply wax, but the most common is to apply the wax to the top of the board using small circular motions across the entire deck of the board. The idea is to get the wax nice and thick and sticky with lots of bumps, especially in the general area of where your feet will be. It is not necessary to wax the nose of a shortboard or funboard because you do not step on the nose, but it is a good idea to wax the nose of a longboard as you will be shuffling (or cross-stepping), up and down the length of the board to remain in trim. If in doubt as to which wax to use, ask the local surf shop employees.
Traction pads (also known as tail pads), are primarily used on shortboards. Their purpose, first and foremost, is to give your back foot a place to grip and push for more extreme (high performance) turning. As you push off the tail for such maneuvers as bottom turns, cut-backs, lay-backs, off-the-lips, snaps, etc., the tail pad keeps the back foot from slipping off the back of the board. Another feature of the tail pad is to use it to help sink the tail of the board with your foot during a duck-dive. Placement of the tail pad is a personal preference but a good starting point is to have the back tail rise of the pad placed over the center of the two side fins in the thruster set-up. Depending on where the leash plug is located on the board, this placement is generally one to two inches above the leash plug. Tail pads come in many shapes, styles and number of pieces – all of which are a personal preference to experiment with over time.
Other basic accessories to consider include board socks (covers) which are a stretchy fabric cover to help minimally protect the board and keep it from sun damage; a board day bag which is a lightly padded bag to carry the board and protect it from dings during transport to and from the beach; travel bags with or without wheels which are thicker padded board bags designed for travel; and padded car racks to transport the board on the roof of a car. Again, talk to the local surf shop employee for further recommendations and suggestions. In case you have now noticed, hanging out and talking with the local shop guys (and gals) is a key ritual in surfing – swapping surf stories and talking swell, equipment, or just picking up a monthly surf magazine to keep it core.
Keep it real.
Now that you have all your gear in order, it’s time to pick a spot.