There is nothing like the feeling of catching that first wave as you stand looking down at the water shimmering below, the board under your feet as it glides smoothly across the water, and the feeling as if you are cruising longer and faster than you ever imagined, even if it is only for a few seconds. It feels like the clichéd magic carpet ride, adrenaline pumping, sensories exploding, and the feeling of the glide, your first stoke! It’s what keeps every surfer coming back. But don’t be fooled. Learning to surf is hard. Surfing is not for everyone, but for those of us that “get it”, we get it immediately after that first wave, that first stoke, and despite the humiliation and punishment, we keep coming back for more.
The learning curve for surfing is long and frustrating, Even the most adept athletes, accomplished snowboarders and skaters will tell you, learning to surf is freakin’ brutal. No one tries it and just gets it. You have to commit to it and keep going. You will fall, a lot! You will pitch over the falls endlessly (pearling), taking wave after wave on the head. You will suck air and you will just plain suck, for along time. You will paddle over and over for waves that you can’t seem to catch, and you will watch other surfers paddle circles around you and catch wave after wave making it all look so damn easy. However, slowly but surely, you will start to paddle stronger and stand up (pop up) quicker. You will find the sweet spot on your board and respond better and better to oncoming waves, riding them a little longer and a little better. And each time you do catch a wave, you taste that first stoke all over again. That is surfing, and that is what keeps us all coming back for more. For some it is about the glide, for others it is the adrenaline of the big drop, and for others still, it is about ripping, but it’s all about surfing. As Nat Young said, “Surfers are members of a different race of people from the man in the street.”
Although learning to surf is super slow and super frustrating, it’s a blast, and just know that everyone sucks in the beginning Everyone is a kook.
History of Surfing.
It’s still not entirely clear when and where exactly surfing originated. There is ample evidence, legends and myths about surfing in the varies tales from the Polynesians throughout the South Pacific long before contact with Europeans, but truly, modern surfing as we know it began in Hawaii in the early 1900’s, marked most famously by the “Waikiki Beach Boy” Duke Kahanamoku. Duke was an accomplished waterman, an Olympic gold medal swimmer, and good-looking which attracted the attention of Hollywood. He eventually starred in a total of seven films and brought the visibility of the sport of surfing from the vacation beaches of Hawaii to the mainland beaches of California where he eventually met Tom Blake, creator of the first “lightweight” hollow surfboard. This lighter, faster, more buoyant board is credited with making the sport of surfing more accessible to a greater number of people, and the beginning of the popularization of the sport throughout California in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Surfing remained a marginal, sub-cultural of California’s youth through several decades. It was viewed by the mainstream as a “cult”, the perception of social deviants without purpose or focus. What the masses didn’t understand was that, in fact, surfers did have a purpose and an intense focus, that of doing whatever they could to allow themselves the ability to surf at all times, something that many surfers still possess today. As Drew Kampion said, “ Surfing was both cult and subculture – the subcult of stoked.” There were many surf spots and surf clubs up and down the California coast during this time, but none marked the true essence of California surfing like Malibu (the “bu”), a beautiful right point break that peels perfect wave after wave, located just north of Los Angeles along the historic Pacific Coast Highway. Malibu was (and still is today) a hotbead of talented longboard surfers with hot head attitudes to match. Most famous of these historical Malibu surfers was Miki (Da Cat) Dora, who dominated the peaks of Malibu throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. He was equal parts showboat and asshole, effortlessly cross-stepping to the nose of his board while pushing some poor shmuck in the back who may have had the misfortune of dropping in on Dora, or worse, having Dora launch his board straight at him.
Other notable surfers from the 1950’s and 1960’s are Hobie Alter, Dewey Weber, and Hap Jacobs/Dale Vezy, early California surfboard shapers; big wave surfers Greg Noll and Buzzy Trent; and Robert August and Mike Hynson, two globetrotting surfers immortalized by the now famous film THE ENDLESS SUMMER.
The next major revolution in surfing came in the early 1960’s, credited in large part to the film GIDGET, released in 1959. “The movie Gidget was huge,” wrote Surfer publisher Steve Pezman in 1977. “It swung surfing into mainstream prominence at a time when it was ready to accommodate new interest, thanks to foam, wetsuits and accessibility.” Talk to many old time surfers today and they still curse the release of this film and the shift (or demise) of surfing from subculture to mainstream. For better or for worse, surfing blew up and the line-up in most urban settings has been a snarled, dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest mentality ever since.
1968 – while many throughout the world concerned themselves with the atrocities of the Vietnam War, surfing was experiencing, once again, its own revolution, the advent of the shortboard. Until this time, surfers rode 9 foot to 10 foot longboards with varying nose, tail and width shapes to enhance their surfing experience. Between 1966 and 1968, surfers/shapers Nat Young, Bob McTavish and George Greenough are credited with collaborating on and experimenting with shorter surfboards. As Drew Kampion wrote, “In 1968, surfing experienced the greatest cultural and conceptual shift in its history as virtually the entire sport threw away its 9 foot and 10 foot boards and took up shortboards. In a single year, the sport was almost completely transformed. Surfboards went from 9 feet 6 inches to 8 feet 6 inches to 7 feet and below, and anyone on a longboard was surfing a dinosaur.” Thus began not only the revolution in equipment, but also in style and ability, opening up waves and surf spots that had been untouchable on a longboard. The speed and the turning abilities of the shortboard allowed surfers to surf in more radical ways than ever before, and on more radical waves epitomized by the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii.
Pipeline was and still is considered one of the world’s heaviest waves. It channels big, steep hollow waves from deep ocean swells onto shallow (and sharp) coral reefs breaking close to shore. Only the very best surfers in the world, still to this day, will attempt Pipeline because a miss-timed take off or a bad bottom turn will send you sucked up and over the falls onto very sharp and dangerous reef with a heavy wave smashing down on your head. Early standout pioneers in the 1970’s include Shaun Tomson, Gerry Lopez, and Larry Bertelsmann, just to name a few.
With each new decade in surfing comes a new evolution in equipment (the surfboard), which in turn leads to a new leap in surfing style, ability and visibility for the sport. By the end of the 1970’s many of the world’s surfers were carving big turns and pulling deep into hollow tubes due to the relative speed and maneuverability of the single fin shortboard. What came next? The three fin (thruster) set up which allowed for even smaller, faster boards with more grip and more hold in the wave. Surfers could now take their surfing from a back-and-forth style across the face of the wave to a more intense, vertical style of up-and-down surfing across the face of the wave. This is when we started to see surfers really push the limits of snaps and off-the-lip maneuvers, using the three fins to push the board from the bottom of the wave driving vertically up the face of the wave, snapping hard or hitting the lip of the wave, and then driving back down the face of the wave to start the maneuver all over again. Welcome to high performance shortboarding as we know it today. Welcome Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Mick Fanning and the countless other surfers around the world who rip the hell out of the wave with a thruster fin set up.
What’s next? Clearly, the evolution of surfing still lies in the technology and design of the surfboard. We’ve seen this throughout the history of surfing and this remains to be true today. With the closing of the historical Clark Foam Factory in December of 2005, surfers and shapers around the world have been clamoring to discover the next big design and technological shift in materials, including new foam and resin technologies, carbon fiber and Kevlar, plastics and beyond.
Board – 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.
Wetsuit – 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.
Accessories – 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.
Where to go?
In most areas, surf spots are very recognizable due to one thing: you can be sure that if it is surfable, there will be surfers out in the line-up. With the exception of a few remote spots around the world, most major surf spots have been explored, discovered and surfed. If you do not see a surfer out in the water, chances are there is a good reason, and you should not paddle out, especially as a novice or intermediate surfer. There are several different kinds of surf spots, or breaks, to look for which include beach breaks, reef breaks and point breaks. Point break waves tend to be easier to read and to catch because the wave hits the point, breaks more or less at the same place every time, and then peels down the line in the same direction. Malibu’s famed “first point” is an excellent example of a point break. The wave lines up perfectly and peels for over a hundred yards in the same direction every single time. Beware of point breaks, however, because due to their “perfect” nature, they also tend to be very crowded and very competitive. It can be extremely frustrating for novice surfers at a point break because either they can’t get into the wave without others dominating the peak by out-paddling them, positioning themselves better and just plain out-surfing them, or they may not be entirely comfortable turning and maneuvering their board around the other surfers and, thus, either get yelled at or worse, hurt someone. Having a solid understanding of surf etiquette and the ability to control your board is essential to surfing a point break.
Beach breaks tend to be a better bet when learning to surf simply for the reason of being able to spread out a bit away from the main pack, and have some space to yourself as you’re trying to practice wave selection, popping up, catching and turning on the wave, and controlling the board in the water. Beach breaks are generally a more difficult wave to master because they are far less predictable than the point break wave. The waves will shift and break in different areas along the beach, they may be breaking from left to right, from right to left, or up and over (close out), which makes positioning a challenge, and deciding which waves to catch and in which direction to angle the board down the face of the wave more difficult. And while point breaks usually have a rocky or reef bottom, beach breaks usually have a sand bottom. At beach breaks, understanding wave selection becomes an important part of learning to surf. The goal of catching a rideable wave is to pick one that is breaking with an open face on which to surf, the green part of the wave, rather than one that closes out quickly with no face to surf. Point breaks are very predictable and easy to read while beach breaks are shifty and harder to read.
Reef breaks can either be on a beach break or a point break and are most often found in warmer water areas where coral reefs form. Reef breaks tend to create a nice breaking wave, either peeling down the line or an a-frame depending on how the waves hit the reef, but can be a bit treacherous due to their sharp and often shallow nature. Getting cut by a coral reef is not fun and lends itself to serious bacterial infection. Reef breaks can also have a lot of boils and hazardous channels to maneuver so it is a good idea to surf a reef break with someone who is very familiar with the break and the various hazards that may exist.
When to go?
Learning to surf also requires a scientific degree in oceanographic studies. We exaggerate, but learning to surf really does require a basic understanding of tides, swell direction, wind direction and weather patterns, all of which determine when any given surf break is a go time to surf. Some surf spots only break, or are only surfable , on a low tide with a south swell, while other surf spots may be best on a high tide with a north swell. Onshore winds cause surf conditions to “blow out” and become unsurfable, while off-shore winds cause the waves to stand up and peel with better shape. It is not uncommon to pass a surf spot on a high tide and not see a single breaking wave, and then check out that same spot five hours later when the tide is low and see perfect peelers. Some places systematically have onshore winds start blowing almost everyday by 10:00 am so that to get any kind of decent surf, you have to get on it early, while other spots have beautiful evening glass-offs when the wind dies down and the water turns to a sheet of glass. Some general information to consider and research for your area: which breaks work better on a high tide and which on a low tide, and which breaks work better on south swells (south facing beaches) and which breaks work better on a north swell (north facing beaches) or a combo of both with some westerly swell thrown in? Pay attention to wind patterns for onshore vs. offshore conditions. Finally, ask the local surf shop employees which breaks they recommend and why. Also, most areas have breaks that are more open and friendly to beginner surfers while other breaks are straight up hostile and violent to non-locals. Be aware of these breaks because it’s not uncommon to have tires slashed or car windows broken when intruding upon an extremely hostile and localized break.
Surfing can be a rather hazardous sport. There are many elements to deal with, the most obvious being the wave, the board and other surfers. First and foremost, understanding surf etiquette is key to surfing safely. Learning how to read and anticipate oncoming waves, particularly outside set waves, as well as reading other surfers is a huge part of surfing. Learning how to manage the board, paddling, sitting and spinning to catch a wave, and turning in order to surf around other surfers are crucial to surfing at a crowded break, as most serious surfing injuries are caused by colliding with other surfers and their boards (and fins). Holding onto your board at all times is one of the golden rules of good surfing etiquette.
Beyond these things, however, there are several other hazards to be aware of as they pertain to water conditions. These include rip tides (or rip currents), rocks and reefs, and swell size. Rip tides occur generally at beach breaks and are strong-pulling currents of water that flow from the beach out to the open sea beyond the line-up, like a very strong underwater river. Rip tides cause a turbulent, rippled, murky effect on the surface of the ocean where the channel is running out to sea. Rip tides are known to be extreme safety hazards for swimmers, but can be very user-friendly to surfers, particularly in larger surf when the paddle-out can be challenging. Surfers will scope out the beach looking for channels and rip tides and use these strong, outward-drawing currents to help pull them out past the breaking waves (the impact zone). It is a good idea to be aware of where the rip tides are and surf to either side of the current. Sitting on your board in a rip tide will also suck you out to sea beyond the breaking waves. If you look up and down the beach and find yourself sitting far out beyond the other surfers, chances are you are in a rip tide. Paddle to either side out of the textured, rippled surface water, and then paddle towards shore until you are in line with the other surfers. Don’t try to paddle towards shore while in the rip tide. It is exhausting and a losing battle.
Once you have checked the beach for rip tides and currents, also take a few minutes to monitor the surf size and the timing or interval of set waves. Depending on the swell, waves tend to arrive in sets and often a series of waves will break bigger and farther out than the average waves. It’s always a good idea to be aware of the set waves and keep an eye out on the horizon for oncoming set waves so that you don’t get caught inside and take a bunch of waves on the head. Also, keep on eye on the pack. If the pack starts scraping for the outside, start paddling for the outside too – they’ve seen the set waves forming even if you didn’t. A sure sign of a kook is a new surfer lying on the board facing towards the shore with their back to the oncoming waves. Don’t be a kook. Sit facing the horizon at all times until you decide to spin and paddle to catch a wave.
Finally, also be aware of underwater hazards such as rocks and reefs. Know how some of these underwater features may become extremely dangerous on a lower tide, and know how to pancake fall or starfish fall in shallow waters to avoid breaking a leg (or a neck).
How to avoid being called a Kook!
Learning to surf is very frustrating, and totally sucks when everyone around you seems to be catching waves and ripping it up. Remember, though, that everyone sucked at some point, and understanding basic surf etiquette goes along way to playing well with other surfers! Being called a kook, in part, just goes with the territory of learning to surf, but there are some basic rules to understand so that you can blend in better with the more experienced surfers so as not to appear to be such a kook.
Let’s start with paddling out. As mentioned earlier, it is always a good idea to study the line-up before paddling out. Look for clear channels to paddle out to the line-up without getting in the way of other surfers, or try to time the paddle out when there is a lull in waves and there are no surfers up and riding. Rule #1: the surfer up and riding the wave has right-of-way, so do not try to paddle up and over the face of a breaking wave in front of a surfer riding the wave. Paddle behind the surfer into the white water and then turtle-roll or duck-dive to get through the wave. Rule #2: do not roll off the board and let go of it (or ditch it) when paddling out. Remember, lose boards cause injuries to yourself and to other surfers. Always try to hold onto your board!*
* There are a few times when the surf might be really big or you get caught inside in the impact zone where you know you won’t be able to duck-dive or turtle-roll the board. In these instances, if you have to ditch the board, always look around you to make sure you are free and clear of any nearby surfers either up and riding the wave or behind you also caught in the impact zone. If, and only if, it is clear, then you may push the board away from you and dive under the oncoming wave. This is really only considered an option in big surf. Otherwise, hold onto the board.
Once you have paddled out to the line-up, hang out and watch the other surfers and let those who have been waiting awhile, especially in inconsistent surf, catch the next few oncoming waves. Rule #3: don’t hang out on the inside trying unsafely to catch waves in the impact zone in front of the other surfers. Rule #4: don’t try to catch the very first wave that comes your way if others have been waiting awhile, especially if you are a novice surfer. The line-up has a pecking order so don’t be a dick and get in the way of other surfers when learning to surf. Also, don’t sit too close to other surfers. Make sure there is room to maneuver around and sit and spin and paddle for oncoming waves.
Once you have assessed the line-up and if necessary, waited your turn, when paddling for a wave, who has right-of-way can be a hotly debated issue, but basically, the surfer who catches the wave closest to the peak has priority. Others may play by the rule that the first surfer standing up has right-of-way, but this can cause friction between longboarders and shortboarders as longboarders can catch the wave earlier and stand up first even if they aren’t closest to the peak. If in doubt, give up the wave, pull out, or kick out if someone is surfing behind you (meaning they are closest to the peak). Most of the time, that surfer behind you will let you know one way or another anyhow. Before taking those last few paddles for a wave, take a look over your shoulder in the direction of the peak to make sure no one is up and riding behind you. Rule #5; don’t drop in on another surfer, meaning that if someone is up and riding, don’t try to catch the wave in front of them. They will likely have far more speed than you and either run you over or push you off the wave. Cutting off another surfer in this manner is probably the worst kook offense. Don’t be a kook – don’t drop in!
The basics of surfing break down into three major categories; board management which includes paddling and sitting on the board, duck-diving and turtle-rolling to get out to the line-up, and catching the wave which involves wave selection, spinning to paddle for a wave, standing up (the pop-up), and riding the wave in trim down the open face of the wave.
There a few key points to know in understanding how to paddle a surfboard. One involves finding the sweet spot of the board which is a placement of your body on the board where the nose of the board is slightly above the water and the tail of the board is slightly above the water and your weight is evenly distributed across the rocker of the board, the curve of the board from tip to tail. This is a delicate spot to find; too far forward on the board and the nose will sink and you will pearl, and too far back on the board and the tail will sink and you will be dragging your ass and not go anywhere. Finding the sweet spot requires a lot of adjustments forwards and backwards on the board. It is extremely common to start too far forward and pearl the board, flying head first over the falls of the wave, then over-compensate and shift too far back so that you are popping a wheelie as you try to paddle for a wave and the wave will just pass you by. It is a question of trial and error. Keep adjusting just a bit forward and just a bit backward on the board until you feel that nice glide of the board underneath you as you paddle for the wave. When you do find that sweet spot, and the board does achieve an efficient glide, the board is in trim which also comes into play once you are up and riding the face of a wave. The other component to efficient paddling is digging deep underneath the board using not only the forearms for strength, but also incorporating the large back muscles for greater pull. Arch the back and pull deep with the back muscles. Nothing screams kook like a novice surfer who is lilly-dipping with their arms while paddling.
Sitting and spinning
So you can lay on the board and paddle around without falling off, but can you sit on the board without tipping over and spin the board around (because you are always sitting on the board facing out towards the horizon to watch for oncoming waves), to catch a wave? Easier said than done. Sitting on the board, especially a smaller board, takes practice and balance. The best place to sit on the board is the center of the board where it is the widest and thickest and most stable. However, when it’s time to spin the board around and lay back down on the board to start paddling for the wave, you’ll want to scooch back on the board so that the nose is up in the air out of the water and your weight is back toward the lower half of the board. This makes spinning the board around much easier as you egg-beat with your feet to get the board moving in a circular motion. Once the board is facing toward the shore, lay back down on the board finding the sweet spot, and start paddling like hell for the wave while looking back over your shoulder to watch the oncoming wave behind you (and looking for other surfers to make sure not to drop in on anyone). This, too, takes lots of practice. In the beginning, reaction time is slow and often by the time a novice surfer has spun around, laid back down on the board and started paddling, the wave is long gone. Don’t try to spin around and paddle for a wave while lying down. You’ll never make it around in time, you’ll likely get caught lying horizontally in the breaking wave and get your ass kicked, you’ll likely get in the way of another surfer and get yelled at, and you’ll look like a kook.
Duck-diving and turtle-rolling
– at some point during the paddle out, it is very likely (unless it is a very small day or you are surfing a point break), you’ll have to maneuver the board through a wall of white water or a breaking wave in order to reach the line-up. There are many different ways in which to get the board through the wall of water but the two most common are duck-diving under the wave if you have a smaller, thinner board, and turtle-rolling if you have a bigger, thicker board. For both techniques, timing is everything. You want to first make sure you have good forward momentum paddling toward the wall of oncoming water. This is key to pushing either under or through the wave with the board. Don’t stop paddling and get off your board. Just as the wall of water is about to hit you smack in the face, you want to either sink the board under the wave in the case of a duck-dive by pushing down on the nose of the board and using your foot to sink the tail of the board, or you want to roll over onto your back holding tightly onto the rails board and pull the nose of the board down and forward through the white water. In the case of the duck dive, once you feel the board sinking deeply under the wave, pull yourself down onto the board following it under the wave, and then point the nose back up toward the surface allowing the natural buoyancy of the board to pull you up to the surface (hopefully) behind the wall of water, and begin paddling again. In the case of the turtle-roll, hold on tight to the board pulling it through the wall of water and once the water has passed over you and the board, roll back over onto the top of the board and begin paddling again. Fun times.
Catching a wave
Ah, the art of surfing. And here is where it gets fun! As you sit facing out to the horizon watching for oncoming waves, you’ll want to assess which ones are catch-able and which ones you’ll want to let go by. This is known as wave selection. Ideally, a surfable wave has a peak and an open face or shoulder on which to surf. You don’t want to go for close-outs because once you catch the wave, there is nowhere to go except straight down. You don’t want to paddle for the really little waves because they take forever to break and generally don’t have enough momentum to push you into the wave (unless you have a really friggin’ big board). When you do see the wave you want, spin around using the egg-beater technique, lay down on the board finding the sweet spot, and then paddle like hell looking back over your shoulder to try to judge and time the wave, so that if it seems to be breaking quickly, you can slow up your paddling and not get too far out in front of the breaking wave, or if it is breaking slower, then you can continue to paddle like a madman to catch it. Once you feel the momentum of the wave grab hold of you on the board, POP UP, fast. Getting to your feet quickly is key so that you can adjust your weight distribution forward or backward on the board as you angle down the face of the wave screaming like a lunatic. Once again, if your weight is too far forward on the board, you will pearl or nose-dive the board, and if your weight is too far back, you will stall the board out and get blasted off the wave. This, like everything else in surfing, takes tons of practice and trial and error. Finding just the right spot to distribute your weight is all about the glide, all about being in-trim. It’s all about the stoke!
Frontside bottom turn
The bottom turn, either the first turn off the bottom of the wave upon dropping in or as a re-entry from a previous turn off the top of the wave, is the essential power maneuver to generate speed up the face of the wave to execute any other kind of high-performance turns or maneuvers. It starts at the “bottom” of the wave with the board angled down and away from the face, and finishes with increased speed directed either up the face of the wave or down the line, depending on the wave and the next anticipated maneuver. The weight of the surfer should be distributed over the feet, shoulders squared up and feet perpendicular to the stringer, and then leaning toward the inside rail of the board so that the inside rail grabs the face of the wave. Looking ahead to where you want to go will then allow you to guide the board more vertically up the face of the wave to smack the lip, or down the shoulder of the wave to race down the line for a quickly breaking wave.
Backside bottom turn
Like the frontside bottom turn, the backside is the essential power turn to set up all other turns or maneuvers for backside surfing. The difference is in the placement of the feet, positioning of the shoulders and the weight distribution on the heelside rail. The backside bottom turn starts at the bottom of the wave with the surfer’s feet pivoted more parallel with the stringer, shoulders opened to the face of the wave, and leaning heavily onto the heels of the feet while “opening up” to the face and looking forward to where you are headed. From here, the surfer should then spot where they are headed to anticipate the next turn or maneuver.
This is a high-performance surfing maneuver that usually follows a deep bottom turn where the surfer then drives the board up the face of the wave to meet the soon-to-be breaking lip, smacking the lip with the board, and then using the cascading lip to drop back down the face of the wave. The key to setting up an off-the-lip maneuver is anticipating the breaking lip of the wave, looking at the spot at the top of the wave that you want to hit, having enough speed or momentum to drive up the face of the wave, and then as you hit the lip, quickly adjusting your weight center over the board, bending the knees, looking down to the spot of re-entry, and then shifting the weight off the back foot during the turn to the front foot to propel the board back into the wave.
This maneuver is similar in set-up to the off-the-lip with the difference being that when you hit the lip or the top of the wave, you land on top of the breaking wave and ride, or slide, over the top of the breaking wave and then “float” back down the white water into the wave upon re-entry. Just like an off-the-lip turn, the key to successfully landing a floater is keeping the knees bent.
This turn is crucial to maintaining speed and staying in the critical section of the wave. As the surfer rides out to the shoulder of the wave away from the breaking section of the wave, and begins to slow down, the cutback will allow the surfer to return to the pocket or critical section of the wave to once again pick up speed. The key to the cutback is shifting the weight onto the heel side rail, pushing down on the back foot to direct the board back towards the breaking wave, and looking back over the shoulder to where you want to surf. Once you have returned to the breaking part of the wave, you must then swing the board back around in the direction of the breaking wave by shifting the weight back to the toe side rail and looking ahead to where you want to surf.
Backside rail grab (“pig dog”)
This technique is used frequently in steep backside drops or for barrel-riding in order to hold the line and keep the inside rail buried into the face of the wave. It requires the surfer to bend down, stay low, knees bent with the back knee often touching the board, grabbing the outside rail with the outside hand, and pulling up on the board with this hand to keep the board (and the surfer) from being sucked up and over the falls. By grabbing the rail, the surfer is forced to pivot the shoulders forward, opening up more to the face of the wave and giving the surfer more speed and hold down the line. The pigdog stance is for either dropping in or down-the-line speed in a steep section of the wave while surfing backside.
Cross-stepping and nose-riding
Cross-stepping and subsequently nose-riding are more about style than about function. Once you have learned to put the board in-trim with a shuffle of the feet forward or backward while gliding down the face of the wave, it is time to finesse the shuffle and put some style into it by stepping over each foot. When learning to cross-step, just like so many other things in life, start with baby steps to understand the shifting of the weight over the center of the board, and most importantly, learning to stay balanced on the board while on one foot, because in cross-stepping, with each step over the foot, you are momentarily riding the wave while balanced on one foot. The key is to focus first on crossing one foot over the other and then back again, don’t worry about getting to the nose and connecting several steps – this will happen later. While stepping the back foot over the front, try not to look down at your feet. As in all surfing, you want to look forward to where you are headed (or back over your shoulder for a cutback). Keep the knees bent and the upper body upright and lose. There is a tendency to bend over at the waist which then sends the surfer’s weight distribution forward causing the board to pitch or pearl. Practice stepping over once and then back again over and over so that balancing on one foot becomes familiar. Then in time, add more cross-over steps so that you end up with both feet at the front 12 inches of the board, weight leaning back on the board, and knees bent. If you look down at the nose or over the nose, your body will follow, so keep the shoulders back and eyes forward. Practice cross-stepping on land frequently so that it feels second nature. Usually, going backwards is harder than going forwards, so land practice will help tremendously with cross-stepping back to the center of the board. Timing when to cross-step to the nose is also crucial and scary at the same time. You want to start “running” to the nose off the bottom turn when you have the most speed and lock into the nose-riding position at the top of the wave as you are gliding down the line. As you start to lose speed and drop back down into the wave, you will want to cross-step back to the center (or tail) of the board to set up for another bottom turn, gain speed and start the stylized dance all over again. Also keep in mind that board selection and fin set-up play a large roll in successful nose-riding.