What are we waiting for?
Let’s head out!
Hold on a second there, buddy. Before you jump in you would be wise to think about the conditions in the waters. Going surfing at the wrong time and place could mean you are in for a very boring and difficult session, and in worst case, a potentially dangerous one. We’ll touch upon the perils of surfing later on.
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.
People are not the only hazard in surfing. Find out what else to look out for here.