Learning to Surf

A short tutorial on a long subject


We were friends who rode the waves.
The time we spent in our younger days,
    was all in fun.
Oh the good times that we had!
--Keola and Kapono Beamer

Table of Contents


Equipment.

Luckily, we're not as equipment-heavy as, say, skiing or windsurfing. You're going to need:

A board.

A used board is generally your best bet when starting out. Chances are good that you're going to ding it up just carrying it around. There are different types of surfboards.

Something to wear.

Hopefully this is nothing more than a bathing suit. But if its necessary, and you can afford it, a new wetsuit can be a pretty good investment. See the upcoming FAQ on wetsuits for recommendations.

[Mary Ann Davidson / madavids@us.oracle.com / adds this tip]

As a hard core surfette, I would add to your FAQ for the gals interested in surfing - stick to one piece suits when starting to surf, unless wearing a wetsuit (in which case it doesn't matter.) You can quite easily find yourself wearing a one piece suit after a wipeout if you insist on wearing a two piece suit as a novice.

A leash.

Once upon a time, boards had no leashes. If you lost your board, you swam to shore. Only the best surfers could venture out to some breaks because losing your board could mean the destruction of you or your board. Surfers were stronger swimmers and more all-around watermen. It also meant that there were loose boards flying all over the place at some breaks.

For good or ill, those days are gone. Just a word of advice for the beginner: Treat your leash as if it were not there. Do not rely on it to always bring your board back to you. If the section you're riding starts getting gnarly, pretend you're going to have to swim to shore if you bail.

Some wax.

You can usually wheedle wax out of a surfshop owner if you buy anything there. Some surfers pride themselves on never having bought a bar of wax. If the deck of your board has some form of traction pad, you might not need the wax.

Sunblock.

For those surfers living in areas other than Seattle or England, sunblock is often necessary - the net.wisdom on this is Bullfrog, with Aloe Gator also getting favorable reviews.
Most of these can be found at your friendly neighborhood surfshop.

Finding a Partner.

IMHO, one of the most important things to have in learning to surf is someone to surf with. Aside from the obvious safety reasons (it cuts your chances of being eaten by a shark in half :-) ) a partner will give you moral support, keep you stoked when you get frustrated, keep you from sleeping in when its good, talk you into paddling out when its big, and mostly be a friend.

There are two schools of thought here:

  1. Find someone good to teach you to surf. and
  2. Find someone else who wants to learn and teach each other.

I subscribe to the second approach, because that's how I learned and because when one person is better than the other, someone is usually not having a very fun session. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy teaching people. But if its cranking on the outside, either I'm gonna be bored on the inside with the beginner, or he's gonna be in over his head on the outside.

[Ken Strayhorn Jr. / kes@acpub.duke.edu / accurately adds:]

Your friend you must choose carefully. He will become your brah, and over time will mean more than anyone else on this planet. Besides surfing, you will drink copious amounts of beer, smoke pounds of pot, and chase boxcar loads of women together. You will lend each other money when times are tight. You will never ask each other for gas cash. You will inform him when his ass crack is showing over his pants. If he doesn't like the woman you are seeing you will drop her like a hot rock. Conversely, if your new woman thinks your brah is a jerk, that's a sign that she's a bozo and should be avoided.

Boards and wetsuits will be shared. You will hoot for each other on fine days. You will badmouth anyone who drops in on him. People will come to view you as a team. Surf nazis will avoid you because they know that to fight one of you is to fight both of you.

And, years later when you are 40 years old and you and your brah are sitting on a break somewhere listening to the younger guys yacking it up, you will smile and know deep in your soul that there is nothing finer than surfing and the people you do it with.


Finding a Place to Surf

Go to your nearest surf shop and ask people where a good break to learn is. Be honest about your abilities, surfers are a pretty friendly lot. Also, watch for the upcoming FAQ - "Where can I learn to surf without being killed, beaten, or eaten?"

Before Paddling Out

Sit and watch the surf for a while. Watch what people are doing. Where is everybody sitting, where do they paddle out. Where do the waves break? As waves get bigger they break further out, so if everyone is sitting farther out than where the waves are currently breaking, it means that there are bigger sets coming. Watch for them.

Stretch. While you're watching the break, stretch your arms and back. Limber up.


Getting in the Water

You've noted where other people head out. Wax your stick and head down to that spot. Put your leash on. (Digression: Decide whether you're going to be a regular-foot (left foot forward) or a goofy-foot. Try both while standing on shore and see what feels better.) Put your leash on your back leg. Walk your board out until the water is about waist deep and hop on. Position yourself on the board so that the nose is just barely (2-3") out of the water. Too little and you'll be going under, too much and you'll wear yourself out pushing water.

Paddling Out

Go for nice, even, alternating strokes. When you have to get through the whitewater get up some speed and then either:

Duck Diving

[By Morgan Perry / mpperry@u.washington.edu ]
I have found a few things most helpful in my duck-diving:
  1. Try to have some forward momentum before you give up paddling to begin pressing your board down. This provides some counter to the force of the wave in the direction of shore. Even if it is just a couple of strokes before the angry whiteness consumes you, you will come out further than a couple of strokes ahead of where you would have it you had not gotten going forward.
  2. Push your board as deeply under as possible. The more of your body that you get above water quickly will result in getting the board deeper under. Sometimes I even tilt my board to the side in the water so that there is less resistance to it going down. Some people use only their arms and their knee(s) to push the board down. I like using the ball of one of my foot instead and to raise the other one high to provide more weight on the board.
  3. Immediately before the surf subsumes you, pull yourself down to the board and angle the board slightly up to the perceived other side of the break. Too much angle and the nose of the board will catch the break and push you backwards. Not enough and the back of the board will be caught in the suction of the wave as it rushes by you and it won't help pull you through. If you have the right upward angle, and your hands are toward the front of the board, probably about where you press up from, you can thrust the board to the other side of the wave and it will help pull you through.
A key is *not* to stay under for as long as possible, just to start deep and shoot up as far on the other side of the turbulence as possible. The sooner you get back up the surface and balanced on your board, the sooner you are able to start paddling again... and that's the only way you really get outside anyway.

The Line-up

Once you get to where people are sitting around (in the water, if they're on the beach, you've been paddling the wrong way :-) ) sit back and take it easy for awhile. Watch what others are doing. A nice gesture is to say hello to the others in the water. This lets them know that you acknowledge their existance and will not run them over or drop in on them. Don't be chatty though. A simple "Hello", "Howzit", "G'Day" or li'dat is fine.

Catching a Wave

This is the first of many hurdles in learning to surf. The wave knowledge - knowing which wave to paddle for and which to let pass, and the timing - when to start paddling, how fast, how much to arch your back, and when to get to your feet, are things that no one can teach you. They will come with time spent surfing.

One tip I will offer: when trying to stand up, stand up. Don't get to your knees first, that leads to kneeboarding (A curable illness).

[That said, Clark Quinn / cnquinn@cs.unsw.oz.au / graciously offers these tips:]

  1. Don't go to the most crowded/famous. Start at a mellow beach. Gentle waves. Sand bottom. Broad sand beach. You can't run before you walk.
  2. Paddle out, and try to catch the whitewater in while riding on your belly. (If you've body-boarded or body-surfed before, skip to step 5) You may have to adjust how far forward/back you lay on the board. You want about an inch of room between the nose of the board and the surface of the water. You'll need to be paddling in and have the wave catch you and push you even faster in the same direction. Stay on the board as you zoom towards shore. Steps 2-4 may best be accomplished on a mat or a boogie board or something else easy to get "wave knowledge".
  3. Once you can reliably pick a wave and catch it, start trying to angle this way and that under control. Try going both ways, left and right.
  4. When you can zoom back and forth at will, you're ready for a bigger step. Take a wave right before/where it's breaking, and ride it while turning to keep right at where the wave is breaking. Figuring out just where to paddle to so as to catch the wave at the right spot is a major part of the game.
  5. When you can catch waves reliably, you're going to want to try riding them standing up. Paddle and let the white water catch you. As soon as you're moving, jump to your feet. This is difficult. It's really worth it to practice the jumping from prone to your feet on land first and get it well-rehearsed before doing it on a moving board on the water. Foot placement is crucial. You'll want your back foot near the tail of the board and your front foot somewhere in front of that, near the middle of the board, say. Look at other surfers. Practice on a rough template of the board on the ground. Ride the wave in. Depending on the size of the board either balance on it (bigger) or move it to stay underneath you (smaller).
  6. Once you can reliably get up, you want to start angling while riding the white water. Both ways, zooming back and forth under control.
  7. Once you can do that, move to catching the wave right where it is breaking. This will get trickier, because you'll have a more vertical take off point and the board will have a tendency to sink the nose as you go down the face of the wave. You want to catch the wave by angling in the direction the wave is breaking.
I'm not sure 2-4 are necessary (certainly not for someone who's been in the ocean on other things, but probably are a good safety precaution.

The Rules

Surfing tends to be pretty free form but there are certain accepted rules, mostly based on safety and common sense.

Wave Ownership (The My Wave Rule)

The person closest to the breaking part of the wave has the right of way.

Caveat: If someone is up and riding, paddling into the wave behind them does not give you the wave.

Also note: In many low-key breaks, the first person paddling for the wave owns it. Do not expect this to apply in crowded conditions.

Dropping In (The Thou Shalt Not Rule)

Dropping in is taking off on a wave in front of someone who is already up and riding. Don't do this. Ever. No exceptions.

Paddling Out (The Eat It Rule)

When paddling out, if you must get over a wave that someone is riding, paddle behind them (On the white water side). This generally means getting stuffed for the sake of someone else's ride. Take comfort in the hope that they would do the same for you. Do not paddle in front of someone unless you are so sure that you will be 20 feet in front of them that you are willing to bet the well-being of your board/car/nose on it.

A Final Suggestion

About 8 or 10 months after I started surfing I happened to write a little note on my blotter-style desk calendar:
	June 9, 1984:	Surfed 3s, good day
As the months went by I continued making little notations. I kept the calendars, year after year. Now, I have a decade's worth of blotter calendars stacked on my desk. Just looking at the notes can sometimes bring back the session in vivid detail. I usually would note the surf heights and who I surfed with.

If you've got a calendar, give it a shot. Years from now, if you somehow find yourself far from surf, you'll look back on some classic times spent with great people and say "Eh, mahalo Chrispy, shaka brah".


Acknowledgements

Author: Chris Payne
bruddah_chrispy@yahoo.com

Suggestions and comments are welcome!

Contributors to this FAQ: