It’s 5:30am and your shredder buddies have egged you on for a week to go hit dawn patrol with them. Against all your leanings toward preservation-of-life, you succumb to the longing desire to rip like them and agree to meet them at their favorite spot. Though the water is warm, the crisp air cuts through your hoodie and flip flops and has you cupping your coffee for comfort. Johnny Ripsalot says he brought a spare stick for you, and as he pulls it out of the wagon, it’s about 3 feet too short and looks like it would fold in half just sitting on it. Now, with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, you sling the cobwebbed shortboard under your arm and trail the boys down the stairs to the damp, gritty sand. Within seconds, they’ve dipped under 3 waves and have pulled effortlessly 50 yards ahead. The first wave lets you wade through it, the second knocks you off your feet, the third sends you right back to the sand. After 20 minutes of battling the relentless whitewash, you finally make it out to the lineup with nothing left in your tank, and no idea how to sit, let alone stand on this tiny chunk of foam and fiberglass. Once you’ve rested another solid 20 minutes, a dark line looms on the horizon and the rest of the pack churn up a wake paddling out to meet the oncoming set. Still exhausted and absolutely terrified, you turn frantically for shore. The first wave smacks you right in the back pitching you awkwardly out in front of the wave. Before you can even get your knees under you, the board squirts off to the side and you face plant, tumbling all the way to the shore gasping for air.
As brutal as it sounds, this resembles many of our first-time surfer’s experiences and turns many people away from continuing on as beginner surfer. If we know anything, knowledge is key to a successful start in riding waves. So here’s some, from us, to you.
Surfing is often regarded as the most difficult discipline of the boardsports. In snowboarding, you have a lift to get you to the “peak.” In wakeboarding, there’s the boat to tow you along. In skating, you’re on solid ground. But surfing? You’re essentially army crawling across a football field, hitching a ride from an avalanche, then trying to get to your feet. Surfing is an art form, and much like Kung Fu, it’s never fully mastered. To get anywhere close to good, we need to start humbly at the beginning and learn the basics.
We may not be experts at elite level surfing, but what we are experts on, and can definitely teach, are the essentials for learning how to surf. We’ve all been there and earned our stripes just like the experience we read above. We can help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made! So here are our essentials for learning to surf as a beginner.
Being unprepared can create a variety of hardships long before your fingertips skim the surface. Most surfers make a half dozen trips to the surf shop before they feel fully outfitted for a surf sesh. Here’s what you’ll need:Board selection - Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. If you’re new to surfing, get a second-hand longboard(or competitively priced new longboard ;) that’s roughly 3 feet taller than your height. Our shop, Craigslist, OfferUp, Facebook Exchange, or your buddy that has a surfboard hoarding problem, are all great sources for finding a great beginner board. Bring a knowledgeable friend who you’ve seen ride a variety of board lengths. They’ll keep the seller honest and be able to confirm that the board is a good fit for you.
The essentials - Leash, fins, wax and sunblock. Once you have the right board and have sorted out how you’re getting it to and from your favorite wave, these are your must-have items that will stay stocked in your surf wagon, always. If you picked your board up without fins, check with a local shop and have them outfit the board appropriately.
Observation - Before sprinting blindly into the water, take a step back and watch the break. Where are people paddling out? When? Which way is the current moving? Will the tide create barriers for coming back in? Are there any hazards to avoid? Where is the pack sitting? Where are they taking off on the wave? How long are the intervals between waves? How long are the lulls between sets? All of these are crucial pieces of information that, when ignored, make your life a LOT more difficult!
Timing the paddle out- Patience is a gamechanger. In the opening scene, though trailing his buddies, as a beginner, he still just jumped the gun. Enter the water as a set approaches and wade as deep as you can go while still keeping solid footing. Jump on your board and start paddling as the last set wave passes you by. This lets you paddle during a lull, when there’s a break in the onslaught of oncoming waves.
Balanced positioning - Now that you’re atop your board and are frantically scratching for the lineup, slow down. Technique is key. The nose of your board should be just slightly above your tail on the surface of the water. On a longboard this is much more apparent. The tail will be right at the water line with the nose tip lifting just slightly out of the water by an inch or two. For smaller boards the tail may be an inch or two below the water, the nose just breaking the surface. Your eyes should be directly over the center of the stringer (center line running nose to tail) when you look down at the board, your feet together, on either side, using your toes in the wax if you need extra stability.
Centric-based paddling - Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Exaggerated lateral movement when over-paddling quickly reduces paddle speed and takes up extra energy. Focus on keeping your head steady, core tight, and shoulders level when paddling your board. The best in the world make paddling look effortless because they use as little energy as possible to gain the greatest distance and quickest speed by keeping everything but their arms still and centered on the stringer of their board.
When to paddle and when to wait - The next biggest shoulder burner to the paddle out, is paddling too quick, too early when you’re going for a wave. Sit closest to the surfer getting the most waves, there’s a reason they’re there. Sit just off the shoulder (away from the breaking lip of the wave.) Once the wave is close enough to challenge your confidence in spinning and paddling to catch it on time, it’s time to do exactly that. Spin the direction that keeps your eyes on the cresting lip so that you can see it coming. Start your stroke at 60-75% power and kick it into full sprint as you feel your tail begin to lift and the wave tilt your nose downward.
Check your surroundings - Before you fully commit to the wave you’ve paddled for, pretend you’re crossing the street. Look towards the cresting lip of the wave; look towards the unbroken shoulder. As you do this split second scan, look ahead to where you’re headed. Your goal is to make sure that you’re not dropping in on somebody that’s closer to the crest/curl, not going to run into anybody or anything in front of you, and that you’re not going to run into somebody trying to catch the wave on the shoulder that might fall in front of you.
SurfingThe popup - Now that you’ve done ALL of the work to get into this first wave, let’s get you to your feet. Once the wave miraculously pushes you out in front and you’re zooming along on your belly, again, slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Keeping your movements as compact as possible, bring your palms to your lower ribs, face down on the deck, not gripping the rails. Extend your arms and raise your hips like a pushup, keeping your butt as low as possible. Smoothly bring your front foot under and through. Plant your foot just behind your palms, and rotate your hips open, staying low, turning and planting your back heel and front foot at the same time. That’s a lot to remember. Practice on the sand!
Stance and balance - Once you’re up, keep your body low, shoulders over toes, feet just outside your shoulder width. Your knees should align with your inside ankle bones. Even longboards (with the exception of wavestorms) are fairly responsive to your movements. Make them slowly and in small increments. If you were well balanced while paddling, your stance should be just behind mid-point. Too far forward and you’ll either dig the nose on the takeoff (“pearl”) or be unable to turn the board. Too far back and you’ll either fall out of the back of the wave or tip over due to lack of balance.
Going straight - For your first session or two, getting to your feet will be enough to write home about! Surfing straight towards the beach for anything longer than mere seconds is an accomplishment. Small shifts in your weight from toe to heel will keep your nose pointed towards the beach. You can practice changing slight pressure from your toes to heels to begin making shallow rail to rail turns while going straight. You’re going to need this in a moment!
The bottom turn - Now that you’ve practiced your popups, going straight, and making heel to toe transfers, let’s get you moving along the face. As you get to your feet and set your stance, still pointing towards land, shift your feet back towards the tail another 6 inches, adjust your weight just slightly (either towards your heels or toes) in the direction away from the breaking wave. Bring your stance back to even heel/toe pressure once the board is moving parallel to the wave line, what we call “down the line.” This takes practice and your first few tries may cause you to dig rail if your stance is too far forward, or kick out the back if you overshoot your turn.
The top turn - Once you’ve made your bottom turn, a top turn is a redirection or correction to end the bottom turn and return the balance of the board to even heel and toe pressure. Once you’ve slowly swung the nose of your board around to parallel with the line of the wave, a gentle shift of your weight from the “uphill” side of the stringer, to the “downhill” side, will bring the nose back the other way, eventually back towards the beach. Balancing and linking top and bottom turns together is how you move “down the line.” The closer you are to the tail of your board, the easier it will be to turn. As you get better at riding your longboard, you’ll move from tail to nose depending on what you need the board to do.
Kicking out/bailing - You’ve probably already learned how to wipe out, unintentionally ending your ride. Surfboards don’t necessarily come with brakes! But there’s a way to end your wave intentionally and there’s a right way to do it. If your wave is ending or you want to exit the face over the shoulder, make sure your path is clear and shift your weight to the “uphill” side of the stringer. If you’re facing the wave, that’s your toes, away, your heels. Instead of redirecting with a top turn, continue to hold slight pressure uphill and over the back of the wave, falling away from the tail of your board (off the back.) To bail a broken/closed out wave. Make sure your path is clear, the water is deep enough, and fall back, away from the board, butt first (land on your best padding!)
That’s the basics! The rest of surfing is really just linking together this sequence of events. All the high flying acrobatics, deep face gouges, noserides and barrels are products of the top turn, the bottom turn, and adjusting your positioning up and down the length of the board to adjust for speed and control. Once you get cozy with these skills on your beginner board, we’ll show you how to pick out your not-so-beginner board!
With these key ingredients, you’re entering the water, and your journey into becoming a surfer, with the essential knowledge needed to make it fun and exciting without all the headaches we’ve encountered along the way. Be patient, vigilant, and steadfast in your quest to master your beginner skills. It will take time. Most of all, have a blast! There’s a reason we’re all still absolutely hooked on this gig. We’ll see ya at the local spot, eyes scanning, planning your session just like us, stoked and psyched to paddle out!
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