Lying and Balancing
To start surfing you need to catch waves. To catch waves you need to paddle. And to paddle you need to lie and balance on your surfboard.
If you put any surfboard on calm flat water the board would float in the same way every time. When you lie on your surfboard, on your stomach, the aim is to have the board float you in exactly the same way, relative to the surface of the water, as it was floating without you on top of it.
With you lying on top of it, the board will off course sink a few inches lower in the water. However, if you’re lying in the right place, the board will be floating at the same flat angle, relative to the water’s surface, as it was floating without you on top of it.
Most beginners make the mistake of lying too far back on the board. You’ll notice that if you float your board in calm water, without lying on top of it, the board’s nose (front end) will be at a certain angle, relative to the water’s surface.
When you lie on the board, make sure that the angle of the board’s nose, relative to the surface of the water, doesn’t change. The nose should not be sticking up into the air more than it did when you weren’t on top of the board.
The board needs to be flat on the water so that you can glide over the water with minimum resistance. If you’re lying too far back the board’s nose will stick up into the air, which means the tail (back end) of your board is pushing against the water in front it.
Putting too much weight on the back of your board is called corking, because the board’s nose is sticking up like a cork floating in water. Like I said, corking is a common mistake amongst beginners. You will paddle slow and not catch any waves if your board is corking.
You don’t want to lie too far forward either. Lying too far forward will make the board’s nose dig into the water. That’s called pearling. Move slightly back on the board to avoid scooping water with your board’s nose.
While lying on the board, move around slowly, until the board lies naturally flat in the water.
Find this balance point and, while lying on your board, take a mental note of your position. You can mark your position with a permanent marker or a sticker if that helps. Use this as a reference point to make sure that you’re always lying in the same place on the board.
We’ll get to board sizes later on in this guide, but as a general rule, for beginners on a beginner sized board, your toes should be touching the tail of the board.
If you are properly balanced you will have minimum drag through the water as you paddle. This is what you need to generate maximum speed. And you’ll need maximum speed to catch waves!
Paddling and Catching Waves
Do not paddle with both arms simultaneously. This will cause the board to speed up and slow down in the water and you won’t maintain a constant speed.
Always paddle with a crawl stroke. First one arm and then the other, alternating between both arms at a steady pace. This will give you a constant speed and you’ll maintain momentum. Which is good for catching waves.
When paddling keep your chin up so that you can look around. You’ll need to paddle toward the beach and look ahead as you’re paddling to catch a wave, but you’ll also need to glance around and look back at the wave to check that you’ll catch it at the right moment. While paddling keep your feet together and push your sternum (chest bone) into the board. The aim is to pivot the board on your sternum while paddling.
To catch an unbroken wave you need to be paddling at the same speed as the wave is travelling. And bigger waves travel faster. So try not to surf the biggest waves you can find if you’re still learning. You probably won’t catch them. If there are more advanced surfers in the water and the waves look too big, rather watch and learn. Don’t go and get in their way.
If you’re a total beginner, it’s best to learn by first catching a few broken waves. Catching a foamie or whitewash is relatively easy. Lie on your board with the nose pointing straight to the beach and paddle until the wave catches up with you and starts pushing you toward the beach.
Catching an unbroken wave is more difficult. You need to be in right place. If you’re too far out the wave will pass underneath you. It won’t be steep enough for you to push yourself down the face. However, if you’re too close to the beach the wave will break on top of you.
To be able to accurately judge when to catch a wave requires some experience. You need to sit and wait in the right spot and start paddling at the right time. In the beginning you’ll miss most waves and some waves will break on top of you. But eventually you’ll be able to judge in advance exactly where the wave will break. This will enable you to start paddling at the right time, not too late, not too early, and you’ll catch the wave at just the right moment. Before it’s broken, but after it’s become steep enough for you to slide down the wave-face.
When trying to catch an unbroken wave, never stop paddling. It’s a common beginner’s mistake to stop paddling too early and try to stand up before actually riding the wave.
To catch a wave you need to be sliding down the face of the wave. You’ll feel when this happening, it’s a very distinctive feeling. Do not try and stand up before you feel yourself sliding down the face.
Once you’re familiar with the feeling of catching a wave and sliding down the face, the aim is to actually to stand up just before that happens. You want to stand up at the precise moment when you’ve caught the wave, but just before you start sliding down the wave face.
Learning to Stand Up
As you’re riding the wave place your hands underneath your shoulders, palms down, as if you were going to do a push-up. Lift your shoulders by pushing on the board until your arms are almost straight. Note however that you are not doing a full push-up. Your back should curved with your legs still lying almost flat on the board.
Now comes the tricky part.
Ideally you need to ‘sweep’ your feet in underneath your body, in one smooth movement, as you push your shoulders up. But that can be difficult for beginners. If you can’t do it one movement, break it down into parts, but always remember that eventually your aim is to do a ‘Pop-Up’, in one smooth motion. Breaking it down into parts must only be a intermediary step, until you’re actually doing a smooth pop-up.
If you need to break this into parts, avoid using your elbows on the surfboard. Always start with your hands firmly underneath your shoulders. NEVER use your elbows.
Avoid using your knees. After you’ve pushed your shoulders up and your arms are straight, bring your back foot slightly forward and step it onto the board. Then use your back foot to push yourself forward and up, stepping your front up between your hands.
Turn your hips so that you are aligned with the stringer (the line running down the middle of your surfboard) and only AFTER you’ve turned your hips let go with your hands and stand up fully. Do not let go with your hands before you’ve turned your hips. It is a common beginners’ mistake to try and turn the hips after standing up. If you do this, nine times out of ten, you will lose your balance and fall.
Once your standing make sure your feet are on the stringer, toes on one side, heel on the other. Your back foot should be at a 90 degree angle to the stringer while the front should be at a 45 degree angle. Your back foot should be somewhere near where the board’s fins are (underneath the board) while your front foot should be roughly half-way to two-thirds up the board.
However, if you’re surfing a much bigger beginners board you should be standing slightly further forward, roughly in the middle of the board.
Your weight should be centred along the stringer. As if you’re balancing sideways on a tight-rope.
Remember to keep your body low. ALWAYS bend your knees. If you stand up straight you will fall. Your feet should be at least shoulder-width apart, but preferably slightly wider than that, and allow your knees to bend inward.
Keep your arms relaxed, but keep them up for balance. Keep your upper body relaxed, but do not slouch. Your muscles need to be relaxed, but alert. Keep your front hand within your line of sight and always look up! If you look at your feet you will fall down!
Your First Surfboard
Nothing is more important to the beginner than choosing the right board to learn with. Small professional boards look cool and exciting, but you won’t master the basics of surfing on a board like that.
Your first board should be cheap. While learning how to surf you’re going to ding and scratch your board. So don’t spend too much on your first board.
Don’t worry too much about smaller details like tail shape or the number of fins on your surfboard, these won’t matter too much for learning the basics.
All that really matters with your first board is its volume relative to your weight. More volume equals better flotation and you need something that will float you easily, to quickly learn the basics of paddling, catching waves and riding them. However, avoid getting a board that is huge. 9ft to 10ft longboards can be easy to stand up on, but they’re difficult to handle on your own in the water.
Ideally you want a board that is about the same length as you would be if you stretched your arms out above your head. For a average person that would mean a 7ft to 8ft board. Look for a board that is thick and wide. Thickness adds a lot of volume, which makes paddling easier, while a wider board will be more stable, making it easier to balance.
Riding a Wave
Once you’ve learned how to paddle, how to catch a wave, and how to stand up on a surfboard, it’s time to focus on wave riding.
At first you will have to ride whitewash waves straight to the beach. Learning to surf straight in the foam should be your first priority. However, eventually the aim is to ride on the unbroken face of the wave, not in the foam. While paddling, just before catching an unbroken wave, angle your board along the open face, going either left or right, and ride the wave at an angle, almost parallel to the beach. This is called surfing down the line, as you’re literally riding down the line of swell as it forms into a breaking wave. This way you’ll get the longest ride possible with the greatest amount of speed.
Wave riding begins before you catch the wave. You should decide which direction (right or left) you will ride as you begin paddling for an oncoming wave. Understanding and predicting waves will come with time.
Remember to bend your knees and look in the direction you want to go.
To generate maximum speed you will need to surf in the most critical part of the wave.
The most critical part of the wave is there where the wave face is steepest. That’s where the wave is about to break into a whitewash, but hasn’t actually broken yet. That’s where you will want to surf because that’s where you’ll have most fun!
You don’t want to surf in the foam as it’s not possible to generate much speed in the whitewash. Surf away from the foam. However, don’t surf too far down the line, too far away from the foam, because you’ll also surf away from the critical part of the wave. This will cause you to lose speed and also lose the wave.
On flatter waves more suited for beginners, you’ll have to alternate between surfing down the line and straight to the beach, in order to stay in the critical part of the wave.
If you keep surfing down the line only, pretty soon the wave will pass underneath you and you will go over the back. If you only surf straight the wave will run away from you and you’ll end up stuck in the foam.
You’ll need to turn your board in order to stay on the wave, alternating between going up the wave face, as if you’re going over the wave, and down the wave face, as if you’re going straight to the beach. This is how advanced surfers generate speed, by surfing top-to-bottom.
Turning the Board
Once you’re up, riding a wave is all about turning the board.
The technique of turning the surfboard is relatively simple. While keeping a low centre of gravity (bending your knees) lightly lean your weight in the direction you want to go, but always try to keep your body centred over the midpoint of your board. This will push the rail of the surfboard into the water and create a keel effect, cutting into the water and directing the board in that direction.
Turning a surfboard starts with your eyes. Wherever you direct your eyes your body, and eventually your board, will follow. So look at where you want to go.
It’s important to remember that for beginners turning a surfboard is a very slow process. There are no fast turns, not until you’ve progressed to surfing a much smaller board and bigger, more powerful waves.
Lean into your turn and keep it there. It will probably take a few seconds before the board starts turning with you.
Don’t wiggle your body. This will not help you turn the board. You need to lean your entire bodyweight in one direction for a sustained period before the board will follow your weight.
Once you’re cruising down the line, turning easily, you’ll want to surf the best waves possible! But finding those waves can be tricky. You’ll need to understand where they come from.