Understand Surfing

understand surfing 01

There are as many different ways to surf as there are surfers in the water. Surfing means something different to every surfer. For some it’s a hobby and for others it’s their entire lifestyle.

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But we all started surfing because it’s fun!

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Surfing is relatively accessible. Getting to the beach can sometimes be the only hassle. But once you’re there, you can surf as many waves as you want!

All you need is a surfboard and nature will provide the rest. You don’t need a track, fences or chalk lines.

Surfing is about freedom! It’s about playing with nature, the ultimate team-mate and the best teacher.

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Surfing isn’t easy. Developing real surfing skills can take a while and there are many levels of improvement. Becoming an advanced surfer, riding serious waves, can take many years.

But learning the basics is quite easy! Anyone can have fun with their first time surfing!

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With some professional Surf Lessons, most people will learn to ride a broken wave (called a foamie or a whitewash) within a matter of hours.

The best way to learn surfing is to start with some good advice and then get out there and just do it!

It’s a good idea to book a Surf Lesson, go on a Surf Trip or find a friendly surfer willing to help you learn the basics. You’ll save yourself a lot of hassle by learning from someone with experience.

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The Basics of Surfing

Lying and balancing on a surfboard

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.

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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 on a surfboard 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.

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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.

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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.

“POP-UP!” Learning to stand up on your board

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Understanding Waves

The ocean is always changing and there are various factors that give shape to waves. Great waves are miracles of nature as there are so many different factors that need to be just perfect for excellent waves to form.

Every surf spot is different, and generalising is difficult, but there are four main factors that you’ll always have to consider at every surf spot.

Swell, Wind, Tides and the Contour of the Ocean Floor / Shape of the Shoreline

SWELL

As winds blow over the surface of the ocean, friction between air and water transfers energy from the wind into the ocean. This is how swell is generated.

To visualise this, take a deep breath exhale over a flat surface of water in a small container. Ripples will form. These ripples are the origin of all swell.

Generally speaking if a wind blows at a speed of 100 km/h, over a distance of 100 km, without changing direction, the swell generated would be one meter high. It is not only the strength (speed) of the wind but also its consistency that matters. In order to form swell, a wind cannot change direction erratically. If it does, the energy transferred into the ocean will be moving in different directions and there will be no continuous swell build-up.

Big swells are generated by strong winds, usually storm systems, far out in the open ocean. Sometimes thousands of kilometres from the shore. This type of swell is called ground-swell. Because the swell is bigger and formed further away, it has spent more time interacting with the ocean floor. Hence the name ‘ground’ swell.

Swell can also be formed by winds closer to shore. This type of swell is called wind-swell and it’s usually smaller and less consistent.

The names should not cause confusion, as all swell, both ground-swell and wind-swell, is ultimately formed by wind.

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Swell Direction

Swell direction is vitally important because a certain spot will always produce the best waves with a certain swell direction. Some spots work on different swell directions, but there will always be an optimal scenario that is almost guaranteed to produce good waves.

As with wind, swell is named for its point of origin. An easterly swell originates from the east. To surf the best waves possible you need to know how different swell directions impact upon a particular surf spot. But there’s no formula to calculate this with. Experience and local knowledge is the only way of knowing which swell direction works best for a particular spot.

When you surf good waves, find out what kind of swell produced those waves and make a mental note. Observe the spot over time and speak to the locals.

Swell Height & Period

It’s good to know how big the waves are going to be. Some surf spots become un-surfable above a certain size while other spots need a minimum size to start producing waves.

Swell height is either measured in feet or metres and swell period in seconds. Swell height measures the height of one swell, from top to bottom, (trough to crest) while the period of a swell is the amount of time that passes between consecutive swells. These measurements come from offshore buoys and are usually given as averages.

Both these numbers are important when judging the eventual quality of waves at any particular surf spot. Swell size is relatively straight forward. A bigger swell means bigger waves.

Swell period is a little more complex.

Simply put, swell with a longer period has travelled further to reach shore. Not only that, but as swells travel through the ocean they line up. Meaning that swell with a longer period will come in long straight lines. Such organised swells travelling together in straight lines usually mean better waves.

As always, experience is key. Observe a spot over time and speak to the locals. This way you will learn to judge the eventual size of the waves based upon a simple forecast.

WIND

As explained earlier swell is generated by wind. But this happens far from shore.

A good swell however does not always guarantee good waves. Good waves require favourable local winds, the wind blowing at the surf spot where the swells break to form surfing waves.

Here a sharp distinction is made between offshore and onshore winds.

If you are standing on the beach, facing the ocean, and the wind is blowing into your face, it is an onshore wind. The wind is blowing from the ocean onto the shore. An onshore wind is almost always bad for waves. It makes the waves choppy and messy. Instead of breaking cleanly, breaking swells begin to crumble and become flat. Onshore winds blow from behind the oncoming swell thereby pushing them down.

Onshore winds aren’t too bad if you’re still learning, but for advanced surfers onshore wind is almost never favourable.

What you want is ‘clean’ surf. Clean waves are fanned by light offshore wind, or no wind at all. Offshore wind blow from the shore onto the ocean.

When the wind is offshore, or there is no wind at all, waves are smooth and without any bumps or chop, which makes for a good smooth ride. Light offshore winds, winds that blow into the oncoming waves, groom waves by lightly holding them up before they break. Light offshore winds are great for surfing!

Strong offshore winds can also easily spoil waves. Certain spots, and big strong swell, can handle a lot of offshore wind, while other spots, and small swell, cannot handle any wind at all.

Also some spots are sheltered from certain local winds, which is good if the wind would otherwise spoil the waves.

Winds that aren’t directly off- or onshore are usually referred to as cross-shore winds. This can be great for windsurfing or kite surfing, but only rarely does a cross-shore wind increase the quality of the waves for surfing. If a cross-shore wind is anything more than a light breeze, chances are it will spoil the waves somewhat.

TIDES

Tides are an important factor in the perfect wave equation. The quality, speed, size and very existence of a wave will sometimes depend entirely on local tides. For this reason it is important to factor in the tide cycle to predict good waves at any particular surf spot.

Some spots work better on high tide and others on low tide. Some spots work better on a pushing tide while others work better while the tide is going out. Some spots only work on a spring low or spring high, when the moon is full or new.

It all depends on the interaction between the tidal cycle and the bottom contours of the shoreline. Again local knowledge and observation is absolutely crucial! At some spots good waves will completely disappear with a certain tide.

Basically tides affect the depth of the water. This will either hide or expose the ocean floor, and ultimately it is the ocean floor’s contours that make swells break into ridable waves.

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CONTOUR OF THE OCEAN FLOOR / SHAPE OF THE SHORELINE

Swells break to form ridable waves when the water through which the swell is travelling becomes too shallow to accommodate the energy of the swell.

Swells rise above the surface of the water once their energy is pushed up by the ocean floor in shallower water. Only when swells ‘break’ are ridable surfing waves formed.

As the energy of a swell is pushed further and further above the surface of the water a ‘water-structure’ is formed. These are usually visible as an unbroken swell lines travelling towards the shore. As the water gets shallower, the swell line becomes more visible as the water structure is pushed higher above the surface.

Tension starts building.

Swells ‘break’ when the built up tension becomes too much for the water structure to handle. At that moment the water structure of the swell will collapse in on itself, forming a breaking wave.

Generally swells break to form waves when they reach a depth of one-and-a-half times their own size. A two-metre swell will start breaking in three metres of water.

The shape of a wave, and the way it breaks, is largely dependent upon the contour of the ocean floor. If the water changes depth suddenly, waves will break suddenly, causing a very hollow and sometimes dangerous wave.

If the water changes depth gradually, waves will break gradually and gently. These are usually the best spots for beginners. As you gain experience you will be able to tell a lot about the ocean floor by simply looking at the waves.

The contour of the ocean floor also determines whether a wave will break left, right or all at once, which is a close-out. Swell direction can also impact this, but for the most part, if the water depth does not change at an angle, relative to the incoming swell, a wave will close-out, meaning that the entire swell will break all at the same time. This is not ideal for surfing.

To properly surf a wave down the line you need a wave that breaks a little bit a time. This will either happen from left to right or vice versa, from right to left.

Depending upon the composition of the ocean floor and the shoreline in general, surf spots can be broken down into three broad categories.

Beach Breaks

These waves break over a sandy bottom, generally within about 100 meters or less from the shoreline.

Waves at beach breaks can change overnight. It all depends on the shifting sand banks. Currents, storms, tidal effects and even man-made structures can affect sand-banks.

Beach breaks can sometimes be very fickle and inconsistent. Waves will not always break in the same place, day in and day out, because sand moves around easily. However, beach breaks are generally the safest for beginners because there are no rocks and waves break closer to shore.

That being said there are some spots where sand-banks are very consistent and capable of producing world-class waves suitable only for advanced surfers.

Reef Breaks

The ocean floor at reef breaks consist of coral reef or rock. These waves can break close to shore or very far out to sea. Whenever a reef is exposed to open ocean you have the potential for a breaking wave. Reef breaks can produce very high quality consistent waves because reefs do not move around as sand does.

Reef breaks often produce waves that are only suitable for more advanced surfers and only rarely are reef breaks good for learning.

Point Breaks

The defining characteristic of a point break is typically a headland where the coastline comes to a point. Man-made jetties can have a similar effect. Waves at point breaks break either right or left, while reef breaks and beach breaks can sometimes break in both directions. Point breaks can produce incredibly long rides.

Swells at a point break will enter into shallow water at an angle, allowing the swell to break at the point and then ‘peel-off’ towards deeper water, thus continuously breaking along the shore. On good days these waves unravel like spokes on a wheel and it can seem endless.

Point breaks can be either sand bottomed or rock bottomed, as the point break refers more to the shape of the shoreline than the composition of the ocean floor.

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