Learning how to surf can be a life changing experience. Surfers enjoy the rush of dropping into a glassy wave, flying along the wave face, more often than not in some of the most exotic and exiting places on earth. If that sounds appealing read our learn to surf guide below which will provide all of the basics you'll need to know before taking your first surf lesson or hiring your first surfboard. If you learn how to surf correctly you'll progress much more rapidly from a surf school beginner to becoming a real surfer.
If you've seen our essential surf equipment guide page, you should have a good idea on which surfboard is ideal to learn to surf on and we will hopefully have given you the initial understanding on what is the right sized soft board, pop out or mal surfboard with which to take your first steps into becoming a surfer.
Choose the Right Spot
Surf breaks vary enormously and if you try to learn at the wrong one it can slow down the learning process no end, possibly get you hurt and label you as a nuisance to other surfers. The answer is to forget reef breaks (surf breaking over, rock, coral etc) and heavy, hollow beach breaks and pick a beach with an easy, spilling, mushy break wave in the 2-4ft range. It may not be glamorous but it will be the best place to start. Also try and find a spot with no crowds- battling with hundreds of other beginners and more experienced surfers is not the way to go. If you have a little space it will be easier to learn.
You have your new surfboard under your arm and you've chosen a mushy, uncrowded spot for a surf, it's now time to paddle out! Paddling is an essential surfing skill so lots of practice at this will bring its rewards. Start in small waves and if possible paddle out when there is a lull in the waves. It's best to walk your board out until you are in waist deep water, then lay your body on the deck of your surfboard. On a shortboard keep your weight centred on the middle of the board and on a longboard position yourself so the nose is around 1inch out of the water. The trick is to find the optimum trim position for the board which will provide least resistance when paddling. Once you feel the board gliding through the water with ease you'll have found the ideal trim, so remember your position and stick with it.
Start to paddle using a crawl stroke with your arms, using cupped hands to increase the pull. If you hit bumpy water or "chop", lift your chest slightly and lessen your weight on the board so the nose and rails don't go under. Once you have learnt to balance your right and left sides, head, and legs, paddle your board out to the lineup you're on the way!
Duck-diving is a technique to allow you to pass under breaking waves when paddling out, rather than getting hammered by each breaking wave. Duck-diving applies to shortboards which are smaller and lighter, for longboards there are a number of techniques used to achieve the same result. To duck-dive a shortboard, try to have as much paddling speed as possible when approaching the wave. At about two feet before making contact with the white water, grab both rails (edges of the surfboard) halfway between the nose and midpoint of your board. Push all your upper body weight onto your hands and arms until you feel the nose begin to go under. Point your head down and let your body follow. Once your body is just below the surface, bend your front leg and use that knee to push the tail under the wave. Your momentum should thrust you under the quickly passing wave and only require you to be under water for a short time. As the wave passes let the flotation of your board lift you to the surface. Now you have the skill to paddle to the lineup or to the next wave and duck under it.
For paddling out on a longboard there are a few ways of tackling the breaking waves: The slice and duck, Eskimo roll, push-ups and the shoot and scoot. On smaller waves the push-up technique is probably best. Just push up your chest and the wave will pass under your body and over the board. The shoot and scoot method is where you sit at the back of your board and sink the tail, grabbing the rails around the centre of the board so it raises above the oncoming wave. Don't grab the surfboard at the nose or allow the nose to raise too much as you'll flip the board. The Eskimo roll is the old school method of getting out back.
It's simply a matter of grabbing the board and rolling it over so that the wave passes over the top of you. This is maybe not the most effective method as there is a chance you can get drilled by the wave and pushed further back to shore. The final method is the slice and duck which is executed by pushing down on one side of the surfboard so that it slices/sinks into the water, at the same time push down on the deck so that the board nose ducks under the water in the same way as a duck dive.
Catching a Wave
To begin with, rather than paddling straight out the back into the line up, it's best to catch a few broken whitewater waves in shallower water. You should have your ideal trim/paddling position at this stage, so point your board directly towards the beach and as the whitewater approaches paddle towards shore. The wave should pick you up and push you forward which is an unmistakable feeling, however if your board pearls
or nosedives you have set off positioned too far forward on the board, likewise if the wave passes under you are positioned too far back on the board.
It's fun to catch and ride a few to the beach whilst still laying down to get the feeling of the wave, after that it's time to stand up which we will go onto in the next section. Once you have the hang of catching white water it's time to use those paddling skills and get out into the lineup to catch the unbroken waves which is what surfing is all about. Once in the lineup, past where the waves are breaking, sit up and straddle your board (you might want to practice the art of sitting on your board as it takes a little time to find your balance). Always face out to sea until you are ready to catch a wave. Practice swinging the nose of the board left or right so that you can easily turn around to catch an oncoming wave. Pick a wave that has not broken and be sure to sit far enough out among the sloping swells, not where the waves are standing up straight.
As a wave approaches, turn the nose of your board toward the beach, lay down and begin paddling. As you feel the wave lift you and your board, paddle as hard as you can and lean your weight forward. The natural tendency is to lean back to keep the nose from going under water, but that will only slow your momentum which in not conducive to wave-catching.
Lean forward but raise your chest so that your weight is just above the centre of the board. You should now be sliding down into the trough of the wave. The first phase of surfing will entail that you wait until you are in the flat water in front of the wave before you stand up. However, the ideal is to begin standing just as you feel the pull of the wave. Now you are ready to work on standing.
Standing up on a surfboard can look very easy but once you place that surfboard on a moving, pitching, surge of swirling water where you must simultaneously leap from a prone position while weighting and unweighting left, right, front, and back just to keep from diving face forward, you'll soon realise a lot of practice will be needed! The place to start to stand is on the beach. Firstly you will need to know which foot will feel most natural to you in the forward position. The left foot forward is called natural stance and the right foot forward is a goofy foot stance. The way to find out which way you swing (!) is to stand up straight, close your eyes and ask a friend to gently nudge you forward, the foot that goes out first to steady yourself is your leading foot!
The motion from prone to standing is called the pop-up, which is basically a quick push up to your feet. Lie the board on the sand (watch the fins) and do a push-up, once your arms are at full extension, pull both knees toward your stomach and hop to your feet. If you practice this regularly it will help when in the water.
The next step is to get out there and do it. It will be best to start in the whitewater:
Step 1---Paddle for a wave and just as you feel the momentum of the surfboard flow faster than your paddling speed, you are ready to hop up.
Step 2---With your hands firmly grasping each rail push up quickly.
Step 3---Simultaneously, extend your arms completely and pull your knees quickly up to your chest. Be sure to keep your weight centred with just a little slant forward.
Step 4---Place your feet firmly on your board, one foot near the tail and one foot just above the midpoint of the board.
Step 5---Don't stand up completely erect. Keep a low centre of gravity by crouching down and focusing your weight on the midpoint of the board. Keep your arms out, your eyes looking forward and balance.
Angle on a Wave
Once you've mastered paddling and standing, it's time to climb to the next level of waveriding. The real aim of any surfer is to angle along on the open face of the wave parallel with the beach, getting the longest possible ride with the greatest amount of speed. You should decide which direction (right or left) you will ride as you begin paddling for an oncoming wave. Understanding and predicting wave behaviour will come with time, but how you approach your drop-in will depend on the type of wave you are riding. If you are surfing a mushy, sloping wave, then you may want to start angling to the right of left even while you paddle which is a more effective use of the wave's energy and helps you to stay ahead of the whitewater.
However, on a more critical/hollow wave, a surfer must follow his/her dropline to the flat trough of the wave in order to avoid digging a rail or nose and thus falling during the drop. The technique of turning the surfboard is relatively simple. While keeping a low centre of gravity with legs bent at the knees, lightly lean your weight in the direction you choose and towards the wave face. This will push the rail into the water and create a keel effect, cutting into the water and directing the board in the direction you choose. On a longboard the principle is the same but you will need to use the rear section of your board to turn, if you lean whilst too far forward the rail will dig and its end of ride.
Follow these tips and you should soon be up and riding your first wave and life will never be the same again! Enjoy.