Here is the piece I wrote that was originally published on Surfline.com. The core “7-steps” are also found on the bottom of our Surfology page. This is a great beginner’s guide to learning how to surf!
Aloha – Richard
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Learn To Surf: How to Walk on Water in Seven Easy Steps.
By Richard Schmidt
Surfing has given me many unforgettable years of fun, health and recreation. After teaching beginning surfers for more than 20 years, I’ve seen the long list of obstacles that they have to overcome in order to learn. To put it bluntly, surfing literally takes years to master. But with the help of this instruction, you should be able to avoid many of the common mistakes that students make.
It always helps to start when you’re young, but age isn’t nearly as important as physical conditioning. The best cross-training for surfing is swimming. As you’ll quickly discover, at least 95 percent of your surfing time will be spent paddling rather than riding waves. To make this a bearable experience, you must have a strong upper body. A pool will work, but the optimum option is open-ocean swimming. It will help your conditioning and confidence in all types of ocean conditions. Sooner or later, your leash is going to break, and when it does, you’ll be infinitely safer if you know what to do. I’d recommend a workout regimen of three days a week with a mixture of long-distance and sprint swims. Also, I recommend taking a course in CPR before you start spending extended periods of time in the water. The ocean is unpredictable-always be prepared for the worst.
The Playing Field: Part One
Before paddling out, always assess the conditions and know your limits. Unlike other sports, your playing field is constantly changing. Two-foot mushburgers one day can be 10-foot meat grinders the next. Obviously, the most important element of this changing playing field is the waves. Waves are created by wind and storms out at sea. How these waves hit your local break are determined by a number of factors: bottom contour, tides and wind. Waves break over the following bottom contours:
- Pointbreaks. Points usually occur where there’s a dip in the headland, creating a bend in the coast. This tends to be the ideal case for surfers, since points have the potential to create perfect waves, which are characterized by long, tapering curls. One of the world’s best pointbreaks is a spot called Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa, where surfers ride waves at high speeds for as long as a half-mile.
- Reefbreaks. A reefbreak is a wave that breaks over a rock or coral shelf. Due to its bottom, reefbreaks are consistent in their shape and location. Like all waves, reefbreaks vary in shape and size, but the world’s best reefbreaks, such as the Banzai Pipeline on Oahu and Teahupoo in Tahiti, are some of the most amazing but dangerous spectacles on Earth. As a general rule, beginners should avoid reefbreaks.
- Beachbreaks. Beachbreak waves break over a sand bottom and are commonly more erratic and shifty than reef or pointbreaks. With fewer hazards such as coral or rocks, though, beachbreaks are a good bet for beginners.
The bottom’s incline, or slope, also plays a major role in the way waves break, from soft, easy rollers to surging, unsurfable monsters. On the opposite ends of the spectrum, you have the following:
- Plunging waves. A plunging wave occurs when the swell comes out of deep water and hits a shallow sandbar or reef. Ultimately, these are the waves that surfers look for. But since they break top to bottom and tend to be faster and more challenging, beginners should stay away from them.
- Mushy waves. Mushy or slow-rolling waves are more desirable for beginners. Mushy waves occur when a swell approaches a more gradual bottom contour. Because mushy waves are softer and more forgiving, they allow for the fastest learning curve possible.
- Other. Like Eskimos with snow, surfers have dozens of words to describe waves. For starters, there are a few you should know about. First, closeouts are waves that break all at once and, since they offer no tapering curl or open wave face, are not sought after by surfers. Second, reforms are waves that initially break over a shoal, back off into unbroken swell as they pass through deep water and then break again closer to shore. Reforms occur when a deeper trench connects two shallower sandbars or reefs. Huntington Beach Pier is a good place to see a textbook reform. Finally, double-ups are when two swells converge to form a thicker, steeper breaking wave closer to shore. Waimea Bay’s shorebreak is probably the nastiest double-up on the planet.
The Playing Field: Part Two
The bigger the surf, the stronger the currents are going to be. You typically will face two types of currents in a normal go-out:
- Longshore currents. Longshore currents move up or down the beach, parallel to shore. They are generally stronger in the surf zone, so remember this when you’re paddling out. Although they’re more of a nuisance than a serious threat, longshore currents can be dangerous if you’re near a pier, rock or jetty. If you’re in a longshore current and are having trouble getting past the surf zone and see yourself approaching a large structure, exit the water immediately and walk back up the beach. The last thing you want to do is get caught between a hard place and the impact zone.
- Rip currents. Rip currents are the most dangerous current for any beachgoer. They can be an asset or a major threat to your safety, depending on how you understand them. As broken waves wash toward shore, they carry a lot of water with them. The water pools up next to the beach and forms a longshore current on the inside.
As the water moves up or down the beach, it will often funnel back out to sea in the deeper spots. This swift current goes straight out through the surf zone and dissipates once it’s beyond the break. Rip currents are easy to spot. Because they’re in deeper water, there are usually no waves breaking in rips. Also, you’ll notice foam and rapid water moving out to sea; strong rip currents look like rivers in the middle of the surf zone. Near a reef, the rip might be in water that’s a deeper blue. If you find yourself in a rip, don’t try to swim against it — it’s almost impossible to swim faster than the speed of a strong rip, and the effort will only tire you out. The best way to get out of a rip is to swim up or down the beach, parallel to shore. If this still doesn’t free you up, and you feel like you won’t be able to get back to shore on your own, remember that the universal distress signal is the waving of one arm.
Tides are created by the gravitational attraction of the moon and the sun on the earth and its oceans. They have a direct effect on how waves break. During low tide, you may be subject to exposed rocks or reefs that weren’t there six hours before. Waves tend to be steeper and break farther from shore during low tide, but this isn’t always the case. We’re speaking in general terms here, but high tide usually means mushier, slower-breaking waves. High tide can also cause backwash, which is caused when waves bounce off rocks or sandbars on shore and ricochet back to sea. During high tides, you will notice that shorebreaks become more intense. Most breaks have a preferable tide. To find out when to go to your local break, grab a free tide book from your local surf shop.
SIGNS AND RESOURCES
Tides are created by the gravitational attraction of the moon ur when a swell approaches a more gradual bottom contour. Because mushy waves are softer and more forgiving, they allow for the fastest learning curve possible.
If you’re surfing in an area with a lifeguard, there are two signs that you should be aware of:
- Blackball. Like death and taxes, it’s a sad but necessary part of life. A blackball flag, characterized by the black circle surrounded by a yellow background, means that hard surfboards are not allowed in the break. These tend to be prevalent at most populated beaches during summer.
- Red Flag. Red flags mean that the beach is closed due to hazardous conditions. If you see a red flag at your local break, consult the lifeguard before paddling out. Red flags may also mark a rip current.
Although it’s tempting to go to your local surf shop and buy the latest pro model, the reality is that the modern shortboard is virtually impossible to learn on. It’s squirrely, not very buoyant and hard to paddle. In order to make your learning experience worthwhile, choose a wide, steady board that’s at least a couple of feet longer than you. A longboard will do, but the ideal beginner’s model is a soft board, known as a Morey Doyle or BZ Board. The softboards are made of the same material as Boogie Boards, and they help prevent your board from becoming a hazard to yourself and others.
Surf wax is used to prevent from slipping while you’re up and riding. When you wax the deck or top of your board, move the bar in semi-circles so that small beads form. Try to keep the deck of the board cooler than the wax and it will apply much better. To maintain the rough texture, take a few passes with a wax comb before each go-out. Another option is surf traction. Traction minimizes the amount of wax you have to buy, plus it can help slow the inevitable process of delamination, or the separation of the board’s fiberglass and foam.
Just about every surfer uses a leash these days. Your leash should be a foot longer than your surfboard. Although they’re helpful, leashes should never be treated as your only lifeline. Also, your leash can become a serious liability if it gets wrapped around a rock or reef when you’re in the surf zone. A good option is the quick-release model. The easy-access tab will free you from danger in one quick pull.
Other amenities: it’s a good idea to invest in a noseguard for your board. The few extra bucks just may save an eye. Another good safety option is the urethane-lined fins. Everyone lands on his or her fins sooner or later, and the urethane may turn what would have been a trip to the hospital into a bruise or less.
Step One: On The Beach
Once you’ve made all of your initial preparations, you’ve still got some work to do before you can paddle out for your first session. On the beach, we recommend that you practice a land simulation of the pop-up, which is the transition from your stomach up to your position stance. The pop-up is an essential fundamental for any beginner. It’s the link between bogging around on your belly and walking on water. The pop-up should be practiced as follows:
- Draw a line in the sand to reference the stringer, or the wood-lined center of your surfboard.
- Lie on the line with your hands back behind the shoulders.
- Place hands flat on the sand and align them with your chest as if you were doing a push-up. When you’re on the board, your hands should be flat on the deck as opposed to wrapped around the rails.
- Arch your back and push up as your feet come up beneath you in one motion. Avoid looking down as this will leave you hunched over. Instead, try and look ahead. Your stance should be just a little wider than your shoulders. Your knees should be bent without letting your midsection stick out.
- When you’re in your position stance, your front foot should be sideways, turned out a little bit, with the arch of your foot centered over the stringer. Your back foot should also be sideways, but not quite as turned out. It doesn’t matter what foot you put forward, but you should pick one and stick with it if you want to learn faster. Figure out what feels most natural and go with it. If you stick your left foot forward, you’re a regularfoot — the stance of six-time world champion Kelly Slater. If you stick your right foot forward, you’re known as a goofyfoot. Don’t despair, though: one of the most powerful surfers of all-time, Tom Carroll, surfed with his right foot forward.
- If you have trouble with the pop-up, try the above steps while pushing up on two bricks. The elevation will help you get your front foot up and underneath you.
Once you’ve got a decent handle on the pop-up, it’s time to choose your lineup strategy. Scan the surfing area and pick the right spot to paddle out. Avoid paddling out in the middle of a group of surfers unless that is the only option. Look for rip currents, submerged rocks, etc. Pick an area that has a clearly marked lineup of slow-rolling waves with the minimum amount of potential hazards. Above all else: surfing is supposed to be fun. Enter the water in a pleasant, relaxed state.
Step Two: Entering The Surf Zone
Scan the horizon for sets of waves approaching. Wait for a lull before making the initial charge. Hold the slack of your leash so it doesn’t drag or get caught in any rocks. Never dive in to the surf zone because you never know for sure what may be lurking on the bottom. As you’re walking out past the shorebreak, hold your board to the side and don’t let your board get between you and the breaking wave. Once again: it’s important to know your limits. Your first surf spot should have an easy entry and exit, sand bottom if possible, with a minimum amount of people. To jump off the rocks and into a jam-packed lineup at Steamer Lane would be like a beginning skier charging a cornice bowl at Mammoth on a holiday weekend.
Step Three: Paddling
Traditional paddle. A general rule of thumb for body positioning when you’re paddling is that you want to see your board flat on the water. You don’t want to be so far forward that you see water coming over the nose, and you don’t want to be too far back so that the nose is sticking straight up in the air. Have your chin about three-quarters of the way up on the board, but keep your head up so that you have total awareness of everything that’s going on around you.
When you paddle, make sure your body is perfectly aligned with the center of the board. Don’t keep both legs to one side of the board and don’t lay your legs out on either side of the board. Extend your legs and rest them directly over the tail. With each stroke, hit the water with your hands cupped and elbows bent while reaching all the way forward. Go elbow deep in the water and then follow through as you would if you were swimming freestyle. Take fluid, relaxed strokes. Minimize unnecessary body movements. Your arms should be the only things moving. If you move your hips too much, your board wobbles back and forth and creates drag.
There are other paddle options. If you’re on the verge of catching a wave, a butterfly stroke might be the extra push you need to get you over the hump. Use both arms and pull simultaneously with equal force as if you were doing a butterfly stroke. Or if you want to spin the board around quickly to catch the wave, sit up on your board, grab a rail and use a modified egg-beater kick to turn the board around. If your board’s long enough, knee-paddling also helps break up the monotony. As with the traditional paddle, center yourself so that the board is flat. Kneel so that your calves and feet are tucked under your butt, and pull simultaneously with both arms.
Step Four: Pushing Through Techniques
As you paddle out, the first thing you’ll have to deal with is the breaking surf. Avoid the initial impact of the lip since it’s generally the most powerful part of the wave. Even if you’re good at dodging the bullet, you will still have to deal with broken waves. If you have no push-through technique, whitewater can be a frustrating obstacle. You’re likely to spend more time making up for lost ground than riding waves. There are a number of different push-through techniques that you should have in your repertoire:
- Push-up. In smaller waves, the push-up method is best. Get a lot of paddling momentum, and as you approach the breaking wave, push up so the wave rolls over your board and underneath your chest. Make sure you’re headed directly into the wave; if you’re angled or sideways, the whitewater will probably knock you off your board.
- Duck-dive. When the surf is more powerful, it’s best to go under the breaking wave. The duck-dive is the most common technique, and it can be a major asset in surf from 2 to 10 feet and beyond. In order to duck-dive properly, paddle toward the breaking wave with maximum speed. Just before impact, grab the rails of your surfboard with both hands, push the nose of your board underwater, press on the tail of your board with your dominant foot and guide the board under the turbulence. The pushing motion combined with the weight on the tail should allow you to pop back up after the wave passes over you. Unfortunately, a good beginner board is usually too buoyant for a proper duck-dive. Even with a small, sinkable board, duck-dives take awhile to learn.
- Turtle-roll. If your board is too big and buoyant to push underwater, the turtle-roll is a better option. As you approach the oncoming wave, grab the rails of your surfboard well ahead of your shoulders. Just before impact, turn over with your board so that it sits on the surface, fins up. While you’re underneath the board, a frog kick will help propel you and your board through the breaking wave. When the wave passes, roll right side up. The turtle- or Eskimo-roll also is an effective defense against an oncoming loose surfboard or an out-of-control surfer. When you see either one headed your way, assume the turtle position and roll away from the oncoming hazard.
Whatever method works best for you, remember this: unless you’re facing a Waimea Bay closeout, it’s bad etiquette to let go of your surfboard when other surfers are around you. Also, the surfer up and riding always has the right of way. If he or she establishes a direction, you’re obligated to move in the opposite direction, even if it means paddling into the breaking part of the wave and getting pummeled by the whitewater. In order to avoid any violations of surf-traffic etiquette, perfect one of these push-through techniques before surfing in crowds.
Step Five: Surfing Whitewater
If you’re at a break that stays shallow for a long way out, it’s recommended that you begin by surfing whitewater. This can be achieved by following a few simple steps:
- Prepare for launch. Wade out far enough to give you a long ride.
- Liftoff. When a breaking wave approaches, get a little farther back on the board than you normally would, push off the bottom with your feet and take the whitewater straight toward shore.
- Defy gravity. With your arms extended and your back arched, ride the first few waves in prone position. When you feel comfortable enough, attempt the pop-up method. Once you get to your feet, be sure to keep your weight centered equally over both feet. Your hips should be compressed and knees bent as opposed to sticking your center out. All good surfers-even the tall ones-have a low center of gravity.
- Troubleshooting. The transition from the prone to the pop-up position may not be as easy in the water as it is on land. If you’ve mastered it on the beach but can’t seem to get the hang of it in the surf, check for the following flaws: a) if you’re tipping to the side, you’re off center; b) if you’re digging the nose underwater, you’re too far forward and c) if you’re regularly being passed up by the wave, you’re probably too far back.
- Eject. No matter how fast you get the hang of it, you’re still going to wipe out more often than you complete a ride. When you do wipe out, always do your best to fall off the back and away from your board. If you fall off head first, be sure to do a belly flop or a shallow-water dive. Chances are you’re going to be in shallower water, so you want to avoid full impact with the bottom. When surfacing from a wipeout, come up hands-first to protect your head. If you end up pearling and fall off the front of your board, stay underwater for a little longer to allow the board to pass, then surface hands-first. After your first bad wipeout, you’ll understand why it’s a good idea to invest in a protective helmet.
Step Six: Timing, Positioning, Trim
After you get the hang of riding whitewater, it’s time to paddle out farther and ride the curl. The curl is the spot that separates the whitewater from the unbroken swells. It’s what gives surfers that true feeling of glide. Once you get a good feel of riding the curl, you’ll enter a whole new world of speed, options and maneuverability. Here’s how to do it.
Timing is the hardest thing to pass on to a student. It comes from hours of watching the ocean’s every movement. After all these years, I still find myself paddling for waves and missing them. Nevertheless, there’s still a method to the madness. Once you get beyond the breakers, paddle to a spot where you’ve seen waves break consistently. You should determine this by watching the waves before you paddle out.
While you’re waiting for a wave, your focus should be on the horizon, and you should be ready to spring when you see approaching swells. It’s a good idea to mark your lineup with reference points on the beach. Try to find two objects to line up: a palm tree, chimney, radar tower, whatever — and stick to that lineup to place yourself in optimum position for every set.
A common question asked by beginners is, How do I know when to turn around to paddle for a wave? Unfortunately, there’s no correct answer. For one, the surfer closest to the curl has the right of way, so if there are other surfers paddling for a wave and you’re on the outside of them, let it pass. When a wave does approach that has your name on it, you want it to come underneath you just as it’s about to break. If you’re in perfect position to catch the wave, you may only have to take a couple of strokes just before the wave reaches you. If it looks like the wave is going to break well inside from where you’re positioned, you may have to start paddling well before the wave approaches.
The shape of the wave should determine your angle. If it’s a slopey, slow-rolling break, you should paddle into the wave straight-on and still find the curl. If it’s steeper, you might have to approach it at an angle to help avoid pearling. When you feel the momentum of the wave and pop up, be sure to arch your back and compensate for the downward motion so your nose won’t pearl. On the other end of the spectrum, be sure that you don’t stand up too soon, or you’ll go out the back and lose the wave. Whatever the case, you want to stand up at the top of the wave and enter into it in one smooth, gliding motion. You want to tap into the speed of the wave right off the bat.
Once you’re up and riding, you need to set your inside edge and turn across the wave in order to stay with the curl. Most surfers begin to turn by leaning off their toes and heels, but it’s a lot more efficient if you learn to pivot and rotate along with the basic toe- and heel-leans. Try these steps to complete your first turn:
- Make sure you start your turn from a low stance.
- Turn your head, point your leading arm and rotate toward the direction you want to turn in. Think of your hips and shoulders as a unit, working together. Put as much weight as possible on your back foot and push your tail in the opposite direction you want to turn. You should notice that the nose of your board is now at more of an angle toward shore.
- Turn your board according to how fast the wave is breaking. A down-the-line wave takes an extreme angle to stay with the wave, whereas a slow, mushier wave requires less of an angle.
- When you’re cutting across the wave at the speed and angle required by the breaking wave, it’s called trimming. This is achieved by keeping the weight forward on the inside rail and guiding the board with the front toe if you’re facing the wave, and with your front heel if your back’s to the wave. Once you have the trim wired, you can start experimenting with climbing and dropping on the wave face by using the same turning techniques.
- You won’t have many of these in the early stages, but you’re going to face a time when you complete a ride and need to kick out of the wave. To kick out, make a more extreme turn back out toward the ocean. This should steer you out of the wave and into calm water. The other option is to step on the tail and lean back. This should slow you down to the point where the wave passes by you.
Step Seven: Exiting the surf
When you’re starting out, try to avoid surf spots with heavy shorebreaks. If you do find yourself in the middle of a shorebreak, wait for a lull, then paddle in on the back of a swell. Keep your eye on incoming waves and exit the water as quickly as possible.
When you’re coming in at a reefbreak, you might want to paddle in through the shallow zone with the fins up. If it’s too shallow, you should get off your board, tread lightly and walk your board to shore.
The trickiest spots to exit the water are in rocky areas during high tide. After watching other surfers and seeing that the rocks are the only option, take a similar approach as you would at a shorebreak. Wait for a lull, ride the back of a swell as close to the rocks as possible, then, like a crab, scale the rocks as quickly as possible. If you miss your initial exit, wait for the wave to pass and try again during the next lull. Never be caught right where the wave impacts the rocks. If, for some reason, you do get caught in that situation, place your board between you and the rocks and lift the board above the wave to lessen the blow.
I hope this will help make learning surfing an enjoyable experience. Set goals for yourself, but don’t expect things to happen overnight. Surfing takes a lot of time and dedication. But once you get the hang of it, I think you’ll agree that it’s one of the best activities in the world. See you in the lineup.