A Fresh Approach to Learning to Surf

First board, first surf, first evening session. Pixels

We’ve got past the first steps towards becoming a surfer, so let’s quickly recap.

We discussed the three basic tenets of learning to surf, being the mental, physical and equipment angles, and we delved into each three. The mental part was all about being strong, mind over matter and dealing with defeat at first.

The physical was that no matter how fit you think you are, you need to surf to get surfing fit, and the best way to do this was with many short sessions.

We finished off with a quick discourse on beginners’ equipment, and when we left you, you were off to get that first board, the board that was going to open up your life, reveal your dreams, make you a world champ.

So you’ve chosen your new board, and it is nice and thick and long and paddles like a dream. Hopefully it is at least 30cm taller than you, and about as wide as your shoulders if not wider. Also, you’re all wet-suited up and ready to hit the cold water. Don’t forget the boots if it is really cold. Two more things you’re going to need to get started are some wax, and a leash.

Wax is formulated for warm water and for cold water, with a few variables (sticky bumps, super sticky etc) in between. The colder the water, the softer the wax, and thus the warmer the water the firmer the wax. You need wax to be soft underfoot when the water is cold so that it can mold and move underfoot slightly to adjust to your stance, and as the water does its best to freeze it, so the softer formulation allows for a bit of manipulation. Warm water wax, similarly needs to be firmer underfoot as the warm water makes it soft and supple, and this moves too much underfoot.

Then you need a leash. A leash is a cord that connects your board to your ankle so that when you wipe out, which you will, frequently at first, your board doesn’t travel all the way to the beach and force you to swim after it every time. For starts choose a nice big thick (8mm) leash as you’re not going to be worrying about things like drag at this stage.

So now you’re ready, but before we hit the water it’s a good idea to practice your ‘pushing up’ method on the sand first.

Draw an outline of a surfboard in the sand. You can use your board as well, just let the fins settles slowly into the sand.

Then your goal is to get from the lying down position to the standing position in one fluid movement, in other words, without getting to your knees at any stage. This is one of the most important movements you need to work out. If you get this sorted out right away it is like a massive cheat on your learning curve and you’ll improve rapidly. So lying down on your stomach put your hands down as if to do a push-up.

Straighten your arms in the push-up position, lift your bum off the board and swing your legs under you in one smooth motion till they are under your chest. Your back foot should be over the fins area of the board and you front foot around the middle of the board, and you should be in a crouching position. At this stage your hands have left the board and you’re standing. Remember that your back foot is used to turn the board and your front foot is used to guide your board.

You’re no doubt going to look like a bit of a fool on the beach, doing this over and over again, but trust us, it is vital for you to have this move familiarized as much as possible, to make things easier when you’re in the water.

When you’re in the water your board is going to feel like a live animal underneath you, moving and shaking with the movements of the water. You’ll be catching whitewater as well, so this is part of a wave that comprises loads of air, not ideal for stability. Then when you’re out in the water, and you paddle and catch a wave, the movement will be automatic and you will be loving life. If you stand with you left foot forward you are a natural footer, and if you stand with your right foot forward you are a goofy footer.

Remember that the leash thing that we suggested earlier is always attached to your back foot so that is doesn’t get tangled up with your feet while you’re getting to your feet or up and riding.

So that’s it. You have your equipment, you know how to get to your feet, you have the right sort of wave that can catch waves easily and it’s all systems go. Now it’s time to get out there and catch a few, start getting the feel of it all, and working on your fitness. So now you need to start understanding the lie of the land, or the lie of the water.

Now we’re going to teach you all about the different types of waves and beaches, and where would be the best place for you to head out and give it a go.

The best beginners wave would be a gently sloping beach break, a beach that consists of sand, without any rocks. A beach without too many people would also be ideal, as you don’t want to be hitting people with a miscreant surfboard, or getting biffed yourself by others board. You also need to find a beach that doesn’t have very shallow water, because that would make the waves ‘dump’ all at once, also not ideal for beginners. A gentle beach, white sand and soft waves is what you're looking for. 

Waves that have rocks, or that break over reefs, are to be avoided for now. They do produce the best waves around, but they break hard and they break fast over hard surfaces (rocks/reef) and they can lead to serious all sorts of serious injuries. They are for the skilled and experienced surfers only, a surfer that you will soon be from the skills you will learn from surfing the beaches. If you aren’t sure about the wave that you want to learn to surf on, ask the local surf shop, a lifeguard, or a local surfer.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in this learn to surf process, is the paddling. Most people are not cut out for paddling, and their arms and shoulders get sore and lame after only a few minutes of paddling. Well, we’re one step ahead of the game already, as the board that you have picked is a paddle machine, chosen carefully to assist you as much as possible with your paddling. The second tip with regards paddling is, as mentioned previously, to paddle as much as humanly possible, day in and day out.

A wave travels towards the beach with a certain speed. When you’re lying on your board, facing the beach, the wave is going to rush up behind you. Your goal is to get some sort of forward motion, so that you can almost match the speed of the moving wave, and thus catch it. The trick is to paddle as hard as you possibly can. Some people paddle slowly, and let the wave catch them, but if you paddle really hard you have way more chance of catching the wave. The way to paddle is by lying on the board and using your arms in a similar fashion to swimming ‘the crawl’ stroke. You can also practice this on the beach before going for that surf by stretching one arm forward as far as it will go and then drawing it back to your waist and stretching the alternate arm as far as it will go. Remember to keep your hands slightly cupped when paddling for real, it will give you more scoop. Also, keep your head and shoulder up so that you’re looking at where you’re heading.

The second big tip, that you will never hear or read anywhere, is to ride your first waves on your stomach. So many surf school instructors and learning guides are so intent on getting you to your feet (you WILL surf in our first lesson, guaranteed) that they tend to rush the initial learning curves. So, for your first wave, paddle hard, catch it, and ride the wave as far as you can lying on your stomach. Hold onto the rails for stability, and just enjoy the sensation of riding a moving wave. Ride ten waves like this, ride twenty waves, enjoy the rush of speed, and feel what a wave feels like underneath you. Keep on riding waves lying down until you feel nice and comfortable with it. By doing this you will learn, automatically, how to lie on your surfboard. Some people believe that lying far back on the board is the way forward, so that they can eliminate the possibility of nose-diving. This is true, but if you lie to far back you will not be able to get any forward motion or momentum going. When paddling, you should be centered over your board and the nose of your board should be a few centimeters out the water. The best wave to understand the correct way to paddle, is to watch other surfers paddle, see their posture, and follow suit. In surfing, imitation is flattery, so watch the good surfers and copy everything they do. They have taken years to get good, so leapfrog the learning curve and jump ahead.

When you have caught the wave, attempt to jump to your feet via the 'pushing up' method described above. All being well, and you have a semblance of balance and understand the dynamics of movement underfoot, you'll be standing, and you'll be a surfer.

Feels good, doesn't it?

Thus begins your life as a surfer. If you've taken your time, and not rushed to get to this place, it'll be the best feeling ever, and the start of a lifelong passion.