Learning to Surf
A short tutorial on a long subject
So you want to learn how to surf. Why?
1. Because surfers get the chicks, man.
Well, yeah, we do. By the truckload. But that's no
reason to spend a lot of time and effort in the water.
Just buy the clothes and read alt.posers
2. Because I'm a big fan of Baywatch.
Um, yeah well, its like this:
IT'S A TV SHOW!!! IT'S NOT REAL!!!
3. Because pro surfing is gonna be my ticket out of this little
Just what town is this?
4. I dunno, it seems like it might be kinda fun.
dingdingdingdingding - We have a winner, read on.
We were friends who rode the waves.
The time we spent in our younger days,
was all in fun.
Oh the good times that we had!
--Keola and Kapono Beamer
Table of Contents
- Luckily, we're not as equipment-heavy as, say, skiing or windsurfing.
You're going to need:
Most of these can be found at your friendly neighborhood
surfshop. In addition, surfers in Seattle and Brittain may also
wish to invest in some form of mold retardant.
A used board is generally your best bet when starting out.
Chances are good that you're going to ding it up just carrying it
around. There are different types of
Something to wear.
- Hopefully this is nothing more than a bathing suit. But if it's
necessary, and you can afford it, a new wetsuit can be a pretty good investment.
See the upcoming FAQ on wetsuits for recommendations.
[Mary Ann Davidson / firstname.lastname@example.org / adds this tip]
As a hard core surfette, I would add to your FAQ for the gals interested in
surfing - stick to one piece suits when starting to surf, unless wearing a
wetsuit (in which case it doesn't matter.) You can quite easily find yourself
wearing a one piece suit after a wipeout if you insist on wearing a two piece
suit as a novice.
- Once upon a time, boards had no leashes. If you lost your board, you
swam to shore. Only the best surfers could venture out to some breaks because
losing your board could mean the destruction of you or your board. Surfers
were stronger swimmers and more all-around watermen. It also meant that
there were loose boards flying all over the place at some breaks.
For good or ill, those days are gone. Just a word of advice for the
beginner: Treat your leash as if it were not there. Do not rely on it
to always bring your board back to you. If the section you're riding starts
getting gnarly, pretend you're going to have to swim to shore if you bail.
- You can usually wheedle wax out of a surfshop owner if you buy anything
there. Some surfers pride themselves on never having bought a bar of
wax. If the deck of your board has some form of traction pad, you
might not need the wax.
- With the hole in the Ozone layer, sunblock is often necessary - the net.wisdom on this is
Bullfrog, with Aloe Gator also getting favorable reviews.
- IMHO, one of the most important things to have in learning to
surf is someone to surf with. Aside from the obvious safety
reasons (it cuts your chances of being eaten by a shark in half :-) )
a partner will give you moral support, keep you stoked when you
get frustrated, keep you from sleeping in when it's good, talk
you into paddling out when it's big, and mostly be a friend.
There are two schools of thought here:
- Find someone good to teach you to surf. and
- Find someone else who wants to learn and teach each other.
I subscribe to the second approach, because that's how I
learned and because when one person is better than the other,
someone is usually not having a very fun session. Don't get me
wrong, I really enjoy teaching people. But if it's cranking on
the outside, either I'm gonna be bored on the inside with the
beginner, or he's gonna be in over his head on the outside.
[Ken Strayhorn Jr. / email@example.com / accurately adds:]
Your friend you must choose carefully. He will become your brah,
and over time will mean more than anyone else on this planet.
Besides surfing, you will drink copious amounts of beer, smoke
pounds of pot, and chase boxcar loads of women together. You
will lend each other money when times are tight. You will never
ask each other for gas cash. You will inform him when his ass
crack is showing over his pants. If he doesn't like the woman
you are seeing you will drop her like a hot rock. Conversely,
if your new woman thinks your brah is a jerk, that's a sign that
she's a bozo and should be avoided.
Boards and wetsuits will be shared. You will hoot for each other
on fine days. You will badmouth anyone who drops in on him. People
will come to view you as a team. Surf nazis will avoid you because
they know that to fight one of you is to fight both of you.
And, years later when you are 40 years old and you and your brah
are sitting on a break somewhere listening to the younger guys
yacking it up, you will smile and know deep in your soul that
there is nothing finer than surfing and the people you do it with.
- Go to your nearest surf shop and ask people where a good break
to learn is. Be honest about your abilities, surfers are a
pretty friendly lot. Also, watch for the upcoming FAQ - "Where
can I learn to surf without being killed, beaten, or eaten?"
- Sit and watch the surf for a while. Watch what people are doing.
Where is everybody sitting, where do they paddle out. Where do
the waves break? As waves get bigger they break further out,
so if everyone is sitting farther out than where the waves are
currently breaking, it means that there are bigger sets coming.
Watch for them.
Stretch. While you're watching the break, stretch your arms
and back. Limber up.
- You've noted where other people head out. Wax your stick and
head down to that spot. Put your leash on. (Digression: Decide
whether you're going to be a regular-foot (left foot forward) or
a goofy-foot. Try both while standing on shore and see what feels
better.) Put your leash on your back leg. Walk your board out
until the water is about waist deep and hop on. Position yourself
on the board so that the nose is just barely (2-3") out of the
water. Too little and you'll be going under, too much and you'll
wear yourself out pushing water.
- Go for nice, even, alternating strokes. When you have to get
through the whitewater get up some speed and then either:
- Plow right through it.
- Raise your chest up with your arms so that the water passes
between you and the board.
- Turtle. Just as the wave is about to hit you, roll over on
your back (roll the board too), and pull the nose of the board
down. Then roll back up.
- Duck-dive. Raise up on one knee, push the nose of the board
under the wave and follow with your body. (This takes lots
of practice). (See following notes on duck-diving)
- Bail. Make sure no one is within 20-30' of you, get off your
board, and dive for the bottom. This is for emergencies only.
You lose a great deal of distance this way, and you endanger
people around you.
[By Morgan Perry / firstname.lastname@example.org ]
- I have found a few things most helpful in my duck-diving:
A key is *not* to stay under for as long as possible, just to
start deep and shoot up as far on the other side of the turbulence
as possible. The sooner you get back up the surface and balanced
on your board, the sooner you are able to start paddling again...
and that's the only way you really get outside anyway.
- Try to have some forward momentum before you give up
paddling to begin pressing your board down. This provides
some counter to the force of the wave in the direction of
shore. Even if it is just a couple of strokes before the
angry whiteness consumes you, you will come out further than
a couple of strokes ahead of where you would have it you
had not gotten going forward.
- Push your board as deeply under as possible. The more of
your body that you get above water quickly will result in
getting the board deeper under. Sometimes I even tilt my
board to the side in the water so that there is less resistance
to it going down. Some people use only their arms and their
knee(s) to push the board down. I like using the ball of one of
my foot instead and to raise the other one high to provide more
weight on the board.
- Immediately before the surf subsumes you, pull yourself down to
the board and angle the board slightly up to the perceived other
side of the break. Too much angle and the nose of the board will
catch the break and push you backwards. Not enough and the back of
the board will be caught in the suction of the wave as it rushes
by you and it won't help pull you through. If you have the right
upward angle, and your hands are toward the front of the board,
probably about where you press up from, you can thrust the board
to the other side of the wave and it will help pull you through.
- Once you get to where people are sitting around (in the water,
if they're on the beach, you've been paddling the wrong way :-) )
sit back and take it easy for awhile. Watch what others are
doing. A nice gesture is to say hello to the others in the
water. This lets them know that you acknowledge their existance
and will not run them over or drop in on them. Don't be chatty
though. A simple "Hello", "Howzit", "G'Day" or li'dat is fine.
- This is the first of many hurdles in learning to surf. The
wave knowledge - knowing which wave to paddle for and which
to let pass, and the timing - when to start paddling, how fast,
how much to arch your back, and when to get to your feet, are
things that no one can teach you. They will come with time
One tip I will offer: when trying to stand up, stand up. Don't
get to your knees first, that leads to kneeboarding (A curable
[That said, Clark Quinn / email@example.com / graciously offers these tips:]
I'm not sure 2-4 are necessary (certainly not for someone who's been
in the ocean on other things, but probably are a good safety
- Don't go to the most crowded/famous. Start at a mellow beach.
Gentle waves. Sand bottom. Broad sand beach. You can't run
before you walk.
- Paddle out, and try to catch the whitewater in while riding on
your belly. (If you've body-boarded or body-surfed before,
skip to step 5) You may have to adjust how far forward/back you
lay on the board. You want about an inch of room between the
nose of the board and the surface of the water. You'll need to
be paddling in and have the wave catch you and push you even
faster in the same direction. Stay on the board as you zoom
towards shore. Steps 2-4 may best be accomplished on a mat or
a boogie board or something else easy to get "wave knowledge".
- Once you can reliably pick a wave and catch it, start trying to
angle this way and that under control. Try going both ways,
left and right.
- When you can zoom back and forth at will, you're ready for a
bigger step. Take a wave right before/where it's breaking, and
ride it while turning to keep right at where the wave is breaking.
Figuring out just where to paddle to so as to catch the wave at
the right spot is a major part of the game.
- When you can catch waves reliably, you're going to want to try
riding them standing up. Paddle and let the white water catch
you. As soon as you're moving, jump to your feet. This is
difficult. It's really worth it to practice the jumping from
prone to your feet on land first and get it well-rehearsed
before doing it on a moving board on the water. Foot placement
is crucial. You'll want your back foot near the tail of the
board and your front foot somewhere in front of that, near the
middle of the board, say. Look at other surfers. Practice on
a rough template of the board on the ground. Ride the wave in.
Depending on the size of the board either balance on it (bigger)
or move it to stay underneath you (smaller).
- Once you can reliably get up, you want to start angling while
riding the white water. Both ways, zooming back and forth under
- Once you can do that, move to catching the wave right where it
is breaking. This will get trickier, because you'll have a more
vertical take off point and the board will have a tendency to
sink the nose as you go down the face of the wave. You want to
catch the wave by angling in the direction the wave is breaking.
- Surfing tends to be pretty free form but there are certain
accepted rules, mostly based on safety and common sense.
Wave Ownership (The My Wave Rule)
- The person closest to the breaking part of the wave
has the right of way.
Caveat: If someone is up and riding, paddling into
the wave behind them does not give you the wave.
Also note: In many low-key breaks, the first person
paddling for the wave owns it. Do not expect this
to apply in crowded conditions.
Dropping In (The Thou Shalt Not Rule)
- Dropping in is taking off on a wave in front of someone
who is already up and riding. Don't do this. Ever.
Paddling Out (The Eat It Rule)
- When paddling out, if you must get over a wave that
someone is riding, paddle behind them (On the white
water side). This generally means getting stuffed
for the sake of someone else's ride. Take comfort
in the hope that they would do the same for you. Do
not paddle in front of someone unless you are so sure
that you will be 20 feet in front of them that you are
willing to bet the well-being of your board/car/nose on
- About 8 or 10 months after I started surfing I happened to write
a little note on my blotter-style desk calendar:
June 9, 1984: Surfed 3s, good day
As the months went by I continued making little notations. I kept
the calendars, year after year. Now, I have a decade's worth of
blotter calendars stacked on my desk. Just looking at the notes
can sometimes bring back the session in vivid detail. I usually
would note the surf heights and who I surfed with.
If you've got a calendar, give it a shot. Years from now, if you
somehow find yourself far from surf, you'll look back on some
classic times spent with great people and say "Eh, mahalo Chrispy,
Last update - December 8, 1995
Author: Chris Payne
Suggestions and comments are welcome! firstname.lastname@example.org
Contributors to this FAQ:
♠ learn to surf
» Learning to Surf by Chris Payne
» How To Surf by Tim Maddux
» Learner surfer's FAQ by Stephen Whelan
» The Complete Surfing Guide for Coaches by Bruce Gabrielson
» PD's Trick Tips Backside Roundhouse
♠ more surf stuff
» Ding repair FAQ
» wave / board / surf terminology
» Surfboard Design Guide
» surfboards we love
» Rip Currents & Undertows - Ray McAllister - Steve Baum - Neil Savage
» about waves & sets - John Sidles - Timothy B. Maddux
» foam in the surf? - James G. Acker
» Lud's Wave Prediction - Ludwig Omachen
» cold water & rubber
» local surfing Q & A
» surf travel tales and pics
» bc/pnw surf comps archive