Learning to Surf Done Right: A Proven Guide
Nothing compares to connecting with the ocean through the riding of waves. I started over 10 years ago and haven’t looked back.
I’ve been an avid skier, snowboarder, rock climber, mountain biker and surfing is unquestionably one of life’s most exciting, rewarding pursuits.
It’s healthy. It connects you with nature. It’s physically challenging. Not everyone can do it. Perhaps my favourite part? Many of surfing best destinations are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
And now, I want to teach you how to experience the same sense of freedom and adventure that I love. It’s not easy but nothing in life that is worth having is.
This blog post is brimmed with all the necessary information a beginner surfer needs to know, and I threw in a little extra for the seasoned riders as well.
"The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun." - Phil Edwards
You have probably heard that surfing is incredibly difficult and it can take years to learn how to do it right. While it's true that it's not exactly easy, it's not rocket science either. Everyone who is really interested and dedicated can learn how to get out there and have fun.
However, before you get on a surfboard, you need to prepare yourself and go through the essentials, so you can have fun and be safe once you dip your feet in the ocean.
You may not know this, but before everything else, you will need to prepare your body. This sport is physically demanding and there are actual exercises to get you in shape for the very dynamic sport of surfing, and build your stamina.
Your body has to be strong enough to paddle, catch a wave, keep your balance on the board, and make quick movements as you move through the water. And an adventurer like yourself probably already knows that serious injuries can come with the excitement of our sports, if you're not careful.
How's your swimming?
Do not get near the ocean before you learn how to swim. And I don't mean just the dog paddle. The currents in the ocean are strong and unpredictable. You need to be a competent swimmer who is able and prepared to swim in bad conditions, and even for a very long time – sometimes without your board. This is an absolute prerequisite to surfing.
After you learn the essentials of surfing (or even if you’re a seasoned veteran), you can and should find a surfing buddy. Bad things can and do happen and it’s important that someone is there to watch your back. Besides, it’s much more enjoyable to share this great sport with others.
"Wiping out is an underappreciated skill." - Laird Hamilton
Even with all your knowledge, practice and efforts, you could get hurt. The most common injuries are sprains, strains and dislocations of the neck, back, shoulders, knees and ankles.
Not being physically ready for all the exertion that surfing requires will lower your chances of sticking with it. Plus, you will wipe out – sometimes hard – and if you’re physically fit, your body will be able to handle the blows better.
You should try to hold on to your board at all times, especially if there are people around you, because you could really hurt a fellow surfer. Of course, you won't be able to control the board that much in the beginning. If you absolutely need to let go, first check that there is no one around.
Letting go of your board with others around is a cardinal sin and can cause grave injuries to you and others. If you can’t hold on to your board when it matters, you shouldn’t be in the water.
Experienced surfers are comfortable surfing during almost any season of the year. But there are some seasons when waves are bigger and better, and this is important for beginners to understand.
The best time of year for swell in Australia is in autumn and winter, from March to September. However, summer and spring months, when the waves are usually smaller, are better for beginners and progressing surfers to practice. There is the added bonus of warmer water!
While we're at it, let's mention some of the best beaches and surfing spots for beginners.
Manly Beach in Sydney’s Northern Beaches is a great option. The atmosphere is more relaxed, the waves gentle, and you will be joined by a ton of other curious novice surfers. Importantly, Manly is acknowledged as a good learner’s beach so there is more tolerance for learners.
Byron Bay is an incredible place and surfing destination, not only in Australia but the world. However, many waves in this region are not suitable for beginners so be sure to check with a local surf shop before you head out.
As you progress with your surfing, you may grow a hunger for bigger, powerful surf (I did). If this happens, you should make a pilgrimage to Western Australia’s West Coast and the famous Margaret River region.
This area has many world-class line-ups and attracts advanced and professional surfers. However, even smaller waves move like freight trains on the West Coast and often over shallow rock reefs so beginner options are very limited. Do not paddle out in Margaret River unless you know what you’re doing.
Wherever you decide to go, a durable surfing backpack like this Channel Islands Surfboards Travel Pack is a great companion on the road and the beach.
"it’s a cakewalk, when you know how." - Gerry Lopez
You're almost ready to hit the beach, but first you need the right gear. For starters will need a surfboard, a surfboard leash, a wetsuit (depending on the time of year and location) and surf wax.
Choosing the right surfboard is crucial and it depends on multiple factors. Your level of expertise, your weight and size will all influence your decision when buying your first surfboard.
There are several different types of surfboards, but the most important thing to look for in a beginner’s board is something that is long (but not too long…), wide and thick. Check out this post at our sister site, Compare Surfboards, for a great run down on an ideal beginner’s board.
Beginners often opt for soft boards, but I personally don’t recommend this. Soft boards feel and act so differently to fiberglass (or epoxy) boards, it’s very difficult to transition to a ‘real’ board when the time comes.
With a myriad of surfboard types and shapes - there are shortboards, fish boards, funboards and longboards – to name a few, I suggest starting with a ‘mini-mal’ and working your way up to a shortboard.
Some will recommend a longboard to start (by definition, 9’1 in length or longer) but longboards carry their own set of challenges. Go for something is the 7’ to 8’ range. This length will provide stability but will be easier to control (I learned on a 7’6).
In order to protect yourself from the sun, cold water and rash, you need to have a high-quality wetsuit. This Adelio Wetsuits 2/2MM Harper is a great mix of practicality and fashion for all the lady surfers during transition months (e.g., Spring into Summer and Summer into Fall if you live around Sydney).
Patagonia Wetsuits are known for their durability, comfort and warmth and the Patagonia Men's R1 Short John Wetsuit is a cool, different option for those transition months or simply a summer day when then Nor’easter (NE wind that usually blows in the Summer) is blowing.
TOP TIP: if you’re serious about learning to surf, don’t waste money on a cheap, low-quality wetsuit. If you surf a lot, you will live in your wetsuit and difference in quality from the top to the bottom of a range is huge. Trust me, I’ve bought dozens of wetsuits. A great option for wetsuits that are super high quality but at reasonable prices are Adelio Wetsuits. Plus, Adelio are a great bunch to deal with and they stand by products. Patagonia, O’Neill and Rip Curl all make great wetsuits. Quiksilver and Billabong…well, let’s just say I’ve had better.
A super important piece of surfing equipment, your surfboard leash, will reduce that chances of being separated from your board if you fall off while surfboard traction pads help to increase your foot grip and can improve your balance and your ability to control the tail of your board.
It’s less important as you’re starting out but when you progress to even a novice level, your choice of surfboard fins is critical. A tire is to your car as a fin is to your surfboard. The right/wrong fins can make/break your surfboard’s performance. Super important!
Now you've got your gear sorted, it's time to head to the beach and start your first lesson.
"There is not one right way to ride a wave." - Jamie O'Brien
Paddling on the ground
Lie belly down on the board and practice paddling first, just to get the hang of it and see which muscles you will be using in the water.
Popping up, or getting up on the board from a prone position, will take some time and practice to learn. Put your hands on the board below your chest on the flat of the board. Use your arm strength to push your body up and place your feet under you. One foot should be placed where your hands were when you pushed up, and the other a shoulder's width behind near the tail of the board.
In the beginning, you can try getting on your knees before you learn how to jump up on your feet. Then bring up one foot at a time. Don't let your hands slide over the edges or you could hit your face on the board. However, pop-up speed is super important as you progress so it’s great if you can get into the habit of popping up in one swift, crisp movement.
Once you're up on the board, like most other sports, you need to balance. However, in most other sports, the ground isn’t moving under you as you move so balance is super important to surfing! Stay low with a wide stance, keep your knees bent, your arms loosely extended, and your torso leaned forward over your centre of gravity.
Depending on which foot comes naturally in front, you will be a "regular foot" meaning your left foot is in front, or a "goofy foot" which means your right foot comes in front.
TEST: If you’re unsure about which side you are, stand with your feet together (on solid ground) and lean forward until you are about to fall forward. Your body’s natural reaction will be to put a foot out to stop you from falling. The foot that naturally wants to jump out in front is usually the foot that will be at the front of your surfboard.
Paddling in the water
I remember vividly my first paddle out. It was gruelling! Now, I hardly notice it (unless I’m not surfing much, like right now J). Getting comfortable on the board and with paddling out can only be achieved by practicing. Try paddling around in the water. The nose of the board should be dancing on the surface of the water as you move.
I often see beginners doing the turbo windmill with their paddle strokes. This doesn’t help you and makes you look like a beginner. Deep, long, consistent strokes are the go for optimal efficiency.
Catching a wave
Catching waves is, of course, essential to learning to surf.
Pick a spot and get ready to finally catch that wave. When you’re just starting out, you will likely need to be in waist-deep water and catching broken waves or ‘white water’. Point the nose of the board to shore as the white water approaches and start paddling. As the whitewash hits you, you’ll feel a jolt forward. It’s important to keep paddling until you have momentum and then try to pop-up. If you rush the pop-up before the wave takes you, you won’t have enough inertia and balancing becomes very difficult. Popping up too early is one of the most common mistakes I see beginners commit.
After you can catch and stand up comfortably in the white wash, you can try to paddle for an unbroken wave. The process is the same but the skill is greater! Persistence! Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence!
TOP TIP: no one tells you this when you’re a beginner but something that separates good surfers from great surfers is the ability to catch the right waves. There is no crystal ball here, it just takes a lot of time and experience to master. When I was learning, I simply watched who was catching the most waves and tried to understand the patterns of their wave choices. I’m still not an expert but I get better all the time.
"We're all equal before a wave." - Laird Hamilton
Not so fast. Before I let you take off, you need to learn the basics of surfing etiquette. Navigating the ocean is like navigating traffic (more so every day…), you need to know the rules if you want to stay safe and keep others safe.
There is an awesome run down of the rules of respectful surfing etiquette at our sister site, CompareSurfboards.com. Read it. Commit it to memory. Follow it explicitly.
Here is a quick and dirty guide for your reading pleasure:
#1 Respect the right of way
Simply said, the surfer who is closest to the peak of the wave has the right of way. This also means that if somebody on your ‘inside’ is paddling for the same wave, you must yield to them. The person on the ‘inside’ is closest to the breaking part of the wave.
It goes without mentioning that if someone is already riding a wave, don't even think about backpaddling - taking off between the white water and the surfer. But, if two surfers are both on the peak and it is breaking in both directions, they can split the wave and go in the opposite directions.
#2 Don't drop in, EVER.
If someone is already riding a wave, or is getting ready to catch a wave, you should stay away from that wave. Dropping in means taking the same wave in front of the person riding. This is rude and dangerous and will not be met with a pleasant reaction.
In some places, the reactions are more extreme than others. Just don’t do it. Ever.
#3 Don't snake
Snaking is trying to cut off someone paddling for a wave to position yourself first and get the right of way. This is really annoying and will earn you no respect in the water. In fact, you’ll probably get yelled at, beat up or worse. Don’t do it.
#4 Paddle right
Instead of trying to paddle where everyone else is, always try to find some spots that are empty. On a crowded beach, this can be difficult but you can always find a less crowded spot.
Never paddle in front of somebody else and always try to go behind somebody who is already riding a wave, and try to duck dive (submerge under the incoming waves). If you absolutely can't paddle behind the person, you must get out of their way to avoid a collision.
#5 Hold on to your board
I already mentioned this but never ditch your board. Surfboards are solid objects and having one hit you on the head can lead to severe injuries. This is a hard rule for the beginners, but you will have to get used to it. Even if you're running into a wall of white water, you can't ditch your surfboard. Just imagine what it would do to the person paddling behind you.
Other rules include some common-sense etiquette such as avoiding the line-ups full of experienced surfers, not hogging all the waves, not littering on the beach and always apologizing if you end up hurting somebody or breaking some of the rules I mentioned.
You are finally ready to head to the beach and start the long but rewarding process of learning to surf. Yes, you will fall more than a couple of times, but pick yourself up and get back on the surfboard. Persist!
And after all the rules you've learned, remember the last one: "There are a million ways to surf, and as long as you're smiling you're doing it right."