How to Surf - A Beginners Guide

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How to Surf - A Beginners Guide

How to Surf - A Beginners Guide

If you’ve ever dreamed of learning to surf - we don’t blame you. This magical sport has captured the hearts and minds of generations ever since the Polynesian kings would ride the waves to demonstrate their strength as warriors. 

Imagine swimming through turquoise waters, waiting for just the right moment, and harnessing the power of the ocean to ride waves. There’s nothing more exhilarating. 

But if you’re intimidated to begin, don’t be. We’ve created a detailed guide on surfing for beginners so that you can get your bearings before starting this highly thrilling sport. So read on and get ready to catch your first wave. And if you become addicted, don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Best Surfboards for Beginners

The number one tip for choosing a surfboard for beginners is to avoid a shortboard. Who’s considered a beginner? If you’ve never surfed, or surfed only a handful of times, then you’re a beginner. It’s possible to progress quickly, but as with most skilled pursuits “time on task” is the main factor towards progression.

As a beginner, you need a long, thick, and wide surfboard. It will be easier to paddle into waves and stand up. A long, thick, and wide surfboard has more volume, which means it has more buoyancy. The added width gives you more stability, making it easier to pop up and get comfortable standing.

Your beginners board should be at least 1 foot taller than your height, or at least 2 feet taller than kids (aged 7-12). Soft top surfboards are the best option for kids. Longer boards are easier to catch waves with.

Don’t worry about the tail shape or number of fins when looking for a board. This is more critical once you’re an intermediate surfer. Thrusters (three fins), quads (four fins), and single fins are all great setups for beginner surfboards.

Consider a surfboard that works well in the types of waves where you’ll be surfing. A funboard is a great all-around surfboard design for beginners that works well in most conditions (small to head-high surf) and makes catching a wave easy. A funboard will be ideal to have in bigger waves because it will be easier to control and duck dive than a longboard. Our Nomad soft top is a ‘funboard’ style board for athletic beginners looking for a more nimble board.

Another ideal beginner surfboard design is a longboard surfboard (9-12 feet long). Our Coronado soft top longboards are perfect for beginners. Longboards have a large amount of volume, which makes them work super well in even the smallest of conditions. For surf destinations that are more seasonal like the East Coast of the USA, a longboard is a must-have during the inconsistent summer months. However, keep in mind that even popular surf destinations like California and Hawaii will still offer you those perfect small days to go surfing with your longboard. 

Funboards, longboards, and soft top Surfboards are all great beginner surfboard designs. For more info, check out our blog post Choosing A Surfboard For Beginners.

Best Waves for Beginners

When you’re just starting, you don’t need perfect peeling waves - instead look for long rows of white water, around knee-high height, rolling towards the shore. The right waves for beginners can be found where waves break slowly over a shallow (waist to chest deep) sandy bottom. 

You can look online for the best beginner surf spots in your area or see where local surf schools are operating. Don’t be afraid to go where kids are learning. The key is to find someplace not too crowded, so that you can get a lot of practice catching waves, paddling into waves, and popping up. 

If you want more tips on catching small waves, check out Everything You Need To Know About Surfing Small Waves.

Once you’ve identified the spot where you want to start surfing, don’t forget to check your local surf report!

The surf report predicts what the conditions at your local breaks will be like. They include elements like wave height, swell direction, swell period, wind forecast, and a tide chart. This will give you a good idea of what the surf will be like for the next week. Our guide on How To Read A Surf Report For The Best Riding Experience includes tips and tricks to understanding the report as well as the best surf report websites to use.

Finally, think about the time of day when you will start surfing. As a rule of thumb, the best times of day to surf are around sunrise and sunset. Why? It’s because usually this time of day is less crowded, so you have lots of opportunities to catch waves. Secondly, usually, these times of day are when there will be light offshore winds. These gentle winds provide clean and perfectly shaped waves for you to catch. 

For more info, check out our guide on What's The Best Time Of The Day To Surf for more details. 

Of course, if you learn to read a surf report, you can find pockets in the day where the swell will be ideal, but it will be less crowded. 

Surf Etiquette 101

Ok, so you’ve got your board, next make sure you have your gear ready. We recommend starting with a rash guard or wetsuit (for cold water), a leash, and wax. Get a leash that’s as long as your board, and attach it to the back ankle of your riding stance. Make sure you wax the part of the board where you’ll stand if it doesn’t already have traction.  ISLE Soft top surfboards include soft and grippy traction on the entire deck, so you can skip the wax (and mess it can cause)!

Now let’s chat Surf Etiquette 101. It’s critical to follow these rules to the best of your ability, as it’s the only thing that keeps order in the water.

  1. As a beginner, you’ll start off riding straight into the beach, as opposed to going “down the line” to the left or right.  If you’re in a beginner area, it’s OK for multiple surfers to catch the same wave and go straight.  This will not apply once you advance to the next level and start “trimming” down the line, left or right. 
  2. Do not paddle out into a crowded lineup of experienced surfers.  Find somewhere off to the side of crowded spots, or find areas where other beginners are getting started. The type of wave you need as a beginner is different from waves you’ll surf once you become more experienced. 
  3. Knowing when you can paddle for a wave is critical to understand.. 
  4. The surfer who is closest to the breaking part of the wave, or “peak” of the wave, has first chance to catch the wave. Please note that paddling around a surfer to get yourself into the inside position does not give you the right of way, that only works in contest settings.
  5. If you’re at a break with one takeoff spot, wait your turn, slowly moving towards it as others take their turn. Don’t paddle around them. 

      Here are 3 DON’TS to keep you in the good books of your local surfing community: 

      • Don’t be a wave hog - just because you can catch a ton of waves doesn’t mean you should. If you notice you’ve ridden three waves while the surfer next to you hasn’t caught one, give them a nod for them to have their turn. The rule of thumb is to “take one, give two.”
      • Don’t drop in: only 1 surfer per wave (outside of beginner zones). You can’t decide to catch a wave that you see another surfer riding. The only exception is if you’re surfing with a bunch of friends and one of you calls for a “party wave’ that no one else is riding
      • Don’t ditch your surfboard if a big wave is coming your way as it’s dangerous for everyone around you. Your board will be sent flying back to shore and can seriously injure someone. Learning a proper duck dive or turtle roll (best for longboards) is the best solution. Or if you’re unable to do so, grab the velcro portion of your leash (near the tail of your board) and keep your board as close to you as possible.

      Once you get to the beach, consider these things:

      • The first step is to get your bearings. Spend at least 30 minutes watching the surf before paddling out. See where surfers paddle out, where the waves break, and the skill level of the people in the water. Make sure there are beginners there as that will be confirmation that the waves are a comfortable size for you. 
      • Once you do paddle out, make sure you stay out of the way. If there is a deep area where waves aren’t breaking (also called a channel), paddle that way. Never paddle through the lineup or the surf if there is another option. When you do paddle out, make sure you paddle all the way out. Don’t sit between the lineup and the breaking waves, or else you can get hit by another surfer while sitting in the wrong spot. 
      • Be respectful and aware. Locals feel a sense of ownership in their spots. Be polite, don’t yell, and make sure to stay out of people’s way. 

      How to Catch Waves

      Now that we’ve covered the rules of the waves, let’s chat about catching waves and getting up on your board.

      Paddling Out: 

      Make sure your leash is on your back foot! You’ll be starting in small waves, under 3 feet in height.  Walk out in the water with your body closer to the waves, board closer to the beach, until you are in deep enough water to put the board down (about 1 foot).  Place the board on the water and position yourself at the tail, with the board in front of you towards the oncoming waves.  You always control a surfboard from the tail - practice pressing down on the tail as waves approach to lift the nose over them smoothly.  Walk out in the water until it’s too deep to stand, then get on board.  Positioning on the board depends on your size and the type of board, but you want to be balanced on the board with the nose slightly out of the water.

      Catching the Whitewater: 

      First, it’s perfectly fine to start off catching waves that have already broken (whitewater waves) and doing so on your belly.  This is a great way to learn how to position yourself to catch waves and feel the wave energy without worrying about the process of standing up (that will come later).  Catching the whitewater requires you to stay further back on the board so you don’t pearl (nosedive).  Once you catch the wave, practice steering the board with your arms to go left and right, and leaning forward and backwards to accelerate and slow down.  After you master this, you can try popping up, keeping in mind everything you did on your belly, now being done with your feet and by shifting your weight. 

      Catching a Green Wave: This is the ultimate goal, but takes time to master! 

      There are five stages:

      1. Recognize the 4 stages of the wave so that you can recognize when to paddle. There are 4 stages of a wave. When you turn around for a wave, it should be between Stage A and Stage B, so you get the perfect slope to get into the wave easily. What you need to do is predict that the wave will have a stage b shape a few seconds after 4-6 paddle strokes 
        1. Stage A - too early. 
        2. Stage B - perfect slope to match the wave’s speed
        3. Stage C- breaking is too late
        4. Stage D - white water
      2. Adapting to different surf conditions: depending on the surf spot and daily conditions, waves can transform from slow to fast-breaking waves. If the wind is onshore, waves break faster than usual. So position yourself earlier. If the wave is offshore, it will break later, so it will break slower. Tides also affect waves. High tide means catching the waves slightly later. Low tides mean waves break faster.
      3. Positioning in the precise slope: use gravity to get the acceleration you need to catch a wave. You want the wave to pick you up when the wave is in the right shape. Look back at the wave as you’re paddling. You need to know whether you should paddle less, more, or stop. Keep looking right until you get to the wave
      4. Using your head to catch waves: keep your head low with your chin almost touching the surfboard. You want to keep the nose of your surfboard lower than the tail to catch it. You want to lower your head after a few paddle strokes and the surfboard is lifted by the wave. Note 
      5. The final paddle strokes - once you have matched the wave’s speed and have started gliding, give it 2-3. Take off in the top ⅔ of the wave, after you feel your tail lifting. Give it 2-3 last paddle strokes to be sure you’ve caught the wave. Then you can arch your back and stand up.

      The Pop Up and Surf Stance

      Ok so we’ve talked timing. But how about actually going from prone to standing on the board? 

      The first step is figuring out your stance. When standing on a surfboard, your feet should be shoulder-width apart. Are you Regular or Goofy Footed? It doesn’t matter, it just has to do with identifying your dominant foot. What is the foot you’d use to kick a ball? Or if you run forward and jump as high as you can off one leg - what leg did you use to jump? If you jump off your right foot, that’s your dominant foot and you’re a regular-footed surfer. Your stance would be with your left foot forward and your right foot at the back. If you’re goofy, you would have your right foot forward and your left foot at the back. 

      Next, make sure you get your knees squared away. This is to maintain balance. You want your knees bent and in a low stance. But make sure you’re not too low and it looks like you’re on the toilet. Keep your legs and knees in line with your shoulders or even pointed in slightly. 

      Once you catch a wave and pop up on your board, you want your feed dead center over the wood stringer and toward the back of the board with consistency. You’ll also want one arm off to the side of each rail (left and right) to help maintain balance. If you’re not centered, you’ll end up moving side to side. Ensure that you place your back foot near the tail of the surfboard so that your front foot is in the proper spot and can control movement. Our guide on How To Perfect Your Surfing Stance has more info.

      The more you surf, the more you can perfect and adjust your stance. Eventually, you will see that how moving your feet a few inches can affect speed and turn. It’s especially critical when surfing small waves. Generally moving to the front of the board is the easiest way to create speed while sticking to the back is the easiest way to dig into a turn. 


      Surfboard Care

      Ok so you’ve tackled your first surf lesson or session. Congratulations! Now let’s chat caring for your surfboard. You can extend the life of your surfboard by simply cleaning and storing it properly

      • Rinse your board after you surf to remove salt
      • Use a surfboard bag for storage and transport
      • Repair dings and cracks right away - don’t get in the water. If any water gets into the fiberglass and saturates the foam core, it can cause serious damage
      • If there are serious issues, take it to a repair shop right away. They use polyester resin or epoxy resin that was used to make it 
      • Don’t leave your surfboard in the car - the high temperatures can severely affect your surfboard

      When you’re cleaning your board, make sure you dewax your board properly. Don’t use metal tools or harsh chemicals. Instead, use a plastic wax comb (costs about $2 at the surf shop). Leave your board in the sun for 5 minutes for the wax to soften, then gently scrape the wax off. 

      To get every bit of wax off, apply some flour to your board, then rub off the remaining wax with a rag or wax comb. If you want to clean your board, use a citrus-based cleaning product for a finishing shine or purchase a Pickle Wax Remover from your local surf shop for the final cleaning. Check out How To Wax A Surfboard Like A Pro when you need to reapply your wax. 

      If you made it through this detailed surfing guide for beginners - then it’s time to get off your phone/computer. Grab your board and get out there!  

      Remember, a big part of surf culture is love and respect for the ocean. So be a good beach steward. Once you get out to the beach, if you see any trash, pick it up and get rid of it Let’s keep our waters clean! 

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