Nobody likes to be a branded a ‘newbie’. In surf terms the word ‘kook’ exists specifically to label those new to the sport who have little regard for the rules of the water. They’re easy to spot, usually because they’re the ones lumbering down to the water’s edge with an 11 foot longboard and an ill-fitting wetsuit being worn back to front. But everybody has to start somewhere, fear of ridicule shouldn’t be a barrier to entry. If you are new to the art of wave-riding be sure to follow these tips to ensure a fast and successful transition into the sport.
1) Learn how to carry your board correctly
The chances are that if you’re learning to surf you’re going to be riding a longer, bulkier board than those in the water with more experience. But this doesn’t excuse dragging your newest prized possession along the sand by its leash, or sticking it on your head like a lumberjack returning home from the depths of the forest. Even big boards can be carried under one arm. It’ll hurt to begin with, but the muscles you’re building will be useful in the water, and you’ll soon get used to how to balance the weight of the surfboard under your arm.
2) Get the appropriate equipment
Stability is the key in the crucial early days spent developing the basic balancing techniques required for wave riding. This means a craft with lots of float. A few years ago this would have meant a longboard, but there are now so many ‘fun’ board options that you don’t necessarily need something gigantic to perfect your art. The correct length and thickness of a board for an individual is affected by your height and weight, so don’t just pick the first funky design that catches your eye. If you’re surfing in slightly colder climates, it’s worth investing in a quality wetsuit. Nothing saps the spirits of even the most experienced surfer quite like the biting cold of the ocean. Wetsuits should be tight; they’ll feel restrictive to begin with but both you and the wetsuit will soon loosen up as you become acquainted with one another.
3) Surf conditions that match your ability
One of surfing’s most fundamental skills is the ability to judge and read the conditions in the water. It’s not uncommon for there to be long lulls (breaks) between sets of waves, so always base your assessment of the conditions over a decent period of time. The surf will usually look smaller from the water’s edge, so try and judge the size of a wave against another surfer. Wave size is always a little subjective and often demonstrates a slight show of bravado between fellow surfers, so be wary of accepting a friendly assessment of the conditions. As a general rule, if the surf is head high, it’s usually said to be around 4-5 foot (because the height is measured from the back of the wave!) Once you’ve deemed the conditions to be suitable, think carefully where you’re going to surf. If you’re a complete novice you don’t want to be venturing too far from shore. Those with a little more experience will be ready to join the other surfers ‘out the back’.
4) Learn how to duck-dive
This seems impossible to begin with, but without a decent duck-dive all other progression is irrelevant, as you’ll never be able to get yourself in a position to catch waves. Duck-diving is the art of dipping under the wave in order to avoid being knocked backwards by the oncoming white-water. It’s an essential technique as it ensures you are able to make it out beyond the froth and catch the unbroken waves that offer the longest and most rewarding rides. Unfortunately, the more buoyant your surfboard the harder it is to effectively duck-dive, so it can be a tricky technique for beginners to master. But take comfort in the fact that if you can duck-dive a big old floaty fun-board, you’ll be able to duck-dive anything! This video perfectly demonstrates the stages of successfully pushing through powerful waves.
5) Understand the basic rules of priority Despite what you might be led to believe, experienced surfers will be pretty accommodating to new faces in the water, as long as the fresh faces understand that there is a simple system in place to determine who has priority over a wave. The simple rule to follow is that the surfer closest to the broken or breaking shoulder of the wave (the peak) has the right to catch it. The biggest cardinal sin in surfing is ‘dropping in’. This is when you paddle for or catch a wave that is already spoken for. Wait your turn, demonstrate you understand this simple rule, and you’ll find that there are more than enough waves to satisfy everybody in the line-up.
6) Paddle hard to catch waves
The biggest reason for newcomers to the sport catching less than their share of rides is a lack of commitment when paddling for a wave. When deciding to turn and go, there needs to be an initial burst of effort that is hard enough to propel the board and surfer into the path of the breaking water. The wave will only take you if you are matching the speed of the advancing ocean, so being ‘picked up’ relies on a few seconds of frantic paddling. Once you feel the wave is pushing you along, stop paddling and quickly jump to your feet.
7) Make sure you’re fit enough
The constant paddling is tough on the arms and shoulders. It’s not uncommon for a newbie to experience ‘lead arms’ after just a little time in the water. The sensation of not being able to paddle another stroke, or even lift your arms above your head, is a rite of passage for those joining the world of surfing. But strength is quickly gained, paddling rapidly becomes easier, and there’s no better work out than a session in the surf. Our guide to surf fitness is useful for those looking to quickly and effectively improve their paddle power.
8) Stick at it!
For the reasons above, it can be all too easy to jack it in after one miserable lesson spent languishing in the freezing cold water. Because of all of the elements required to be a competent surfer, there’s no fast track to instant success. The only way to improve is to practice. But as with anything that’s not straight forward, the reward infinitely outweighs the demands. Stick with it, it’s most certainly worthwhile, and you’ll soon discover that surfing is far more than just a sport.