FAQ: Learning to Surf
Getting the equipment:
You're going to need a board, some wax, and something to wear. Most
of these can be found at your friendly neighborhood surfshop. 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.
If you can afford it (and it's necessary) a new wetsuit can be a
pretty good investment. See the upcoming FAQ on wetsuits for recommendations.
You can usually wheedle the wax out of the surfshop owner if you
buy anything there. Some surfers pride themselves on never having
bought a bar of wax.
Finding a partner:
IMHO, one of the most important things to have in learning to surf
is someone to surf with. Aside from the obvious safety reasons -
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 its good, talk you into paddling
out when its big, and mostly be a friend.
There are two schools of thought here:
1. Find someone good to teach you to surf. and
2. Find someone else who wants to learn and teach each other.
I subscribe to the second approach. Probably because that's
how I learned and because when one person is better than the other
someone is probably not having a very fun session. Don't get me
wrong, I really enjoy teaching people. But if its 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. 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
Finding a place to surf:
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?"
Before paddling out:
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.
Getting in the water:
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
Go for nice, even, alternating strokes. When you have to get through
the white water get up some speed and then either:
a. Plow right through it.
b. Raise your chest up with your arms so that the water passes
between you and the board.
c. 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.
d. 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)
e. 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
(By Morgan Perry)
I have found a few things most helpful in my duck-diving:
1) 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.
2) 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
3) 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
4) 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.
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.
Catching a wave:
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 spent surfing.
[That said, Clark Quinn graciously offers these tips:]
1. 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
2. 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".
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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).
6. Once you can reliably get up, you want to start angling
while riding the white water. Both ways, zooming back and forth
7. 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.
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
Surfing tends to be pretty free form but there are certain accepted
rules, mostly based on safety and common sense.
1. Wave ownership (The "my wave" rule)
The person closest to the breaking part of the wave has the
right of way.
2. Dropping in (The "Thall shalt not" rule)
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
Author: firstname.lastname@example.org (Chris Payne)
Contributors to this FAQ:
email@example.com (Ken Strayhorn Jr.)
Posted by: Tom Tweed
firstname.lastname@example.org (Clark N. Quinn)
email@example.com (Morgan Perry)
La Jolla, CA
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
"Don't let your mouth write no check
that your tail can't cash."
-- Bo Diddley