Learning to Surf: The Basics



You will need a board, obviously, but there are many types of surfboards that have specific characteristics.  If  you are just learning how to surf, you will probably want the biggest board you can find.  Nine foot long soft-top longboards like the one pictured are best, but I would recommend borrowing one or taking lessons from a surf shop on one because most people eventually move on to shorter boards.  On the other hand some people prefer riding longboards, even on large barreling waves (google Alex Knost).  There’s lots of “steez” involved in riding a longboard like that, but that’s an advanced topic for later.  You’ll eventually move off of it to smaller and/or better boards than the soft top.  If you want to get a head start, or if you have a little experience surfing, you might want to try to get a “fun shaped” board, like the one pictured, which is like a cross between a longboard and a shortboard.  Longer and wider boards are recommend for beginners because they are easier to stand up,  balance, and catch waves on.  A “fun shape” board has the ease of riding and catching of a longboard, but more maneuverability, like a shortboard.  It also reduces the likelihood that you’ll nosedive (or “pearl” if you’re Australian) when catching bigger steeper waves.  The Surf Club has one 8-ish foot longboard and one 6 foot something fun shape board that are available for rental to surf club members.

Soft top longboards

“Fun shape” board

In addition to a board, there are a few accessories that you might need:

Surf Wax:

Make sure you have the appropriate temperature wax for the ocean temperature you’ll be surfing in.  The usually go by ranges of about 10 degrees but it’s not a big deal to be one range off.  If your board is completely unwaxed, it will take a little while to get a good coat on there.  There are a few methods of how to appropriately apply wax but I prefer what’s called the “cross-hatch base coat with small circles overcoat.”  It’s really not as advanced as it sounds; you just use the edge of the wax bar to make criss-crossed lines all along the area you want to wax, so it looks like a chain-linked fence.  Once you have a good base coat of that on there, you use the edge or point of the wax bar to make small circles, just like brushing your teeth.  A good coat of wax will have an even distribution of little wax bumps.  After being in the water for a while, the wax can start to smooth out so surfers use a “wax comb” to score (rough up) the wax.  You don’t need to re-wax your board before every session but you might want to comb it a little before hand.


Your leash (“leggy string” if you’re Australian) is the cord that connects the back of the board to your foot so it doesn’t get washed away when you inevitably fall of your board.  You’ll want shorter ones (5 to 6 feet) for shortboards and longer ones (8 to 10 feet) for longboards  Just be careful not to pull a “Mark Foo” and get it caught under a rock at Mavericks and drown.  Also do not make that Mark Foo joke to surfers… it’s still a little too soon.


Not the kind you’re thinking of.  You will probably want a rash guard to protect against, you guessed it, rashes.  They suck and they ruin your sesh, especially if they’re in ‘certain places,’ i.e. the kind of places you were probably thinking about when you read the word “protection”.  If you don’t want this to happen you, buy magic board shorts (“boardies” if you’re Australian) with things like “diamond dobby” that will protect your ‘danger zone’.  They also have the power to stretch and be very comfortable and make you totally look like a cool surfer dude.  But the most common rashes occur on your chest, which is rubbing against this sticky wax stuff on your board for hours, so a rash guard works surprisingly well to prevent that.

If it’s cold enough to wear a wetsuit, which it usually is during the Spring semester, then you want to wear a wetsuit.  They are fairly comfortable and warm, and they also protect against rashes.  The Surf Club has four Hyperflex wetsuits available for free rental to club members: one small, two mediums, and one large, all men’s sizes (womens’ sizes with extra material in ‘certain areas’ coming soon).  Sometimes it gets cold enough that you want to wear gloves, booties, and even a hood when you’re in the water.  They’re kind of annoying to wear, and real men don’t use them.  Real men just shiver and yell anathemas to the stark horizon to stay warm.

The Warm Up

“Hunh, Nice warm up..” – Vegeta

It’s always a good idea to do a little stretching on the beach before paddling out.  Make sure to get your stretch on right in front of a group of sunbathing coeds so they know that some serious shredding is about to go down.  Stretch your legs a little for those pop-ups but focus on your arms (and back), because they will turn to noodles in a few hours.  If it’s your first time surfing, you should some practice “pop-ups”, which is the action of going from a laying down to a standing position on the board.  This is the most important balancing act, and it needs to happen instinctively, so it’s a good idea to start putting in into your muscle memory.  Basically you lay your board down in the sand, get on it, give it a few paddles, and then try to stand up on it in one or two (preferably one) quick motions.  Dig your fins into the sand a little so you don’t put too much weight on them.  If you want, you can start off by doing a two-step pop-up, where you first pop up on one knee like you’re proposing to the sea and then move to a standing position.  The exact motion for either pop-up is best seen rather than described, so try to get one of your more experienced friends to show you how they do it.  At this time, you have to decide whether you’re regular or goofy.  If you do any other  board sports (skateboarding, snowboarding, wakeboarding etc.) then you probably know which stance you prefer, because it carries through for all boardsports for most people.  If you don’t know then you have to decide what feels best.  As a little test, you can try doing your pop-up on the board, and see which direction you instinctively turn.  Regular is left foot first, and goofy is right foot first.  It doesn’t really matter which one you are, except that when you ride a wave in a certain direction, you will either be facing the wave (frontside), or facing away from the wave (backside).  Front side is a little easier to drop in and pop-up on, but more on this later.  If the water is a little cold, I like to run around for a little bit to literally warm up before I paddle in and the water sucks the heat out of my exposed glove-less hands and booty-less feet.  But if you actually have gloves and booties, unlike me ’cause I’m from South Florida, that’s great.

The Catch

“”That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”

The ability to catch a wave is something that is extremely important to be a good surfer but is hard to teach and often takes a lot of experience to learn.  It not only involves physically catching the wave, i.e. getting the wave to move you forward without you paddling, but also spotting the wave and choosing where to catch it.

Most surfers, when surfing reef breaks, point breaks, or even beach breaks, will form whats called a “line up” out in the ocean.  This is the point where surfers tend to line up because it’s where the waves begin to break and hence where it’s best to try to catch a wave.  But before I start to talk about catching, I might as well explain the different types of breaks: beach breaks, point breaks, and reef breaks.

Beach Breaks:

Beach breaks are the simplest type of break, and the two main Surf Club beaches (Jacksonville and Charleston) have beach breaks.  A beach break is nothing more than an area where the sandbar causes waves to build and break.  This makes up most of the surf spots on the east coast of the US.  Beach breaks are also usually the safest and easiest places to try to surf as there are no rocks, cliffs, or reefs near where the waves are breaking.  This is not to say that they can’t create huge waves (Hossegor in France is a world class beach break).

Point breaks

Point Breaks are common in areas with rocky coasts like parts of California.  Waves (excluding wind chop created locally) can travel to a beach from far out in the ocean in what’s called a “swell”.  These swells can be highly directional, and therefore hit the beach at different angles.  Whatever angle they hit the beach or reef at determines whether the break is a right or left break (or both if the swell is perpendicular).  A point break is really a special type of beach break where the waves come in at an angle to an outcrop or spit of land that juts out into the ocean.  This creates highly directional, i.e. strictly left or right, waves that were built up off of the local sea floor uprising near a “point.”  Sometimes the waves seem to bounce off of the point which causes them to build up.  This effect also can occur near piers in beach breaks, which is why you’ll often see groups of surfers catching waves near the pier and surfing in the direction away from it.  One famous example of a point break is ‘Steamer Lane’ in Santa Cruz, California.

Steamer Lane (Point Break)

Reef breaks

Reef Breaks are arguably the most dangerous types of surf breaks.  In a reef break, waves break over a reef much like they do over a sand bar.  The difference is usually reef beaks create more “hollow” i.e. barreling waves because of the sudden decrease in depth due to the reef and some other reasons that an oceanographer would know.  They are more dangerous because if you fall you have a risk of hitting the reef, which can cause some pretty nasty scrapes.  Notable examples are Pipeline in Hawaii and Teahupo’o in Tahiti.

Now that we’ve talked about the types of breaks we can talk about how to actually catch the waves.  Let’s do it step-by-step cause I’m an engineer and I like steps.


The first step (and one of the hardest steps to teach) is spotting the wave.  You kind of have to just get the feel for what waves are catchable, and what are too small to push you, too big for you to handle, or just too late or early for you to be able to catch.  To get a good idea of where to be in water, just look at the lineup, i.e. where other people are sitting.  Longboarders tend to sit a little on the “outside” (further towards the ocean) because their big boards allow them to catch waves earlier, while shortboarders tend to sit more “inside” (towards the beach) where they can catch waves best.


Once you’re in the lineup, don’t be afraid to adjust your position.  Larger waves will usually come in what’s called “sets”.  Every once in a while during your surf session, a bunch of larger-than-average waves will come in all at once, one after the other.  This is the set, and again, an oceanographer might know specifically why it happens, but not me.  Bigger waves break earlier than smaller waves though, meaning farther “outside”, away from shore.  Sometimes when a set comes, you will be too far inside, i.e. too late in terms of time, to be able to catch the wave.  Usually when you see a big set coming, surfers will paddle out a little to get in the right position.  On bigger days, being out of position for a set can cause you to get taken “over the falls” of the wave.  I like to call this “being in the danger zone”.  On beach breaks, you may also want to adjust your position up or down the beach to get to a spot where the waves are breaking better because of sandbar topography, or more often to counteract drift.  The ocean drift usually follows the wind in onshore conditions, and on very windy days this can be really annoying.  Surfers often paddle in and walk up the beach to counteract the drifting they did while surfing.

Surf Etiquette

An important thing to remember about catching waves is to properly follow surf etiquette.  Yes surfers have rules, and if you don’t follow them you will get yelled at by some other surfer and the lifeguard for dropping in on someone even though it was totally an accident, and you wont ever want to go back to Delray Beach again…  The most important thing to avoid is dropping in on someone.  This is where one guy is already on a wave and you catch that wave in front of him and basically cut him off.  This is dangerous and rude and can cause you two to crash into each other.  The old rule is whoever has their feet on the board first has the right of way.  Since this is kinda hard to tell when you have to make a split second decision, often before the pop-up point, about whether or not to drop in, you can predict who will have the right of way.  Because of this, really the best rule is the person on the inside has the right of way, which is usually the person who caught it first.  In some cases though two people are very close to each other and can basically catch the wave at the same time, but one person is still on the inside relative to the other.  This happens a lot on crowded breaks, so the person in the back (the inside) has the right of way.  For example if two people are going right on a wave towards North, then the person on the south side (the person who see’s the other person’s back) will have the right of way.  This can be troublesome because the person in front does not have eyes in the back of their head (hopefully) so has to check down the wave in the opposite direction he’s planning on going to make sure he’s not dropping in on anyone.  This is a good video explaining what I mean: http://www.youtube.com/watch?.v=QrcmxLjuznQ

Also try not to paddle out right where people are catching waves, so they don’t hit you.  This can be inevitable sometimes though, so if a surfer is riding near you don’t try to paddle left or right.  It’s usually best to paddle forwards or backwards (inside or outside) because you don’t know if the surfer is going to go in front of you or behind you when he passes you.  Just remember he has more mobility to dodge you than you have to doge him, so don’t confuse him about which way you’re going like you’re having one of those moments where you and another person both move the same way three times to doge each other and it’s really awkward…


the Drop In

“Your heart stops for a second as you careen down the face of a huge wave, salty-eyed and scared.  Eventually you regain your vision and slow down as you pull into the “pocket” of the wave.  The adrenaline from what felt like a split second free fall is still surging through you veins as you begin to carve your board into the face of the wave with smooth delicate motion.”

Dropping in is arguably the hardest part of surfing.  At the least, it’s the most nerve-wracking when you start to catch bigger waves.  The drop-in takes only seconds but it can be broken down into a few steps.

1. Before you do your first drop-in, you should determine which riding stance you prefer (regular or goofy).  See the Warm Up section above for details if you haven’t.

2. A little before the wave gets to you, you want to start paddling.  Watch the wave for as long as you can to see how it develops, but then you have to take your eyes away to look forward as you paddle.  You also should turn your board towards the direction you will be going (left or right), which you should have decided before you took your eyes off the wave (or earlier).  Sometimes I turn my head back for a second to check on the incoming wave and see where I need to be and adjust accordingly.

3. When the wave hits you, you will feel it pushing you.  Don’t stop paddling until you feel that the wave will continue to push you on its own.  Once that happens you will have to do your pop-up.  Place both hands on the board, or grip the rails if it feels comfortable, and push yourself up into a standing position while placing your feet where they need to be.  If you aren’t doing the two-step knee-assisted pop-up (hyphens are cool), you should try to make your pop-up feel like one quick fluid motion.  Eventually it will come from muscle memory, which can make it much faster (like DMA from you brain! for you CS guys out there…).


The Ride

“Yes! I stood up! on the board I’m  riding a wave!  Now what do I do?!”

Now come the fun part: riding the wave.  Once you’ve gotten the catch and the drop-in, riding the wave is pretty chill, to say it surfer-y.  At first when you’re catching waves you’re probably going to be just going straight, perpendicular to the wave and beach.  This is okay on small waves, but as the waves get bigger, the chance of nose-diving (a.k.a “pearling”) increases, especially with longer boards.  That is why I said earlier you should angle your board in the direction you’re going to go before you catch it.  It took me a while to start going along the wave instead of away from it, but once you do, it makes your rides longer and a lot more fun.  After you start going “down the line” of the wave, then you can start doing “cutbacks” or turn into Clay Marzo and start doing “Claybacks”…

Clay Marzo’s trademark claybacks.

If you’ve mastered the above processes then you are no longer a beginner surfer! You can now move on to the Super Class A Wizard Masterclass lessons!  Hold on a second while I go make them..

Obligatory Alana Blanchard: Professional Surfer / Model (like that, Lance?).  Consider this motivation to surf.  Maybe you’ll see her in the lineup one day…

I’d let her ride my board.

Also looks at this badass.  Look at that swole.  You can’t drop in to 50+ foot waves without a bod of pure muscle.  One day, if you paddle hard enough and long enough, you could become this….one day…


Shane Dorian, big wave surfer, professional Eddi Aikau, badass

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