The best surfers in the world make the sport of kings look easy, but so can you once you’ve mastered the necessary skills.
Known for its history as a pastime of Hawaiian royalty, surfing is a mix of adrenaline and blissful calm. Luckily, surfing is made up of a handful of skills and techniques. Each one, however, is difficult to learn and even more difficult to master.
Here are the 12 skills every surfer must learn to be an ace in the water.
Beginning Surf Skills
1. Read The Water
If you know how to read it, the water is constantly telling you things about the incoming swells, the tides, and most importantly, where you should set up for waves.
The shape of the swell dictates how far forward your weight should be on the board: if the waves are slow and rolling, slide yourself forward to make catching the thing easier. If it’s breaking fast and steep, scoot back so your weight will fall directly onto the tail when you stand up.
2. Pop Up
Perhaps the most important skill to build when you learn how to surf, the “pop up” makes or breaks your ride. Master this in all conditions, and the rest will come easily.
A perfectly executed pop-up is more like a burpee than a push-up: when you press up, your feet should fly under your chest and land at the same time.
A common mistake is placing your hands too far forward on the board during the pop-up. Don’t do this. Place your hands close to your waist, so your arms are making a chicken-wing bend. This orients your weight farther back and will land you where you want to be: over the tail.
Like surfing itself, paddling looks easier than it is. Because you have to balance on your chest and hips while making powerful strokes with your arms, tipping wildly is common among beginners learning how to surf.
Stability begins in the core. By keeping tight the muscles of the stomach and back, you’ll be able to slice through the water in full control.
No matter how choppy the water, keep your board flat and your body stiff as a board. Don’t make the mistake of thinking each paddle stroke should carry you a hundred yards.
Paddling isn’t about brute strength. It’s about technique and keeping a quick, fluid pace.
4. Board Control
Beginning surfers who have experience riding snowboards or skateboards will learn that there is one crucial difference with surfing: you must control your board along two axes.
That is, you have to balance between the toe and heel edge—like snowboarding and skateboarding—but, crucially, you also have to balance between the nose and the tail.
When you ride on a solid surface like snow or concrete, this is not an issue. But in the water, it’s everything. Once you’re standing up on waves, you’ll realize something else: your front foot is your accelerator, and your back foot is the brake.
More often than not, you will want to sink most of your weight over the front foot to maintain speed on small-ish waves. If you start to slow down as the wave subsides, you can shift your hips toward the board’s nose for a little extra gas.
Trimming is surfing in a straight line along the fastest part of the wave, the pocket. That’s where the speed is. Getting there and surfing parallel to the beach—unlike pure beginners who surf straight toward the sand—is the way to maximize your ride time. There are two ways to get there.
First, you can catch the wave heading toward the beach, turn back onto the wave, and adjust your board accordingly. Second, the more advanced way, is to catch the wave at the angle you’ll want to be pointing while trimming.
It’s harder to catch the wave with an angle to your board, but you’ll zip directly into the pocket for the fastest, longest ride possible.
6. Duck Dive
Getting out past breaking waves can be the toughest thing about surfing. When the waves are breaking close together and with a lot of force, it can feel near impossible to get past the break. (Sometimes though, like at reef breaks, it is possible to easily paddle around the break.)
The only way to bust through breaking waves is to duck dive.
Paddle toward the wave to get some speed. A couple of seconds before the whitewash nails you, press down on the nose of your board, with your hands as far forward as possible. Try to get well below the turbulent water. Don’t forget to press down on the back of the board with one foot.
A lot of surfers raise the other leg as they do this to maximize the force pressing the tail down. When the wave has passed over you—hopefully you are still squarely positioned in your paddling position—resume your strokes as soon as possible.
If it’s a good size, the wave will usually push you back. Just start paddling right away. Two steps forward, one step back.
Essential Surfing Terms for Beginners
Surfing terminology can be a foreign language to the uninitiated, but knowing the right terms will help you feel more comfortable on the waves.
Did you see that grom get shacked at the reef break when the swell was going off? Knowing a handful of surfing terms will allow you to more easily deal out the right breaks and make sense of mastering the surf.
Here are a handful of essential surfing terms that will put you in the know.
Point breaks are areas where waves erupt from a narrow point of land that rises more sharply under the sea than the surrounding topography.
Points can create some of the best breaks because the wave often rises above the surrounding water, resulting in a clean wave. In general, points along the coast are good places to look for surf if you don’t know the placement of reefs or other features of the bottom.
In this video, a surfer samples a Costa Rican point break.
A reef that suddenly juts from the bottom of the sea has a profound affect on an incoming wave. When the swell hits the reef, it is thrust suddenly upward, instantly forming a wave bigger than it would have produced on a gradual incline.
Hawaii’s Pipeline, a series of three reefs seen here, is one of the premier destinations in all of surfing because of its reef breaks.
Rights and Lefts
The best waves begin breaking at one point and crash continuously like a row of dominoes. This leads to the longest rides, where you’re slicing through smooth water as the wave continuously forms beneath your board.
Part of learning to surf is mastering your entry, so that you are pointing left or right in order to squeeze the most distance out of a wave.
So, which is a right and which is a left? Easy. If you veer left while surfing, you’re on a left. If you veer right, you’re on the right. The action of a wave cresting from end to the other is called peeling.
The wave seen here, at Mentawai, is a textbook right.
Some waves take on a triangular shape, where the crest initially forms at the apex of the triangle. A-frame waves can produce right-peeling and left-peeling waves. As the apex crests, each of the waves’ shoulders (its left and right sides) form into their own waves.
A pair of surfers who catch an A-frame wave side by side can turn in opposite directions and end up very far away from one another by the time their rides come to an end.
The very first wave seen in this video is a great example of an A-frame wave.
Over the Falls
Going over the falls is one of the nastiest ways to wipeout. It involves being swept into the crest of the wave as it slams down onto the water below, like being thrown into a washing machine on spin cycle. After this disorienting experience, you are often smacked in the head by the impacting water.
In small surf, being thrown over the falls can be kind of fun, unless of course the bottom lies in shallow water, in which case it can be very dangerous. In large surf, the danger of forceful impact from the crashing wave and having an unhappy meeting with the bottom are greater.
In this video, surfer Alex Gray talks about going over the falls on a big wave.
Barrels can be small, tight tubes that require the surfer to duck. Or they can be massive pipes that can fit an 18-wheeler. Either way, these are perhaps the most sought-after waves in all of surfing. Surfers want nothing more than to be tucked inside a barreling wave, speeding down the line in the froth and foam.
It’s not hard to see why: barrels are beautiful. They place the surfer on the edge of disaster (risking getting sucked over the falls) while harnessing all the power the wave has to offer.
In this video, check out one of Indonesia’s dreamy barrels.
A grom is a young surfer, male or female, who shred the living daylights out of waves. Often times, they are even more skilled than people double their size and age. Groms often ride grom boards made exclusively for younger rippers.
In this video, watch a handful of groms shred hard at Trestles.
Waxing Your Board
Before hitting the waves this summer, take a look at this surf wax infographic to know exactly what you need to do for perfect upkeep of your board.
Surf wax is a simple enough petroleum product with a storied past. In the early days of the sport, surfers used to paint their boards with varnish and scatter sand across the surface to ensure they wouldn’t slip off. This gritty solution was imperfect and painful, leading to an epidemic of wipeouts and board burns.
An improvement came by accident in 1935 when L.A. surfer Alfred Gallant Jr. walked through a recently waxed wood floor and found he stuck better than ever to his board. Surfing would never be the same.
Today, surfers wax their boards with two layers of surf wax: base coat and top coat. The base coat glues the board to the top coat, and the top coat glues the rider to the board.
Top coat is considerably softer than base coat. It’s made to melt around a rider’s foot and stick into the contours of his or her skin. If a top coat is too soft for the conditions, however, it will begin to degrade.
For this reason, top coat surf wax comes in four flavors of hardness: cold, cool, warm, and tropical. Use cold water wax if you’re surfing off the coast of Oregon. Use tropical if you’re surfing in French Polynesia.
Pick the right surf wax and properly maintain your board, and you’ll stay stuck to waves better and longer than the next guy in the water. Every edge counts.
Looking for more awesome surf content? Check out the best surf spots in Southern California.
Five Different Ways to Use a Surfboard
We all know the primary purpose of a surfboard. We’ve seen the biggest waves ever surfed, the craziest surfing wipeouts and even some sweet tricks, like Torkos Zoltan kick flipping on a surfboard.
If the high-powered sport of surfing isn’t exactly on your radar, however, have no fear. A surfboard can be the vehicle for many other adventures on the water.
Here are five different ways to use a surfboard.
Obviously, first things first: you can use a surfboard to surf. For years, surfing has played an emblematic role in American culture, representing a certain type of individual: cool, relaxed, casual, in touch with nature and always seeking the Perfect Wave.
Surfing is now a symbol as much as it is a real sport, but the sport itself is still pretty remarkable, requiring its practitioners to do battle with one of the most beautiful and dangerous aspects of the natural Earth: the ocean.
Conquering waves that are many times larger than you are poses all sorts of different dangers and maneuvering a surfboard successfully requires serious strength and skill. Surfers swear by their sport — and it will never stop fascinating the public.
Stand-up paddleboarding is less about conquering waves and more about using your physical strength to get from place to place on your surfboard, using a large oar to make your way.
The greatest challenge here is balance; though surfboards are broad and solid things, much of their stability requires the momentum that surfers get when they ride a wave back to shore.
That’s why you see surfers paddling out on their bellies before eventually standing up to ride the wave. Paddleboarding is mainly designed for the open ocean, particularly in areas between islands and other coastal pieces of land, and as the guys in the video above show, it can still involves tricks and surfer-like use of swells and waves.
Kneeling or Prone Paddleboarding
The traditional way to paddleboard involves lying prone or kneeling on the surfboard and paddling with your hands. This method creates an entirely different dynamic on the board; with the weight and gravity centered much lower, more aggressive turning and maneuvering is possible.
This doesn’t make it any less difficult — there’s still that whole issue of the waves to contend with — but it does make the activity a little less extreme and complex than stand-up paddleboarding.
The popular idea of surfing involves riding waves crashing toward shore, and by the strict definition of what surfing is, this is the primary method. But surfers can take advantage of currents in other ways and in other places besides the ocean.
The Australian lake featured above is opened every so often to prevent flooding in the nearby towns. When that happens, it creates a rushing current that allows for a sort of surfing while remaining in one place — what you could call “stationary surfing.”
The current is so intense that they’re actually able to stand up and cut back and forth in the froth while remaining upright, just like they might while riding a wave.
Most surfing is a fairly local activity: you go out away from the shore and then you come back into the shore. This doesn’t have to be the case, however. There’s paddleboarding, where you can take yourself farther out, or traveling.
If you travel downriver, you can take advantage of the flow and movement of the water to maneuver your board.
Here, these guys surf the Amazon, one of the biggest rivers in the world, and they’re able to do so because of the way the river opens and closes, creating powerful currents. Unlike regular surfing, these guys are actually going from one place to another.