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.
Essential Surf Gear & Tools
This essential surf gear guide will ensure a surfer can withstand anything the elements can throw at them.
Every surfer should have a toolbox of the necessary items to get you through numerous beach sessions. The kit should include everything to withstand the rigors of sun and sea, while also preparing a surfer for the inevitable repairs and maintenance their surfboard will need.
Fill your pack with these invaluable surf gear supplies to turn major problems into minor inconveniences.
The fin key is an easily-overlooked little item that allows you to switch out fins, something you’ll want to do when conditions change or you’re looking to get a different performance feel from your stick.
Whether your changing your single fin to a twin or your thurster to a Twinzer setup, you’ll need a fin key to pull it off. Fin keys are small, compact and can easily be thrown into a small bag to bring with the rest of your surfing gear.
Wax scrapers are indispensable tools used to scrape off an old wax coat and make way for a new one. You should use a wax scraper and apply a brand new wax coat every two or three times you surf.
You can use the old wax for longer, but it flakes away and loses its stickiness. Most wax scrapers come with a fine-toothed edge that allows you to rough up your existing wax coat to give it more friction for more sessions. This is a good way to go if you’re out of wax.
Basecoat & Topcoat
After removing any old wax from your deck, you’ll want to apply a basecoat. This wax is the first layer that the softer, stickier wax will adhere to. The topcoat you use will depend on the temperature of the water you’ll be in.
Read our Surf Wax Infographic below to make sure you have the right wax for the job. Just rub the wax all around making either a cross-hatch pattern or rubbing in circles. Grip is very important when taking on the waves, so don’t forget this piece of surf gear.
No board is immune to the thrashing it’ll get in the water, no matter how much you baby your board. It’ll get bumped, scraped, gouged and otherwise roughed up.
When you have deep gouges or dings that afflict large portions of the fiberglass, find a good ding-repair pro by asking the folks at your local surf shop. For everything smaller than that, such as minor bumps and nicks, you’ll want to buy some epoxy made specifically for surfboards.
Solarez has a full line of such products, many of which harden in the sun in mere minutes. Take caution to follow the instructions on the packaging, and make sure you buy the right kind.
If your board is made of epoxy, you’ll need to get epoxy resin. Likewise for boards made of traditional polyurethane foam and fiberglass.
Sandpaper is essential for repairing dings. You will need it to rough up any areas where you want to apply resin. Once you have done that, you will need the sandpaper again to smooth out those repaired spots.
For minor cracks or tears in the fiberglass or resin coating of your board, use a fairly rough grit of sandpaper – a grit of 200 is a decent place to start. Rough up the surface of the board so that the resin will adhere.
Once you have applied it, you will want to use sandpaper again to smooth it out.
Score the area where you’ll apply, but don’t remove more material than you need to. For this second round of sanding, choose a lighter grit, somewhere around 80 or 150.
Sand only so the surface of the board is smooth, and make sure not to sand so much that you make a dent.
Even waterproof sunblock is susceptible to washing off when you are paddling face first into wave after wave.
Some sunblock, however, has more staying power than others. You’ll want to bring along a zinc sunblock – the kind that comes in a little jar rather than a squeeze tube. These are generally thick and meant to be applied to your face and neck, which for most surfers, are the most important areas to protect.
If you wear a wetsuit most of the year, as do most California surfers, it may be the only parts of your body you’ll need sunblock on.
If you use your wetsuit often, it may never dry. That’s an invitation for mold and mildew to colonize your precious, warmth-giving neoprene. This can shorten the life of your suit.
That’s why it’s worth it to shell out for a wetsuit hanger, preferably the kind that has a built-in fan which will circulate air through the suit and help dry it from the inside out. Another bonus is that the hanger is made to take care of your neoprene, which is prone to deleterious creases.
This makes it less likely to develop cold spots or leaks.
Have any other essential pieces of surf gear in your kit? Let us know in the comments below.
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.