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How To Surf – The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

Our complete intro to surfing

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Chapter 1: When you learn to surf, it’s all about the FUN!

It’s challenging to learn how to surf and can take years to master. When you take up surfing you should have realistic expectations. Many beginners get discouraged that they’re not carving backside 360’s on their first attempt. Without trying to sound too philosophical, surfing is all about the journey, whether you are just starting out or have been doing it for years.

It’s great to have a goal of being able to do advanced maneuvers, but set small goals along the way. I guarantee you, those “first times” will get you so stoked! From the first time you stand up, to the first time you steer the board even a little, to the first time you ride the green unbroken face…it’s truly an experience. Celebrate the small steps. You WILL learn to surf.

man in black shorts surfing on sea during daytime

Before you begin, decide that you won’t get too frustrated. Surfing is supposed to be fun! It can be fun to just sit on your board and enjoy the beauty of the ocean without catching a single wave. If you’re not having fun, take a break. The last thing you want to do is get so upset that you vow never to return to the water again. Ask any surfer and they’ll tell you it is NOT an easy sport to learn. It can take a long time to develop the experience needed to do certain moves and read weather and wave patterns. Surfing generally favors those with a “try try again” attitude, so try to adopt this mentality. The only way to get better is to keep practicing!

The younger you are the easier it is to pick up any sport, and that includes surfing. Rest assured, however, people from all ages can successfully learn to surf! I started to learn to surf at age 18, and I was also afraid of the ocean. If I can do it, so can you! People also surf well into their 80’s, so don’t think that you’re “too old” to surf. Some of the best surfers in the water are the older folks.

Now that you’ve got the right mindset, let’s keep going!

Before you get in the water, remember to read our surfing etiquette guide so that you’ll have a safe and fun time in the water.

Chapter 2: Choosing a Board

The first thing you need to start your surfing career is the best beginner surfboard you can get your hands on. Certain boards are great for learning, and others will probably make you hate the sport if you attempt to learn on them. The key ingredients to a beginner surfboard are how well it floats you and how stable it is. We cover the details of surfboard design in our surfboard guide, so if you want more in-depth information, check it out.

However, that topic deserves it’s own page, so click here to pick the best beginner surfboard.  Then come back and keep going!

Chapter 3: Finding a good beginner break to learn to surf

Finding a good spot to learn to surf is an important ingredient when you’re just starting out. Small, gentle waves and a sandy beach are the keys. You wouldn’t want to begin your surfing career at Pipeline!

a new surfer learning how to surf

Key ingredients to a good beginner’s surf spot:

  • Relatively uncrowded—you want a few people around for safety, but you don’t want to be in a crowd, either.
  • Sand bottom—much easier on feet and boards, especially for beginners.
  • Calm, crumbling waves—don’t try to learn to surf where the waves are very steep and hollow. In certain areas, it’s hard to find a crumbling wave, but it’s worth a little investigation.
  • Big sandbar—it’s important to be able to wade out and catch the lines of whitewater at first, so try to find a nice big sandbar with knee to waist-high water.

Things to watch out for when selecting a surf spot:

  • Don’t go where the more experienced surfers are. You’ll only get in the way, create dangerous situations, and annoy everyone.
  • When you’re just starting to learn to surf, find a peak to yourself if possible.
  • If you’re very new, make sure there’s at least some people around. Sometimes you can surf near a lifeguard, but don’t surf between the lifeguard’s flags.
  • Watch out for surfing restrictions in certain areas. Some places will not let you surf during certain hours of the day.
  • Make sure you have the right parking permits! A parking ticket will kill your day and your stoke.
  • Don’t surf in the shore break. This is very dangerous! Shore break is when the waves break right onto the sand at the edge of the waterline.

Chapter 4: Practicing the surfing popup on land

The surfing popup is essentially an explosive pushup. This is how you get to your feet on a surfboard! To make the popup easier, practice several popups on dry land every day. This will build up your arm strength and give you some muscle memory. When it comes time to do it on a surfboard you’ll have a much easier time.

Everyone’s surfing popup is slightly different, but for all intents and purposes the popup technique is basically the same for everyone.

At the beach, you can lay your surfboard down on the sand (dig the fins into the sand to avoid breaking them) and practice your popup before you go surfing. It’s helpful to avoid getting sand in your wax =)

learning how to surf on land first

Easy steps to a popup:

  • Place your hands flat on the board at the bottom of your ribcage.
  • Push your chest off the board with your pelvis and upper thighs still in contact with the board. (Don’t do a full body pushup with your weight on your hands and toes)
  • Without relying on your knees, bring your front foot forward under your body to approximately where your hands are. This step is hard to explain, but your lower torso will twist a little to the right if you’re regular or to the left if you’re goofy.
  • Your back foot will naturally follow—just check to make sure that your feet are parallel to your board’s stringer.

More Tips on the surfing popup

  • Some people like to plant their back foot first and use that as leverage to slide their front foot up to the front. This is an acceptable method—just make sure you can do it with balance.
  • Some people grab the rails of their surfboard, claiming it gives them more control. Grabbing the rails makes it easier to slip off and give yourself a fat lip or botch a takeoff, but give it a try and see what works best for you. When surfing a shortboard it can help to grab the rails and pull the board under you in a steep takeoff.
  • The popup should be a single fluid motion. Don’t worry if you don’t get it exactly right the first few times. It will come with practice. You’ll also need to build up some muscles.
  • Try not to end up on your knees. This is a tough habit to break for some people. It happens sometimes, though, so don’t worry too much.
  • It’s easier to do a popup while you’re surfing a real wave. When you catch an unbroken wave, the action of the popup pushes the wave down the face a bit. Plus, the excitement of catching a wave makes the popup even easier.
  • When you’re just starting to learn to surf, practice popups on the floor anywhere you can when you’re not surfing. Do 20 or so a day until you can do it without thinking. It’s also great exercise and will build your surfing and popup muscles.

Chapter 5: The first step to learning how to surf: Riding prone

Catching and riding prone (on your belly) in the whitewater is the first step to surfing. This step serves mainly to help you get used to the board.

You’ll notice that after a wave breaks it creates a wall of whitewater that rushes in towards shore. Some people need some extra time in the whitewater, and some might poo-poo it and say it’s stupid, but everyone should spend at least a little time in the whitewater.

how to surf

Take your board under your arm and walk the board out into the water. Once you get to about waist high water you can rest the board on the water.

Important: Never let the board get between you and the waves. The waves are more powerful than you think and will fling your board at you before you can blink. This is a great way to get hurt. Always stay to the side of your board, and always keep the nose pointing directly into the waves.

While you’re standing next to your board, keep a hand or two resting on the deck. When a wall of whitewater comes towards you, lift the nose of the board up and over the whitewater. As you do this, jump a little and then put your weight onto the board. Watch out, the whitewater can surprise you with its strength.

When you’re far enough out into the whitewater, turn around and point the nose of the board towards the shore and wait for another line of whitewater. Just before it hits you, push the board towards shore and jump on top of the board so you’re riding prone on your stomach. Hang on and enjoy the ride!

You have to get a little momentum towards shore before the whitewater hits, otherwise the board will get thrown around. The wave will also have to do too much work to get the board going.

Surfboards can be about as tippy as the tippiest canoe or kayak, so you might wobble a bit or fall off at first. Don’t get discouraged! You’re surfing! Go out and do it again. Riding prone like this might seem silly, but it’s a great way to get used to how your board moves around in the water. Experienced surfers often ride the whitewater in after their session on their belly.

Chapter 6: The Pop Up (in the water)

Now that you’ve gotten the hang of riding the whitewater on your belly, it’s time to try popping up while in the water. All that popup practicing you’ve been doing on land is going to pay off. Surfing is not too hard once you’re on your feet, but getting to your feet and staying there is 90% of the battle.

Side Note: Some people learn to stand on the unbroken waves, but I wouldn’t recommend this to the very new. Unless you have an instructor or experienced friend, standing up in the whitewater is a good way to get started.

First, catch a wall of whitewater like you’ve been doing. As soon as the board starts to stabilize and glide in front of the whitewater, pop up to your feet! It sounds so simple, but unfortunately the act of standing up well is very elusive.

Some people will want to get to their knees first. That’s fine, but I would caution against making this a habit. You should be able to smoothly pop up from a prone to standing position. This takes time to get the hang of, and it’s a different motion than getting to your knees. Why waste time making a habit of something that you’re going to have to break eventually? Standing up is hard enough without the bad habits.

Surfboards are more stable at speed, like bicycles, so don’t be afraid of standing up if the whitewater is pushing your board fast. In fact, it’s advisable to catch a nice, meaty wall of whitewater instead of a piddly little trickle.

Sometimes waves will break on an outside sandbar and then the whitewater will disappear into deeper water and lose its power. If this is happening you might want to come back at a lower tide, or move to a beach where the sandbar extends all the way from shore to the outside break. This will give you better results.

Once you finally get to your feet, even for a few seconds, it will feel like you’re riding on top of the world. It’s ok to let out a hoot of pure joy. Go ahead =) You’re surfing!

Additional Popup Tips

  • Don’t ride your board onto dry sand. This will damage the bottom and the fins.
  • When falling, make sure to fall away from the board. Don’t dive off in front of the board or in such a way that the board will potentially conk you in the head. Cover your head with your arms when you wipe out and when you surface.
  • NEVER dive off headfirst in shallow water. Shallow water is primarily where you’ll be starting out. Even if you think it’s deep, the ocean floor is not uniform and it can be deep in one area and then ten feet over it can be very shallow.
  • Always wear a leash. Don’t let the self professed soul surfers fool you into thinking that surfing with a leash is stupid. You can decide if you want to wear a leash or not when you’re able to surf without wiping out or losing your board.
  • That said, if you can safely maintain control of your board at all times, do so. Relying on the leash is a bad habit.

Standing up is the main goal of surfing, but once you can stand up in the whitewater it’s time to graduate to unbroken waves.

Chapter 7: Getting Outside: The Turtle Roll and Duckdive

Using the turtle roll, duckdive, and getting outside the breaking waves.

Paddling to the outside can seem like a harrowing experience at first when learning how to surf, and even experienced surfers can have difficulty paddling out on big days. There are a few techniques that will make your life much easier when battling oncoming waves. These include observation, currents, timing, duckdiving and the turtle roll.

Paddling Technique

The first thing to learn when going to catch unbroken waves on the outside is paddling technique.  Paddling technique is a core fundamental skill of surfing – you can’t catch waves if you can’t paddle correctly.  We have an entire lesson dedicated to paddling technique that you can learn by clicking here.

Observation first

When you first arrive at the beach it’s important to observe the ocean and wave patterns. How big are the waves? How often are they breaking? Waves come in sets and lulls, which means that there will be several waves that break in succession and then the ocean will quiet down for a bit before the next set of waves rolls in.

Some surf spots have a channel that make for an easy paddle out. This is a deep spot where waves break less powerfully or sometimes not at all. Although it’s more common to see well defined channels at reef or point breaks, it’s possible to find channels at beachbreaks.

Rip currents

Rip currents can also assist you to the outside. They act as a conveyor belt as all the water pushed towards shore by the waves heads back out to sea. It’s advisable to leave this trick for when you have a bit more experience. Don’t immediately jump in a rip current if you’re a beginner.

When you’re ready to paddle out, you’ll want to carry or float your board next to you until you get to deep water. Some surf spots don’t require this, but others have very long, gradual sandbars. Don’t waste paddling energy until you have to. Also, you don’t want to paddle your board if the water is only a few feet deep because you might run your fins aground. Watch what the other surfers are doing and use your head. Wait for a lull between the sets, and then hop on your board and start paddling with a moderate, deliberate speed. Don’t blow all your energy in a frantic rush to get outside unless there’s a very short lull between sets. Again, use common sense.

Dealing with oncoming waves

It’s easy to deal with oncoming waves when the conditions are small. As you encounter whitewater, paddle straight at it to gain momentum and meet it head-on. Just before it hits you, push up on the board and allow the whitewater to pass between you and the board. You can do this for smaller unbroken waves as well. Paddle hard and punch through. It’s not fun getting slapped in the face by a wave, but occasionally it’s necessary—especially if you’re on a longboard. Sometimes the only option to make it through a wave is to paddle hard, grab the board in a death-grip, put your head down and slam through it. It takes a little persistence and guts, but it works ok. Unfortunately this does not work very well if the waves get above three foot.

Every surfer loves a dry-hair paddle out where they are never challenged by a breaking wave. Unfortunately, not every paddle out is a piece of cake. Fortunately, there are a few tricks to help you deal with larger waves that are difficult or impossible to punch through. These are the duck dive and the turtle-roll.

The Turtle Roll

If you’re on a longboard, it will be very difficult or impossible to duck dive your board. You’ll be using the turtle-roll. When you see an oncoming wall of whitewater, paddle straight at it to get some speed, grab your rails and flip the board so you’re beneath it underwater. Hold the board very tight and pull the nose down slightly. Your body will act as an anchor and the wave will pass over the board, keeping you from losing ground. The turtle-roll is a little tricky, but is an essential tool for longboarding. Just make sure you’re holding on tight and you’ll be OK. Remember: if you lose the board, it might hit someone else in the head.

The Duck Dive

The duck dive is a more advanced maneuver that’s a lot of fun when done right. If you have a shortboard, you can simply dive under the turbulence and pop out the other side unscathed. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Executing a proper duck dive takes a lot of practice. Click here for duckdiving 101.

Getting to the outside can be a bit challenging the first few times, especially if you’ve chosen a day with rough waves and small lulls. Don’t worry, over time it gets easier and easier. Keep practicing your turtle roll and duckdiving skills and over time they will improve. You won’t have instant success, so don’t expect too much and get frustrated.

Now that you’re finally on the outside, take a minute to take it all in. Sit up on your board and relax!

Chapter 8: Catch Your First Real Wave

Ah, yes. To catch a wave and ride its green, unbroken face is an amazing experience. Unfortunately it’s also a very difficult skill to master for most people. Catching an unbroken wave involves a combination of ocean experience, timing, feel, balance, and plain old paddling strength.

Paddle out to the takeoff zone

Once you’ve made your way outside the breakers, take a moment to observe where you are in the lineup. The lineup generally refers to the line of surfers waiting patiently for a wave. It can also be called the takeoff zone or peak. Beachbreaks often have several peaks where waves will break.

Etiquette Tip: Hopefully you have not paddled smack into the middle of a group of experienced surfers. This is a no-no in the world of surfing. Until you can catch and ride most of the waves you paddle for and have a handle on surfing etiquette, it’s wise and polite to steer clear of the better surfers. When you’re learning you’re going to be wasting waves and falling all over the place. Experienced surfers don’t mind beginners as long as they don’t act like a kook and become a nuisance. Instead of heading for the main peak where most of the better surfers will congregate, try to surf at one of the other peaks down the beach where there are less or no people surfing.

Assess the situation

Ok, now that you’re sitting outside at an appropriate peak, sit up on your board and point yourself out to sea. Note how the waves come in sets and lulls, and how steep they are where you’re sitting. Learning the rhythm of the ocean takes time, and the ocean will have a different rhythm every day. It’s a good idea to just take a few moments to assess the mood of the ocean once you’re on the outside. It’s a slightly different perspective than from the shore. Also, take a moment to enjoy the beauty of your surroundings. This is one of the best parts of surfing!

Where to sit/Positioning in the lineup

The best place to sit on the outside depends on the length of board you have. If you have a longboard, you will be able to sit further outside since longboards are easier to paddle fast. If you have a shortboard you’ll want to sit a meter or two just outside where the waves are breaking. Once you gain experience you’ll be able to instinctively tell where to sit.

One of the longstanding feuds between shortboarders and longboarders involves the fact that longboarders can sit way outside and catch waves before the shortboarders can even begin to paddle for them. J

When to catch the wave

As waves approach shore they gradually become steeper and steeper until they hit a critical depth. Once the wave reaches a shallow sandbar or reef the bottom of the wave is abruptly slowed and the top/crest of the wave continues at the previous speed. This is what causes the wave to crash. These mechanics are the reason for different shapes of waves, which will be discussed in the wave science section of this website.

The point at which you want to catch the wave is when it is steep enough to push you along, but not so critical that it’s moments away from breaking. Paddle for a wave too early and it will just roll right under you. Paddle too late, and you’ll probably get sucked up the face and go over the falls. This is the part where it’s helpful to have someone push you into waves, or an experienced friend to show you just when to catch the wave. Without those aids you’ll just have to do some trial and error.

Executing the maneuver

When you see a nice juicy wave approaching from the horizon, lean back on your board and eggbeat your legs to turn yourself around so you’re facing the shore. Leaning back on the board will lift the nose out of the water and make it easier to pivot the board. If you’re swinging to your left, grab the left rail with your left hand and lift a little while you do this, and vice versa if you’re swinging around to your right.

Get yourself quickly into paddling position, and start paddling with strong, deliberate strokes toward shore. You can sneak looks back at the wave to see what direction it’s breaking and whether or not you’re too far in front of the wave or too slow. If you think the wave is going to break earlier than expected, slow down your paddling for a bit and then speed up when the wave gets closer.

Once the wave reaches you, it’s going to lift the back of your board. If you’ve timed it right and paddled hard, you’ll begin to feel the wave taking over and pushing you. There is a distinctive “feel” to this, and after doing it a few times you’ll quickly know when you’ve successfully caught the wave. When you’ve got it timed exactly right, it’s pretty sweet. When you feel that the wave has caught you, give a couple more paddles just to be sure, and then…Pop up!

The first time you do this you might be so surprised that you immediately fall over. Don’t worry, get back out there and do it again!

Angling along the wave

While you’re learning how to surf, you can just ride the wave straight into shore the first few times to get the hang of actually catching the wave. However, once you’ve got that pretty much down, you’re going to want to start angling your board so that you can ride the face of the wave. To do this, you can paddle for the wave at a slight angle so that when you stand up, you only need to lean a little bit to get your board in trim. Trimming is when the board is effectively locked into the wave and is gliding along just in front of the curl or breaking part of the wave as it peels along. Paddling at an angle also helps prevent “pearling” or nose-diving. This happens when you’ve caught the wave too late and/or you’re too far forward on your board.

Common Problems:

A few common problems that beginners often face can be solved with a few changes in technique.

Pearling/Nose-diving:

Make sure that you’re not too far forward on your board. When you paddle your board the nose should be 2-3 inches out of the water.

You may be catching the wave too late. Try moving further outside and paddling hard to catch the waves.

Missing the wave:

Check to see that you’re not too far back on your board. If you’re too far back then you won’t be able to paddle the board efficiently and get it up to speed because you’re essentially pushing the board through the water instead of allowing it to glide.

Paddle!!! One of the biggest things that beginners don’t do correctly is paddle. They also don’t paddle nearly as hard as they need to. The easiest way to spot a beginner is to see how someone is paddling. Make every effort to make deep, deliberate strokes. Don’t “lily-dip” or splash around needlessly. An effective paddling stroke should look very clean.

Don’t stop paddling too early. Make those extra few strokes to make sure you’re in the wave.

Conclusion

Well, that concludes our beginners guide! You’re now well on your way to becoming a great surfer. Remember to keep at it and, most importantly, enjoy yourself!

Hayley Gordon

Hayley Gordon has been surfing for over 20 years. Riding both shortboards and longboards, she's traveled the world to surf but mainly sticks to her two home locations of San Diego and Long Island.
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