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8 – Catching Your First Wave

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, 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.


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.


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!


  1. This website really helped. I’ve been really wanting to learn to manouvre learn the right time to get a wave etc so thx

  2. Great advice – Thanks! Going to Costa Rica next week (from Michigan). Will be my first time surfing. I have a much better idea of what to expect after reading your site. Great job!

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  4. random tip that helped me is writing on the tip of your board if theres something you wanna remeber write it on the tip of your board in greylead A it wont come off in the water and B it rubs off easily you may feel like a douche but when your out there waiting for something its useful to go through small things that will make a difference.

  5. Practice practice practice, I can’t stress more how important water time is, even if you’re not catching loads of waves you’re always learning if you’re out there in the ocean. No one ever became any good at surfing by going out every other weekend when they had time to fit in surfing around other things in there life. If you want to be even an average surfer you need to sack off normal life and responsibilities and get in the water every opportunity, that birthday party you were ment to attend for an old friend you haven’t seen in ages, sack it off if there is swell coming in! The appointment at the bank, sack it off. It’s the only way you will get better. If you haven’t got the time to get in at least 4 times a week the you haven’t got time to learn to surf.

  6. Great. Picked up where i left off after a days lesson a few years back and i’m confident to get out there this year and actually get some real waves. I appreciate the time you’ve taken to put this whole site together, it’s incredibly helpful! 😀

  7. Incredible site with tons of useful information! I was caught in a bit of a rut until I read your section “Missing the wave”. Once I started paddling like a madman I was able to definitely notice the feel of the wave pushing me and now I can consistently catch waves. Thanks!

  8. Made the decision to take the board out of the garage and check out your site. Lots of great tips. If you could throw in a few diagrams or pictures, it would be perfect. Keep up the good work and thanks!

  9. Thanks for the great tips.

    Will be heading to Portugal (Ericeira) for a week soon, can’t wait !

    Keep up da good work !

  10. Thanks allot for the tips! I’m new at surfing and all Ive been catching so far are whites. I’m looking forward to my first real wave, and this site has given me allot of helpful tips on how to catch it. Thanks again.

  11. Read all the beginners stuff and found it so helpful. Gonna head out tmrw and use the tips. thanks again

  12. Thank you so much, I’m totally psyched now… I can’t wait to get out there again! A really great site, very informative, a guide all beginners should read.
    Cheers =)

  13. I also found this site very helpful, especially because summer is right around th corner.

  14. thanks alot for taking the time to do this. i found this site extremely helpful and very informative. thanks again!

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