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Paddling Technique

Surfboard Paddling Technique

Proper surfboard paddling technique:

Paddling technique is one of the most important skills in surfing. You spend most of your time paddling around during your session. Having the right technique will make your paddling more effective and less tiring.

You should lie on the board so that the nose is only a few inches above the water. If you lay too far back on the board and the nose is way up in the air, your board wont plane across the surface and you’ll be pushing against the water. On the other hand, if you’re too far forward and the nose is under the water, you won’t go anywhere and you’ll probably just end up falling off! Most beginners make the mistake of being too far back on their board.

Once you’ve got yourself lying at the right spot on your board, the next step is to arch your back a bit so your weight is on the bottom of your rib cage. Your feet should be together and lifted out of the water so they don’t drag. This position is HARD for the very new because of the muscles involved. You’re going to get tired quickly, but you’ll soon build up the necessary muscles.

The arm stroke itself should be deep. Don’t “lily-dip!” Girls and women tend to be guilty of not extending their arms fully down into the water, but guys do it too! Girls do have the disadvantage of less upper body strength, but that doesn’t seem to stop the women’s pro surfers from ripping! As you paddle more, you’ll build up your muscles.

Reach your arm fully out towards the nose of the board, cup your hands with your fingers spread apart just a little, and bring your arm down through the water making a small “S” shape that goes slightly under your board. This is the most efficient way to paddle and is utilized by none other than Kelly Slater himself. Learn from the best!

I’d advise against using a butterfly stroke. It’s not really necessary, and you lose speed when you bring both arms out of the water. It’s more beneficial to constantly have an arm pulling you. If you make your strokes deep and powerful, you’ll need less strokes to gain speed. Sometimes you see people windmilling their arms at a thousand miles per hour, splashing around like a wounded seal, but they’re not really gaining much extra momentum. In fact, they’re probably slowing themselves down. Calm, deliberate strokes are the key. It also looks much better!

Practice in the whitewater first

Before you try to paddle to the outside, past the breaking waves, practice your paddling technique on the inside in the whitewater.

Once you’re good at pushing the board for momentum in the whitewater, you can start to try and paddle to gain momentum. As the whitewater comes towards you, climb on the board and start paddling towards shore. Once the whitewater catches you, grab the rails and hang on!

Remember: Proper paddling technique is a huge piece of being a good surfer.


  1. Good discussion. I’ve never been a good paddler, and I can see some of the things I’m doing wrong now. That said, I mainly surf beach breaks, and whenever it gets above 4 foot, (1.5-2m) you will not get past the breakers unless you use your water knowledge and follow the rips out. Even if you can paddle straight out through the breakers, you will be so exhausted that your surf time will be curtailed. Another point I wanted to discuss was the use of kicking to assist in gaining forward momentum. Has anyone else found, when riding a shorter board, (<6 ft) that kicking can increase paddling speed particularly when getting on waves? I don't kick so much to get out back unless I get caught inside and am sprinting to beat the next set that's looming on the horizon….

  2. For those who are asking about the S-shape paddle, I won’t go into how it’s done (other commenters have already gone into this), but it might help to understand it’s purpose.

    Paddling in an S-shape underwater increases the effective amount of time that your hand is pushing against water, meaning you’re increasing the volume of water moved with each stroke. More water pushed per stroke = less strokes needed = increased efficiency = more fun! 😀

  3. If you click on my name, you can see information on a pretty good fitness program designed specifically for surfers. The upper body and core exercises will make a big difference with your paddling.

  4. I’ve tried the S-pull, and it works quite well. The way I like to think about it is this:

    1. After your hand enters the water in front of you, let it sink a bit and start to pull it back toward your head – this is the start of the “S” near the rail on that side.
    2. As it approaches your headline, bend your elbow and bring the hand to a “salute” (but under the board) – this is the first curve of the “S”.
    3. Continue to pull, elbow bent, under your shoulder and toward the back.
    4. As your hand approaches the end of the stroke, let it curve back out toward the rail – the second curve of the “S”.

    Other important things:
    -Slice your hand into the water at the beginning of the pull instead of slapping it.
    -Make sure to reach as far forward as you can at the start and end the stroke as far back as you can. A lot of power will come from the length of the stroke.
    -You’re not just using your hands to pull; make sure to feel the water against your forearms as well.
    -Likewise, don’t just use your arm strength; use your back and core muscles as well.

    I hope that makes sense. The main thing is not to “windmill” your arms through the water. Good paddling involves pulling back on the water, not pushing down on it.

  5. I would imagine it would be drive your hand in near the nose then pull it out and around like an S so that your hand is exiting the water at the end of the S by your hip. Left hand would be an actual S shape, Right hand would be a mirror image almost like a round Z. I Usually used a U shape but I will try the S next time I am out

  6. Firstly, I love this guide, it is unbelievably useful. I am wondering, however, if you could clarify the S stroking pattern, I am having trouble picturing exactly what that means.

  7. Thanks, that’s good advise.. I didn’t know about the S pattern.. I’ll try it. I’m new to surfing and I find that paddling is the hardest part. I have little trouble getting into a wave and even standing up, but paddling out past the breaks kicks my butt.

    I guess I have to get into better shape too..


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