How to Not Suck at Surfing


“Surfing recreates you. I went into the water literally ready to blow my brains out and came back out of the water a warrior.” ~ Doc Paskowitz (Click to tweet)

How long should it take to learn to surf? It’s difficult to know. It is, it seems, a monstrous task for anyone who’s not twelve.

From Cornwall to Santander to Biarritz, I have snatched and grabbed at surfing for years: a day here, a stag-do there, the occasional long weekend flash-flooding my sinuses and wishing something that looks so cool would be so much easier for the rest of us. Until recently, it had been a frustrating journey.

Then, I had one of those perfect days where everything that I had to remember to remember was right where I needed it to be. As the waves rolled in along Engenhoca beach in Brazil, I felt everything that surfing had ever promised.

I grinned like a loon.

Having tried and failed more times than most, it might be useful to share what I’ve learnt about the formula. I’m not promising shortcuts – for the average person there’s plenty of hard work to do – but these tips are your secret weapons for blowing through obstacles and stealing a march on the learning curve.

Don’t mistake not being fit enough for not being able enough. You cannot expect to go from a sedentary or even semi-active lifestyle to surfing success in the space of a long weekend. Not gonna happen. To get the most from your time in the water, you need to be fit enough to attempt to catch plenty of waves. You learn more about yourself on an afternoon when you have the stamina and concentration to tackle twenty waves than when you’ve tanked after five.

Obviously the best way to build surfing fitness is by being in the water, but if you’re limited by time and want to prep before the beach, work on your shoulders. Hit the pool and swim in short, intense bursts. Provided you don’t live directly above someone who’s bigger than you, practice your pop-ups.

If you’re given a board that doesn’t feel right, get a new one. It’s a tough truth, but you might not choose a good instructor. There’s no reason to assume that the person you’re paying to teach you to surf cares more about your progress than any other salesman or consultant. To some bandits, you’re just another day in the water and they’ll cast you off on whatever plank is available. A board should correspond to both your height and your weight. First-timer? Width. Girth. Wax, always.

Pick your conditions. To give yourself the best possible chance of not experiencing DEEP, COLD MISERY on the water, you should at least plan around likely good weather. And check that your surf school has access to a stretch of beach away from larger crowds.

Limber up. “You ever see a lion limber up before it takes down a gazelle?” That’s what Woody Harrelson’s character Tallahassee says in the movie Zombieland.  Zombieland is about a mutated form of mad cow disease that turns most of America into zombies. And Tallahassee is wrong. You should limber up.

Get to know the ocean. While limbering up, find a vantage point and have a good look at the water you’re about to enter. Before any surfing happens, a good instructor should sit you  down and point out how to recognise prevailing currents, or ‘channels’, which can make it easier to get out beyond the white water. Notice where the waves are breaking and in which direction. Where are the surfers who are catching the best waves positioning themselves? Obviously tides change, so make this one part of your prep any time you surf.

Paddle right. Probably the thing most beginners get most wrong. You want the cupped hand of your outstretched arm to enter the water right out in front of you and as you pull back, the inside of your arm should be brushing your board. If it’s anywhere else, you’re slowing yourself down and wasting energy. No paddling from your elbows. If your neck hurts while you’re lying on the board, that’s because you should be lifting your body with your lower back.

Earn your stripes in the white water. The white water is the area of little waves that have already broken closer to the shore. They’re perfect for practicing on because they’re not as steep as the “green waves” further out, but they still have enough force to get you to your feet.

Choose the wave you want to catch and turn your board towards the beach. Assume your paddle position (too far forward and you’ll nosedive, too far back and you won’t go anywhere). Once the wave catches you, put your hands together in the centre of the board below your chest – but too wide apart and you’ll do a wobble – and push your upper body up off the board. Next, swing your front leg up and under your body. The rest of the movement, as your body seeks to stabilise, will happen naturally. Bend your knees and raise your arms. You’re surfing.

Once you’re confident in the white water, which could take anything from one afternoon to a few days, you’re ready for green waves. Catching a green wave is exactly the same, but your window of opportunity is significantly smaller. Too early and the wave will pass you by, too late and you’ll be nosediving and getting sand in your shorts. But when you get it right, which you will, it might be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.

Eat lots. If you’re surfing all day long, you can – and should – eat whatever you want. Twice, if you like. For evidence of how many calories you can burn in the ocean, check out the Quicksilver documentary Just Add Water, about Clay Marzo, the incredible surfer from Maui. Entirely consumed by his art and diagnosed with Asperger’s in 2007, Clay has become one of the world’s best surfers, often spending as long as eight continuous hours catching waves with no breaks for food or water. After that, Clay is hungry.

Never strop. If you’re in the water surfing, you are among the privileged few, a minuscule percentile who have the freedom and the means to suck up the best the planet has to offer. Even if it feels like you’re having a bad day, just check yourself. You’re not.

“The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun.” ~ Duke Kahanamoku (Click to tweet)

Watch, Read, Listen

Laird Hamilton: Force of Nature – Doing everything just like Laird would be impossible (and stupid), but this is an amazing look at what makes a surfer tick. Bending Colours – Featuring South African surfer Jordy Smith and some outrageous camera skills from the folks at Red Bull.
SurfwiseDoc Paskowitz didn’t send his children to school. He sent them to surf. Powerful 2008 documentary.

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