There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline you get when you ride a perfect wave! From California to Hawaii, Australia, and further afield, surfing is a popular sport that keeps you fit, helps you meet like-minded people, and is a lot of fun. But learning to surf can seem a bit intimidating, as there’s a lot to get your head around at first.
You need to learn to read the waves, get your body into the right position, and complete tricky maneuvers – all while keeping your balance. Beginners need to be up on their surf etiquette, plus have the physical fitness and determination to keep going every time you fall off.
Whether you’re a complete beginner or you want to improve your surfing skills, with the right tips and guidance, you’ll be well on your way to mastering surfing. From the lingo you need to know to our top tips for learning how to surf, here’s our World Surfers guide on surfing for beginners!
Origins of Surfing
Surfing has been an essential part of Polynesian culture dating back to ancient times, being more of a way of life than a sport or hobby. But surfing wasn’t discovered by Europeans until the 18th century, and it was actually banned in Hawaii by missionaries for a period of time.
Although surfing never died out in Polynesia, it wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s that the rest of the world began to catch on. It grew in popularity rapidly in California and Australia, before spreading to Europe. Oscar Rodriguez was a key surfing pioneer who created new materials, techniques, and designs to bring surfing into the modern world.
What Surfboard Do I Need?
There are a few different types of surfboards, so we’ll forgive you if you’re feeling confused. From shortboards to longboards, there’s a lot of different options to consider.
We recommend that newbies start with a foam surfboard, as they are easier to learn on. If you fall on a foamie, you’ll get a much softer landing so you’re less likely to injure yourself.
Go for longer, wider boards with lots of volume – this means that they are very buoyant and float well in the water. If you need some more guidance, check out our reviews of the top surfboards for beginners here.
Here’s all the surfing vocab you need to know so you don’t stand out as a complete newbie. First of all, we’ll cover the parts of a surfboard:
- Nose: The front, tapered end of the board
- Deck: This is the top of the surfboard, where you’ll stand to ride the waves!
- Rails: The proper name for the edges of the surfboard
- Tail: Back end of the board – there are a variety of different shapes available
- Leash: This is a cord that attaches your board to your leg to prevent it from getting lost if you fall off.
- Plug: Found at the back of the board, it’s where your leash attaches to your board.
- Rocker: The rocker is the curve of your surfboard from the tail through to the nose. The curve of the rocker can vary from a minimal curve to a deep curve, but for beginners, a flat rocker is easiest to use.
- Bottom: This is simply the underside of your board.
- Fins: If you look at the bottom of most boards towards the tail, you’ll see 3 small fins – 1 in the center, and 2 near the rails. Fins make it easier to control and steer your board through the waves.
It’s also handy to be able to name the different parts of a wave, so here’s what you need to be up to speed on:
- Lip: The very top of the wave that will curl over and push forward when the wave breaks.
- Shoulder: Where the wave has not yet broken – you always ride towards the shoulder when you catch a wave.
- Peak: The peak is where the wave will break first – it’s the highest part of the wave.
- Pocket or Curl: The steepest part of the wave almost like a ramp, found right under the lip. If you want to do some epic maneuvers, this is where you need to be.
- White water: The foamy area of the water that appears when the wave breaks.
- Impact zone: The area where the wave hits when it breaks.
You’ll quickly learn that there is a strict etiquette you’ll need to follow to fit in with fellow surfers, especially if you’re a newbie in a surf spot. First of all, be respectful to the locals who might visit that spot every week, and avoid stepping on anyone’s toes or stealing someone’s wave.
There’s enough space for everyone in the water, and you can make some great friends if you keep these 3 simple rules in mind:
Don’t drop in!
Dropping in means cutting in on a wave when someone is already riding it. Whoever is nearest the peak of the wave has the priority for that wave. If someone is riding a wave, you need to stay out of their way and respect their turn.
Don’t drop in, and alternatively, don’t hog the waves and take more than your fair share of opportunities. Let everyone have a go, and you’ll all be happy.
No Letting Go of Your Board
A loose board can endanger you and other riders, so try your best to avoid letting go of your board. If it does slip from your grasp, get your board back and under control as soon as you can.
Surfboards are hard objects and can become projectiles thrown about by the waves. They have the potential to cause some nasty damage in the water, so do your best to keep your board under control at all times.
Riders Have the Right of Way
When you paddle out to the lineup, you need to stay out of the way of any surfers riding waves. The riders have the right of way, and it’s your job to keep out of their path. Find a route to the lineup that won’t affect other surfers, and you won’t get on the wrong side of anyone.
Don’t forget that if you do make a mistake or mess up on surf etiquette, being friendly and apologizing can go a long way. Generally, surfers are a pretty relaxed crowd, so keep these rules in mind and you’ll fit right in.
How to Surf: Step by Step Guide
Surfing has a steep learning curve, but with some helpful tips, you can be up and riding waves within a day. Here we walk you through every step from warming up to riding a wave!
Before you set out, look up the best surf spots for beginners. Avoid extremely popular spots, and head for a more out-of-the-way location, so you don’t have to compete for the waves with hundreds of other (more experienced) surfers.
Step 1: Warm Up
It’s essential to warm up before you hit the water so that you can wake up your body, reduce the risk of injury, and perform at your best. A few minutes of jogging will get your blood pumping. Follow this up with some practice pop ups and squats. If you need any more tips on warm-up workouts and general surfer exercises, check out our guide here.
Step 2: Wax Your Board
You probably need to wax your board before getting into the water. Having a thick, clean layer of wax will allow you to grip your board and keep your balance.
Remove any old wax, and then apply a layer of basecoat wax. Next, add a layer of topcoat wax – you can use any technique, from criss-cross to circular, vertical or horizontal stripes, or at random. Check out our step by step guide for more details on how to wax a surfboard.
Step 3: Observe Your Surroundings
Before you run out into the waves, you need to spend some time taking in what’s going on. This advice is crucial for beginners who are just getting the hang of how to surf.
Observe the pattern of the waves, where they are breaking, the water conditions, and what the other surfers are doing. Take this time to plan out your route to the lineup, too. With a good view of the beach, you can find the safest spot to paddle out.
Avoid areas where surfers are riding the waves (remember, they have priority here) and where the waves are breaking. Look for a calm area where you won’t have to battle through white water and crashing waves to reach the lineup.
Make sure you know which foot will be your forward foot on your board, too. If you’re not sure, a good way to find out is to have a friend gently push you from behind. The foot that you step forward with to steady yourself is your forward foot.
Step 4: Paddling
It’s time to get in the water and start paddling out. The nose of your board should be just above the surface of the water, and find that perfect position to paddle – not too far forward or too far back. Cup your hands and use regular strokes for more effective paddling.
Step 5: Handling Oncoming Waves
Hopefully, if you planned how to reach the lineup, you won’t have to face too many oncoming waves. But if you do come up against some big waves, you need to know the best way to handle the situation. Ideally, you want to avoid losing too much ground and ending up back at the beach again.
Two of the most common maneuvers for passing waves without getting thrown around include the Duck Dive and the Turtle Roll.
For a Duck Dive, you need to be perpendicular to the wave, and when it is just a couple of feet away, push down hard on the nose of your surfboard while holding onto the rails. Your effort should push your board down under and through the wave. Return to your normal surfing position by pushing down with your legs on the tail of your board to propel yourself back up to the surface.
A Turtle Roll is also a handy trick to master. When a wave is almost on you, you need to flip under your surfboard so that you are lying beneath it, holding on with your hands. The board will keep you afloat, and you can emerge safely on the other side of the wave. Get right back to paddling so you don’t get carried too far towards the beach!
Step 6: Joining the Line Up
Now you’re at the lineup, so you need to find a good spot to catch some waves. However, don’t forget the important surf etiquette! Don’t push in front of anyone, be respectful and patient, and you’ll get your turn.
Keep your eye out for the area where the waves are developing and where they’re breaking, and try to work out the best position to be in. Be aware of where the other surfers are – make sure you don’t drop in or tread on the toes of the local surfers!
Step 7: Catch a Wave
When you see a great wave heading your way, quickly turn to face the beach and start paddling. Ideally, you’ll match the speed of the wave with your paddling. Just as the wave comes up behind you and starts to lift you, give an extra big push to thrust you forward with the wave.
Step 8: Stand up on Your Board
You did some practices on dry land, but now it’s time to put your pop up into action and get to standing on your board. Start by putting your hands centered on the board and curling your toes to give you more leverage.
Push up with your front foot, and land standing with bent knees. Then, gradually adjust your position until you’re comfortable and stable. Engage your core – it’s not just about standing up, but staying upright too!
Step 9: Ride That Wave!
You’ve done it! You’re riding a wave, and nothing compares to that feeling of flying through the air on the crest of a wave!
Make sure that you’re in the middle of your board with your feet parallel to help you balance. If you’re feeling confident, you could have a go at some simple turns and maneuvers.
How To Surf FAQ
Got burning questions you need answers to? Here’s where to look!
How can I teach myself to surf?
It’s always a good idea to take a few lessons, or at least hit the beach with a surfer friend when you start surfing. But if you’re set on teaching yourself to swim, watch some YouTube videos and read around online first. These should help you get a good understanding of the positions you need to get into and what to look out for in the water.
Next, find some surf spots that are suitable for beginners. Make sure you warm up and spend time practicing your pop up – don’t wait until you’re in the water to have a go for the first time. Take it slowly and don’t give up. Most of all, know your limits and stay safe.
Is it hard to learn to surf?
Surfing has a steep learning curve, but don’t let that put you off. With some helpful pointers and lots of practice, you’ll soon be riding a wave, getting that incredible surf experience.
How long does learning to surf take?
How long it takes to learn to surf depends on factors like your physical fitness, your sense of balance, and whether you’re learning from a pro or going it alone. You might catch your first wave on your very first day, or it might take several surf sessions.
All we have to say is that, however long it takes, you WILL get there. Don’t give up! It’s so worth all the effort and time you put in.
The Wrap Up
When you first start surfing, you might become put off by the steep learning curve this sport entails. But don’t give up – surfing is such a rewarding experience. nce you’ve mastered popping up on your board and keeping your balance, you’ll be catching waves before you know it!
Our comprehensive guide to beginner surfing should guide you through your first surfing experience. Now you’re up to date on surfing etiquette, you’ve got the hang of the vocabulary, and you know what to do when you head out on the water for the first time. All that’s left to do is grab your surfboard, get down to your closest surf spot, and hit the waves!
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