surfer duck diving
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A Surf Guide to Duck Diving

Duck diving is an important skill to preserve paddling energy and increase your wave count. Perfect your duck dive with our step-by-step guide.‍

Not all surfing skills are about riding the wave. Sometimes, deciding not to ride can be a skill, too.

The wave can be too small, too big, too hectic for your liking, or there might simply be a crowded lineup. In such cases, if you just stay on the surface of the ocean, you'll be dragged back to the ocean by the forward momentum of the wave, and you’ll waste all the effort you put into paddling to get there.

However, by learning how to duck dive properly, you can dodge the oncoming wave and get yourself ready for the next wave. You might think: "Oh, that sounds easy. I'll just dive before the wave hits me and then resurface behind. Anyone who knows how to swim can do it." Well, let us remind you that you have a surfboard under you and might not know what's going on underneath breaking waves.

Thanks to our coaching experience, we also know that the perfect duck dive technique can take years to master. So, regardless of your skill level, the earlier you start learning all about it, the better.

The Key Aspects of a Duck Dive

The Type of Surfboard

Duck diving requires you to push your board underwater. Considering the fact that the boards are supposed to be buoyant, that will necessitate quite a bit of power and dexterity. However, not all boards have the same level of natural buoyancy. So, the difficulty of your duck dive will also depend on the type of surfboard you have.

For example, a soft top longboard is the most buoyant type, and duck diving with one will be quite demanding, if not entirely impossible. On the other hand, more responsive and performance-oriented boards have less buoyancy. So, a narrow shortboard will be easier to push down underneath the wave.

Still, if you're a beginner and want to start working on your duck dive with your soft top, we can recommend the turtle roll technique for you. It's a technique where you get under the water and under your board while holding it perpendicular to the oncoming waves. If you hold onto your board strongly, you'll be able to survive the rush. However, let us warn you that it won't work on big waves.

The Type of the Oncoming Wave

What happens under the oncoming wave has a major impact on how you perform a duck dive, and it depends on what kind of wave you're facing. However, that won’t require an in-depth knowledge of wave types. You only need to know the difference between a breaking wave and an unbroken or green wave.

An unbroken wave means that the wave continues on its path in its usual circular motion. It draws water from the bottom of the ocean and takes it up to the surface. In other words, it rolls. When it comes to duck diving, that circular motion is your friend. It means that, as long as you manage to dive deep enough, the wave will draw you back to the surface.

A breaking wave or an already broken one, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated, as the white foam that spills around after the wave breaks creates turbulence under the surface. Moreover, the wave doesn't move circularly anymore; it moves towards the shore, so there's no energy that'll pull you up and help you resurface.

Therefore, navigating under a white water wave requires a more precise duck diving technique. Now, let's see how you can perfect that technique with our step-by-step guide.

How to Duck Dive Properly: A Step-by-Step Guide

Step #1: Build Up Ample Paddle Speed

An unbroken wave can provide you with all the kinetic energy you need for your duck dive, but to handle a breaking wave, you need to gain as much speed as you can. Remember that the wave breaks towards the shore and you with considerable force and momentum. It means that you need to have even more momentum paddling towards it.

However, building up speed is not without its risks. Whether you're driving, biking, running downhill, or paddling quickly, you're running the risk of losing control, and less buoyant, more responsive boards don't react well to a surfer who's about to lose control. They start wobbling and keep getting out of your paddling line. So, make sure that you build up speed while also maintaining your straight line to the wave.

Moreover, when a wave approaches you, you might feel an urge to stop paddling. Then, the wave passes over you and drags you with it to where you started. Freezing is an instinct that emerges when we're face to face with a daunting force, and it's understandable because waves can sometimes be scary, but freezing certainly won't help you. No matter what, you need to keep paddling strongly towards the wave.

Step #2: Time Your Dive Impeccably

If you want to get your duck dive perfect, timing is everything. For an unbroken wave, good timing means that you stop paddling, take a deep breath, and start diving two meters (six feet) before the wave. That way, you'll be able to dive into the zone where the pull of the wave can push you back to the surface, but not backward.

In a breaking or already-broken wave, on the other hand, you need to observe the wave when you're paddling towards it and dive in a way that would make it possible for you to escape the turbulence of the stray white foam. Otherwise, you'll be caught up in the explosive power of the breaking wave, end up breathless, and seek the shortest way out. That might even mean the conclusion of your surf session for the day.

The trick is to wait for the lip of the broken wave to close in without losing paddling speed and diving from a safe distance. Once you dive, you'll be moving forward underwater and under turbulence until the wave completely passes you over.

Step #3: Push the Board Underwater and Forward Strongly 

You might have the most impeccable duck dive timing in the world, but if you're not pushing your board properly under the water, that timing can easily dissolve into white foam.

There are two main aspects in this step: momentum and pushing power. Getting a couple of strong paddling strokes before you dive is key in creating the necessary forward momentum against the incoming wave. You should also make sure that your final paddling strokes are in a straight line. Otherwise, you'll lose stability, and your board won't know where to go once it's underwater.

Once you gain enough momentum, you'll only need to assume the right position to generate pushing power, which might be a bit difficult in the first couple of tries. The first step in assuming the right body position is mastering the prone cobra pose. Your feet stay low at the tail of the board while your upper body is tilted upwards. During the cobra pose, your hands should grab the rails at the front (or midsection, depending on the board's length), and you need to keep your arms straight to have more pushing power.

If you lean your body forward a bit in that position as you’re pushing, you'll see that you're pushing the board deep. Add to that the forward momentum you've created after paddling intensely, and you'll be going down and forward underwater.

Step #4: Push the Tail of the Board Down by Foot or Knee

To be completely under the water when the wave passes over you, you need to push the tail of the board down in quick succession to your push on the nose. More importantly, you need to push it with such power that, in the end, it's parallel to the bottom of the ocean.

Yes, it's a tricky situation. If you don't push with enough power, you risk getting your tail caught by the turbulence. If you push too strongly, on the other hand, you might hit the tail of your board to the bottom or lose momentum due to the nose getting high up. With ample practice, though, you'll learn how to manage your power more efficiently.

Furthermore, whether you push using your foot or your knee is not exactly a matter of style or choice. It actually depends on the wave power of the oncoming wave. If the wave requires you to go too deep, then pushing with your foot is preferred since you have more strength that way. If you don't need to go too deep, on the other hand, pushing with the knee will suffice. When you need more power, you could lift your other leg up.

On a related note, you shouldn't go too deep unless it's absolutely necessary anyway. Don't forget that duck diving is all about making good use of the energy you put into paddling beforehand since diving underwater is not exactly a walk in the park either.

The deeper you dive, the more energy you'll spend. If you're going to end up breathless after resurfacing and unable to ride the next wave, you won't only be wasting the energy you put into paddling but also the energy you spent during your duck dive.

Step #5: Bring Your Body Down to the Board

Most modern surfing depends on your ability and subtlety in terms of compression and decompression. To generate speed out of nothing, you need to compress. To accomplish turns, you need to know when to decompress and compress. To bust airs, first, you need to compress and decompress up towards the air. Duck diving is no different.

The prone cobra pose is how you decompress in order to generate the necessary power to push your board down. Lifting your free leg up like a scorpion further adds to the decompression. However, once you're under the water and your board is level with the bottom, it's time to compress.

You've probably seen the viral video of the horizontal biker, Michael Guerra. The way he's riding that bike gives him the upper hand against the force of the wind because he decreases the impact zone of the wind. Once you're under the water, the position you take should be similar to that of Guerra: low, compact, and horizontal.

However, to achieve that position, you shouldn't pull the board towards your body. On the contrary, you should bring your body down to the board by bending your arms and leveling your feet behind the tail. Pulling the board towards yourself won't only destabilize it, but it won't sink to the needed depth either.

Step #6: Resurface

When resurfacing, the most important element is relying on your core strength. As we said before, breaking waves have lots going on underneath, especially with residual forces moving forwards, backward, and sometimes even sideways. You need to keep your concentration and maintain a straight line.

In the meanwhile, you need to let go of your surfboard a bit in a controlled manner. You need to let it go from the nose because that's how it's going to make it to the surface. You need to maintain control, as it might start wobbling at any time.

In that sense, thinking of your surfboard as the wall of a pool might help. By holding onto it, you'll just glide out of the water and get ready for riding the next wave, which will hopefully be more to your liking.

Wrapping Up...

A perfect duck dive requires you to understand the forces of the wave: how it moves, what kind of residual forces it leaves behind its trail, and how you can overcome that. To have further knowledge of waves, you can check out our Waterman .

To learn more about the mind, matter, rhythm, and flow of duck diving, you can check out our guide on how to improve duck dives, in which the OMBE head coach Clayton Nienaber breaks it down to the basics while also touching upon the common mistakes novices make.

Don't forget, though, that it's a skill that might take years to master perfectly, and don't get discouraged by the sloppiness of your first couple of tries and trials under the water.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching