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How to Catch a Wave

How to read the ocean, understand the various stages of a wave as it forms and breaks and how you can position yourself to catch more waves every surf.

You're sitting on the beach as a rookie surfer who's yet to catch their first wave and watching more experienced surfers catching waves like they're just catching a bus. You must be wondering what it is that you're doing wrong if it's as simple as catching a bus. Well, let us tell you that you're not doing anything wrong—just because it seems simple doesn’t mean it is.

Experienced surfers catch waves through a combination of work, knowledge, focus, and ability: they understand the waves, their routes and types, and they know where they should lie in wait for them. In addition, they know the proper positioning for taking off (you can't get in a bus doing somersaults, after all) and how focused they should be to get their timing right.

In this article, we're aiming to make catching a wave as easy and simple as catching a bus by introducing you to all the mechanics and dynamics that go into it. First, we're going to provide a guide for beginners and the foam they ride. Then, we're going to move onto green waves for more advanced surfers among you.

The Stages of a Wave

Reading waves is important for how to catch waves and for better surfing etiquette, but without knowing how a wave forms and dissolves into the ocean, you can't read or understand them. Therefore, knowing about the stages a wave goes through before it crashes into the sand is necessary for a surfer.

A wave starts as a bump. Then, it builds up to a green wave drawing water from the bottom of the ocean and lifting it up to the top. The third stage is where it breaks. Lastly, it becomes whitewater on the flat ocean and gently meets the shore.

  • The bump: In this stage, the wave is just being formed and it doesn't have any lifting power or much of an intrinsic energy as of yet. Therefore, it's not really rideable and you can't possibly take off on one.
  • The green, unbroken waves: Once a wave starts drawing water from the bottom, it builds up to an unbroken wave, and catching unbroken waves is the ultimate goal of beginner surfers. Identifying this stage is important because it's the best time to start paddling to it. It's also the time when the wave has great power and sharpness.
  • Breaking waves: When the waves are breaking, it means that their lips come crashing down onto the flat water and create white foam. At this point, the wave will be quite steep, and unless you're an experienced surfer, it'll be very hard to catch.
  • Whitewater waves: Even if you’ve never surfed, you’ve probably seen how a wave reaches the shore: in the form of foamy whitewater. A wave becomes whitewater at the end of its journey, and it's generally the first wave a beginner surfer rides on shallow water during their lessons.

Observing the Waves

Of course, you can always just jump onto your surfboard, paddle out into the ocean, and head straight towards the first green waves your eyes catch. We could then congratulate your bravery after you come back to shore, but we'll also probably need to give you pep-talk because you couldn't catch any waves.

Instead of rushing in, you can just spend some time trying to learn how the ocean works (in a geographical sense, obviously). It'll be like looking at the bus routes, schedules, and stops in a city you've never been to before, and your surf coach will refer to you as an informed beginner in the end.

In addition to researching how waves form and dissolve, you can also sit on the beach and observe where exactly in the ocean a wave arrives at its strongest and in what frequency that occurs. That way, you'll have more of an idea about the wave's rhythm and pattern at a certain time of the day.

To improve your understanding and gain more insight, you can pester the more experienced surfers around you with questions about waves, the correct paddling technique, and whatever else comes to your mind. They might be a bit hard to get through sometimes, but don't let that discourage you.

How to Catch Whitewater Waves

As implied before, a beginner surfer cannot be expected to catch green waves. If you're one, look for the small, close waves. However, don’t forget to work on your pop up positioning and balance beforehand.

Do Plenty of Land Simulations

You might have mastered the ability to read waves, consulted better surfers, and attended your surfing lessons with diligence; yet, without getting a feel of your board and your body, you'll probably find yourself nose-diving quite a lot once you're in the water. Therefore, doing enough simulations on land in order to perfect your pop up position and balance on the board will pay dividends later on.

To that end, there are certain criteria to consider. First of all, you need to be able to look at where you're going before and after a pop up. One way to ensure that is keeping your upper body up and head straight while pressing the feet down at the tail of the board. If your head is down when the wave approaches, you simply won't catch the wave since you can't see where it is or what it's doing.

After the pop up, you need to quickly assume a proper surfing stance. Make sure that your feet don't stand on different sides of the stringer line of your surfboard. Moreover, you need to get an immediate lock in the middle of your board with your front foot and keep your back straight. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself wobbling all over.

Ultimately, exercising pop ups on land until you get it right is crucial for catching waves.

Get Into the Water

Beginner surfers learn to surf best on whitewater because it's tranquil and mellow. These traits are not only important for learning to balance yourself on the surfboard, but also for actually catching waves and acquainting yourself with the ocean.

While observing the waves, you probably realized where they tend to break. So, designate a takeoff zone 10-15 feet inland from the breaking point, and start paddling toward that zone. Since whitewater waves are mostly flat, you don't need much in terms of picking an entry point either. Anywhere the water can carry you to the shore is good enough a starting point.

To get a better feel of the wave, you can start body surfing. The exercise will help you learn how much power the wave has, where it starts accelerating, how fast it is, and how much it can carry you.

Then, you can try standing up on your board the way you practiced on land. Make sure that your pop up coincides with the moment the board starts rising as it’s being pushed by the wave. Your first attempts might not work out, but eventually, you'll manage to catch a wave as long as you stay persistent. Don't forget that even pro surfers failed in the beginning.

The Ideal Surfboard to Catch Whitewater Waves

Most surfers start surfing on soft-top long boards regardless of their high self-esteem or good physical shape, and there are a couple of reasons why.

The volume and weight of a bigger board make it less susceptible to the force of the wave. It’s also quite thick, so it absorbs much of the impact, unlike smaller boards. As a result, you can maintain your balance more easily on long boards.

If you're new and hardly able to catch waves as of yet, it means that you'll have to paddle a lot. Well, soft top boards are ideal for paddling as well since they are more comfortable and they float better due to their thickness.

How to Catch Unbroken Waves

As you progress in your surfing journey from beginner and intermediate stages toward advanced ones, the foamy white-water waves won't be enough for you. They're smooth, mellow, and slow, so you cannot find too much speed on them.

Since there's not much in the sense of pocket or shoulder, you won't have the space to make aesthetic turns either. That's when you start looking for green waves. 

However, an unbroken wave is not as easy to catch as the ones closer to the shore. You'll probably need to change your surfboard, your surfing technique, and your attitude. In addition to those, you'll need more stamina to endure the long intervals of paddling, waiting in the water, and even being washed over.

How to Position Yourself 

Remember that we told you about the stages of waves and we urged you to observe them from the shore for a while. If you do that, you'll realize that there are two points converging on each other that you need to be aware of.

The waves generally have an apex point and shoulders before they break; one of the points we need to make note of is that apex since it's where the wave is most powerful. Secondly, more often than not, the waves reach their full power at points where the ocean is at its deepest since the waves draw water from the bottom and lift it to the surface. 

To catch an unbroken wave, you need to be somewhere close to that moment of convergence. In other words, you need to position yourself in line with the apex of a wave and before it starts losing power as a result of breaking.

Most of the time, novice surfers find themselves going for the shoulder fearing the power in the apex, which is a problem of mental attitude rather than surfing skills. So, it's worth noting that you shouldn't surrender to your habits or fears, and be brave to take that mental step toward being an advanced surfer.

Paddling and Waiting

Research shows that more than three-quarters of surfing is actually just paddling and waiting.

For beginners and pro surfers that are not that good alike, paddling is in the forefront, but you rarely see legendary pros like Kelly Slater paddle because they know where to wait. Most beginners err to think that paddling with big, deep strokes toward or in front of a wave will allow them to catch it. That only shows a knack for overdoing it or anxiety due to fear of failure.

Paddling frantically toward a wave means that you're splashing around a lot and big strokes mean that you're more invested in paddling than the wave itself. In the end, both end up limiting your peripheral and mental vision, and the wave either passes you by or washes you over since you can't look at where you want to go. Moreover, even if you somehow make the wave, you'll be quite tired due to the energy you spent on those big paddles, and simply put, you won't enjoy the rest of your ride that much.

Similarly, when a wave approaches you, you shouldn't be afraid of failing to catch it and start paddling in front of it while waiting for the perfect moment you can take off. That race has only one winner since no pair of human arms can over-paddle a wave that's at its highest power and speed.

What you need to do instead of over-paddling and potentially losing sight of your purpose is simple. You should just observe where the wave will have an opening for you to take off and position yourself accordingly with the least paddling possible.

Feeling the Lift: the Oreo Biscuit

What's the ideal paddling position? Keep your feet flat at the tail of the board, put your hands on the rails as if you're steering a bike, and lift your upper body so you can see your surroundings and where you want to go.

It's the position we refer to as the Oreo Biscuit at OMBE, which is also the ideal position for feeling the lift of the wave and making the most of its energy. When the tail of your surfboard is down and the nose is up, the wave can easily push it from behind, providing you with all the speed you need. It's as if the wave grants drive and purpose to the board.

If your upper body stays low and applies pressure to the front of the board when you stop paddling, on the other hand, the wave pushing you from behind will lift the tail and cause you to nosedive.

Moreover, you won't find the thick and unresponsive surfboards you used to ride the white waves helpful once you start going for the big waves. To feel their lift and to navigate through them, you'll need more responsive boards in accordance with your surfing technique. At this point, it's better to consult with your surf coach before picking a board.

Common Mistakes Rookies Make When Trying to Catch Waves

Whether they're still on the level of whitewater or they made it to the green waves, there are some common mistakes rookies tend to make.

  • Over-paddling: Slow and smooth paddling allows you to see your whereabouts and where you want to go, and that's the way to catch good waves. Lying flat on your board won't be of much help in this sense, and it won't let you pop up to the proper surfer stance easily. Also, you can easily paddle out of position and miss lots of good waves when you over-paddle.
  • Positioning yourself in the swells: Swells are nice and peaceful... if you want to have a good swim. But they aren't exactly the zones for catching waves, since the waves won't create much lift or speed there.
  • Protecting your head when the wave comes: Yes, we can understand that introduction to big, unbroken waves might sometimes be scary, and protecting your head by tilting it down is mostly instinctive. But obviously, it's not something you want to get used to if you want to progress your surfing.

Wrapping Up...

Two different aspects come up when you compare catching small, white waves to green, unbroken waves: balance and paddling.

To catch small waves, the most important part is how you pop up. If you don't position yourself with the correct technique, your pop up might let you down and you might easily be thrown off balance and off the board. To that end, doing enough land simulations until you get it right is imperative.

Catching unbroken waves, on the other hand, requires understanding how waves work and seeing what the wave you're aiming to catch is doing. A rookie tends to over-paddle either due to anxiety or lack of technique. Instead, if you want to progress as a surfer and catch waves better, you need to understand where and how you need to position yourself to minimize paddling and maximize the energy of the wave.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching