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How to Ride on the Diagonal

Surfing is a great sport that feeds the imagination. Even without the influence of all those movies and TV shows about it, there is something liberating about imagining yourself riding the waves and occasionally waving the hair out of your face. What I’ve observed from spending years around those who have never surfed but want to or those who are new to surfing, is that the way they imagine themselves on the surfboard doesn’t differ much.

The Axes of the Surfboard

When you ask newbies how they would change direction on the water, they are going to tell you that they imagine doing it by tipping the board sideways. When you ask them how they would gain speed, they are going to tell you that they imagine it’s only possible by shifting weight to the back foot, so that the front is tipped and the board flies. Experienced surfers know that this is not and has never been the case. Imagining is fun and kind of cute, but despite what its shape suggests, a surfboard doesn’t work on a “+”-shaped axis. Left and right or front and rear are not what they seem to be.

Rather, the axes of a surfboard are diagonal. In other words, you should imagine it like an X (no, not your ex, don’t be ridiculous). The beginning and end of the diagonal lines of this X shape are not that close to the nose or the tail as you would think, either. They are a foot or two on the inside of the nose and tail, and the origin point of our axis sits on the middle of the stringer. It means that, should you tilt the board to a side imagining a + shape, it just won’t do what you want it to do. And jumping on your board and trying to ride a wave with a falsely imagined axis in mind won’t have any positive effects on your mental approach at all.

What Happens When You Get the Axes Wrong

I have many examples to prove this point. When you make your moves based on a + shape while riding down a wave face, you’ll likely suffer from lots of chops. When you try to make a turn, an air, or something similar, you’ll not end up in the direction you thought you would. When you try to gain speed by having the wave push your board from behind, you’ll see that everything the wave gives you are a couple of hops and bounces. Well, you could have just gone to a rodeo bar in Texas for that and then you wouldn’t have disturbed the ocean.

More importantly, though, all these might be enough for you to consider giving up your short-lived surfing adventure because you’ll lose your self-confidence and feel demotivated at some point. But we don’t want that, and there is a solution for this particular type of problem: you just need to adjust your understanding of the board, and subsequently your turns and speed, in accordance with this diagonal axis I’ve been talking about.

How to Adjust for the Diagonal

First, let’s get rid of our preconceptions about how turns should be done and how speed should be gained - I recommend you forget even the X-shaped axis part. Then you should go on to the water with your board, pick a somewhat calm wave, and take off. At this point, please remember the balanced stance on a surfboard: the back foot placed at a 45-degree angle on the stringer to give you control for both sides of the board and the front foot locked in place for better weight distribution. Without that stance, even an understanding of the diagonal axis that would make analytical geometricians jealous wouldn’t work. Without that stance, you can’t have a relaxed upper body or a lower body that will control the board in place, either.

Once you master that stance and stand balanced on the board, you’ll start to understand how the X-shaped axis works. The back foot placed at a 45-degree angle already means that a roll from heel to toe will affect the board on the diagonal. If you shift your weight from side to side on that angle, that will affect the direction of your ride. If you shift your weight from front to back, that will affect your speed. And when you are at ease with this understanding, your turns, moves, and accelerations will not require the efforts of your whole body, but only your ankles, knees, and hips. Yes, I know that every tip I give comes to how to subtly control the board with the lower body, but you can regard it as a testament to its importance.

If reading about it isn’t enough, watch the videos of masters and see for yourself how they make their moves based on a diagonal axis. Whereas those who are new to surfing will hop and bounce to find momentum or gain pace, you’ll see the greats are just shifting their weight on the diagonal. Even in the dead sections of a wave, where an inexperienced surfer would be desperate for a push behind, they manage to gain speed with little banking turns because they use diagonal shifts to raise the right part of the board.

The Flow of the Diagonal

In addition to its efficiency for turning and accelerating, the X-axis also can help you improve your flow. I know that some of the contemporary surfers prefer showing their mightiness with powerful hops and bounces, but I for one love seeing a good, calm, and artistic flow more than hops and bounces. I don’t know about you, but if you agree, hooray for the X (no, not your ex, sorry)!

While we are at it, I should also tell you about the “drop wallet” move, which is kind of the ultimate proof of existence for the diagonal axis and an example for the fluidity it offers. Just open YouTube in a new tab, write “drop wallet”, and watch surfers pulling it off. See how they allow the arm at their back drop and how that simple move shifts their weight. You’ll see the movement of the arm imitates at least one of the diagonal lines of our imagined X shape.

It’s even better when you try it yourself by also heeding the shift of weight that happens on the board. And, to be honest, most of the great surfing we see and we do comes from that. Observe your body and the board while trying it, work on understanding how the two interact, see what happens when you do a certain thing and why. It’s the same learning method for riding on the diagonal. Just do away with your assumptions and observe yourself while practicing.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching