How to surf
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How to Surf in Seven Simple Steps

Learn to surf with these simple 7 steps that will give you something to train, what to look out for in every surf and what board should you start surfing on.

To be frank, it would be weird if you saw a tutorial on how to play soccer in five simple steps or how to run a marathon in, well, quite a huge number of steps. But, when you have an unorthodox surfing coach like Clayton Nienaber, you can easily come up with a how-to article about surfing. In seven simple steps, too!

If you’re new to surfing, new to the OMBE social circle, or new to the deep well of knowledge a.k.a. Clayton Nienaber, let us tell you that he’s not really interested in teaching you surfing per se. Rather, he’ll introduce you to concepts like the biomechanics of an athlete’s body, the neuroscience of surfing, and the energy of the wave. He’ll teach you basic life skills like how to walk, how to pass a cup of coffee, and how to jump on a trampoline without thinking about tomorrow.

So, it’s also quite rare that he’d come up with this very straightforward content. Yet, here we are. Whether you’re still assessing if you should begin a surfing journey or you just set out on one, this guide will clear up the questions in your mind. Even if you’re an intermediate or advanced surfer, you might be surprised by how a simple layout can change your perspective and help you improve.

Step #1: Understand Your Equipment

The sentiment that your skills will be elevated by choosing high-quality equipment is common in almost all aspects of life. 

You’ve just purchased a top-end pair of basketball shoes and you expect that you’ll be able to slam every dunk even though you’ve never been to a court in your life. Alright. You’ve just got yourself a nice pair of winter boots and you think that you, a Floridian from Everglades City, can handle the ice in Minneapolis without falling even once. Okay. You’ve just acquired a board you saw Kelly Slater ride legendarily in a heat thirteen years ago and you think that it’s a magic carpet driven by a conductor djinn. Hmm.

Well, let us warn you that no one in their right mind would give you a bicycle Lance Armstrong rode in the Tour de France if you’ve never biked before but want to learn how. What you’d get instead is a bicycle with training wheels, which is quite difficult to build speed and make smooth turns with, but ideal for learning how to maintain balance. It’s the same when it comes to surfboards.

Short boards will be great for turns and whatnot, but if you start your surfing adventure on them, it’ll be very difficult for you to find your balanced stance. A long board, on the other hand, is like a bike with training wheels: it will be slower in turns and difficult to accelerate, but you’ll easily learn how to balance yourself on them.

Why You Should Start With a Long Board

You might be in great physical shape, but being in the water on a board and paddling or lying in wait for a wave for minutes will be difficult regardless. Moreover, you still don’t know how to catch a wave and how to maintain a balanced stance when riding a wave. Bearing these in mind, long boards are ideal for you in three main aspects:

  1. They make catching waves easier: You don’t have the physical prowess and flexibility of an advanced surfer and you haven’t yet developed the technique for catching waves? On a short surfboard, you’ll be washed over by the waves again and again. Long ones, on the other hand, will make catching waves easier simply because they’re big.
  2. They are more comfortable to paddle with: Most long surfboards on the market have soft, cushion-like tops, but that’s not the only reason they are comfortable. They are also quite thick, which means that they can float on water without you trying too hard. That way, you won’t burn all your energy and still have enough power to pop up and ride a wave.
  3. They are more stable: The sheer volume and weight of these boards make them less susceptible to the force of the wave. Whereas a short surfboard would transfer that force to you, the longer ones will do more in terms of absorbing it so that you can figure out how to balance yourself more easily on them.

In the tutorial video, Clayton shows an 8-foot soft top. If you’re wondering where you can get one, any decent surfing shop probably has it in stock.

The Leash

The leash is the piece of equipment that goes around your ankle and connects you to the board. You just push the loop end through the leash plug at the tail of the board, pull it out, and make a knot. Make sure you tie it tightly, and your leash is done. 

It’s an important piece because it prevents your board from getting away from you due to big waves. It also pulls you back to the surface when you’re washed over big-time. Moreover, if you’re a beginner prone to falling off, whenever you go out there without a leash you risk injuring other surfers around you. We’re talking about an 8-foot long, thick surfboard here. If it’s let loose in the ocean, those waiting to catch a wave behind you are likely to crash into it.

In addition, there are also certain things to heed when rolling the leash around your ankle. For example, you should never put it on your front leg. If it’s on your front leg, it’ll probably get wrapped around the toes of your back foot and will cause you lots of trouble. Also, you should let it stand out to the side. Otherwise, there’s a big chance that you’ll step on it and eventually lose balance.

The leash is a piece designed for safety. So, make sure that you connect it in the safest way possible.

How Do You Know Which Foot Is the Front and Which Is the Back?

You might have heard the distinction between “regular footed” surfers and goofy footed surfers, which unnecessarily complicates positioning. So, first, you need to forget about that. The “footing” of a surfer is much simpler than that.

Then, you can find a soccer ball (or steal one from the kids playing down in the street) and kick it. Even if you haven’t kicked a ball before, one of your feet will naturally do the balancing while the other is doing the kicking.

The “balance foot” is the one that goes to the front of the board. The kicking foot stays at the back and it’s responsible for controlling the board. It’s that simple.

Step #2: Find the Right Beach and Wave

For a layperson, surfing might not seem that complicated. They might just go, “You have a board, mate? A'ight! Why don’t you just jump on it and show us what you got?” Well, if you're a beginner and you find yourself in that situation, you’d be torn between telling them that the waves are not suitable for your skills and really not showing your onlookers much.

Knowing the different types of waves is crucial for you to understand what you got in the first place. There are all kinds of breaks: dumpy ones that you might mistake for a gremlin, the ones that are so welcoming with their nice, slow, and mellow flows, the ones that look like a mythical monster set on swallowing everything on their way.

As you can guess, a beginner should go to the shores with nice and mellow waves. On such shores, the ocean has a more shallow gradient, so the waves will move slowly and break gently. On a steep gradient, on the other hand, the wave will draw water from deeper down, and as a result, it’ll get bigger and more unpredictable.

If you don’t have the patience for a crash course in geography, though, you can look for beaches with surfing schools. As they mostly teach beginners, they’ll pick shores with mellow waves where you can practice as well. Moreover, they’ll have lifeguards in towers all around the shore, so if something goes wrong, they’ll be able to intervene in time.

We also recommend you always double up with a mate if you’re going to self-train. That way, you’ll be able to coach each other, record each other’s performances from the shore, and diagnose your strengths and weaknesses better.

Step #3: Do Plenty of Land Simulations

It’s important to do plenty of land simulations before you go out into the ocean. Land simulations give you an idea about the biomechanics of the human body. You’ll learn how it’s designed to move and what you need to do to be both comfortable and flexible on your board. They’re also beneficial for you to do away with your misconceptions and prejudices about how a person should surf.

To these ends, we have a couple of warnings and practice recommendations.

Run Like a Crab (or Don’t Stand Like a Crab on Your Board)

Rookie surfers have this tendency of standing sideways on the board. It might be due to how pop culture portrays surfers, but there’s no way someone can surf like that because it’s against the biomechanics of the human body. 

Just try running like a crab and you’ll understand. It’s the same when you’re on your board. Standing like a crab will get you nowhere because it limits your movement and restricts your peripheral vision to a great extent.

Look Where You’re Going

Whether they’re paddling or lying in wait for a pop up, some beginners are just flat on their boards with their faces down. Even if you can see something other than the nose of your board like that, what you see won’t make much sense, and it certainly won’t be where you want to go.

Either when paddling or lying in wait, you need to push your feet down, lift your upper body, arch your back, and keep your head straight up so you can see what’s going on around, what the wave is doing, and where you’re headed. In other words, your upper body needs to be like you’re on a bike and steering a wheel.

That kind of positioning is also ideal for a good pop up. When it’s time to stand on your board, you’ll first make a big triangle like you’re doing pushups. Then, by stepping your front foot up the board, you’ll make a smaller triangle. That way, you’ll see how easy popping up actually is.

Make Sure You Pop Up to a Surfer’s Stance

What happens after you pop up and what should you pay attention to then? What we’re looking for is basically your body acting in full coordination so that you can assume a balanced stance right after the pop up.

After you pop up, your feet shouldn’t be pointing in different directions. It’ll cause your hips to wobble, and you’ll find it difficult to stop that wobbling unless you have a good lock on the board with your front foot. 

Once you’re standing straight, your back should be straight as well; otherwise, you’ll find it difficult to maintain your balance. Similarly, if your hands are not pointing in the direction of your ride and are waving about, your board will interpret that as a sign to wobble. After that, it’ll be hard to convince it otherwise and you’ll eventually lose balance.

To make sure that you don’t wobble, it’s imperative to do pop up simulations on land until you get it right. Of course, it won’t be the same when you’re surfing, but you can easily self-diagnose when you fail.

Step #4: Get Into the Water

You might think, “Oh, okay, this one’s pretty straightforward; I can do it without reading instructions,” and you might be wrong. The surfer’s journey from land to water is one packed with thrills, jaw-stopping action sequences, and comedy without relief.

Be Mindful of Other Beach-Goers

You have an 8-foot long surfboard under your arm, and you’re walking through a crowd of other surfers with boards of various lengths as well as innocent bystanders who are just there to spend some quality time with their friends and family. If you’re not careful with that very, very long board of yours, the beauty of the shore can quickly turn sour.

Don’t Drag Your Surfboard Behind

When you drag your board behind, you risk looking like a tourist dragging a suitcase, a tourist who just arrived in a city that they didn’t think they’d end up in and they don’t know how to navigate yet. In the end, they will get their suitcase stolen and get into a fight with locals, which they’ll eventually lose. Similarly, the sand on the beach will damage your board, and in the end, you’ll lose your fight with the waves.

Don’t Use Your Finger to Pull the Board

The leash is a quite tempting piece of equipment in the sense that it invites you to pull the board by your finger. However, once you’re in the ocean, you’ll be met by the force of the waves. Add to that the floating tendency of your board, and you can imagine the consequences. You might hurt your finger quite seriously or have your skin ripped by the sheer force of the pull of the waves.

Scoop Up the Leash in Your Hands

There’s a cable-like thing connecting your ankle to the board and it’s honestly quite long. If you walk toward the ocean with your leash loose, you might trip on it and experience some unwarranted action on an otherwise tranquil day. Just make sure to scoop the leash up into the safety of your hands.

Always Be Waist-Deep in the Water

Being waist-deep allows you to walk in whenever you feel fatigued, but that’s not the only reason it’s important. Catching waves is also easier when you’re waist-deep. Just do the Oreo Biscuit and glide into the water.

Be Aware of Your Board’s Strike Radius

When you fall off your board in the ocean, it will get away from you. Especially if it’s faced with a strong wave, there’s a good chance that it’ll move fastly and strike someone or something in its radius. That radius is the total of the length of your leash and the length of your board. So, maintain your position in the ocean bearing that radius in mind. Otherwise, someone might get murdered by surfboard.

Step #5: Catch a Wave

If you put a weight on the front of your board and send it out into the ocean, the wave will probably lift the board and flip it. If you put a weight on the back of the board, on the other hand, it’ll just start sliding in a straight line. The weight pulls the nose out and anchors the fins at the back. As a result, the board stays in balance. That’s the gist of the Oreo Biscuit mentioned above.

The next imperative that you should always keep in mind is the pop up position. Remember the land simulations we recommended? If you keep your feet down and arch your back so that you can lift your head, you’ll see what the wave is doing. If you see it, then you can time your pop up well and catch the wave before it catches you or before you start paddling in front of the wave, which is a race with only one winner.

The trick to catching a wave is certainly not paddling toward it nor paddling in front of it. On the contrary, it’s waiting and bracing for the impact of the wave as described above. If you just lie flat on the board, it won’t work either, because the wave will just lift the back of the board up and you’ll nosedive and get washed over.

Make sure that you don’t over-paddle, that your center of gravity is at the back of the board, and remember to keep your feet low and upper body high on the board. When you feel the lift of the wave, just pop up. That way, you’ll have an effortless and smooth takeoff.

Step #6: Stack and Relax

Think of stacking Jenga blocks. Do you stack them on top of each other in a straight manner or do you seek balance in impossibly bent shapes? If you’re not a Jenga genius, you probably prefer the former because that’s the only way to ensure the blocks won’t fall down.

It’s the same with surfing. For better balance, you need to keep your back straight. Otherwise, you’ll start wobbling and eventually fall over. Also, a bent back signifies a stiff upper body, which is unresponsive to twists and leans. As a result, you start waving your hands and causing more unbalance and even more anxiety.

Surfing is like biking. Once you achieve balance, you need to point your hands to where you want to go like you do when steering a bike.

Step #7: (How to) Fall

Don’t be scared by the last step being about how to fall. Falling (or failing) is a fate no surfer can escape no matter how pro they are, and it’s the only way to learn and progress. However, it doesn’t mean that you can fall whenever and wherever you like. There are a couple of aspects to heed while falling, too:

  • Never dive: As a beginner, you’re training in shallow parts of shore and you’re surfing toward the shallow sand. If you dive, you risk injuring yourself badly.
  • Lean over and fall backward: The best fall is a controlled one. You can control your fall (if it doesn’t come as a complete surprise to you) by leaning over to a side and falling on your back gently.
  • Cover your head when surfacing back: On your way back from the water, you might not have the time, opportunity, or luxury to observe your surroundings. It means that you don’t know where your board or fins are. So, cover your head while coming up so that you don’t end up headbutting your board and make it a particularly bad day for yourself.

Wrapping Up…

In all the steps listed above, you can see two main aspects popping up all over: understanding and awareness. First, you need to understand your equipment, the waves, and your own body by doing enough land simulations. 

Then, when you’re in the water, you need to be in positions that won’t restrict your vision, awareness, and risk-aversion capabilities. As long as you nail these two, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t quickly progress as a surfer. We hope we helped you take a step in the right direction.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching