Steep Take Offs: How to nail them
Steep take offs don't have to be hard, you just need to understand the easiest way to navigate them and how to quieten the inner self doubt so you can just act.
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The Full Guide
Steep take offs.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of that?
Fear or excitement?
Is it the excitement of speed or getting barreled, maybe just bigger waves?
Or is it just past experience of going over the falls, again and again, or that initial fear of just paddling into them?
Well, after being the most requested topic, I am going to break down everything about steep take offs.
Whether that’s for shoulder-high waves or barrelling, there will be advice in here for you. This will also cover adjustments for the equipment you are riding.
The mind is the biggest issue
It doesn’t matter how good your technique is or how long you’ve been surfing for, if your brain suddenly turns to cactus or you get hit with the stupid stick on a steep take off, it’s gonna go bad.
Fear, stress, anxiety, that sudden feeling ohh crap I am being lifted is going to want to take over your focus and control you. You need to take power and control away from that.
Take control of your mind or it will control you. You already know how to move, you know how to pop up, you just need your mind to get out of the way and allow your body to act.
Psych yourself up
Last week's episode is exactly where you want to implement that technique. The short of it is that you paddle in expelling positive, exciting energy to eject your brain and not hesitate or worry about what may happen. You do this by sticking your tongue out and making the most obscene noises while you paddle in.
It will distract you from all the negative self-talk or doubt.
Taking control of your mind
So what this boils down to for a steep take off, is you don’t want to hesitate, you need to breathe and think about where are you looking.
Hesitation will snowball negative self-talk
Those three things are going to change the whole mental experience of steep take offs.
If you hesitate, you will bring in self-doubt, you will then amplify all the noise around you, where is that person, can I do this, can I take that line etc. Don’t give yourself any time to hesitate and snowball into negative self-talk.
Breathing is essential, sounds dumb right, we breathe all the time subconsciously, so why do I need to think about breathing?
When we prepare for pain, when we think we might get hurt, we naturally tense up and protect our organs and face. What this also causes us to do is hold our breath.
We tense up to protect our body, try tensing up now, where ever you are, clench the fists and lock the body up tight. Hold it for 5 seconds and then start breathing out. You will instantly notice that tension falling away.
This tension will not allow you to move easily at all. So during the waiting, paddling into a wave, riding a wave, practically everything, you want to be aware of your breathing.
You will be surprised to see that most surfers are not breathing much during any of that. They hold fierce, angry-looking faces, holding their breath.
Control your mind by what it sees
This goes back to last week's episode again, where you are looking is where you are going. You don’t want to be looking down at the big scary drop. It’s just going to send you there.
You have to block that out and look to your exit and the path you want to take.
This will be a hard fight to not do this on steeper waves but you need to bring this under control. Especially at that last second just as you decide to pop up.
Eyes, chin and chest up during the whole take off, look down the line to where you want to go and observe what the wave is doing. You need to see what it’s doing down the line so you can judge that first bottom turn or if you need to knife the take off and pull in.
How to manage the wipeouts or fear of wiping out
Think about the last time you were out of your comfort zone in bigger surf and worrying about something that could happen.
Now compare that to how it felt when it actually happened.
For a lot of surfers, this will be the fear of wiping out, going over the falls or completely eating it on bigger waves during the take off.
The fear of this event potentially happening is usually, for most people more extreme than the actual event.
It’s this slow build-up of stress and responding to the environment, allowing that stress to keep building.
When it happens, we generally know what to do, go with the flow, don’t fight it, and don’t burn your oxygen.
And you realise, the actual event isn’t anywhere near as bad as the fear associated with it potentially happening. There is almost a release of that fear when it happens and you just go with it.
Think roller coaster when you do wipe out. Just let go, enjoy the ride, don’t fight it, and wait for the wave to let you go, it’ll only be a few seconds and you can count those seconds out to stay calm. When it lets go of you, swim up.
The rest of this is now technique on how you can nail these take offs.
I’m going to break it down into stages and follow that order.
- Paddling in
- When to pop up
- The pop up
- Dropping in
- Positioning the take off
- Backdooring the section
- Air dropping
- Under the lip
- Dropping in backside
- How to navigate your equipment for steep take offs
I’ve moved positioning the take off down the list because your position will then impact how you drop into that wave. For most average surfers, they won’t be thinking about positioning at all and just acting.
Stop stress paddling
How you paddle in for a wave is so important, we’ve just established you want a calm mind so you can act. So stress paddling is just going to start building up all those negative emotions or doubt.
This paddling in, chin down, furiously trying to get as fast as possible is not a faster stroke. You’re never going to paddle as fast as the wave or outpower it.
You know when you paddle out to relax, chin up, chest up and paddle out because it’s more efficient and comfortable. You’ve got to try to avoid the mad stress paddle in which you end up just splashing more water.
You want the same paddle as when you paddle out, chin and chest up will give you the space to make a proper stroke, to get your arms forward and down. Chin down will just make you lizard paddle where your strokes are just going sideways more than forward.
You want to tap into that power to get yourself into the wave early. The steeper the wave, the stronger and faster that water is drawing up the wave.
This is where you want to use the Oreo biscuit technique where you put weight into the back of the tail of your board to push against the water drawing up. This will push against the board and push you forward, allowing you an easy paddle in to catch the wave. Work smarter not harder.
When to Pop up
This gets you to that point of when to pop up.
With so much water drawing up the wave, this is where you can get scared or look down at the bottom of the wave.
With bigger waves, this will be more obvious and it can feel like you are being sucked up the wave.
You’ll know when to pop up when you feel that glide.
Glide is where you are gliding down the wave and the board is being pushed by the wave.
The board will want to start going down the wave. This is when you want to start your pop up.
Finding that feeling
If you aren’t familiar with that feeling, you want to find it in easier waves. You can go and practice in any wave but the trick is that force is strongest in the pocket. So positioning is key.
You need to position your paddle in closest to the pocket to feel that lift so you can glide in.
A trick to finding this feeling is just to forget about your pop up and stop at cobra pose where you push yourself up on your arms.
This will stop you from paddling and popping up and just focus on feeling the lift from the wave and how that should feel. Then play with it until it becomes routine.
Not going over the falls
On bigger waves that are steep and breaking fast, you want to be popping up roughly around the middle of the wave face.
This is where you feel the wave sucking you up the face, you don’t want to be doing this closer to the top of the wave, otherwise by the time you get to your feet, you may be going over the falls and it’s too late.
The pop up
It’s all the same, just faster.
It’s a hell yeah or wipeout - commit
You can’t fuss over it. You need to just act. The more you delay, self-doubt, second guess, look at the bottom of the wave or any other hesitation, the closer you are to going over the falls or wiping out awkwardly.
Fear can put you in awkward positions and here, that hesitation and fear combined with bad timing is when we can injure ourselves easier.
It’s either a hell yeah, 100% commitment or it’s a nah.
Obviously, you can be 100% hell yeah and have to pull out because you may drop in on someone, always remember etiquette, especially in more powerful waves.
You’ve gotta commit not just on the paddling, not just the pop up but also after you pop up. It’s like a mini checklist and it’ll stress you at each stage.
You want to commit and then be in a somewhat lunging position, on the front foot accelerating, not being heavy on the back foot and leaning into the drop. You want to nail the take off. Just FYI - there is so much nuance and situational conditions for steep take offs. There is one situation where you do want back foot pressure but for the most part, lean into it.
This is just like skating, back foot heavy and you will go backwards on your head. You want to lean into the ramp and 100% commit to riding down the ramp or dropping in. It’s the same here.
You already know how to pop up
Don’t complicate it, don’t change it, just commit, act quicker and get it done with. A trick to this is focusing on what comes next or down the line. Trying to predict and see what the wave will do. This will take you out of overthinking your pop up, just do.
Your legs are going to do all the work here. So getting into that lunging position, the upper body then needs to look to where you want to go and just make the micro-adjustments to maintain control and balance.
You don’t want to be back bending here. A Stacked, neutral stance will keep balance and control while allowing you to see everything.
When you are dropping in, it's all about being stable and picking a line.
You want to pick the path you want to take to navigate the drop, bottom turn, stall, tuck in or whatever you are going to do. This is like thinking a few steps ahead and will keep you from overthinking everything.
That stability will come from your legs, they will be so busy and an easy way to think of them is like shock absorbers in a car and driving at high speed.
The shock absorbers are working hard yet the feeling inside the car is that it’s barely moving and then when you turn, it’s small adjustments to turn, not sudden movements to jerk the car.
Feeling vs sight - how to predict the wave
Your sense of feeling is so much stronger than your sight. You can see the wave drawing up and standing up quickly but to feel that is so much more powerful. So when you get to your feet and are dropping in, if and this is a big if as it’s so nuanced in each situation, using your hands and body to feel the wave will give you so much feedback on how much water is moving, how it is breaking and how to hold that rail and keep the line.
The more resistance on your hand will help you understand how hard your legs need to work to hold that line and it can help navigate the micro adjustments.
Feel the wave - touch is better than vision
Positioning the take off
There is so much nuance in positioning and dropping in, that it’s better to break out some of the common situations you may find yourself in.
Ideally, you want to position yourself to take the line you want to take. Often the average surfer will be looking for safety, feeling uncomfortable and will paddle themselves out of position, sitting way out on the shoulder.
You need to sit closer to the peak and read the wave.
But depending on the conditions, you may not want to be right in the middle of the peak as this will stand up so quickly, you’ll either end up dropping in under the lip or going over the falls. This is nuanced but will depend on the waves, the wind, positioning, skill level and how comfortable you are.
Back door the section
Back dooring the section is an easier take off and will get your barreled easier.
Think about that for a minute, how does that work?
If you are on the peak, you’ll be taking off under the lip where it breaks so quickly. If you can get in on the shoulder, it’s a more mellow take off.
But taking off on the shoulder, you don't want to race ahead of the wave and miss the best section or think you’re going to get barrelled and all you do is get your legrope barrelled.
So if you want to squeeze in and get barrelled, it will be an easier take off to position yourself just to the side of the main peak, slightly on the shoulder of it and angle and fade the take off.
You’ll take off looking to go one way, say left, make the take off easier and more mellow and as you are dropping in, you want to then fade back to the right and pull in or to the right.
It’s easier to navigate a steep section on your feet than lying down trying to get your feet.
This will also help put you in the pocket and where the wave may barrel first.
It’s a mental hurdle to get over as you are openly saying I am going to throw myself into the scariest part of the wave but you are making it oh so much easier. This is infinitely easier than taking off under the lip.
If the wave breaks too quickly, your timing is off, it stands up suddenly or it has some wobble or steps in it, you may find yourself air dropping down the face.
You have two options, full commit, hell yeah or bail, jump off and make sure you clear your board and penetrate the water so you don’t get sucked back over the falls.
If you commit to the air drop, this will be so nuanced for each situation but you want to adjust how you drop in to suit.
Often, you’ll have your nose heading straight down and this is just going to penetrate the water.
You want to lean on the back of the board so you drop flat instead of nose first.
Put pressure on the inside rail/toes to keep the rail and line, so you don’t get thrown into the flats.
This is so important, as you air drop, you have no resistance on your rails, but if you want to take line, hold a line or land properly, you are going to have to set that rail quickly.
You need it to hold, so you are almost predicting how much pressure you need on that rail so when you land you can quickly adjust to suit.
This is also so you don’t just slide out and propel yourself out into the flats, miss the section or take the lip on the head.
Under the lip
Ideally, you don’t want to take off under the lip as it’s so much harder. Your body needs to react so quickly.
A tip for this is setting your upper body to pick the line you want and your legs when they drop in and go to set the line and rail will need to work overtime.
This is where your upper body can come in to help force and pull your legs back up under you to hold and control that line.
What ends up happening is as you drop in, your upper body is looking down the line, trying to set that line asap but the lower body and legs are working overtime, nailing the drop and then having to pull up and under you so quick to keep the board under your body.
It’s a pretty advanced skill.
Dropping in Backside
Dropping in backside is a whole other skill.
Don’t let go of the rail, you’re going to be in an awkward position and want to keep the inside rail engaged and holding your line.
Depending on the wave and line, you could be feeling almost upside down and out of control.
This is because you have less control on your backside, there is less fine control and coordination in your heels than there is your toes. Your toes have evolved for balance to do a range of different movements, the heels are pretty limited and range of motion and weight distribution.
This is why you want to hold the rail. You want to help hold the inside rail using your hands to guide the line and counteract all the water rushing up the face of the wave.
Your outside arm will grab the rail, your heels will guide and lean onto the rail depending on how much pressure you need and then you need to look ahead to the line you want to take.
You need to be able to compress down into your knees here, you can't back bend. You will have most of your pressure on the front foot with your back foot practically rolled down on its side and the back knee finding where it is comfortable.
If you backbend, you will lose composure, balance and control. You want your back upright to be able to move freely, create space for the arms and legs, and keep the head up so you can see where you want to go.
The rest is then similar to before, it will be easier to knife the take off going back door than under the lip and a similar application of air dropping.
You can then use your inside arm, bum, or side to feel the wave and how much water is drawing up the wave and adjust your line and rail.
Equipment will play an important role in how you navigate steep take offs.
There is so much nuance in each board and wave but the rough guidance is to match the rocker of your board to the shape of the wave.
Your rocker is the bend in the side profile of your board giving it that banana-style shape.
The more rocker it has, the less flat the board will be and the more pulled up the nose and tail will be.
Longer boards will struggle and flatter boards will have more surface area of the board connected with the power zones of the wave and they can be extremely fast and hard to control on top of not fitting into the wave very well.
Step up surfboards
This is where on bigger days, a lot of surfers will opt for a step up.
They will add more volume to help with the paddle in but don’t opt for going wider, fatter or flatter. They will typically go longer and allow for a more pronounced rocker to suit hollower waves.
Quads can be your friend
Quads are fantastic at holding a line and being faster when compared to a thruster. A thruster turns much better whereas the quad will have more surface area on the inside fins, helping control the board and then less drag in the middle, allowing water to flow faster through the middle of the board and get more speed.
Twin fins and single fins will make this harder as there is less control, but we’ve all seen clips of Josh Kerr knifing huge waves in the Mentawaiis on a twinny.
Angling the take off
If you don’t have a step up or a board suited for steeper drops, you’ll have to angle every take off.
How much to angle it will depend on your board and the shape of the wave.
You will need to angle the board enough that it fits into the shape of the wave and doesn't nose dive.
If you are on a longboard and on more mellow waves that aren’t barrelling and just taking a steeper drop from what that board is used to, you want to learn to angle and stall on the take off.
This is just aiming the board more horizontally than going straight down the wave and then as you drop in you will want to shift the weight onto your back foot and you can do this by lifting your arms up.
Your arms will be in front of you normally, committing to the drop and leaning in, but if you lift them up higher or over your head as well as shifting back on your weight a bit, you will transition most of your weight to the back foot.
It is now a case of controlling this movement as this will weight the tail and pull the nose up. You want to hold and control this movement until you can make the drop and transition back to leaning into the drop. This doesn’t need to be held, you can micro-adjust to suit at any time.
Just know you will wipe off a lot of speed and then need to make it back up again, especially if the wave is fast.
The mind is your biggest hurdle in faster, steeper and bigger waves. You want to calm it so you can get out of your own way and just act.
Find the techniques that work for you to eject your brain and just act. This can be achieved by breathing out, looking where you are going and finding ways to psych yourself up to avoid any hesitation.
If you wipe out, just relax, remember rollercoaster and let go, wait for the wave to let you go and you’ll realise it's only been a few seconds.
Position yourself for the line you want to take.
Don’t stress paddle in and try to feel the wave lifting you for that feeling of gliding in.
You’ll want to start popping up at that point which you should hopefully feel around the mid-point of the wave. If you are at the peak and taking off right under the lip, it might end up with you going over the falls if you time the pop up too late.
When you do pop up, it’s a hell yeah or nah. 100% commit or don’t. No second-guessing, no looking down at the bottom of the wave.
The pop up is the same, no different, just do it faster and calmly.
Your legs are going to do most of the work while your upper body makes the micro-adjustments.
Lean into the drop and pick the line you want to take, remember backdooring it will be a more mellow take off and can set you up in the barrel easier.
After that it’s all about the nuance, positioning and line you are taking, so hold your rail, feel the wave if you can and adjust to suit.
If you don’t have the appropriate board, think about getting a step up or a board with rocker to suit the shape of the wave, otherwise, you’ll need to angle the take off and remember to stall if you are on a longboard that may nose dive.
This has been a big guide and a lot to take in.
Has this given you the missing pieces on how to navigate steep take offs?
Will it motivate you to surf bigger, hollower conditions?
Were you aware of how much the mind affects your technique and ability to make these take offs?
I’d love to know, you can reach out anytime, either message me in the app or send an email to email@example.com.
Next week I am going to be breaking down surf fitness and what you actually need to focus on and how to determine if your fitness is holding you back or it’s something else.