Understanding the power zones of waves - how to feel the bottom power zone
If you want to stop surfing mid-faced, with no speed or power, you need to start tapping into the waves power zones and learn how to identify them. Do this and your surfing will drastically change.
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The Full Guide
Power zones, if you are new to OMBE you may be thinking what now? What is this?
If you’ve been around OMBE for a while, you may be rubbing your fingers together and thinking yes, give me the breakdown.
This is honestly one of the most confusing aspects of surfing and also one of the best kept secrets in surfing.
What I am talking about is the parts of the wave that you can draw power from when you are riding a wave.
There are two of them and one is obvious and the other is not. Confused even more?
If you think about what those could be and where they are, what would you say? Think about it for a minute, maybe you already know.
The wrong answer
If you said the pocket, or the peak, you are wrong, this is simply the location where those power zones are at their strongest. This is because this is where the wave is standing up the most and their effect can be felt the most.
So before the explanation, what is the deal with the shoulder then?
It’s where they are the weakest and why you shouldn’t race to the shoulder or try to take off on the shoulder.
The wave hasn’t formed properly yet, it’s not standing up and doesn’t have the force to break yet, so then there is far less power in the wave for you to tap into.
The two power zones
The obvious one is the top of the wave and the lip, but the power source isn’t the lip, it’s gravity.
From here, you can ride down the wave and accelerate. That’s it, pretty much like rolling down a ramp in a skateboard in some ways.
The other is the bottom of the wave and what this is all about.
This may be confusing and you may be thinking how is the bottom of the wave a power source, there is no gravity or anything there?
The Bottom Power Zone
The quick and short of this is that the bottom power zone is created by drawing up off the bottom and sucking up the face of the wave. As it draws up the wave, it is resisting gravity and eventually as it reaches the top and breaks, gravity throws it back down.
Now also waves have forward momentum, obviously how they reach our shores, but let's leave that aside for now.
The strongest part of the power zone
There is a point where the bottom power zone is the strongest, and if you take into account gravity as it’s halfway up the wave face, then the strongest part of the wave is at the bottom of the wave, where it doesn’t have to fight gravity.
This is not the flats, the flats are in front of the wave and water drawing or sucking up the wave is far less here, hence why surfers get stuck in the flats; there’s no power to tap into easily.
This point right here is extremely hard to feel and understand for most surfers, so I’m going to break down how to tap into this power zone and also how to experience and understand its existence.
Tapping into the power zone
A bottom turn. That’s it.
A bottom turn is a manoeuvre that causes your surfboard to accelerate. It is not just the speed you had from dropping down the wave face.
If you don’t agree with that, think about it this way: if you are going across the wave, instead of surfing top to bottom, surfing mid-faced, how are you generating speed, because you aren’t really going down the wave face.
The same thing applies with pumping and people going for airs, they are doing consistent smaller bottom turns to quickly tap into the bottom power zone, accelerate but not go up the wave face.
The bottom turn
The bottom turn is a long drawn out manoeuvre, held for several seconds.
It’s done by rolling your rail, presenting that edge of your board to the bottom power zone where water is drawing up the wave face. The outline and shape of your board, combined with the power zone causes your board to turn and accelerate up the wave.
The longer you hold that turn, the more acceleration and the more vertical or the bigger the turn is.
Fully explaining the bottom turn is a whole other conversation but that is the nuts and bolts of it.
Feeling and tapping into the bottom power zone
When you’re surfing, you have to feel the movements and as they say, only a surfer knows the feeling.
It’s harsh but true to say this, but most surfers don’t know what this or what it feels like. Most haven’t felt that feeling.
To get it, you have to do a big bottom turn in the pocket, tap into the bottom power zone at its strongest and hold onto that turn for several seconds
How I learnt to tap into it the first time
When I first met Clay about a decade ago and he was working on my surfing, this was one of those lessons he gave me the hard way.
He had told me about it but I didn’t know how to feel it and wasn’t even aware that I didn’t know. I thought I knew, but what I knew was wrong.
This was painful as we worked on my bottom turn because I kept doing it wrong and pretty much was safety surfing and surfing mid-faced, in front of the pocket.
In true Clay fashion, he pulled me up the beach and showed me my very unappealing or un-surprising surfing and we analysed it.
Other than my ego taking a big hit there was a light bulb moment I personally had. The day we were surfing was rubbish - but as I learnt, you’re only as good as how well you surf bad waves, Clay and I noticed something in my surfing.
I wasn’t doing a good bottom turn when I should have been, but I was doing something similar.
The surf that day was full of close outs and a lot of my waves repeated me kicking out. But I wasn’t kicking out the top, I was kicking through the wave as it closed out. I was missing a chance to do a turn but we noticed I was actually doing a big bottom turn to accelerate and push through the back of the wave. I was loading up a big, drawn out and held manoeuvre, I was just applying it wrong.
The correction to tap into the bottom turn
From this, Clay said, go back and do that first time, every time with your bottom turn, but instead of kicking out, look up at the lip you want to hint.
With some added enthusiasm after the ego hit I went and tried it. Completely shocked myself.
The first wave, tapped into the bottom power zone, in the pocket, got so much acceleration I completely shocked myself and forgot to do a turn.
Clay dragged me into the beach and just said what the hell happened, you didn’t even try to turn. I just looked dumbstruck and said “I got so much acceleration and speed I didn’t know what to do with it or react quick enough”.
The point of that story is that we unconsciously know parts of this power zone, but we haven’t tapped into it for the purpose of our bottom turn.
If you’ve kicked out through the back of a wave and instinctively loaded up a big turn to accelerate through the back, you have unconsciously known to get through, you need power, acceleration and to change direction.
Apply that to your bottom turn, do it in the pocket and start trying to feel the differences between where you do your bottom turn and how that affects the acceleration you generate.
Understanding and seeing the power zone - you’ve felt it before unconsciously
So the other part of this is that we need to visually understand this and we need to feel this bottom power zone to be able to properly tap into it.
The good part is that no doubt, you have subconsciously felt this water drawing up the wave plenty of times before, just unaware of it.
There are a few easy ways you’ve felt this before:
- Shore break
- Duck diving and being sucked backwards
- Body surfing
Each one is a slightly different way of feeling this power zone and effect and all together, they give the full picture of how this power works.
You’ve probably been stuck in shore break, played in it or been getting in or out of a spot via a rocky entrance that the shore break has made that experience tricky.
If you think back to that experience, especially near rocks, you’ll remember that feeling as the water sucks out towards an incoming wave and as that wave gets closer, the suction becomes stronger. As the wave breaks, that force is gone but as another wave comes, it begins again.
This is part of that bottom power zone and not to be confused with gravity, tides caused by the sun and moon or just water levels changing.
What’s happening here is you have swell moving towards the shore with momentum, energy and a drastic change in height water level. I’m no scientist, so I’ll keep this a simple explanation.
As this wave hits shallower water and begins to stand up, it starts sucking water up with it. That water is coming from the front of the wave, sometimes in hollower reef breaks, causing the wave to “drop below sea level”.
Shorebreak, this bottom power zone is more obvious because you will most likely have your feet planted on the sand and can actively feel the water pulling you towards the wave, and you're actively trying not to get caught in it.
You are fighting that effect and navigating the push and pull of each wave coming in and breaking.
If you are still confused by this, go stand in the shore break or closer areas and just watch, observe and try to spot this effect happening.
Duck Diving and being pulled back or over the falls
Or, maybe in bigger surf you’ve been caught during a duck dive and been caught by a wave and sucked backwards or worse, over the falls.
This is the same power zone in effect, a wave has a thickness to it and as seen underwater from behind a wave, there is a lot of water moving up the wave as it’s breaking.
The duck dive is being overpowered by the water drawing up the wave and pulling you back with it. In some cases also pushing you up with it and then over the falls. This feeling is so quick and usually overcome by “crap no!” but think back, to it, it’s not the waves forward momentum that sucks you back, that would push you back.
Body surfing is going to be similar to surfing except instead of the water drawing up and interacting with your board, you will feel this effect directly on your body and get instant feedback.
Body surfing will put you right in the power source, you have less opportunity to race ahead to the shoulder, it’s the pocket or nothing usually.
If you reposition and roll, using your chest and ribs like rails, you will engage with the bottom power zone, causing it to act upon you and push you up like a bottom turn.
Not everyone will have body surfed like that but surely you’ve played in the surf like that before and felt that power zone push upon your chest and keep you afloat.
Next time, ask questions, try to feel it out, do different things and ask how this would connect with my surfing.
Objects in the water
Stephen from the OMBE Community also mentioned a really good way to spot the bottom power zone and it wasn’t until this moment that he really got it.
He was surfing in a spot near fishermen and saw their lines and sinkers moving and being pulled by the draw of each wave coming in.
Applying this to your surfing
The bottom power zone is ellusive at first, with most surfers oblivious of it, I don’t want that for you, once you see and understand it, you can begin to start tapping into it.
The learning curve now comes from having the awareness to feel it and find it on each different wave.
Observe those who tap into it well and those who don’t. Critique surfers bottom turns, where they are doing them and how they are doing them. This is also connected to how long they hold their bottom tun and the waves they are riding.
But as always, surfing is nuanced, their bottom turn will depend on where they are on the wave, what they are trying to achieve, what they are riding and the wave itself.
Kelly Slater said something about Bells Beach years ago during an event where he openly stated he hated Bells and felt it was a mediocre wave until he felt and understood that the curve of the wave didn’t occur until one third of the wave up.
This always sat with me as an odd comment until I understood the bottom power zone and what I interpreted this as was he was saying was that he was finding himself stuck in the wrong position, not surfing the wave how it wanted to be surfed and that its bottom power zone was in a slightly different position than typically expected.
The point of this is that you need to find and feel where the bottom power zone is acting on each wave. Use your rail to tap into it, hold it but also play around with it. Make mistakes and learn from them, ask questions and that is the only way to figure it out.
Does this help explain the bottom power zone and how you can find it, feel it and understand it?
Are you going to go and try to feel this out next surf? I’d love to know, If you do, go surprise yourself, lower your expectations and surf just to figure it out. Do big bottom turns in different places and forget the rest. Anything after is a win and fun, no pressure.