How to paddle and catch more waves
Min Read Time

What you know of paddling is (probably) wrong

Most beginner and intermediate surfers will make this mistake, paddle straight into the beach or away from a wave, instead of to the wave.

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The Full Guide

Do you ever feel like you just can’t catch waves? You have one of those days where you feel like the ocean is doing it’s best to completely avoid you?

Or… are you stuck fighting the crowd and always end up with some other surfer getting a wave instead.

I want to introduce you to an idea, something for you to think about and you might think nah that sounds whack but I can guarantee after you understand it, you will notice all of the better surfers doing this and getting all the waves.

You’re paddling wrong and what you think paddling is meant to do is completely wrong and this is why you may be struggling to catch waves.

I’ve got a real bone to pick, something that really frustrates me when I teach or watch beginners and low intermediate surfers.

Surfers who sometimes I think have so much more skill than they actually show in the water and they go out for a surf, paddle around mad and end up just getting exercise and next to no waves. 

Doing exactly what I am about to describe.

What you think about paddling is wrong

Paddling is not about building speed.

It is not a game of paddle harder or paddle like this or execute this much force. Sure there is technique to paddling but that is a conversation for another time. This purely about its purpose.

The main purpose of your paddling is to position yourself, not build speed.

Seeing the problem in other surfers

So if you’re sitting there thinking, what am I on about here, paddling is just positioning? Huh?

Think back to your last surf or go watch the surf for 5 or 10 minutes before you get in.

You will see this guaranteed, and not just in one or two surfers.

You’ll notice all these shoulder hoppers or surfers sitting way out the back, dodging the big sets and then paddling for anything that looks like half a wave.

I’m not here to name and shame those surfers, but we need to understand the issue so you can get more waves.

When they see a wave coming in, the first and only thing they do is paddle straight in towards the beach. Some may look back and watch the wave, but the majority of them will never move in any direction other than towards the beach.’

Don’t get me started on the surfers who paddle way too early and end up paddling in halfway to the beach and the wave has broken well before it even got to them or they just wasted half the wave paddling away from it.

If they are way out the back, dodging sets and looking for smaller waves, they end up getting nothing, the smaller waves just aren’t breaking where they are sitting.

If they are out on the shoulder, they end up paddling like mad for ages and most of the time, some other surfer has gotten it on the inside, or, if they get it, they finally catch the wave after it’s already been breaking for a while and they’ve missed half of it.

What the advanced are doing differently

The more advanced surfers or just simply put, the surfers who can read the ocean and the waves better are watching the waves, how they stand up routinely and judging where this next wave will start breaking first. 

Thinking, where do they need to place themselves to catch this wave and how do I put myself there.

They are then paddling sideways. Not paddling into the beach, sideways. 

They are paddling to reposition themselves and put themselves closer to the power source, closer to the pocket and then turning at the last minute and paddling in towards the beach to get the last bit of speed and direction to catch the wave. 

Has this happened to you

Think about that for a minute, surely you’ve been sitting out in the line up and some surfer either goes off paddling way over to the side and you’re thinking their dreaming.

Then… they end up actually getting a wave. You’ll see this a lot with longboarders. 

But then you may also have experienced this where you are sitting in a good spot within a crowd and some other surfer paddles from somewhere else and steals the wave.

Infuriating, but they’ve just out positioned you and taken a wave you could have easily paddled over to.

Or, you have that mate who is just always getting waves endlessly, like the ocean is sending them to him. Next time, stop and actually watch them, casually follow them around, no doubt they are paddling all over the beach to position themselves while everyone sits in one place.

Where some surfers let themselves down

Quite often, I will be out surfing, always watching the waves and what other surfers are doing. Very observant but relaxed and calm.

I will notice waves coming in, I’ll see some surfer sitting there watching it and the surf coach in me is internally screaming, paddle over to it! It’s there, take it, it’s your! Please won’t someone take it? 

Most of the time, to my confusion, they sit there watching it thinking that would have been a good wave.

This usually ends in me grumbling but also noticing this person is not competition for waves for me. You can read a past guide about minimizing the crowd here. Not saying that in a rude way, but their body language says to me that if a wave comes slightly out of their position, they aren’t gonna move to it and it’s free game for anyone like me to come through and take it. 

This happens all the time, and sometimes, all it would take is the surfer, watching the wave as it comes, seeing how previous waves in the set have broken and paddling over to the position and catching it.

Sometimes that distance is only 10-20 metres… 

Think about that, is that not mad? 

Some surfers don’t want to paddle 20 metres across to a wave but will paddle 20 odd metres towards the beach and never even get the wave.

If I said all you have to do is paddle 20 metres and you’ve got a good wave without competition, would you do it? Sure you would, so why don’t people?

The underlying issue

Ok so this may irritate the hell out of me, but as a surf coach I actually want people to be better surfers, so I do understand how this issue comes about and why a lot of surfers go through it.

If you were getting a lesson from me, refusing to move to waves or just paddling into the beach everytime, after the third time or so, I’d make you paddle all the way into the shore seeing as you want to get there so badly. I’d then make you watch the surf and try to identify what the waves are doing and why other surfers are getting them and some aren’t.

There is an underlying issue here as to why a lot of surfers do this or struggle with it. 

Yeah inexperience and not being able to read the ocean is key but there is an even bigger underlying issue and in like most parts of surfing, it’s the same issue over and over.

It’s you, your mindset, the tension you bring into the surf and your comfort zone.

Surfers who I personally know do this, constantly have that self doubt or fear. They end up making one of these routine excuses:

  • They don’t think they can paddle over and take a wave, they just don’t see it happening.
  • They don’t have the confidence or self belief that they can take the way and physically make it.
  • They don’t want to be that “person” and steal waves - yet they have barely had a wave
  • They are afraid and will paddle for a wave and then pull out
  • They are worried about hitting someone or not having full control of their board. 

This list goes on and on. But if this is you, you’re not alone.

Simply put, you value your comfort zone more than the outcome or change you are chasing and this holds you back.

The fix

Fail forwards, just try, have a go, take a wipeout, stay busy, do anything but repeat bad habits. 

It’s not a bad habit if you are learning from it and trying to fix it. It’s a bad habit if you blindly do it over and over.

These same surfers I will sometimes see in the perfect spot and I mean perfect positioning. A wave comes in and all they need to do is a few paddles and they will drop in right into the pocket. Couldn’t be any better.

To my frustration, they will suddenly pull out and let the wave go by or even worse, the edge of the white wash hits them and they try to not get pushed down the wave.

This is a key point for these surfers to just have a go. If a wave comes perfectly to you and all you need to do is roll in and you don’t go, when will you go then?

The elephant in the room - etiquette

Etiquette, that big nasty word in surfing. What's the right etiquette here? No one wants to be “that” person in surfing.

There are right things to do and wrong things to do here with your paddling and positioning.

Just as an FYI, I live in a very small town, on days it can be extremely crowded as the beach is sheltered when the surf is big or windy. On other days it can just be the same routine faces. 

I do this all the time, while most of the line up is completely confused and just grumbling, oh he’s getting all the waves again on his log.

It has nothing to do with my log, just that I see no one paddle for it, so I go over and take it. 

Right the actual etiquette you should roughly follow.

If no one is moving to it, waiting in position or anything like that, its free game. Take it.

If someone is there but you don’t think they will take it. Go, have a look, paddle to position yourself, watch the other person and see if they commit. If they commit, pull out and don’t drop in. If they don’t commit, it’s yours (assuming there’s no one else on the inside).

If someone isn’t going to look at a wave, paddle for it or pull out, that’s their fault and not yours. There is nothing wrong with keeping yourself in position to have a look and last minute crack at a wave. Nothing wrong, just don’t be a dick and drop in on people all the time. It happens, apologise and move on.

The wrong surfing etiquette

There is one big no no in surfing and repositioning.

Do not paddle directly around someone and whack yourself on their inside. If they are right next to you, they have priority. They are on the inside, this aint the WSL, don’t go and paddle onto the other side of their shoulder and stake your claim. 

Call them into the wave or ask if they want it instead. When they’ve paddled for a wave, go move to their spot or where you want to be on their inside. 

I kind of always think of this like a deli ticket system, you get your ticket, you wait, the person in front gets their thing and moves out the way, now it’s your turn.

Paddling back out and sitting on someone’s inside is a big grey area, if I was sitting exactly there before, whatever, I’m just moving back to where I was, not my fault no one took the spot but I will be aware if just taking every single wave and will call others in on a wave.

I won’t go and paddle back out to sit next to someone on their inside, unless I let them have the next wave. Common sense applies there with paddling back out.

Otherwise, what you can do, if the wave is further away, that's free game. If the wave is going to break 10-20 metres away and they aren’t moving, go for it.

Again, if people don’t take waves, that’s their fault not yours and you’re not being rude by making sure waves don’t go unridden. 

Improving your ocean awareness and reading the waves

The other issue is obviously that you need to read the ocean. If you are sitting out there doing nothing, watch the waves, watch every wave and bank near you and notice how they stand up, how quickly do they stand up, do they stand up and not break, do they close out, do they run along the bank etc. 

After the wave has broken, look at the pattern of the whitewash left behind it, we call this the Treasure Map at OMBE. This is a whole other conversation but that will tell you so much about how that wave broke and how to position yourself.

If you want to improve your awareness of the ocean, ability to position yourself better and catch more waves, then watch the waves more often, have a crack, make judgements, take off on bad waves, go over the falls etc. 

Those failures and experiences will teach you so much faster. I always remember a mate of mine who was learning and asked, “How do I know which ones will dump?” to which my friends and I replied with that one there! 

He was picked up and thrown over the falls because he had his back to the waves. He wasn’t watching the waves at all but learnt a good lesson. 


If a wave is coming toward you, stop, look at it, watch it and try and predict where you actually want to be to catch that wave. Then, move to that position and keep watching the wave and see if you need to adjust.

Waves are never so perfect that every wave comes and stands up exactly where you are sitting every time.

If the wave is off to the side and you can see it will break within a distance you can paddle over to, go paddle there now. If you can’t get to it in time but see set waves breaking there and there are more coming, go now and catch one of the next waves coming.

Don’t paddle around people just to be on their inside, but if they don’t want it, aren’t making a move or pull out, it’s free game for you, take it.

And as always, relax, get out of your comfort zone, forget the self doubt and prove yourself wrong. Show yourself what you can actually do when you try and have a crack. Forget the expectations and just have fun. Fail forwards.

Does this change the way you view paddling? Is this the missing piece of the puzzle to ocean awareness, reading the waves or how those surfers always seem to get wave after wave?

Is this something you are actively going to go out and try now? I’d love to know!

Written by
Luke Hardacre
surf coaching