February 14, 2018

Catching waves and learning to surf, a beginners guide

Surfing is probably the most fulfilling and fun thing I do. When you spend a couple of hours in the water, timing waves, padding hard, fighting the cold, or looking out for the next set, it's the only thing on your mind. It's refreshing and a very mindful activity. You also feel more connected to nature and feel a personal belonging to it. I can't wait for my next set of waves. I started learning more than a year ago and am only starting to get a hang of it. There are many things I would have done differently which would have helped me get a lot better sooner. If you're just starting out, you might find some of the things I did wrong as useful precautionary advice. So let's dive right into it.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

As a rule of thumb, long boards (Usually 7+ feet long) are easier to ride than shortboards. It also lets you catch smaller waves so you don't have to face the wrath of a tonne of water falling on you like a brick wall. But don't let that stop you from giving a short board a try. I know it'll be harder but in theory, once you start catching waves on a short board, you'll progress quickly.

If you live in a climate where the water is cold, then I'd recommend learning about the Wim Hoff method. It's a set of exercises that help improve your ability to withstand cold. I've tried it and use the breathing technique before I enter cold water.

For your first few times out on the water, go out on a flat day (no waves). Get comfortable with your board by paddling distances. See how far you can go before you get really tired. The spot I surf at needs atleast 30 meters of paddling before you're out back. Also a good time to practice diving underwater while a wave passes you from above (see Turtle Roll and the Duck Dive).

The biggest rookie mistake you can make is holding the board in between you and the wave. It sounds obvious but I've done this a time or two when I just wasn't thinking about where my board was. It goes without saying, always keep an eye out for the next set. They have a habit of coming around when you aren't looking.
The hardest thing for me has been dealing with the fear of wiping out and having my board slammed on me when I do. The other thing I'm afraid of is other surfers who might be too eager to catch a wave and are willing to (almost) run you over for one.
If you're a bit afraid of the bigger waves, there are two things you can do to help. Go out without your board and just get a feel for how strong the waves are. Sometimes big looking waves don't pack a punch and other times what looked big from the shore is actually beyond your ability when you get out and see it up close.
The second thing you can do is catch white wash. That's the wave that carries on after a wave has broken. Here's an example of a broken wave. However, it's a terrible example because a beginner should never be out in waters that big. But hopefully you get what white wash is.

Photo by Thomas Ashlock on Unsplash

This is a good time to remind you that surfers that look good in pictures like that are surfing waves well beyond your ability as a beginner. When you're just starting out, try to find wave heights of not more than 1 meter and raise that bar as you become better.

MagicSeaWeed is amazing for surf forecasts. Here are some conditions to look out for as a beginner:

As you get better at catching white wash, learn how to catch them on the green. It'll look something like this rising behind you. Start paddling as it travels closer and try to get the feel for it lifting you up.
Photo by Michael Pfister on Unsplash

Try the popup on your first day. This is kinda like letting a new programmer commit something to production on day 1. You'll very likely fail to stand up but you'll also get a feel for the end goal you're aiming for. I didn't do that and I wasted a lot of time learning things that were not adding up to that goal.
Catching waves has a lot to do with intuition. I used to think I had to follow a certain set of steps to catch waves but now I think you just need a feel for it.
That's why it's so important to go out there and start standing up on day one. I wish I had known that sooner.

And finally, learn to safely bail out. When I started learning, I wasn't afraid of waves and didn't think they could hurt me in any major way. However, a few wipeouts later I realize they have deadly force and even if they don't, the 7 foot fiberglass board you're tied to can crack you open. Surfing bigger waves is not as hard as learning to surf them safely (which are two very different things). So when you're a beginner and in safer conditions, learn to fall of your board. Research how to fall safely on your butt or bailing when you know you aren't going to catch the wave.