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How to Get Started Surfing

by Ian Harkness Mar 27, 2018

You’ve seen the swimsuit ads on billboards and the WSL highlights on YouTube, and you’ve thought to yourself — how in the heck can I get started doing that? It’s never too late; every year thousands of people of all ages pick up surfing. Anyone can surf and everyone should — but it can be challenging. This guide can help cut through the noise and show you how to pursue your dreams of becoming a surfer.

How to get started surfing:

General advice

  • Be realistic.

Before you hit the water, there are a few things you’ve got to understand if you ever want to find success as a surfer. Firstly, you have to be realistic about what you can achieve. I’ll be blunt: surfing is hard, very hard. Thousands of people pick up the sport every summer and thousands give up in frustration every fall. If you choose to surf you’ll be humbled and you’ll be challenged — but if you can stick with it and accept that progress comes slowly, you’ll be rewarded a thousand times over. It’s not for everyone, but if you take to surfing you’ll find it can be more than a sport — it can come to define who you are as a person, at least when there’s swell.

  • Figure out where you can surf.

With your expectations suitably tempered, the first and most important thing you’ll want to take note of is where you can surf.

I know Kelly Slater is going to bring surfing to Minnesota in the next decade but for now, you’ll have to be on the coast to find decent waves. More specifically, you’re going to want to find a gentler, more docile break to learn on. Though there are certainly people who have started out surfing above sharp reefs, you’ll probably be less frustrated if you can begin surfing on a beach break where the worst falls will push you up against sand instead of thrashing you against sharp rocks or poisonous coral. You should also consider the crowd at the beach you’re planning to frequent.

Great waves are in short supply and those who can really rip aren’t going to take kindly to beginners wasting waves. That’s okay though — you don’t need great waves to learn to surf, you’ll work up to it in time. If you don’t know any locals personally that know the best beginner surf spots in the area, start asking the employees at a surf shop where to head out — they’ll be glad to send you to a gentler beach that they’re not surfing.


Once you’ve chosen a beach you’re going to need some gear.

I’m an advocate of renting a board for a few days while you determine if you’re going to want to keep pursuing the sport, and most surf schools will provide you boards on your first day. Once you’ve decided to go through with it, however, you’re going to want to pick up a beginner’s board.

Be warned, this is where many beginning surfers go horribly wrong. Do not, under any circumstances, buy a board smaller than 7’. I would recommend going even bigger and getting an 8’ board, preferably one with a soft top. The advantages here are two-fold.

  • 1. A bigger board is going to catch waves more easily which should help make up for your neophyte paddling skills.
  • 2. It’s also going to be more forgiving with your weight distributions.

The professionals riding 6’, super thin, potato chip-esque boards are paddling with the strength of Olympic swimmers and are manipulating their weight with the movement of a single toe. You’re not going to jump into the sport with either of those abilities. If you lie to yourself and buy a 5’9” you’re going to find it incredibly frustrating and you’ll probably be selling that board soon.

Fortunately, there’s a giant market for these beginner boards and, as mentioned before, a thriving secondary market (i.e. Craigslist) where you can get a used beginner board in a beach town for around $50. Considering it’s the singular piece of equipment you’ll need (unless the water’s cold, in which case you’ll want a wetsuit which can also be bought on the cheap secondhand), it’s worth the investment. The brand de jour is Wavestorm, a company which sells 8’ soft tops new at Costco for $100 — these boards do come with a leash, but you might want to upgrade (for around $20 at a local surf shop, again, cheaper online) because the Wavestorm leashes don’t have a swivel and have a tendency to get horrendously tangled.

Getting started

So you’ve picked your beach and you’ve bought your board, time to get in the water, right? Wrong.

  • Figure out if you’re regular- or goofy-footed before anything else.

    Much like being right or left-handed, when it comes to surfing you are either goofy- or regular-footed — referring to which foot naturally goes in front: right (goofy) or left (regular). A good test is to have a friend give you a surprise shove from behind and see which foot you catch yourself with. If your friends are better than mine and don’t jump at the opportunity to shove you, just go by which foot you more naturally climb stairs with.

  • Take a surfing class.

    The very first steps in learning to surf can be quite technical and hard to get right alone. I always recommend that beginning surfers take one class at the very start of their surfing career. Have a professional help you begin to feel comfortable with the admittedly unnatural movements that surfing necessitates. You don’t need to keep taking lessons every time you want to try something new, but a solid foundation is easier to come by with a little help. If that’s not an option, you can go off of YouTube videos and articles like this, but you’ll progress faster with a little push out the gates.

  • Practice the pop up.

    Regardless of your decision to take a class or not, you’ll want to begin by learning how to pop up.

    This is the most critical movement a surfer makes when they jump from a paddling position to a standing position. I won’t exhaust you with the mechanics — there are a thousand YouTube videos which will do a better job than I could here in text — but I will tell you to really drill the pop up in. Spend a good 20 to 30 minutes before your first few sessions making careful mental notes of what a good pop up feels like. A quick and balanced pop up is the hallmark of strong, stylish surfing. A word of warning: never go to your knees, even if it feels easier. If you can avoid developing that habit now you’ll be ahead of 90 percent of beginning surfers.

  • Get wet.

    Once you feel comfortable popping up, you’ll want to hit the water and start looking for whitewash.

    The good surfers will paddle to the outside — where the unbroken waves can be caught — but for your first few sessions, you’re going to live off their scraps, trying to catch waves that have already broken and are much easier to get in to. Find the spot where the broken waves (whitewash) are rolling in, face the beach, hop onto your board, and start paddling. Hold on as the wave hits you and once you feel stable, hit the pop up you’ve drilled into your mind. You’ll certainly fall the first few times, but eventually, you’ll manage to hold your balance for a few seconds.

    Keep at it, enjoying the little tumbles you take after a misplaced foot (those never go away) and work until you can manage to keep the board underfoot. For a lot of surfers, this is the moment you’re bitten by the bug: you’re barely standing, you’re heading straight towards the beach, and the wave has yet to break — but you’re surfing, and by god, it feels good.

Getting better

Now, standing on a board that’s riding foot high whitewash probably isn’t what you had in mind when you set out to start surfing. The first step to getting better, once you’re comfortable and competent in the broken stuff, is to move towards unbroken waves. You’re going to need to paddle out past the whitewash, which is the first test, and begin developing a critical eye that can discern passing bumps from the real swell.

Paddle slightly past where the waves are breaking (being careful to give everyone else a solid buffer — you’re still learning after all) and wait until you see incoming waves. When you spot a promising line on the horizon turn your board towards the beach and start paddling. You’ll have to play around with timing before you can pull it off, but eventually, waves will start to push you before they’ve broken. Pop up quickly and shift your weight slightly towards the direction you’d like to move, now you’re surfing!

Once you’re riding unbroken waves down the line (i.e. not straight towards the beach but across the face of the wave), you can start to dig into what really makes surfing fun.

Simple shifts in weight and little manipulations of your feet, torso, and arms can drastically alter a ride. In time, you’ll find that bringing your weight forward will send you barreling down the wave in a straight line, while stepping back puts your weight over your fins, slowing you down but giving you more control. Finding when and where to shift your weight is what surfing is all about.

It will take thousands of hours to become truly competent and several lifetimes to perfect, but my guess is that after you ride that first wave, you’ll want to put that time in.

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