Learning how to surf

Learn How to Surf The Right Way

This method of learning is most especially true for those looking to learn surfing yet have little or no waves in their hometown.

Much like how the Karate Kid had to wax cars for a while to get his muscle memory down, the same goes for surfing. If you really want to learn how to surf, you’re going to need to start with paddling.

After years and years of taking beginners with me on day-long surf trips only to watch as they paddle out, nearly exhausted, take a wave followed by a beating and occasionally paddling back out for a second before spending an hour on the shore trying to re-charge before repeating this process a few times prior to the 5 hours long surf day ending, I realized there must be and IS a better way.

Tired out after surfing
Surfing at Sebastian Inlet

Let me stop here and allow you to revaluate what you’re after.

Do you just want to stand up on a board one time so you can add “I surfed” to your proverbial lifetime accomplishment list? If so, there is a super easy solution and here it is:

Rent a giant board, drag it out to some good white water and have a buddy shove you into a wave. You will stand up, and congrats, you’re not a surfer but you CAN say “I surfed once”.

*If you’re in the Pinellas/Clearwater area or planning a trip there, check out Sister Jo’s Surf School for some epic local lessons.

However, if you want to take up one of the least expensive and most rewarding hobbies the human race has ever found… keep reading.

Sister Jos Surf School Website Screenshot
Sister Jos Surf School Website Screenshot

Ever since my first wave on a boogie board at the age of seven, I knew I had a passion for the ocean and surfing.

The rush of adrenaline you feel (and possibly even a subsequent dopamine rush) when you catch a wave and nothing more than purely physics and mother nature propel you to a speed great enough to cause the board under you to skim across the ocean so fast you can stand on it is simply better than almost any other feeling the natural world has to offer. Some may even say it’s better than sex. I myself would say you just haven’t met the right girl yet. Then again, others may claim I simply haven’t surfed the right wave yet 😉

Alright, getting back on track, you want to learn how to surf and you’re serious about it.
So here we go:

Step 1. Get a surfboard

You’ll need something with a rounded nose that’s at least a foot longer than you are tall, at a minimum, for your first board.

The smaller the board the harder it will be to stand up on it, however, if you go too big, you will be thwarting your ability to learn how to really ‘perform’ on the wave.

Best surfboard for beginners
girl holding a big beginner surfboard

The ultimate progression of boards for a surfer to learn would be starting with a longboard (9’0+) to a fun shape (around 8’0) to a smaller performance hybrid (rounded nose, about as long as you are tall) followed by a performance shortboard. However, if you only want to master longboarding you may stop at the fun shape model.

Here’s a great article on choosing the right board for you: First Surfboard Guild.

However, don’t start with a SUP (Stand up paddleboard) or a giant longboard as you will never be able to turn that yacht. Facebook marketplace and craigslist are your go-to for a deal.

Proper Surfboard Search Tips

Use the following method on both OfferUP and Facebook Marketplace. Do a search for “surfboard” and then set up notifications for that search term. Next, make sure notifications are “on” for both apps. This will then give you a notification when someone posts a surfboard for sale. Being the first to respond when a good deal arises is critical in beating everyone else to the board.

Step 2. Paddle training.

Let’s prevent the inevitable shoreline exhaustion, feeling beaten by the world event which is bound to happen if you paddle out into ridable surf without the right amount of physical conditioning.

How to train for your first surf session

Paddle Technique:

Starting with your hands, put your fingers and thumb together and slightly cup your hand. This gives you the most propulsion to move quickly in the water. When driving your hand into the water make sure you point it straight and go as deep as possible.
Balance: Try to position yourself on the board so that your weight is just slightly forward. If you stop, you should start to sink towards the front of the board. This will allow the board to even out once you get going with forward momentum.

Location:

Any (safe) body of water will work.   Can’t get to the ocean to train? A pool will also suffice. Tie your leash off to the fence (may need to extend it with a rope) and paddle in place. This will get boring so throw some music on and get to it!

*Pro-tip: Sensitive nipples? You may want to wear a shirt or invest in a decent rash guard as I’ve often seen beginners get horrible nip rash that will prevent you from training for the next week.

Ocean Safety:

As you will be getting exhausted, and your board could slip out from under you, I do recommend you wear a leash if training in the ocean (even in semi-flat water).

*Note: the following training cycle is designed to minimize the risk of injury for grown adults. If you’re younger (under 20 yrs old), or a triathlete, go ahead and just paddle till exhaustion every day mixing in two a day as often as possible.

The goal is to condition your body so you can paddle one full mile without stopping.  Once you can do that, you’re ready for the next step… Actual surfing.  

Training Schedule:

  • Day 1: Starting with a steady pace, paddle in one direction for 20 minutes or until you feel semi exhausted and stay close to the shore if in the ocean (15 meters or less).  You may need to take short breaks every five minutes or so.
    Take a five to ten-minute break at the “semi-exhaustion” point before turning around to head back to your launch point.
  • Day 2: Rest
  • Day 3: Rest
  • Day 4: Repeat day 1.
  • Day 5: Rest
  • Day 6: Repeat day 1 and add in some sprint paddling, that is paddle as hard and fast as you can while kicking your feet (if the board isn’t too long) for short bursts. This will replicate the exact type of paddling you will do when you actually paddle for a wave. The rest of the training you do is more about paddling out past the break, fighting the current, and paddling back out after taking waves.
  • Week 2: At this point, you may be able to start training every other day. Keep in mind you are going to be building muscle, but that’s not the primary goal. The goal is conditioning your body to be able to paddle for hours on end, day after day when the swell is good.
  • Week 3+: Really focus on paddling for an hour straight without breaks. Try to do two sessions in a single day if possible and also try to go back to back days, training Monday and Tuesday, resting Wednesday, and then again go after hard a Friday and Saturday.

Wind and currents

If you’re training on the beach, be sure to start the session by paddling up current or against the wind. This way you have an easier paddle coming back to your launching point.

Once you’ve trained for about three weeks, assuming you were in halfway decent shape when you started, you should be able to paddle roughly a mile non-stop.

Standing Up On the Board

Goofy?

To determine what foot you are putting your leash on you need to know whether you’re a goofy (left foot back) or a regular footed surfer. The easiest way to do this, put your feet together and have a friend give you a slight push. Whichever foot leaps first is your front foot (most likely). Your back foot is where the leash goes. Unless you’re paddling out in a totally empty lineup, please put the leash on while you are learning. This is for your safety and the safety of others.

Location:

When it comes time to paddle out into some real surf, try to find a decent break but not one crowded with guys who know what they are doing. You will appreciate this tip when you advance and have beginners dropping in on you, taking forever to paddle out becoming obstacles to avoid, and simply making your surf session less enjoyable.

First Wave

Paddle in long before the wave actually crests. Go straight and belly ride her. Get a feel for the ocean. Appreciate the power.

Standing

For your first time standing, you can also just go straight. Don’t overthink this, but try to pop to your feet straight from a laying position. Practice a bit on the shore. Do a fast push-up and bring your front foot up under your belly and then stand.

Turning right or left

On your next wave, try to determine which direction is most likely to give you a line down the break of the wave. If the right looks like it’s about to close out, try to go left. You may need to first drop into the wave and then turn the board down the face of it while in a semi-prone position.

Now, you really don’t need some certified trainer. You should be able to swim fairly well from all that training so if you get separated from your board, swim ashore! If you get caught in a current, swim with it but at a 45 degree angle to the shore. You should however paddle out with a buddy who knows what he’s doing and NEVER paddle out to crowded breaks while you are learning.

Right of way:

The surfer on the inside of the wave has the right-of-way. If you are learning how to surf and possibly not yet turning down the line, simply look left and right. if there is another surfer who looks like he is coming in your direction on the wave, or hollering at you to MOVE, do it. You are likely snaking his wave if you paddle in.

About the author

Clayton Mayo, of Madeira Beach, FL is an avid surfer who has been paddling out for over 20 years on waves from his hometown along the Gulf coast to the secluded breaks of New Zealand. He has a love for animals, waves, and trying his best to live a life filled with friends and family.

From video production to web design, Clayton owns and operates IdeaSwell.com and is always trying to share his love of surfing with others, even if that means further crowding his home breaks.

Surfer finishing a wave
Clayton at Typhoon Lagoon in Orlando, Florida after a mush burger wave.

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