10 Surfing Tips for Beginners

First things first, choose a board. Beginner surfers usually learn on a softboard, which is more buoyant than advanced models. See more surfing pictures.
Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

For many folks, surfing is a passion and a romance. It can be thrilling; it can be treacherous. Just like love, one might say.

The problem is, like any sport, it also takes time, patience and basic physical coordination to learn how to do it. If you're newly smitten with the idea of surfing, what board should you purchase, what clothes should you wear, and how should you behave around the veteran surfers at your nearest beach? Furthermore, how in the world do you pop up on your board to catch a wave? Click ahead for tips on how to begin at the beginning with this beloved sport.

Compare Surf Schools

Going to a good surf school or camp offers two advantages compared to learning from well-intentioned surfing buddies. First, professional instructors are likely to have more experience than your friends, if not in years, then in the variety of conditions and situations they've faced. Also, a professional knows how to teach as well as what to teach. You learn the correct techniques safely and efficiently.

But how do you decide on the proper surf school? Recommendations from other pros, like surf shop owners, can be useful. Also look for accreditation by the International Surfing Association (ISA), the sport's world governing body. Accredited schools agree to follow exacting standards regarding safety and teaching. For one thing, ISA-approved instructors are certified in lifesaving skills. And students are furnished with equipment that's appropriate for their abilities.

Non-credentialed instructors can be just as skilled and effective, of course. As with any service provider, it's wise to ask for references and check records with the Better Business Bureau. You might also download the ISA's criteria for recognized schools from its Web site as a guide for evaluation. Ask, for example: Are classes limited to eight students per instructor? Do students start on softboards (which are made of foam for added safety and buoyancy)? Do instructors make sure students have mastered specific skills before passing them to a more advanced class?

Also consider personal preferences. You might be more comfortable with group rather than individual lessons, or with a female or male instructor, for example.

Dress for Success
A rash guard will protect your skin from the sun and the surfboard wax, and a wetsuit will keep you warm in cold waters.
A rash guard will protect your skin from the sun and the surfboard wax, and a wetsuit will keep you warm in cold waters.
Anthony Ong/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Water temperature is the main factor to consider when putting together a surfing wardrobe. Suppose your home beach is Gabon, in equatorial Africa, where the water temperature hovers around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) year-round. Then you might need only a pair of board shorts and a rash guard, a shirt that prevents irritation from the sun and surfboard wax. Both items are made with a stretchy polyester fabric, such as spandex, for a comfortable fit. Rash guards carry a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) rating, similar to the SPF rating on sunscreens. A UPF of 25 to 39 is considered very good; 40 and higher is excellent. You should still apply sunscreen, however.

If the water temperatures where you surf change with the seasons, and you plan to make this a permanent hobby, you may want to invest in an assortment of surf wear: a sleeveless vest, a long-sleeved jacket, and a head-to-toe, hooded wetsuit. Neoprene is the fabric of choice. This synthetic rubber is not only warm, but tough and durable as well. It's resistant to sunlight, chemicals and abrasion.

No wardrobe is complete without accessories. A leash is an ankle strap that secures you to your board. That saves you the trouble of chasing it across the bay if and when you wipe out, while preventing accidents caused by a wayward surfboard. And we strongly recommend a cushioned plastic helmet. It may look nerdy, but less nerdy than a shaved patch of hair and 13 staples to close the gash caused by hitting your head on rocks or coral -- or a loose surfboard.

Choose the Right Board

A first surfboard should be like a first car: a basic model, easy to handle, and built to last until you're ready for something with more horsepower. As with cars, the size and construction are two factors that most effect handling and durability.

Of the two elements, size is more important. A surfboard should match the user's size: shorter boards for smaller surfers. Longer, wider boards are more stable, however, so even a petite, 110-pound (50-kilogram) surfer should choose a board that's at least 7.5 feet (2.25 meters) long and 22 inches (55 centimeters) wide. A 9-foot (2.7-meter) board is more suitable for a novice who weighs about 200 pounds (91 kilograms) [source: On the Edge Surfing].

Concerning construction, softboards, which are made of foam for extra buoyancy, are a good choice for true beginners. Fast learners, however, might go with an epoxy board. Epoxy boards consist of a foam core encased in epoxy resin. This construction makes them both buoyant and tough. That helps as you're learning to ride the waves and minimizes damage to the board from a wipeout. Advanced surfers often prefer fiberglass boards, which are more responsive but less durable than epoxy boards, something like a sporty coupe compared to a family sedan.

As you gain skill and confidence, you can modify the board via the fin setup. Fins are prongs attached to the underside of the board that act as rudders. You can change out your fins, varying them by size, number and placement to increase speed, make tighter turns, and surf in a wider range of conditions.

Choose the Right Spot

The ideal beginner's surf spot is the oceanic equivalent of the kiddie pool. It's a straight, sandy shoreline, free from hazardous rocks and reefs, with a few strategically placed sandbars. What makes this arrangement advantageous? Think of waves as energy plus water, just as a log fire is energy plus wood. In the same way a fire dies down when it runs out of wood, waves die when they run out of water. A sandy, gently rolling bottom gradually reduces the water available. It also creates friction at the base of the wave, slowing the water beneath the surface and allowing the water on top to catch up. The wave thus gains height, but not much: A wave's crest at its height is equal to the depth of the water below it, or less. In the shallow zone described here, waves might build to about 3 feet (1 meter) high.

Veteran surfers bypass these feeble waves, called "crumbly" or "mushy" because they break up quickly. That's fine: You can learn and make mistakes in relative safety, without feeling self-conscious or pressured. And anyway, surfers can be very territorial. They sometimes look at newcomers as a nuisance and a danger, and sometimes they're right. (That's why they're also the best people to ask when looking for a spot for beginners.)

For safety's sake, however, never surf alone. Even if you become a master of the waves, make sure there are always at least a few other people within hailing -- and helping -- distance.

Learn the Lay of the Land

Getting to know your home beach's geography will not only make your sessions safer and more fun, it may win you points with the locals. For instance, take sandbars. We've already explained how sandbars help produce good beginner waves. But sandbars can also help produce strong, seaward currents called rip currents. Surfers can wear themselves to exhaustion trying to paddle against these currents to return to the beach. The safer course is to work out of them by paddling parallel to the shore. Rocks, coral reefs and jetties can also contribute to rip currents.

It's also helpful to know when high and low tide occur. Water level affects wave height and where waves form in relation to the shore. You can find local tide tables in area surf shops and newspapers. Tables for the United States and other countries are available at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Web site and elsewhere online.

Learn to recognize and respect the native plants and animals and their habits, and know whether they're a threat to you. For example, rays tend to settle in sandy shore bottoms. They aren't aggressive, but their barbed spines secrete potent venom. The deadly box jellyfish swarms near some Hawaiian islands during certain phases of the moon.

Learn to Read the Weather
If you understand how the weather, the wind and the terrain affect the waves at your beach, you'll be able to forecast a great surfing day.
If you understand how the weather, the wind and the terrain affect the waves at your beach, you'll be able to forecast a great surfing day.

You wouldn't plan to play golf if the forecast called for high winds and thundershowers. At the very least, the wind would play havoc with the ball. At worst, you could get electrocuted.

Likewise, surfers must check surf reports and surf forecasts before hitting the beach. Wave height, high and low tides and other climatological data affect surf conditions in a given area. To apply the information, you need to understand the key terms and some basic meteorology. For example, suppose a surf forecast calls for a "SE groundswell and local windswell mix this morning." Does that sound like gibberish to you? Here's the scoop: Groundswells are high-energy waves, produced by strong winds far out at sea. Windswells are weaker, the products of local winds. SE, of course, stands for southeast, the direction from which the waves come. If you know your beach's geography (because your heeded our previous tip), you can predict what type of waves you'll get at your beach today.

Like tide tables, surf reports and forecasts are readily available online. And as with most information today, there's an app for that -- several, in fact. Graphs, charts and live-stream video of the beach are as close as your smartphone or tablet.

It's important to note that surf conditions can be less predictable than the weather in general, however. Thus, it helps to be able to read climatological signs of change. For example, a rising north wind (blowing north to south) is welcome on southward-facing beaches. The wind provides resistance for incoming waves, causing them to gain height.

Get in Shape for Surfing

To stay fit for his sport, professional surfer Mark Healey thrives on a regimen that includes spearfishing, jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts [source: Murphy]. Beginners -- most surfers, in fact -- don't need to go to those extremes. But being in shape does make learning easier. In contrast, trying to learn without some kind of conditioning program can be discouraging, painful and even dangerous.

Surfing is a whole-body sport, but certain muscle groups get worked more than others. It takes strong arms for paddling, and core strength for popping up, the move that takes you from lying on your board to standing. Sit-ups, push-ups and squat thrusts all help tone these areas. Arm exercises using hand weights can strengthen the rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder, which are especially stressed by paddling.

You need a fine sense of balance as well. To improve balance, try walking the plank -- literally. Set a two-by-four piece of lumber on bricks 6 inches (15 centimeters) off the ground and walk it. Work up to a strong wooden dowel or broomstick.

Understandably, some surfers find working out a bore compared to the thrill of riding the waves. If you're in this crowd, consider skateboarding or snowboarding. You not only tone the right muscles but also practice the same techniques you need on the ocean -- including a graceful way to handle a wipeout.

Learn to Crawl Before You Stand
Before you get out into the surf to catch waves, you'll need to learn the basics -- on land.
Before you get out into the surf to catch waves, you'll need to learn the basics -- on land.
Erik Snyder/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Learning any skill from square one can be frustratingly slow, especially for adults. The best thing to do is take a Zen approach. Absorb the basics and take baby steps to build a firm foundation for advanced learning.

Notice how the board's nose rests on the water before you get on. It should look the same when you lie on it, but slightly lower. If the nose rises higher or dips below the surface, you've altered the board's center of gravity. You need to slide forward or back to restore it. Pay attention to your paddling stroke, too. Strive to take long, steady strokes with palms cupped while keeping the rest of your body immobilized.

Use learning as an opportunity to develop patience. Being patient with yourself will make learning the technical skills easier and more rewarding. Patience also leads to calmness, which can be a lifesaver in a sport with as many potential hazards as surfing.

Look Before You Leap

As the baseball legend Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching" [source: Baseball Almanac]. Surfers can and should observe a lot from the beach before pushing off into the surf. Take note of physical features and objects, such as jetties, piers and fishing boats, that could pose a safety risk. Noticing landmarks will also help you to orient yourself, making it less likely you'll lose your bearings in the water. Locate the lifeguard if there is one. Check for flags and signs. At beaches across the United States, for instance, a single red flag typically warns of hazardously high surf and strong current; a purple flag indicates the presences of dangerous marine animals.

Also look for the line-up, the area offshore where surfers wait to catch waves. Avoid crossing the path between waiting surfers and the surf.

With experience, you'll be able to spot other telling details. You'll know how to read the waves from a distance and recognize the translucent film bobbing on the surface as a jellyfish.

Obey Surfing Etiquette
Crowded surf can lead to dangerous collisions, so be careful out there.
Crowded surf can lead to dangerous collisions, so be careful out there.

Even though surfing is an individual sport, surfers are a community of people who share the waves. Learning and following the unwritten code of conduct is especially important and profitable for beginners. It not only helps prevent accidents, but also shows your respect for your fellow surfers.

Some rules of the code are simply about being polite. For example, wait your turn in the lineup. Beginners, who usually ride longboards, may be tempted to break this rule and use their larger board's paddling and speed advantage to outrace surfers on shortboards to the take-off zone. Don't do that.

Also, waves are one-to-a-customer. It's considered poor form to drop in, or catch a wave, when another surfer is already riding it. Sometimes beginners drop in, not realizing the wave's already in use; pay attention to what's going on around you.

Other rules are peculiar to surfing culture. For example, respect an established surfer's spot and seniority. Follow the vibe of the lineup. Early-morning surfers trying to get in a session before heading to work may be less tolerant of beginners. Be especially deferential to this crowd. The after-work crowd may be more relaxed and boisterous. Join the fun, but pay extra attention to the traffic. A surfing community is like a neighborhood. Balancing friendliness with responsibility is the best way to get in, and stay in, their good graces.


Why Using the Term 'Dry Drowning' Could Do More Harm Than Good

Why Using the Term 'Dry Drowning' Could Do More Harm Than Good

What is 'dry drowning'? Learn more about secondary drowning and other water injuries in this HowStuffWorks article.

Author's Note: 10 Surfing Tips for Beginners

Being raised in the landlocked heartland of the United States, I was surprised at how seriously surfers take their sport. It's not only a hobby, but also gives a sense of identity for the devotees. And their athletic ability and sheer nerve are amazing.

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