How Surfing Works

Learning to Surf

If you've ever learned to ride a bicycle, you might understand a little bit about what it takes to learn to surf. For most people, learning to ride a bike involves an awkward combination of pushing off, trying to balance and steering wildly before falling over. But eventually, you get it, and for most people who learn to ride a bike after a series of falls, that first moment of balancing on two wheels is incredible.

Surfing is similar. It requires balance and coordination, and getting started on a wave involves a key movement known as the pop-up. Like the push-off when riding a bike, the pop-up is central to riding a wave. Here's what happens:


  1. The surfer leaves from shore and paddles out into the surf while lying on the board.
  2. The surfer floats in the water near the spot where the wave will begin to break.
  3. When a wave approaches, the surfer paddles hard to catch up with it. This step, known as catching the wave, can be tricky, and it requires significant upper-body strength.
  4. Just before the wave starts to break, the surfer pushes down on the board as though he is doing a push-up. At the same time, he draws his legs up under his body, plants his feet and stands up.

From there, skilled surfers can perform all kinds of interesting maneuvers. They generally stay just ahead of the break, allowing the wave to propel them toward the beach. On large waves that break in the shape of a tube, surfers can duck into the barrel itself, disappearing from view in the watery tube. Surfers can move up and down on the wave's face, cut back toward the breaking water or allow their momentum to propel them off of the wave's surface. Since the surfboard is buoyant, surfers can land back on the wave and continue to ride it. Skilled surfers can position themselves on the front of the board, wrapping all ten of their toes around the board's nose. This is the origin of the term hang ten.

A surfing class
A surfing class

Getting upright and maneuvering on the wave's leading edge aren't the only parts of surfing that require balance and skill. Paddling out to the line-up, or the area of breakers where the surfers gather to catch a wave, requires balance and endurance. It also requires the surfer to understand how waves break so that he can decide the best path to take to the line-up. Paddling through the breaking water would be difficult, and it would lead to the risk of colliding with other surfers. For this reason, surfers paddle toward the lineup in a curve that bypasses the breaking water in favor of smoother waves.

In addition, when paddling through big waves, surfers must get out of the waves' way to keep from being pushed back toward shore. Surfers do this by going under water. A surfer on a longboard usually rolls underneath the board and pulls its nose underwater. This is a turtle roll. Surfers on shortboards, on the other hand, duck dive by pushing the nose of the board underwater and leaning into the wave. Either way, the bulk of the wave's face travels over the submerged surfer.