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Learn How to Surf: without looking like an idiot

Updated on April 8, 2015

Know Your Etiquette

First and foremost, you need to know the rules of conduct. Typically speaking, the person who is closest to the peak gets the wave. However, there are near-infinite nuances to this system that can take years to fully comprehend. The subtleties of priority, backpaddling, seniority, scroungers, "party waves" and outright burns cannot be understood without sacrificing countless hours to the sea. My suggestion is to reject any desire to operate within the bounds of this system and substitute a temporary system for beginners: if anyone is anywhere near you, you are blowing it.

If you are new to a spot and you don't recognize someone, assume they are local. If someone from that break doesn't recognize you, they are going to assume you are from somewhere they hate. If you accidentally splash someone, you apologize. They don't care about being wet, that's kinda the goal, they care about being respected. They have probably been at this spot for decades and thus have socially recognized superiority. Unless you are actively apologizing, do not speak up unless spoken to. Do not stand up paddle. Follow these rules, and you'll go far.

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Requisition a Shred Stick

One of the most substantial contributing factors to having a good time learning to surf is your equipment. The most important decision is your surfboard. The best way to go about this is to borrow one from a friend since you'll grow out of it soon enough. If you don't have any friends, you can rent one from a friendly, local surf shop. If you just want your picture taken standing on water, like the lord done did, go ahead and use the one provided by your surf camp instructor. Do not buy a Wavestorm or SUP. Below is an outline of different board types.

Shortboard: This is going to be too small/unstable for you, go bigger/wider.

Fish/Hybrid: A good option if you are super athletic and familiar with other board sports like snowboarding or wakeboarding. More difficult to catch waves than on a longboard, and less stable, but you're gonna love the extra maneuverability one you get used to it.

Longboard: Pretty much everyone can have a good time on a longboard. You're probably not going to be able to turn it very well, but you'll find it ridiculously easy to catch waves. Start out on the whitewash, work your way up to breaking waves, and then try a fish/hybrid.

Wavestorm/SoftTop: This is what the surf camps use because of liability issues. They are made out of increasingly pathetic materials, get super waterlogged, definitely don't turn at all, and will make people instantaneously form discouraging opinions about you as a person.

Stand Up Paddle (SUP): This is a great option for cruising around that stagnant lake adjacent to your transitional nursing home. These do not belong in the ocean. They dissolve in saltwater. Moreover, they are just stupid dangerous. Check the video.

This is why you don't stand up paddle

Select a Good Teacher: beware the kahuna

If you have a friend that surfs regularly, this is going to be your best option. Don't expect them to hold your hand during this process, but they will be able to correct any actions that are hindering your transition into competence. Bring them beer.

I will warn against taking part in a surf school. Typically these instructors are glorified personal trainers that most often have no background in the surfing community. They frequently take large groups of inexperienced surfers into crowded, localized lineups, with no concern for the safety of you or others. If you have to hire someone, make it a 1-on-1 lesson with a surf coach. A good rule of thumb: if they can't surf themselves, they probably can't teach you.

Kook-tip: no synchronized circles. Unless you are a minor, stretching is an absolutely essential part of your pre-surf warmup. That being said, moving your arms in little circles next to a bunch of beginners is not the best way to enhance your credibility. Likewise, practicing standing up in the sand as an unemployed gym teacher blows a whistle at you is similarly discrediting.

If you don't have a friend that surfs, your next best bet is to teach yourself. Virtually everything you will ever learn about surfing will naturally progress through trial and error. If absolutely necessary, practice standing up in your living room, but my guess is that you know how to stand up already. Watch the waves and learn how they break. Watch other surfers to see what they're doing right and wrong. You'll learn much more watching and doing than by listening.

...don't be this

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Choose Your Wardrobe Wisely

A worrying trend is that, too often, the brightness of one's ensemble is inversely related to skill level. What makes this an issue is the social expectation of a direct correlation between flashiness and ability. As a beginner, it is in your best interest to fly under the radar. If you choose to wear an ironically nostalgic 80's-themed colorway, you'd better have access to some equally ludicrous maneuvers. Simply put, if you are picking out a wetsuit that screams "look at me," people should already want to look at you. While you're at it, make sure your wetty fits... and isn't inside out.

Kook-tip: bail the swag. Wearing clothes that feature aggressive surf industry branding does not communicate that you know how to surf. It communicates the fact that you desperately want to be associated with the surf industry. I shouldn't have to explain this further and I won't.

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Don't be a Hero

We get it, you are super amped to be learning to surf. You're probably going to be the next JJ Florence. Given that your abilities are about to skyrocket overnight, you should probably let that new-found talent distill a bit before you start sending in clips to Surfline. If you really think the world can't wait to see your mind-blowingly epic stinkbug stance and frantically flailing appendages, you should probably be able to get a friend to film on the beach.

Let me make this painfully clear: Do not attach a GoPro to the nose of your surfboard. I know I don't have to tell you how horrible that angle is. Please, right now, just personally acknowledge that you know that fact exists somewhere in your brain.

Furthermore, at both ends of the talent spectrum, you are going to need every square inch of the deck. Do not waste this valuable real estate on a plastic cheese grater that is going to slice the absolute shit out of your foot when it slips forward. This can happen to anyone, it can happen during a reversal, landing deep in the flats, or just when you were too lazy to find a chunk of wax that fits in your wetty. Plus, it just looks bad. Don't let it happen to you.

Please note: GoPro's are batshit awesome in just about any other configuration.

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Get In Where You Fit In

I cannot stress this point enough. Certain breaks are notorious for aggressive localization, while others are shockingly welcoming to the aspiring beginner. If you have any familiarity with humanity, it will be abundantly clear what type of lineup you are entering. Utilize facial cues and body language. If it doesn't seem like you are welcomed, you aren't.

Furthermore, there is a vast spectrum of difficulty level when it comes to specific breaks. Pay close attention to how aggressively the waves are breaking. If the lip of the wave shoots forward and explodes into the flats, maybe try another spot. If everyone in the lineup is struggling to paddle one way or the other, there is probably a super nuts current. You aren't going to like that. Make sure you know beforehand whether the spot is a beachbreak or a reef. Reef hurts more than you'd think. If you are unsure about any of these factors, ask a lifeguard. If there is no lifeguard, be confident that your life doesn't need guarding.

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Once You're Out There: don't be a chatty cathy

If you make it through an entire session without making verbal contact with anyone, you should award yourself one vigorous, well-deserved pat on the back. Most people go surfing to detach from the drudgery of modern society and, more importantly, to catch some waves. If you jeopardize their chances of accomplishing either of these objectives, do not expect to be rewarded with polite chit chat. You can, however, expect to be greeted with the all-too-thoroughly dehumanizing mad dog stare.

If you keep to yourself and respect etiquette, most people will empathize with you as a beginner. That being said, beware the ever-present but typically sparse surf nazi. He exists, and is just super committed to being a dick. Most everyone hates this guy, and as long as you are not getting in anyone's way, you will eventually find the lineup to be a quite friendly environment. For the most part, everyone will get to know you and finally be chill, just understand that this is going to take longer than you think.

Most Importantly: have fun

Even if you break some of these rules, maybe you accidentally get in someone's path while simultaneously wearing an egregiously bright singlet, most everyone is going to forgive you if you have a vibrant, shit-eating grin from ear to ear. We are all here to have a good time. Remember the rules put forth in this article, keep a positive attitude, and you'll never want to leave your mother ocean.

Comments

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    • Luke M Simmons profile imageAUTHOR

      Luke M. Simmons 

      3 years ago from Encinitas, California

      @yes: that is awesome. Seems like there'd be all sorts of cool sensations going on at once.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 

      3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      We went to Honoli'i Beach, just north of Hilo. The ocean is around 75 degrees there. A 60 degree freshwater river flows into the ocean, so you get occasional cold surges, and occasional warm surges from the hot springs. Really amazing!

    • Luke M Simmons profile imageAUTHOR

      Luke M. Simmons 

      3 years ago from Encinitas, California

      @yes: yeah the crucial steps are paddle, stand up, have good balance. Some find this trivially easy, while others struggle. Where did you surf where there were hot springs? I would very much like to experience this in my lifetime!

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 

      3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      I tried surfing several months ago, with my roommates. It turned out to be not as hard as I thought it would be. I went to a beach that has hot springs in the water - really radical!

    • Luke M Simmons profile imageAUTHOR

      Luke M. Simmons 

      3 years ago from Encinitas, California

      @sanjay: very glad you enjoyed it, thanks for commenting.

    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

      Sanjay Sharma 

      3 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

      Very interestng and informative hub.Thanks for sharing.

    • Luke M Simmons profile imageAUTHOR

      Luke M. Simmons 

      3 years ago from Encinitas, California

      @tlcs: Thanks for the comment. Happy shredding!

    • tlcs profile image

      Trudy Cooper 

      3 years ago from Hampshire, UK

      Looks awesome and a lot of fun! Have to go to Cornwall for the waves here!

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