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Surfing 101 -- Learning How to Surf

Updated on October 18, 2010

Surfing is my favorite sport, hands down. I was giving a surf lesson the other day when I realized that I could probably teach people to surf through my writing. This is not as ideal as actually being there to coach you through it but I will give you what you need to get started. In this hub I am going to give you the basics of surfing, how the ocean works, basic terminology, how to catch a wave and different tips I’ve found that make the difference between night and day when I am teaching a new person how to surf. The girl in these photos was my student and this was her first lesson with me. Needless to say, she’s now hooked.

Terminology and Slang

Growing up I surfed in Venice Beach and sometimes when coming back home after a good surf, with my board under my arm, I would have tourists say things like, “Gnarly dude!” or “Surf’s up!” I wouldn’t have been surprised if they said “Cowabunga!” First off, please get the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lingo out of your head, surfers don’t talk like that. The following are some basic terms you should know:

Kook: An inexperienced or stupid surfer, used offensively.

Rails: The sides of the surfboard.

Fins: Protruding objects on the bottom of the board. They help with steering the board.

Leash: A cord that attaches to your ankle and to the surfboard.

Tail: The back end of the surfboard where the fins and leash are located.

Nose: The top part of the surfboard, opposite the tail.

Pearl: When the nose, or tip, of your board goes into the water causing you to wipe out.

Wax: Also sometimes called “sex wax” even though it is a brand name. This is wax you put on your surfboard to prevent slipping off.

Goofy: When you naturally stand on a board and your left foot is the foot that goes back, your stance is “goofy”.

Pop up: When you go from a prone position to a standing up position in surfing.

Stoked: Very happy.

How Surfing Works

The object of surfing is to ride the unbroken part of the wave while staying as close to the breaking part as possible without getting caught by it. Surfers perform maneuvers to achieve this. I wish there was more I could say about this but this is really all you need at this point in time.

Surfing Etiquette

One of the things I love about surfing is that it’s nearly lawless -- that is, there are very little rules and it doesn’t matter what you do particularly, as long as you follow the surfing etiquette. This surfing etiquette is known all over the world and is very easy to follow.

Rule number one: the person who is on the wave first has the right of way. You wouldn’t try to catch a wave that somebody was already on. The exception to this is if they’re riding the wave away from you and you are going to catch the wave going the opposite direction.

Rule two: The person who is closer to where the wave is breaking has the right of way. If you and another surfer are trying to catch the same wave at the same time, whoever is closer to where it’s breaking gets the wave.

Rule three: Get out of the way of the person who is on the wave.

That’s basically what you need to know. Simple. As you’re learning though, you should give way to people who are more experienced.

Safety Tips

When you’re standing in the water with your board, never have your board floating in the water between an oncoming wave and yourself. The ocean is very strong and even the smallest whitewater can hurt you in this situation.

Try to hold onto your board. Always use a leash when you’re learning but it is also good to try to hold onto your board as well, if there are people around you. Likewise, if another surfer looses his board and it’s coming straight at you, dive under the wave and cover your head with an arm.

When you wipe out and you are resurfacing it is a good idea to put your hand above your head as your surfboard might be directly above you.

If a wave holds you down just relax and wait it out. Do not try to struggle or swim out of it when the hold is strong. Not only can you wind up swimming deeper but the struggle and panic will give you less than half of your normal breath. Relax, stay calm and the wave will let you go.

Rip tides are fun in that you can use them to help you get out past the break. However, you can get caught in one and have trouble getting back to shore. The last thing you do is panic. Rip tides normally flow in a somewhat circular motion so it will be pulling you North or South as well as away from the shore. The trick for this is NOT to fight it but to swim partially with it and partially towards the shore. So if it’s pulling you South and away from the shore, then swim South but partially towards the shore. That will get you back home safe.

You can avoid rip tides by following lifeguard signs but also the area where a rip tide is will look choppy and discolored from the sand being sort of moved around in a tumultuous fashion.

Last but not least, never dive head first, especially when it is even remotely shallow. My dad did this and broke his neck and back. Since then, I’ve made the habit of putting my hands out for safety or diving off in such a way that avoids hitting my head on the bottom. Usually I try to avoid diving off head first all together but if you have no choice, be careful.

None of this was intended to scare you out of surfing. I just thought I’d give you the best advice on these things so you were prepared in the event of an emergency. Factually you probably wont encounter any of the above situations when learning how to surf.

Getting Started

For your first surf lesson you should get a surfboard called a soft top. They are soft so you wont get hurt and they float a lot, which is ideal for learning to surf. Get the biggest size you can. Nine feet is ideal. If you’re smaller, like a kid, you can go with a smaller size.

Lay your board on the sand and practice paddling and popping up. A pop up should be fast, like you’re jumping up. Some people go on one knee first and then all the way up, this only works when you’re at the very beginning of learning how to surf, it should be one smooth, fast motion. Don’t forget to bend your knees once you’re up. Yes, you look dorky practicing in the sand and, yes, everybody instantly spots you as a newbie. But it is a good idea to practice this if you plan on standing on your board in the water. You can also practice your pop up at home.

Now, take your board into the water. Ideally you’ll be at a beach where you can find whitewater that rolls in over a fairly long distance as this will give you enough time to get the feel for it. No, you don’t start by riding the unbroken part of the wave, you learn on the whitewater. Also, it might be a good idea to ride the whitewater a few times without trying to stand up.

To catch a wave (whitewater or otherwise) lay prone on your board, facing the shore. Position yourself so that your feet are a couple of inches from the tail (this applies to longer boards). Cupping your hands, paddle by going one hand and then the next. The idea is that you want to “catch” the wave, not let it hit you and hope to get on. Paddle hard enough as if you were trying to get up to the same speed as the wave. Once you feel the wave start to carry you: pop up! Don’t forget to bend your knees.

Important: while you are paddling, arch your back as much as possible. You don’t want your head down. I can’t stress how key this is. If you find yourself pearling then adjust yourself on the board by moving back or try arching your back more.

And that’s how you get started! Have fun! Let me know if you tried it and, if you did, then how stoked you were. If not, maybe I’ll give you personal coaching.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      one edit. a kook is someone that acts like he knows watsup with surfing/is really experienced, but in reality is a newb

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      i surf and if you need any professinal surfing lesson just look me up on facebook and well get in contact and i know some really good places t surf in lots of different places!!!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Hey, I finally got to read your surfing hub - and you can tell that I'm already stoked! I'm so excited to finally try it, I can't even sit still right now! And you made it sound pretty easy too, so this is good :)

      When I tried snowboarding first I thought it would be hard, but it's soo addicting and fun and satisfying :)I'm sure I'll have even more fun with surf )

    • TylerCapp profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Los Angeles, California

      @ prasetio30 I might just hop down to Indo some day as I just moved to Thailand to teach. Indo is the number one surf destination in world, if I'm not mistaken. Don't forget though that surfing is a much more relaxed thing then people realize.

    • prasetio30 profile image


      8 years ago from malang-indonesia

      I like to see the people who surf at the beach. With a beautiful waves, it looks great sport and pump our adrenaline. I'll try to surf someday. You can find many beautiful places to surf in Indonesia. I love this hub. I learn much here. Thumbs up for you.


    • TylerCapp profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Los Angeles, California

      @ Daena B. Well, if you do go on vacation, I hope you get the chance.

      @ Dolores Monet Body surfing is great. If you ever get a chance, look at videos of body surfing at The Wedge. That's ultimate. Thanks for the regards about my dad. He's alive and well. Though, he doesn't stay in the water long if he does go in these days.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I so admire surfers and love to watch them catch a wave, even our little waves at Ocean City, Maryland. The balance is incredible. The one time I tried it (I love to body surf, I had to stop, thinking I might drown from laughing so hard. It was not pretty). And your poor father! What happened? Did he live to tell the tale?

    • Daena B. profile image

      Daena B. 

      8 years ago from Wenatchee, WA

      Cool! I've never lived close enough to the coast for surfing to be an option, but it sounds fun! You do a really good job of explaining the process.


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