Finding Your Feet (on a surfboard)

Here I have complied some advice and techniques I have picked up over the years which will hopefully be useful to any beginners out there looking to improve their surfing.. having had the privilege to surf with some really confident & friendly surfers, I felt the desire to pass on the knowledge they have given me.

If you are considering picking up surfing, I have one main piece of advice for you: ya should! Surfing, since I was around 8 years old, has been one of the greatest things in my life, and has provided some of my most ecstatic moments. When I first stood on a board and experienced that pure form of bliss, I entered into a beautiful relationship with the ocean. It has been a long journey, and at times challenging, but nothing has been so worth it. Through navigating different waves I have began to understand that the sea is like a person; she has ups and downs, mood swings, rough days, etc. She will not just let you stand on the board and that be that, there is a lot to consider. Surfing has really challenging me more than almost anything else in my life, but in the same way, it has been so fulfilling.

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One of the first photos I had of me surfing: Peru, 2016

One thing to bear in mind, is that if you surf regularly, then each place is going to be different: the waves break differently, which means you get a different feel when you’re actually standing on the board. I recommend, because of this, spending some time on one beach to learn as it will be much easier to learn on waves you know and can trust.

Lefts and rights: If the waves are breaking to right (meaning the surfer takes the wave and surfs to his/her right along the wall) the wave is a right, whereas if it breaks left it is a left. This will impact you, depending on if you surf regular or goofy. Surfing regular means you surf with your right foot forwards and your left back, and if you’re a goofy surfer it means you put your left foot forwards. It is renowned that you’re a regular, surfing rights will be easier, as you are facing the wave whereas goofy surfers prefer to surf lefts. It is just more comfortable and a little easier. Most countries offer both kind of waves, however Peru is an example of a country with a long Pacific coastline offering mostly lefts, perfect for a goofy surfer.

Surfing really is like any other sport, in that the more you practice, the more your muscles memorise the actions until it becomes fluid and, eventually, one day effortless (at least Kelly Slater makes it look that way). At first, or after a long break, your muscles may be stiff and paddling out could seem like a big challenge. Just a few days of paddling practice will allow you to break through that wall, and the more you do it the more your muscles will get accustomed to the action, and everything becomes easier. The most important thing is not to give up, especially when you’re stuck in the washing machine for what feels like an eternity. Surfing has taught me to trust myself, and recognise strength I didn’t realise I have. There is faith, surfistas!

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Preparation 

“Do I really need to be extra and do yoga just to surf?”

Preparation is indeed important. Surfing can be challenging not only physically but also mentally. That is why it is important to enter the sea in a positive state of mind, ready to face whatever wave comes at you.

  • Yoga

A simple yoga routine on the beach will help you stretch out your muscles so you aren’t left aching afterwards. It is really important to focus on the legs and shoulders as these are the muscles you use most as a surfer.

  • Hydration

Staying 2-4 hours in the ocean means you will (if you’re anything like me) swallow quite a bit of salty sea water. Depending on the place you are in, your throat might burn a bit after a while of this happening, which is actually normal: it is irritation from the salt. That’s why it’s very important to drink loads of water before you go to surf.

  • Sunscreen. Seems obvious but I actually recently forgot this and exacerbated a skin reaction on my hands as a result. Prioritise face and hands which will be exposed to the sun the most. I recommend waterproof, natural sunscreen lotions. They are often colourful, which may make you look strange but are pretty useful as you can see that it hasn’t come off.
  • Scratch vest: wear a scratch vest or complete bikini as you can develop rashes if you stomach is rubbing against the wax on your board.

Boards

“But how do I know which piece of wood to trust? They are all different sizes, where do I begin?”

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Long boarding and short boarding are, in my opinion, two different sports. It’s better to start on a long board and if you want to, work your way down. I began on a foamy, then moved to a hard long board. After a few years of this, when I decided to surf more regularly, I went down to a 9” inch board with a narrower end and after a month or so surfing everyday, finally moved down to a 6”. My body adjusted quite naturally this way. I do remember trying a shortboard when I was starting out on a longboard and being very frustrated that I couldn’t get my balance. Depending on your size, you may choose a wider, stockier board which could be more comfortable for you to float and stand on. If you are a light and small person it could be more comfortable to take a short board as this gets under the waves more easily!

Long boarding advice

When waves are closing out often and are smaller, long boarding can be great. The downside to long boarding is that paddling out is much more challenging, as you have a heavier board to manoeuvre through the waves. If you choose a long board there are tips to help you with this. If a heavy wave is coming, wrap your arms around the longboard and turn yourself and the board upside down just before the white wash gets to you. It will allow the wave to pass over you. Another possibility is to push your chest up on the longboard as the white wash arrives, so the board goes beneath the wave and you go over the top of it.

Paddling out

“Ok I get the standing on the wave part, but how do I actually get to it?”

In my personal surfing journey paddling out has proven a little more challenging even than catching waves. As such I have collected some tips and a mentality which now really helps me with this.

Firstly: paddle with your fingers tightly closed together. It’s important to keep your body straight on the board, and try not to allow your hips to wiggle from side to side as you paddle. Focus on paddling long, strong strokes as opposed to lots of quick ones as it is much more effective.

Don’t give up! It’s easy to feel when you are stuck in the white wash that you will never get past it. It’s important at this point to tell yourself you can. When I first started surfing in Costa Rica, I thought I would never reach the line up. For a month I had a teacher who told me that when I feel most tired is the time to paddle even harder because I’m probably close to making it then. When a wave knocked me off my board he’d tell me to get back on it fast as possible and keep paddling before the next one comes. Seems crazy but the rationality is that whilst it may feel intense, you actually use up less energy that you would if you kept allowing yourself to get knocked off and staying in the white wash. By using as much energy as you can paddling out, keeping hold of your board and paddling fast just as the wave is coming at you, you get out there much faster and then have time to chill and relax instead of battling the waves. So if a big wave comes at me now, I paddle even faster towards it as it gives me more energy to get past it. This is my advice based on personal experience, try it if you want! The white wash can also be fun: through my years of wipeouts, I’ve learnt to enjoy it: it’s all about letting go (but not of the leash though, that you really do have to hold on!)

Duck diving

“In theory it should be easy.. so why doesn’t it work out that way?”

So I’ve watched countless videos of people doing this and it’s taken a really long time before being able to do it myself. I would say the greatest tip I actually got was to look down at the bottom of the sea, focus on pushing your board and yourself directly down, and then pulling it back up again. Only when hearing this did I realise that I had been looking at the wave, and as a result diving really shallowly. It’s good to push down on your board with lots of strength, and then follow through by pushing the back down with your foot.

If you really struggle with duck diving (as I do) there are actually others waves, I mean ways, to get past the waves. As I said, paddling really hard at the wave and then pushing yourself over it and the board underneath is a good technique. I keep a really tight grip on my board when I do that so that I don’t get knocked off. When a big wave comes, I sometimes jump off and hold the tip of the board and dive under it. Holding the board brings you to the surface faster so it can make the whitewash less intense. You shouldn’t do this when there are other surfers around though, or you might get told off. Just find a strategy that works for you by trying a few things out.

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Catching the wave

“Finally the part I came to read about!”

Ok finally we get to the ‘surfing’ part of surfing. For me this is about trusting your inner guidance aka muscle memory, and I am pretty sure the best way to flawlessly get up on your board is to do it again and again until sea water dribbles out of your nose at the end of the day. If I were to give advice I would say, firstly, when you paddle for the wave paddle hard and don’t try stand up until you feel that your body has actually caught the wave. Then, point the nose of the board down into the wave, as this will ensure you stay on it.

If you’re surfing a short board you then want to push with your hands and (hopefully) jump up in one fluid motion. If you are still in the beginners stages this will probably involved bruised knees for a while, but that’s ok as knees are necessary sometimes. The important thing when it comes down to it is confidence. I tell myself, when I see a wave coming in the right place, “this is my wave, I’m getting this wave” as it helps me overcome any fear and just go for it. If you have absolute confidence that you will catch the wave, you probably will. Surfing is, in my opinion, as psychological as it is mental. So tell yourself you can do it, nothing is going to stop you getting that wave, and it will be so worth it in the end.. if not, well enjoy some washing machine, I’ve probably had 5 wipeouts for every wave I’ve caught and I do not regret it.

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photo creds: Juan Cortes

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