I just landed on the beautiful island of Florianopolis, Brazil to learn how to surf and stood up near a dozen times on my first day! This isn’t a testament to my ability but to the school I chose: Nexus Surf. In addition to a free cell phone and car for exploring the region, they have the best teaching method I’ve seen in the sport. I was so impressed that I asked the founder, Hans Keeling, to offer his top 7 tips for would-be surfers. For the record, I started with a 9-foot board, focused on having the top of my feet on the back edge of the board (almost grabbing the board with my toes), and practiced lifting my body up with my lower back for paddling vs. pulling my head back, which hurts like hell. Here are Hans’ tips:
1) Selecting the proper board size and shape for your height, weight and body type is crucial. Speak with an instructor or friend with solid surfing experience to see what they recommend for you. For beginners, a large board with plenty of width and girth is ideal, as this will provide a stable ride and better balance.
2) For beginners, make sure to choose the right conditions for learning. Ideal are days that are relatively calm, with small waves and gentle, rolling swells. Avoid crowds, which can be daunting for new surfers. Nothing can turn someone off on surfing faster than paddling out in intense conditions that are too much for their comfort level, so take it easy and build up your confidence for larger wave conditions gradually over time.
3) Before entering the water, take 5-10 minutes to warm up and stretch your muscles out, particularly of your arms, neck, shoulder and back. While surfing you’ll likely use certain muscles in an entirely new way, which without proper preparation and stretching can be quite sore the next day.
4) Once in the water, the first challenge is to learn to paddle correctly while on your board. This is your means to control your position relative to the waves and get to where you need to go in order to catch them. Lay down on the board, stomach down, back arched and head up, and find the proper equilibrium point for your weight to balance on the board — not too far back so that the nose of the board shoots up out of the water (you’ll paddle but won’t go anywhere!) and not too far forward so that the nose of the board “submarines” below the surface of the water (you’ll lose balance and submerge head first). Once you’ve found you’re proper balance point, begin to paddle with long, outstretched strokes, hands cupped or positioned as a freestyle swimmer would have them, alternating right arm then left. Each paddle should be deliberate and efficient, catching and pushing away behind you as much water as possible with the entire part of your arm submerged into the water — the more force, the more velocity.
5) One of the keys to great surfing is learning to analyze the conditions of the ocean. Pay attention to the prevailing currents, learn to read the waves, see where they are breaking and where they aren’t, if they’re hollow or full, and observe until you can identify the time between “sets”, which are groups of larger waves that roll in periodically and what surfers live for. When watching the waves, look for where the peaks rise and then start to break, and observe where the good surfers position themselves relative to these peaks to ride them — this is where you want to be! Be patient as developing this familiarity with the waves takes time — the ocean is an ever-changing medium, so only with time and dedicated observation will you begin to develop familiarity with its patterns and behavior. A great thing to do is to take at least 5-10 minutes before each surf session (combine with Step 3 above!) and observe the other surfers out on the water to get a feel for how conditions are at the moment and which peak is right for you.
6) In order to practice getting to your feet on the board, start on the inside set of waves, called the “whitewater”. With a sufficiently large board, even these small, petering out waves will have enough force to get you moving with enough velocity to get to your feet. Balance on a surfboard is not unlike balance on a bicycle — once you’re moving, it’s easy to balance and find your equilibrium, but if you’re stationary, it’s next to impossible. Once the wave catches you, put both hands flat on the board below your chest, and push your upper body up off the board, back arched and head up. In a smooth, fluid motion, you want to sweep your front leg up under your body as you bring yourself to a standing position. Which leg belongs in “front” will determine whether you are a “goofy” (right foot forward) or “regular” (left foot forward) surfer — one will naturally seem more comfortable to you, just as jumping off of one leg or the other is generally more natural for people. Once up on the board, keep a low center of gravity, knees bent and upper body balanced, with arms up around chest level to help finding your balance.
7) In order to get the hang of paddling, keeping your balance and the motion of getting to your feet in the whitewater, the key is practice, practice, practice! Once you feel comfortable with these steps, you’re ready to translate what you’ve learned to the outside sets (larger waves). No mysteries here, just applying the same techniques in a more dynamic environment, aka, the “big leagues”. Persistence and practice are again key, so get to it, be patient and most importantly, have fun!!!