Ten Minutes To The Secret Of Surfing

By Bill Morris & WaterTrader 1997 - 2023

Why Surf?

For joy and fun.

Rule 1: When it isn’t fun anymore, get out of the water. (Everyone will appreciate it.)

Is Surfing Fun?

Oh, yes. There’s nothing more improbable than standing up on a stiff board and trying to steer it with your feet through a collapsing gyre of water. And it’s amazing that we’ve evolved so far that we can actually learn to do it. And when you do it right, you feel like one heck of a monkey.

I’m a Little Nervous, What Should I Expect?

If you aren’t living in the tropics, the water will be cold. You’ll want to wear a wet suit. Today’s wet suits are excellent and aside from an initial damp seepy feeling as you wade into the water, within a minute you’ll be comfortable and warm. Unless you’ve decided to learn to surf in the dead of winter. Why did you decided to do that? Well, here in Northern California we surf year round, and in the dead of winter it’s cold. But the wet suits are good. You can surf on Christmas Day, if you can get away with it with your family. (Unlikely.)

What About... Falling?

You are going to fall in the water. Your head will go under. Depending on how big a wave you fall on, it’ll be like falling into a cross between a cement mixer and a fast flowing river. Waves are pretty powerful, even the small ones. Medium size ones can act like a Sumo Wrestler stomping his feet, picking you up, and slamming you down. However, you’re going to learn to surf on those little 1 to 2 foot waves, right? Not in those big Sumo Wrestler waves, right? Generally, surfing is a shallow water sport. So after you fall, wait a few seconds for the bubbling and pushy water to stop, and stand up when you need some air.

Is Surfing Hard?

Ah, there’s no way around this. Surfing takes practice, in big doses. It takes months and years to get good. It takes weeks to master fundamentals. The ocean is a weird, sometimes chaotic environment to the newcomer. You have to learn how waves behave. You have to learn what your surfboard can do. You have to learn the skills of catching a wave, standing up, riding and judging bulging tumbling water. The answer: No, learning to surf isn’t hard, it’s fun. It just takes time.

Helpful, But Lame Advice #1: Watch other surfers who know how to surf, figure out what they’re doing. Do it yourself.

Helpful, Non-Lame Advice #2: Taking a couple of lessons with an experienced surfing instructor can save you a year of pain. (I didn’t, I know.)

What Kind of Surfboard?

A long one. Beginners need a long board. A longboard is between 8 to 10 feet long. Of course, you’re tempted by those pointed, streamline arrow-shaped boards that all the other great surfers are slicing and carving up the ocean with like men swinging chain saws. They’re all on 6 to 7 foot, three-finned shortboards, called thrusters, so why not you? Yeah, why not you?

Because you’re a beginner. Those short little boards are shaped for maneuverability, which fits into the highly technical nomenclature of being “squirrely.” That mean’s it’s tippy, turns fast, accelerates, and requires great skill to control. Does that sound like your kind of board? (Before you answer that, remember, you’re a beginner. You’re what all those champion surfers will be laughing at if you chose a shortboard.)

A longboard is easy to paddle, catches waves easier, catches waves earlier giving you more time to stand up, is a long smooth-riding wing that gives you a stable platform to stand on, rides well on small or big waves, turns slow, is forgiving of a moderate mis-step, and you’ll be getting up and surfing it within an hour.

With a shortboard, you’ll be getting up and surfing it within a year. Test #1: What kind of board do you want to learn to surf on?

a) a longboard
b) a longboard
c) a longboard

Helpful, But Lame Advice #1:
Watch other surfers who know how to surf, figure out what they’re doing. Do it yourself.

Helpful, Non-Lame Advice #2:
Taking a couple of lessons with an experienced surfing instructor can save you a year of pain. (I didn’t, I know.)

What’s the Best I Can Expect?

There is no other feeling like standing up on a surfboard and guiding it in a jumping, sliding rush across glassy water: speed, thrills, and fun. Joy exists. You’ll know, you’ll feel it. Surfer’s have an apt term for it: it’s called stoke.

There’ll be a moment when you get out of your car, see a beautiful sunlit ocean, easy rolling waves, other surfers, and your chest will pound with an undeniable urge to get out there, to surf. Now you’re stoked. Stoked and ready to burn!

What’s the Worst I can Expect?

In the routine events of a surfer’s life, there are a few unpleasant things. It’s not sharks, those are rare rare events. Surfer’s don’t worry about sharks, anymore than they worry about lightening blasting their skulls. It happens rarely.

Old Surf Joke #1: Surf in a crowd of one hundred. You reduce the chances of the shark biting you to 1 percent. Use your friends as bait.

Old Surf Joke #2: Two surfers see a shark and one starts paddling like crazy toward shore. The other surfer calls, “Hey, you think you can out paddle a shark?” Other surfer calls back, “I don’t have to out paddle a shark, all I have to do is out paddle you!”

So what is the worst you can expect. For a beginner, learning to surf in small waves, you may fall and your surfboard hit you. Your surfboard is the hardest thing in the water, and it can hurt. Always fall off your board, never fall onto it.

War Story 1: I was surfing a chest high wave, when I messed up the take off, the board flipped over oddly and came up like a baseball bat between my legs. This was a surprise. Let me tell you.

War Story 2: I was surfing a chest high wave, when I messed up the take off, on the same board, and it flipped over and hit my leg with the fin. In surfer parlance, it “skegged” me. That cost me four stitches.

Yeah, that’s the worst. Two events like that out of ten years. But hey, man, you got scars to show for it! He-man surf scars!


Now I scared you, I’ll talk safety. Know the beach where you surf, know where the rocks are, if any. Know how the currents work. Never paddle out farther than you can swim back in without your board. Never go out in wave conditions you aren’t prepared for. Don’t surf alone. Have good equipment, including a leash that keeps your flotation device close. Know your limits. Fear means something. If you’re tired, go in. Don’t turn your back on the ocean, cause sure enough there’s a great big wave waiting to sneak up and lion-pounce on you. Don’t fall off your board and shoot it at innocent bystanders. Don’t hang around inside in other surfers’ way so they shoot their boards at you. Don’t hold your board or let it float between you and the next oncoming wave—it can turn into a big bulldozer blade and you’re the dozee. Oh, there’s just a lot of things, things that you’ll just never have to worry about if you stay in your depth and height of wave (small) to learn the art.

You can probably break any one to three of the rules above. If you break four or more, you may pay for it dearly.

Rule #2: Respect Mother Ocean (Tick her off, she’ll kill you.)

The Thing About Waves

A wave is a pulse of potential energy traveling vast distances across water. The water doesn’t move, just the energy through it. It’s created by meteorological stuff. Stuff like wind and fetch.

You can only catch a wave as it ends its long journey, coming up on shore. As the wave hits the sandy bottom, or reef, whatever’s under the water, it begins to well up. It’ll begin to get steeper, stand up in a C, then fall over in a white wash. During the time it begins to get steeper until the time it falls over, that potential energy converts to kinetic energy, and the water actually starts moving. It’s in that small range of this energy conversion that surfers catch a bit of force, get up, and surf. They catch some energy to get started, then they sled along on it.

That’s the theory.

What’s a Rideable Wave?

If a wave is a squashed A, low like a Chinese hat, it’s uncatchable. When a wave starts to steepen, inclined like a small stepladder, then you can catch it. If it’s a C shape, getting ready to fall over, you can catch it (although you may not want to, for reasons I’ll explain later.) After the wave breaks into an on-rush of white water, you can also catch it. In fact, as a beginner, you’ll want to start out standing hip-deep and going chest-down on your board to catch white water coming in. The broken waves still have plenty of power and provide a good opportunity for learning the motion of the board on the wave. As a wing of white water comes up behind you, belly onto your board, and just let the board ride in. Don’t even try to get up. Just learn how your board sleds.

Wave Positioning

Of course, experienced surfers don’t surf the white water. They paddle out just beyond where the waves are breaking and wait. You’ll notice that they all paddle out to roughly the same spot, longboarders a little farther out, because the waves tend to break in the same area. Surfers stay out beyond this area, then paddle into it when they see a wave they want to ride. They paddle in so that the wave catches up with them just at the place where the wave is getting steeper, rising into a rideable shape. With experience, you’ll get to recognize the position where waves form. You’ll see a wave approaching and get an intuition that it’s big enough to take you with it. You’ll decide if you want to go with it, and if you do, you’ll paddle in just far enough to catch the wave as it builds, but not so far that it’s already falling over in a throwing C shape.

Wave Catching Secret #1: As a beginner, it’s difficult to recognize the proper wave position. Look at the experienced surfers, it’s where they are.

When Not to Catch a Wave

There is a critical moment when you should not catch a wave. Generally this is when a wave has formed into a C and is throwing water forward at high speed. If you catch the wave at this point, you’ll be treated to a new experience: Going Over the Falls.

There are three main flavors to going over the falls. First, you can catch a wave too late, just as it is pitching over, and fall with it into the abyss. Just you and several hundred tons of water falling in a graceful arch to the sea bed. It’s a very jarring experience. Because once you hit, then the whole wave dog-piles onto you. You’ll likely do a little tumbling and rolling under the water. Maybe a flip or two.

The second flavor of going over the falls happens when you fall in front of an arching wave. You hit the bottom, or bowl, just as the wave is throwing a lot of water up. Of course, you take the up elevator too, then are thrown forward to continue the normal over the falls crash and bubble experience. The last time this happened to me, I was literally upside down in fetal position as the wave spit me out in a cannonball toward the bottom. You have a lot of time to think over your mistake.

The last over the falls flavor happens to “he who hesitates.” Bigger waves stand up and crash over in roughly the same spot. Sometimes waves just form a mushy slush of moving white water, other times they pick up and drop sledge-hammering tons of water in a hard curtain drop. X marks the spot. Say hey, do you want to be on X-marks-the-spot when the curtain drops?

No you don’t. This is the voice of experience talking.

Rule #3: When practicing as a beginner, stay safely inside where the waves break or paddle all the way out beyond where they break, don’t dally in between.

Here are the parts of your surfboard

Board Positioning

When you lie on your board, you want to be in the center. As you paddle, the nose should be about an inch or two above the water surface. Being in the middle of your board is critical to catching waves. Here’s why.

If you’re too far back on your board and the tail is sunk in the water, it’s like putting on the brakes. When the wave comes up under you, it can’t push you forward, it just rolls on under you.

You must be in the middle of your board, so that when a wave comes up from behind, it’ll threaten to tip the nose down under the water. (You won’t let it do that, I’ll tell you how.) But when the wave tips the tail of the board up, you can use your board a bit like a sail to catch the passing energy of the wave. It’s at that point that you paddle hard, hitting with both arms, to keep the nose out of the water. If you keep the nose out, the board will catch the wave energy and slide forward, and then you’re in for a ride.

You’ll have to experiment a bit to find the middle of your board. Note where your chin is when you lay down. If the nose was too far up when a wave went under you, move forward a bit. If the nose sank under the water when you tried to catch the wave, back up a bit, an inch or two. Find the spot where you’re in the middle of your board and can control the tilt when a wave picks you up. You always lie down in that same spot. Big wave or small.

Paddling With Heavy Arms

Your sole means of locomotion rests in the muscles from your elbows to your chest. As a beginner, you can expect your arms to weary quickly. Which is another good reason for starting out by wading hip to chest deep and catching white water: You don’t have to paddle. Your paddling strength will grow with practice. It just may feel very odd the first time you paddle a surfboard. After several outings it’ll feel more normal. Push ups and paddling exercises help. And yes, experienced surfers will be able to tell you’re a beginner just by the way you paddle.

Paddling to Catch a Wave

Now, when you paddle to catch a wave, you don’t have to paddle fast. You’re not trying to get up speed so that you can match the wave’s velocity. You’re just getting some momentum going so it doesn’t take so much energy for the wave to launch you forward.

To catch a wave, you want to paddle a few strokes hard to get the board cruising, then take it easy as you look back at the wave to see what it’s doing behind you. When the wave picks up the back of your board, threatening to tip the nose under, then you paddle hard, with both arms, two or three times, to keep the nose out. If you feel the nose might still go under, arch your neck and back to aim the nose up as you blast with your arms. It’s really a matter of timing and wave position, not speed or arm strength. If the nose stays out of the water, and you feel the board begin to slide on its own, then you’ve got the wave.

Getting Up

To get up, put your hands on the rails (edges) of the board under your chest and do a mighty push up. You can cheat and bend your back and knees. As you do your pushup swing one leg up under you. Then stand up as quickly as possible. The sooner you’re up, the sooner you have control of the board. If you go slow, getting to one knee, then the other, things may get tippy and you fall.
Ideally, you get up quickly at the top of a wave, as you and the board drop down the face, when the semi-weightlessness makes it easy to flip up and draw your feet under you. Experienced surfers get up to their feet in one quick snap. It comes with practice. The first time you’re on the beach, you may want to practice pushing up and jumping to your feet while still on the sand. It’s easier practicing on sand than on a tippy surfboard in water.


Let’s say you made it up on both feet. You ride a board facing sideways, not facing the nose of your board. One hip should be toward the nose, the other toward the tail. Your feet should be apart centered in the board. You’re in a slight crouch for balance. Down the center of your board is usually a thin piece of wood, called a stringer, built in to strengthen the board. Your feet should be on the stringer. Knees slightly bent. Arms out for balance. Grinning with joy or fear, your choice.

Now, your job as rider is to lean forward or backward, even stepping forward or backward, to make the board plane evenly along the water. If you lean just a little bit to the side of the board, the board turns. Because you’re facing sideways, you can control the turning of the board with your ankles and by leaning. Your job now is to lean and move on the board to aim it along the wave.

Ten Steps to Surfing A Wave

So now, let’s put this all together into the drill you perform each time you catch a wave:

  • number 1 You are waiting outside, slightly beyond where the waves break.
  • number 2 You see a wave you want to ride.
  • number 3 You turn the board calmly toward shore and lie down in the middle of the board, putting your chin on the mark that tells you you’re in the middle.
  • number 4 Stroke hard four or five times to get the board moving.
  • number 5 Relax, paddle easy, and look back over your shoulder to see the wave.
    Is it too small, is it getting too big, is it just right? If it’s too small, you may need to paddle a little harder to get in farther to catch it, or wait for another wave. If it’s too big, getting too steep too fast, stop. Sit up. The wave may just move under you. If you’re too far in and the wave is going to dump on you, get off your board and dive. If it looks just right, continue paddling easy until the wave reaches you and picks up the tail.
  • number 6 Stroke hard two or three times to keep the nose out and get on the wave. Arch your neck and back to aim the nose if need be.
  • number 7 If you feel the board start to move on its own power, wait a second or stroke once more before you get up. Beginners, because they’re uneasy, often get up too early, before they’ve caught the wave, and thus miss it.
  • number 8 If you’re sure you caught the wave, push up and stand in your infamous surfer sideways crouch.
  • number 9 Ride the wave in joy.
  • number 10 (Step 10 has to do with death and taxes.)

Practice, practice, practice

Three Things You Don’t Know

As you gain experience, you’re going to learn some phenomenal things about how your surfboard performs. Things you can’t know yet.

  • number 1 One is that your surfboard is faster than the wave. Most times you can get up, slide to the bottom, and surf away before the wave has time to break. (And sometimes not.)
  • number 2 Your board also has a tail that you don’t know about. As a wave gets very steep, and it looks like you’re going to just fall down the face, you can lean back on that tail and it will gouge down the wave face, gently landing you and shooting your forward with great velocity. You have a tail you can swing from, Surf Monkey.
  • number 3 Also, as you’re riding along a wave face, and it walls up (steepens toward vertical), your surfboard will keep planing along just fine, even though you seem to be standing on a speeding bookshelf. Surfboards are made for near vertical water. Discoveries like these make for enlightenment on your way to surfing Nirvana. Hari Hari.

How You Treat Your Fellow Surfers - Share the stoke, dude.

Bill Morris--is the author of Stoked!, a surfing novel published by New Sun Publications, available from WaterTrader. Morris is a resident of Half Moon Bay, California, ardent surfer and mentor to WaterTrader.