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Surf culture can be stupidly ruthless on beginner surfers, with entire Instagram accounts and blogs dedicated to calling out beginner surfers who dare to try catching a wave of their own. But even the most skilled surfers once started as beginners, and it takes serious time and dedication before you can expect to catch a decent ride.
If you’re just starting out as a beginner surfer, don’t let mistakes hold you back. We’ve all made some or even all of these mistakes at some point — and even the best surfers have their off-days.
Here are ten common mistakes that beginner surfers make and how to fix them.
Table of Contents
Buying the wrong board
Buying a shortboard that you can’t ride is like renting a Lamborghini and not knowing how to drive a stick-shift. Sure, it might look cool for the .02 seconds you’re hanging out with it in the parking lot… but when it comes time to ride? You’ll only be making a fool of yourself.
Many surfers invest in a surfboard that they cannot and will not be able to ride. Maybe you got a great deal on a 5’1″ shortboard off of Craigslist, or maybe you don’t want to be seen with a soft-top. Buying a board that is too short or too narrow is a terrible decision for beginners. You’ll only end up frustrated.
Fix it: Practice on soft-top board that’s made for beginners. You’ll learn how to paddle and stand in smaller waves or whitewash before advancing to a traditional surfboard. If you want a beginner board that you can grow with, consider investing in a mini-mal, 7’0″ and up. A mini mal is a great starter board because it’s versatile, easy to paddle, and can manage a variety of wave conditions.
Surfing in terrible conditions
What’s the difference between onshore and offshore winds? Are tides important? What swell direction is best for your break? When you’re a beginner surfer, a surf report might as well be written in Mandarin. It takes time to figure out what to look for. Many beginners make the mistake of misreading the surf (whether at the beach or online) and paddle out in conditions that are sure to leave them feeling frustrated.
Fix it: First, learn how to understand a surf report. Beginners typically want smaller waves and it’s always better to surf with offshore (rather than onshore) wind. If you’re practicing at your local beach break, you can often practice popping up and riding whitewash before paddling to the waves out back.
Don’t be shy. If you’re unsure about if the conditions are good for a beginner, walk up to a fellow surfer coming in from the water and ask them what the waves have been like. This small talk is common with surfers of all abilities, and is a great way to make friends. Ask if there’s a good spot for a beginner to sit and if there are any currents to watch out for.
Paddling into dangerous areas
One day, I was lounging on the beach reading a book when a surfer came up to me and asked if I’d be paddling out. The waves were way beyond my ability, so I replied with a hell no. To get to the break, you had to paddle through a break in the reef and let the current take you to the waves. This surfer paddled straight into the breaking waves, and was immediately tossed onto the shallow razor-sharp reef.
Surfers need to know their limits and stay ashore when the conditions are too much to handle.
Fix it: Knowledge is power when it comes to surfing. If you don’t want to be pummeled into sharp reef or sucked out to sea in a current, you need to know what you’re up against. For your first few sessions, surf at a break with a lifeguard station or with an experienced friend. Lifeguards are happy to point out any rips and can often tell you if the conditions are beginner-friendly or not.
Once you start to understand what to look for, you should always watch the waves for a minimum of 15 minutes before going out. Assess where to sit, how to get out, how to get back in, and wait to watch at least two or three sets of waves come through. See if surfers are getting stuck inside or constantly paddling against a current.
Focusing only on standing, not on paddling
One misconception that beginner surfers have is that surfing is all about standing up.
Actually, you’ll be spending most of your time paddling. You’ll paddle to the wave, over waves, duck dive under waves, around other surfers, into position, and into the wave before you properly catch one.
Focusing on great paddle technique and strength from the start might be the main difference between a beginner surfer and an intermediate one. Even the best surfers in the world are stellar paddlers.
Fix it: Even if you’re still catching waves in whitewash, practice paddling to the waves and paddling to catch one. The sooner you can build up your arm strength and technique, the sooner you’ll catch green (unbroken) waves.
To build up strength, you can practice by doing laps in the pool and surfing as much as possible.
There can be many reasons why you didn’t catch the wave you went for, but one of the most common reasons is poor timing. Beginners who have poor timing often paddle for waves too soon or much too late. This can cause the wave to flow by without you or might even cause the wave to crash on top of you.
Fix it: Like most mistakes in surfing, the best way to fix poor is through trial and error. This is one of those things that you’ll eventually just get. If you keep getting left behind by the wave, try paddling faster, sooner, and closer to the peak. If the wave is dumping onto you, hold back and wait a bit longer before paddling for it.
Unfortunately, the written word is not the best method for surf teaching.
Planting your feet in the wrong position
I’m prone to making the mistake of having the Nutcracker stance while surfing – with my feet too close together and legs far too stiff. Likewise, you might see beginner surfers standing in an ultra-wide sumo squat, affectionately dubbed the “poop stance.”
Both standing positions aren’t ideal for offering the best stability or agility.
Fix it: When you pop up, stand sideways with your feet wider than hip distance apart. Place one foot on the back of the board and the front foot 45-degrees turned out towards the front of the board. Keep your knees bent and your head facing forward. Your stance should be relaxed and loose.
Nose diving is simultaneously one of the most fun and scary aspects of surfing, where it can like you’ve just been chucked face first off of the edge of a cliff.
Fix it: If you’re nose diving, you’re probably catching a wave too deep (you’ve waited too long to paddle or are sitting too close to the inside section) or you are leaning too far forward on your board. Try scooting back so that the tip of your board is slightly out of the water and the base of the board is flat.
Looking down, not ahead
Where your eyes and shoulders face, the rest of your body follows. When you look down, you’re more prone to losing balance and wiping out.
Fix it: Keep your head up and look towards where you want to go.
Laying on the wrong area of the board
If you’re too far forward on your board, you risk nose diving. If you’re too far back, you probably won’t catch a wave (you’ll be paddling up, not forward).
Fix it: Center your body onto the board. Lay so that the nose of the board is slightly out of the water, but not too much where it feels like you’re about to slide off the back. Arch your back so that you are laying onto your board like a seal (or cobra pose in yoga) and paddle. If the board pops out behind you, you’re too far forward.
Having a bad attitude
“I’ve been surfing three times, why haven’t I been barreled yet?”
Surfing is a sport that can take years to perfect. It’s one of the most frustrating (yet incredible) sports in the world. Many beginner surfers wrongly assume that they will progress much faster than they do — and display a nasty attitude for it.
Surfing is a sport that rewards patience and more importantly, perseverance. The worst mistake a beginner can make is giving up too soon.