Your First Surfboard

There are many different types of surfboards, and for a beginner the features and characteristics can seem confusing.

The best surfboard for a beginner is a funboard or an egg, which is a fairly wide and thick board from 7' to 8' in length, typically having a blunt or rounded nose. A good rule of thumb is to get something 14" longer than you are tall, and at least 20" wide.

A longboard, a round-nosed board of 9' or more length, is too difficult to paddle and control for most beginners, while a shortboard is typically too thin, narrow, and short, rendering it unstable and difficult to paddle.

Look for a used board when first starting out. Most surf shops should have some sort of used board selection. There may also be used-equipment retailers in your area. Craigslist will have numerous used boards.

Be sure to look the board over before purchasing:

  • Make sure there aren't any dings, or holes in the board. If there are, you will need to repair them.
  • Test the deck for soft, bubbly, delamination, which weakens the board and allows it to take on water.
  • Make sure the fins are intact and that there is a plug on the deck for a leash.
  • Again, look for something with general characteristics of being wide, thick, and long as opposed to narrow, short, and thin.

The board need not be totally pristine; once you really get into surfing you'll likely want to upgrade to something different.

Your First Wetsuit

Far and away the single most important thing to look for when purchasing a new wetsuit is how it fits. Shop around as much as you can. Make sure the suit has a comfortable feel. All suits will be tight by design but it shouldn't be totally restrictive of motion. Test range of motion by raising your arms overhead and arching your back, then bending and touching your toes. Do some squats. Pay attention to the suit's response, if you're getting pinched by the neoprene or if it is going taut then you'll need to try a different suit.

Ladies will find additional problems in that most wetsuits are cut for men. There are womens' suits out there, ask your shop if they carry any. Don't just order one right off the bat without getting a chance to try it on. If you're going with a swimsuit, look to get a 1-piece suit or a pair of ladies' trunks.

It's possible to get a good price on a used wetsuit as well. Check to see how intact the seams are and look in high-wear areas (underarms, hindquarters) for neoprene damage. As neoprene ages it stiffens and shrinks. Used wetsuits are thus a good idea for the beginner who isn't sure about sticking with the sport.

Other Accessories

  • Leashes - The leash is a cord of polyurethane that straps around the ankle of a surfer and is attached to the surfboard. Attach it to your back leg. Never tug on the leash when your board is being held under as the board can come snapping back at you. Practice removing it quickly in case it gets caught on a rock or pier piling. Treat your surfboard as if it was not attached, doing conservative exits and hanging onto it at all times.
  • Wax - Wax goes on the deck (top) of the board. Typically comes in two coats, a base coat which goes directly onto the deck in a thin layer, and then a sticky coat over that which beads up to provide traction. Use long, quick strokes of the full board length with subtle, light pressure to get a nice bead. Wax combs can be purchased to rough-up wax as it gets worn slick and to strip wax for a fresh coat. There's no need to buy any custom wax remover from a surf shop, just leave the board in the sun for 5 minutes and strip with a wax comb or any piece of hard, straight plastic.
  • Deck Grips - These are expensive traction pads that provide some extra grip as well as padding for the deck of the board. They can limit the movement of the feet and can result in discomfort to the chest and stomach while paddling.
  • Tail Patches - These are grip specially designed for the rear of the board, and provide good traction for the rear foot needed in most turns on a shortboard. Tail patches should be placed centered over the rear fins. For the rest of the board, the deck grip can go anywhere that seems appropriate. Try popping up from a prone position to standing with legs slightly apart next to the board. Place the grip so your front foot is centered.

Pre-Surf Preparation

It's always a bad idea to just paddle out into the waves without first getting a good idea of what the conditions are like. Take some time to watch the waves and stretch. Focus on your neck, shoulders, triceps, back, and legs. Swing your arms and get your pulse going. Get into a calm state of mind. Watch the waves for at least twice as many minutes as the waves are high on the face in feet. On a waist high day, that means watching for about 5 or 6 minutes. On a double-overhead day, that means watching for about 20 minutes. Get a feel for where everyone is sitting in the water, where the waves are breaking, and where they're not breaking. Look for rip currents and rocks and hazards. Watch a few larger set waves roll through. Think about where you can paddle out into the surf, and where you can swim in if you get into trouble.

Put some sunscreen on your face and some wax on your board. Before attaching your leash for the first time, you'll need to figure out which leg is your back leg. Here are some tests:

  • The linoleum slide test -- wear socks and run and slide across the kitchen floor. Which foot is first? Plant it front on your board.
  • The push test -- have someone push you (gently) from behind. Which foot goes forward. That is your front foot.
  • The stair test -- which foot leads on stairs, down? Front foot.
  • Bike test -- When you bike and coast, which foot leads on fast downhills on dirt when feet are parallel to ground (well that's just me on dirt, but you should have pedal cranks parallel to ground so feet don't hit racks roots etc.). Front foot on board. The best way to figure this out is to try riding a skateboard; your back leg while skateboarding is the same as while surfing.


When getting into the water, walk out through the waves crumbling into the shoreline as far as possible.

Your paddle stroke should be essentially like a crawl swimming stroke. Center yourself on the board, keep your legs straight behind you, with the board nose level with the water surface.

Get a feel for paddling around on the surfboard and the balance of it.

Your First Waves

By now you have found a good place to surf and have gotten used to paddling around on the board without falling off.

  • Grab your board, and head out into the water until it's up to your chest or so. Hopefully you'll still be where the whitewater is rolling in and not outside the breaker line.
  • Let some whitewater roll by, getting a feel for the rhythm of the waves.
  • Wait for what looks like a pretty solid chunk of whitewater, and turn around, facing the shoreline. Get on your board and start to paddle in.
  • When the whitewater reaches you, it will surge you forward. Stay in control of the board!
  • As you feel yourself surge forward, stop paddling and grab the rails of the surfboard with your hands.
  • Do a push-up and quickly 'pop' your feet underneath you. Do not kneel; go straight to your feet. Both feet need to be under you at the same time, one in front of the other, with the toes pointing perpendicular to the centerline of the board.
  • At about this point you'll need to know whether you want to be a regular-foot or a goofyfoot.
  • Immediately afterwards, let go of the rails and stand in a stable crouch.
  • It's right about at this point that you will begin to fall. Try not to land on anyone and anything, particularly your board. Fall shallow so you don't hit the bottom.
  • Hey, you're surfing! Smile, and go do it again.

Naturally, most surfers do not surf in the whitewater. They like to turn and do maneuvers on the open face. You'll get out there too, once you can stand up in the whitewater reliably. This helps you practice standing up on a fast-moving surfboard without having to worry about where the wave is breaking, other surfers, pearling, going over the falls, or any other hazards. It's how I learned!

The Rules of Surfing

Become familiar with these rules of behavior in the lineup before heading outside of the whitewater. These are well- established rules throughout the world and bring order to what would otherwise be a nightmarish and chaotic sport, with everyone running each other over, lots of dinged-up boards, and lots of waves going by unridden because everyone is getting thrashed in the soup.

  • The person up and riding first that is closest to the breaking part of the wave has the right of way. You may hear people declaring their right to a wave by whistling, or shouting "Hey," "I got it," "Coming down," or something similar.
  • Do not drop in on someone who is already riding a wave. "Dropping in" is taking off on a wave in front of someone who is already riding it, i.e., someone who has the right of way.
  • When paddling back out over or through a wave that someone else is riding, move to go behind them. This allows them to continue riding the wave without having to dodge you, and means that you will be smashed by the whitewater. That's okay though, because when they do the same for you, you'll be grateful.
  • Above all, keep a good attitude. Apologize if you make a mistake. If involve in or near a collision, stop what you're doing to make sure that everyone is okay.

Surfing Real Waves

Now that you've mastered the whitewater foamies and are well-versed in the rules of surfing, you're ready to catch some real waves.

The idea is similar to catching the whitewater. Start paddling early as the wave approaches. You should be reaching full speed as the wave comes underneath you and lifts you up. The time to stand is when the board starts to plane on the surface of the water. Practice, watch others, and ask for advice.

Paddling Tips

Some tips from a surfer/swimmer on getting prone paddling technique better. These will help to maintain an efficient paddle and prevent the waste of energy.

Typically, when we get tired, we get lazy, and our technique deteriorates, making us more tired, and soon we cannot paddle any more. Focus on technique particularly during those long paddles back after a great wave.

Lots of paddling can also damage your shoulders, but there are some easy exercises for treatment and prevention of shoulder tendonitis.

  • Make sure you're positioned on the board correctly... your hand should enter just about at the nose (on a typical shortboard). This is important to prevent the nose of the board from tipping up too high, which forces you to plow through the water rather than skim along the surface. Being too far forward will tend to bury the nose and force you to arch your back excessively, which can lead to back problems. So find the balance.
  • Hand entry should be flat and nearly at the limit of full extension. Don't slice your hand in sideways. Instead, arch the elbow on the arm recovery and bring it in with fingertips pointing forward and slicing under the water.
  • The ideal paddle stroke is as close as you can get to a freestyle/crawl swimming stroke. Your hands should ascribe an 'S' motion, with the outside of the 'S' shape coming at the start of the stroke, accelerating under the board through to the finish. Longboards will be different, given the board thickness and width. The main thing is to concentrate your power as close to the midline of your body as you can.
  • Finish all the way to your legs. A good way to ensure you are doing this is to try touching your thumbs at your thighs or the side of the board on every stroke, right before the recovery (arms out and over the water).
  • Don't throw water behind you at the finish, that's just wasted effort. Concentrate on power through the stroke in the region from shoulder to waist.
  • Keep your hands flat and fingers together, but don't overexert trying to hold them together.
  • Keep your hands pointed as a natural extension to your forearm; try to minimize any bending at the wrist... this will improve your power.
  • For long paddles, keep your head and neck down... conserve your energy and prevent injury from craning it.
  • Keep your feet together, use them for balance in long paddles, and kick like a wildman when going after that wave.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Try surfing point breaks with super long rides, paddle back way on the outside and try to keep up with the longboarders as they paddle back. If you can't get into the ocean, find a pool and work on your freestyle stroke. Using hand paddles and pull buoys provides an excellent approximation to the exertion of paddling your board.
  • When paddling for a wave, you will naturally need to get a faster turnover than you will when paddling back from a wave. However, you should always keep strong hands and powerful technique. Don't let your hands slip, keep them strong against the water, and stroke hard. Don't flail.

How To Surf guide courtesy of former UCSB PhD student and surf expert Tim Maddux