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The Beginner Surfers Guide To Surfing In Waves That Are Too Big

The absolute beginner's guide to learning how to surf in waves that are too big for your skill level

November 4, 2017-7 min read

I learned the mechanics of surfing over three days in September near San Diego, California. The surf was 2–5ft every day, easy and tame. At no point did I come up gasping for breath. Fast forward two months. I’m writing this from Bali where I’m living for one month with the explicit purpose of truly¹² learning how to surf. 

The waves here have been the biggest I have ever seen in person, let alone played in. It’s been a consistent 5–11ft. Most days are 6–9, two days ago it was 7–11, the lowest was 5–8. To me? Huge.

Riding waves of that size is not trivial for a new surfer. It took many repetitions before I successfully rode one all the way out. That meant time spent in the water which meant dealing with all of the big waves that I wasn’t riding. Twice I was on the brink of panic just before the last wave of the set finally spit me back into gulping distance of beautiful, breathable air. 

After the first day, in which I barely made it out past the break, remembering the mechanics of standing up was pushed far down my list of priorities. These are the four critical things that took painful solo trial and error to figure out.

1Endurance. The hardest part of surfing is not standing up. That is, in my opinion, the easiest part. The hardest part is paddling. Shoulder endurance is critical. The entire process of getting from the sandy beach out into deep water where there are rideable waves relies entirely on the bands of muscle that criss-cross your neck and upper arms. 

This is the key to the game. You want your focus to be on minimizing paddling, especially paddling through crashing waves. This might seem antithetical to what you think of surfing but when I started here in Bali I found my shoulders were jelly within 20 minutes. 

If you can’t paddle you can’t get to where you need to be. If you can’t get to where you need to be you can’t catch waves. One 20 minute session at a time is not enough time to become good at surfing. This means the golden rule is to optimize the way you get to the waves so you can minimize how much you paddle. Each of the next three things builds on that principle.

2Location. There are only two options when the surf is high. The first option is to play in the big waves³. They look great from shore with that long clean face that goes on forever. These are the waves that you see in videos and magazines. The allure is not unreasonable. I’m not going to dissuade anyone from doing this (see footnote 3). 

If that is the route that you choose, here’s the best way to handle it. First you must commit. You must go all the way to the outside where they begin to crest and break. If you waffle on the decision and are only kind of on the outside you’re going to end up in a painful spot.

“I don’t want the biggest waves, the third or fourth biggest will do. Therefore I’ll sit 30–40 meters behind the experienced crowd”. 

That logic has a fatal flaw. A few dozen meters behind the “good” surfers is exactly where the second and third biggest waves of the set will be turning into heavy white wash. They won’t be barreling onto your head but they will be violently churning. Forcing you to become an all-to frequent user of the turtle roll⁴.

If instead you go out and commit to being in the main swell you’re in a relatively safe spot. Here you can choose to catch a wave or to cleanly ride over the top of it. However, every now and again a monster wave will come down the line. When it does it’s going to break in front of where you’re sitting on your board. If you don’t feel confident that you can recover from the biggest wave, 10–12ft, before waves two, three, and four come, you should probably not be on the outside.

Option number 2 for picking a location is to keep it inside the biggest break but off the beach. It almost certainly exists on your 1/4 mile of beach. You just have to know where to look. This is where you must be patient. Get to the beach and have a seat. Watch a few sets roll in and take note of two things.

1. Where the biggest wave of the set begins to break and where the end of it’s white wash is. 

2. Where the smallest wave of the set begins to break and where the end of it’s white wash is.

That’s the main break and it’s whitewash zone. You now have a area that you know you’d prefer to avoid. From my experience the best success you’ll have will be at the edge of where the smallest/second-smallest waves whitewash becomes manageable. 

Once you have that located look for the spot on the outside where the biggest of the biggest waves are breaking. This is usually where the competent looking people are hanging out. That’s your section. Because what you’re looking for is the biggest waves to crash and then build back up again. Or for waves that were just a little too small to gain the momentum to crash outside to hit your spot and begin to crest. 

In summary, find the end of the white wash zone. Then find the spot where the biggest waves are repetitively and reliably breaking.

A good thing to do before you head right there is to extend that band all the way along your beach and look for other people in that area. You might find some other very competent people that just prefer to not be outside. Oftentimes these will be slightly older people or younger locals that are just playing around with their friends. If they aren’t in the exact spot you identified as good just take a minute and see what happens in their area. The geography of the ocean floor might do something better in that spot. If they’re catching waves I usually just join them. No reason to reinvent the wheel.

3Point of entry. Choosing an entry point into the ocean will play a strong role in how long your shoulders will last before you need to come in. You don’t want to be making turns, going diagonally, or paddling left and right. You only ever want to be paddling toward and away from the beach. Set yourself up well by choosing the spot in the ocean that you want to be for the duration of your session and enter at that spot on the beach. 

But before you sprint into the water chill out for a second. You don’t want to fight crashing waves on your way out to your spot. Fighting waves is an endurance killer. Good news, there will usually be a major lull in the waves for a 2–5 minute period once about every 15 minutes. The ocean will look almost flat. No white water and no waves cresting. This is the time to enter. All you have to do is wait for it. Be ready and you'll have a perfectly smooth paddle out.

If you ignore that advice and decide to hop right in and go for it you can stagger your paddle trip to the outside. Paddle to the edge of the white wash zone and wait for that set of waves to stop breaking by sitting on top of your board and letting your shoulders recover. Once the set passes, lay back down and paddle the rest of the way. That way at no point are your shoulders burning tired. Leaving you with the option to catch a wave as soon as it comes along.

4Board. Either a real board or don’t go. If you’re not in a position to stand up without a foam board it’s best to sit out. Foam boards are heavy, drag in the water, and have a high profile. When a big wave gets a hold of a foam board it’s going to take far more energy to regain control of then any other type of board. The weight of the board makes it inefficient to paddle. And the high profile means it’s far more difficult evade crashing waves or white wash. 

If you’ve successfully stood up on one upgrade to anything else. A board that’s 8ft, narrower, and thinner is only marginally more difficult to stand up on. 

There are brand new surfers in the water every day down here and it looks miserable to try and paddle that thing out and then corral it in after it gets ripped out. This is one of the easiest ways to lower your energy spend. They look exhausted within minutes. Just make sure you can control your board. Hitting someone with a foam board is one thing, hitting someone with a real board is another.

Good luck. Be safe but not afraid. You can’t learn how to ride bigger waves unless you actually go out and ride bigger waves. 

TL;DR Your endurance is the key to the whole thing. Be patient, don’t use a foam board, and study the water before you get in so you don’t burn unnecessary energy. 

If you feel critical of this post, you're not alone. I address much of the criticism in a follow up post: My Surf Post On Reddit Got A Lot Of Flak: Here’s My Response

¹I don’t think you can learn to surf in three days or even a week. My hypothesis is that you need 30 days of being in the water every day. This is the difference between saying “I’ve surfed” and “I surf”. If you say “I’ve surfed” and someone invited you to go surfing with them the next day how confident would you be that you could hang with them in the waves? I would not feel confident at all.

²I write software freelance for a living so I’m working too. I can’t just vacation indefinitely. Speaking of, if you need web or mobile software, feel free hit me up! — hi@philandrews.io

³First of all, be safe. There are other people out there but when waves are crashing on you there’s nothing anyone can do to help you. Know what you are personally capable of from a fitness standpoint.

⁴If you can duck dive this is a little different. That’s a more effective solution. However, it’s significantly harder and it gets harder the longer your board is. If you’re effectively duck diving by your tenth session you’re way ahead of the game. (The turtle roll is a major energy drain)

© 2019 Phil Andrews