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How to Catch a Wave Surfing

Think you're ready to learn how to catch a wave surfing? Bring the stoke along, and let's get out there, future shredders!

If you haven't already, read through our first two articles in the surfing educational series:

To nail down the essential basics required before catching your first wave, and then it's time to take all of this information and bring it to fruition on your first ever ride.

To best address how to catch a wave, you must understand the personality of the ocean, how waves work, and the varying conditions that mother nature might throw your way, as each significantly affects the approach to surfing. Remember that patience is a virtue, as nothing comes easy, and with time, information, and experience, you'll eventually have this mastered.

The Science of Waves

We will keep this simple, but understanding the science of waves is a huge asset with learning how to surf for beginners.

A wave is energy, and this energy is precisely what you ride when learning how to catch a wave surfing. As the wind blows across the surface of the water, this creates friction that pulls the water up into a crest, creating an orb of kinetic energy beneath the surface of the ocean.

This orb will continue moving towards the shore ("energy cannot be destroyed unless acted upon by an outside force"), and the stronger the wind, the more powerful the energy. As well as this, the larger the distance over open water the wind has to generate waves (the larger the fetch), the more powerful the energy. And more energy means bigger waves.

This kinetic energy pushes forward, and the closer to shore it becomes. As it reaches more shallow depths, the orb will push the water up with it, creating the shape of the wave. Once this comes into contact with a sandbar or a reef, this energy will push up and 'trip' over itself, creating the breaking wave that we ride.

How Tides Affect Waves

A tide is actually a type of wave. We don't ride tidal waves, but the tide has a huge effect on waves. During a high tide, there is more water between the bottom of the seafloor and the surface. This increase in water makes it so that the wave energy does not crash as powerfully, leading to waves that break slower, softer, and mushier. Sometimes during a high tide, depending on the spot, the energy won't break at all until it hits the shore as the water is too deep, creating an unrideable shorebreak.

With low tide, there is less water between the floor and the surface. This means that when the energy comes into contact with a shallow sandbar or reef, it will break more aggressively. During low tides, it is common for waves to close out. A close out is when a wave breaks all at once, leaving no open face to ride the wave.

Some surf spots work best on a low tide, the shallow water allowing the wave to pitch, and often result in powerful barrels. Others work best on a high tide, creating nice and long rides with mushy open faces to cruise, and some work best on a mid-tide. You must learn the characteristics of your home spot accordingly and surf during the tides that allow for the best wave conditions.

Wave Types

There are three main wave types that surfers ride, including lefts, rights, and A-frames. A left is when a wave breaks from right to left, allowing the surfer to ride the open face parallel to the shore going left. For goofy footers, this is a frontside wave; for regular footers, this is backside.

A right is just the opposite, where the wave breaks from left to right, allowing the surfer to ride parallel to the beach-going right. This is frontside for regulars and backside for goofy footers.

An A-frame is a wave that breaks in the middle portion of the wave, allowing surfers to ride both left and right.

How to Catch a Wave Surfing

Step 1: The Whitewash

When you paddle out to catch your first waves, the best place to start is by riding the whitewash of a wave that has already crashed. This will help you to master your pop-up and learn the feeling of standing on a wave before progressing into riding a green wave- a wave that has not yet crashed.

A mid-tide to high tide with smaller conditions is ideal, and a beginner board choice like a foamy is essential, as these boards are stable and maintain enough buoyancy to catch the whitewash.

With the whitewash pushing towards you, place yourself in the sweet spot of your surfboard, not too high up on the nose but not too far back. Begin paddling before the wave reaches the surfboard's tail to generate the speed required to match the wave's energy.

When we say you will know when a wave takes you, you will know. You will feel the whitewash push you forward with quite a force as it pushes you from behind. When the wave reaches the tail of your board, continue with a few strong paddles to lock the board into this momentum.

When your board is fully locked into the whitewash and pushed towards the shore, initiate the pop-up you have practiced on the beach. Place your hands on the deck of the board, close to your pectoral muscles, and in one swift, push-up-like motion, swing your feet beneath you to their appropriate positions without using your knees.

Keep your stance nice and wide, and make sure to bend those knees as you practice balance on the board while you ride forward towards the shore. When riding whitewash, your only focus is to master the art of paddling powerfully into waves and learning how to pop up after a wave has taken you.

Once you feel comfortable with your paddling and your pop-up, then it's time to take it to the real deal by learning how to catch a wave that has not yet crashed.

Step 2: Riding a Green Wave

Riding a green wave is the act of catching a wave where it has not yet broken into whitewash. Your goal is to paddle into the wave, pop up, and then ride in the direction of the open face, known as a face ride.

Analyze the Waves

Before paddling out, take some time to analyze the waves and the conditions and begin by determining the best place to paddle out. In some spots, you will notice a deeper water channel where the waves do not tend to break, which is the best place to paddle out.

Take notes of the directions that the waves are breaking. Are they lefts, rights, or A-frames?

Then, determine the best place to position yourself in the lineup. You want to sit outside of the impact zone and close enough to where the waves begin to peak. Use other surfer's positioning to help you determine where to sit in the lineup and then paddle out.

Remember to duck dive or turtle roll when paddling out, and try to avoid throwing your board to the side to swim under an oncoming wave.

Positioning

Once you've made it out into the lineup, you want to determine the position of where you will begin paddling into a wave. You need to paddle into waves before they break, but also close enough to the peak to where the energy is strong enough to stick to the wave. With whitewash, the energy pushes you forward, but with a green wave, you have to stick to the wave so that gravity helps propel you down and into the pocket of strength.

To position yourself perfectly, sit a few meters back from the point the waves tend to break. This way, by the time you paddle forward into the wave, you'll have stuck to it just before it breaks.

Paddling

You have to paddle strong into a green wave to stick to them. Many beginner surfers do not paddle strong/fast enough or paddle in the incorrect board position, resulting in missed wave opportunities or nosedives (pearling) when learning how to catch a wave surfing.

Again, find that sweet spot on your surfboard. Place your body far enough up to where the nose does not stick out of the water, but not too far to where the nose sinks, as this will result in a nosedive.

When the wave is 4-5 meters away, as it begins to 'reach towards the sky' while it starts to peak, it's go time. Start paddling early to match the speed and power of the wave coming towards you. Once the trough of the waves reaches the tail of your board, continue paddling, as this is a key point to sticking to a wave.

During this time paddling, if you don't already know your intended direction, look left and right to determine which way the wave will break and, therefore, the direction you plan to ride and ensure that no other surfers are in priority. Keep your head and shoulders low so that your weight helps to direct the surfboard down the face.

Take a few looks over your shoulder so that you can visualize where you are in reference to the wave to know how hard to keep paddling.

During your first few instances of catching a wave, standing up and riding forward to the beach is not uncommon. With this being said, your goal is to stand up and ride in the same direction as the open face where the wave has not yet crashed, and slightly angling your board in this direction as you paddle is a great way to help promote your riding direction.

The Pop-Up

A key to learning how to catch a wave and how to surf for beginners is to pop up at the correct time. Many new surfers stand up far too early and miss the wave.

As you paddle, the wave will begin to lift you up onto the face. Do not try to stand up on the bottom of the portion of the wave. Instead, keep paddling, as we promise; this is key!

Paddle hard, and use your feet to kick as an extra push. Once you are lifted to the top ⅔ portion of the wave, and when you feel it drive you forward, initiate a quick pop up.

Using a floaty, beginner surfboard is best for learning, as this allows you to catch the wave even further out before it breaks. Breaking waves will push you forward hard, and catching them on a floaty board before this will allow you to stand up and get in your direction without being tumbled into the sandbar.

Like when riding the whitewash, keep a nice wide stance and knees bent to work on your balance.

How to Pivot a Surfboard

A key fundamental with how to catch a wave surfing on the face is to pivot the board into this open direction.

Use your front shoulder and your weight to lead your direction on the wave. For example, if the wave is a right, look your head towards the right, lean your front shoulder and weight in this direction, and pivot the board onto the open face.

You can press your back foot into the tail pad to help direct the fins in this direction.

To keep your speed on the face, you'll have to start pumping or trimming your board to stay in the pocket of the wave, so you aren't caught behind the whitewash.

If you've made it this far, then it's time for the next article in the series that further explains pumping, trimming, and maintaining speed on the face, the last step before beginning to learn how to initiate your first turns and maneuvers.