Picking & Catching Waves

Developing an eye for waves and being able to read the ocean is a skill that you’ll develop as you surf more – it comes from experience and getting familiar with the conditions and different types of waves.

A lot of beginner surfers tend to make a few mistakes when it comes to picking and attempting to catch waves.

  • Beginner surfers can get into the habit of trying to paddle for every bump they see – this is only going to serve to drain your energy and put you out of position.
  • Beginners can also tend to try to catch the wave in the wrong spot – either too far on the shoulder or too deep.
  • Beginners may not be aware of wave priority and etiquette – which can result on missing out on good waves or interrupting someone else’s wave.

Once you’ve progressed from whitewater to catching unbroken waves, you’ll notice the feeling is much different. Whitewater pushes you forward with a lot more turbulence and then fizzles out. Unbroken waves allow you to use the wave’s energy and gravity to adjust your speed, momentum, and positioning.

How to Catch a Wave

Here are some quick tips for catching waves:

  • Keep and eye on the horizon to spot the peaks.
  • Start paddling for the waves before it breaks to build up the necessary speed and momentum.
  • Look over your shoulder as you’re paddling to make sure you’re timing and positioning is correct.
  • Wait to stand up until the wave’s momentum has got you or the wave is steep enough for gravity to take over.
  • Use deep, long, and full paddle strokes.
  • Keep your head and chest low.
  • Positioning yourself correctly on your board so that you don’t nosedive/pearl or drag your tail.

Before you start paddling out into the lineup to surf, you should be aware of some basic surf etiquette and wave priority rules:

  • The surfer closest to the peak and deepest has priority (i.e. closest to where to where the wave is breaking).
  • Don’t drop in on a surfer who is either already on the wave or deeper than you (look to your sides before you drop in).
  • If you’re paddling back out and find yourself in the path of an oncoming surfer on a wave, avoid paddling towards the shoulder in front of them unless you’re absolutely sure you have the room. Instead, paddle towards the whitewater and duck dive.
  • Don’t be a wave hog – if it’s crowded and you’re finding your groove, share the waves – it’ll come back around.

Selecting Waves to Paddle For

Knowing which waves to paddle for and recognizing exactly where you should position yourself gets easier with practice.

Regardless of your experience, it can be useful to spend a few minutes watching the surf. This will allow you to recognize where the waves are breaking, how they’re breaking, and any current or drift you’ll need to account for when you’re waiting for waves.

Waves can be tricky to read at first, but it gets easier. In the beginning you may find yourself paddling for waves that loose power and roll past you or that break on your head because they pitch up too quickly.

Mastering your paddling, pop-up, and drop-in will help you catch a wider variety of waves, but in general try to drop in as close to the peak of the wave as possible. Essentially, you’ll want to try to drop-in and pop-up as the wave is breaking.

If you’ve got a board with enough volume and length, you can even get into wave early, before they start to break completely.

To catch an unbroken wave:

  • Begin paddling near the wave’s peak before it starts to break – this will help you match the speed of the wave necessary to drop in.
  • As you’re paddling for the wave, take a look back to make sure your timing and positioning is right – adjust as necessary.
  • Wait to pop-up until you’re sure the wave’s momentum has picked you up – this feeling takes a bit of practice.
  • Pop-up as the wave begins to break and you’ve got enough momentum.

Avoid paddling for the small bumps that just roll past and don’t break. Avoid paddling for a wave as the lip is collapsing. Avoid paddling for whitewater.

Depending on the current conditions and the spot you’re surfing, you may need to paddle to stay in the best position to catch the waves near their peak. Keep an eye on the horizon and practice spotting sets and waves early. Sometimes it helps to spot a landmark on shore to check your positioning.

Positioning Yourself on the Wave

Length and quality of your ride come down to your positioning on the wave. In order to ride the wave down the line, you’ll need to utilize the different parts of the waves to generate speed, slow down, or keep momentum.

Once you’re up and riding, you’ll need to stay with right part of the wave if you want to continue surfing it. Going straight down the line too quickly and too far onto the shoulder will cause you to loose you speed, getting too far behind the wave will put you in the turbulent whitewater.

When you’ve caught a wave, you’ll need to turn into and out of the steep parts of it to control your speed. Go high on the wave and drop back down for a boost of speed. You’ll find the fastest portion of the wave is in the pocket, right in front of the breaking portion.

You’ll also want to keep an eye down the line to judge how you’ll need to adjust to make an upcoming section. If you spot the lip ahead of you starting to break you can adjust your positioning and speed to get around it and continue your ride.

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