Tips for beginning and intermediate surfers

By Linda Van Zandt

La Jolla Light

Although seasoned surfers often mourn the end of winter, summer is actually a fantastic time for improving one’s surfing. With extended daylight hours, the opportunity to practice is available to everyone regardless of a standard work schedule. Warmer water allows us to “shed rubber,” making us lighter, quicker and more flexible. And frankly, it’s a lot less sinister wiping out in playful, warm summer surf versus a macking, Aleutian Island swell in freezing water and a 4 mil wetsuit.

For the beginner, while a session with a surf instructor can be helpful in terms of learning the basics of safety and proper body placement, the important thing to understand is 95 percent of surfing is paddling. Get out there and do it, every day, regardless of the conditions. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t catch many waves, just gaining strength in your arms puts you that much further ahead for tomorrow’s session. Don’t surf blackdiamond spots like the La Jolla Reefs when you’re a novice. Crowded and aggressive, you will be endangering yourself and those around you while your chances of positioning yourself to catch a wave are slim at best. If your true goal is to get better, consider the less-crowded beach breaks towards Del Mar, Oceanside, North Mission Beach or even Imperial Beach, where the breaks are wide open, scattered peaks giving you plenty of room to move about hassle-free. Using the right equipment for your size, weight and ability will also make a difference. Not everyone has to learn on a longboard, but you do want a board that gives you adequate float and balance. For a child that may mean a board in the 6'4" to 7'2" range, a size much easier to manage in the breaking waves. For an adult, a good range is 7'6" to 9'0,” while considering width, float and manageability. When trying to catch a wave, the nose of the board should be skimming the water’s surface, much like the glide of a boat. Too far forward, and you’re sure to bury the nose under water. Too far back and the wave will pass you by. Move your body around slightly until you feel the “sweet spot.” Finally, practice the “pop-up.” Make a basic cross shape on the floor equal to the length and width of your surfboard. Lay on your stomach in paddle position, then pop-up to your feet. Be aware of your hand placement on the imaginary rails, the position should be similar to a standard push-up. Your body should remain low, with knees bent while your feet are centered above the stringer.

Intermediate surfers are those capable of paddling to the outside while maintaining control of their surfboard; you ride with confidence in many types of waves and conditions and understand your limitations when approaching a surf break. An excellent way to improve is to surf with someone better than you. Not only will this expose you to higher-performance surf spots, but pay attention and watch how the more advanced surfers commit to their paddling. There is no wishy-washy, looking over the shoulder, do I really want this wave paddling. It’s a solid commitment that begins with the decision to move for a wave. Head down, line drawn, no hesitation. Not only does this kind of momentum increase your chances of making the most critical of drops, the determination in your face alone may get potential drop-ins to back off. Summer is also a great time to take off your leash. You will surf faster and catch waves easier, which makes a huge difference in sluggish summer surf. Kelp becomes a non-issue, which also affects the quantity of waves caught. Surfing without a leash has the psychological benefit of forcing you to try harder to make the drop. However, use common sense. The first few times should be at a relatively uncrowded peak. Learn to pump for your own speed by making a conscious effort to dive into your turn using your rail to “jump” into the next section. Coil both your legs under you, push forward off your feet, springing forward into the turn. Watch how fast you go! Another great tool is to get a friend to video your session. Because you can actually see what you look like, this can really address any bad habits you may have acquired. Conversely, you may also see what is working in your skill set and take that up a notch.

Finally, everyone, regardless of ability, should remember that use of a leash is never an excuse to bail your equipment in a crowded line-up. And by all means, remember summer means stingrays so don’t forget to do the stingray shuffle!

E-mail Linda Van Zandt with ocean- or surf-related questions at