April 24, 2024
learning how to surf

Learning How to Surf Step by Step for Beginners

If you have spent any time at the Southern California coast, you have undoubtedly watched the surfers paddling out. From the early Beach Boy days to the modern competitive exhibitions, surfing has become synonymous with Southern California coastal culture. Beyond being a great low impact exercise for people of all ages, surfing is just cool in general. In this post, expect the basics on learning how to surf in an easy to follow guide. After that, I’ll share some insight on my favorite surf spots when learning to surf in San Diego.

If you just moved here, or even lived here for some time, and you think you might be ready to surf, you’re in luck! All it takes to learn how to surf in San Diego is a board, an ocean, and a willingness to get wet.

Getting Started: Choosing the Right Gear

Your buddies will probably have a spare board. It may be dented and dinged and inevitably end up waterlogged, but if the Hawaiians could surf a plank of wood, you can suffer an ugly monster while you are learning. While you might want to start out on a sleek short board and shred like a pro, it is generally better to start on a long board. They will be more buoyant and stable at slow speeds on smaller waves.

My recommendation for a beginner board is a Wavestorm. I started on a 7’6 foam board when I was learning how to surf in San Diego. Now, I’m a modern-day Kelly Slater! Check out my recommendation for a beginner surfboard below.

learning how to surf

Learning How to Surf Guide

Below, use this easy to follow guide to learn how to surf.

Step 1 – Standing Up

Starting out in your back yard, place a stack of pillows behind the tail end of the board. This will set the board at a proper angle and prevent damage to the fins. Laying on the board, practice paddling, and glancing over your shoulder to check for your wave. Once you’ve checked over your shoulder, paddle twice to increase your speed. Then, practice popping up to a standing position.

It may seem silly, but you are working to build muscle memory, teaching yourself to move instinctively. Popping up to a standing position and standing on your board, even on a stack of pillows, will help you get comfortable balancing before you take it in the water. Practice ten left side pop-ups followed by ten right side pop-ups once a day and get comfortable balancing on your board. By practicing on both sides, your mind will be learning how to surf for both the frontside (chest to the wave) and backside (back to the wave) positions.

In summary, practice these surfing fundamentals to prepare yourself before getting in the ocean.

Step 2 – Paddling Out

When learning how to surf, smaller waves are good practice for beginners. They will allow you to learn how to catch a wave. Paddling out in overhead waves is not only more difficult, but until you are comfortable getting thrown around the surf zone, you might injure yourself.

You should be able to charge out past the ankle biters, getting about thigh deep before you mount your board, but you’ll still have to paddle through at least a couple of waves before you can get out past the breakers. The first few waves will probably be small and mushy. Hard charge straight through them, keeping your feet pointed and your chest thrust outwards like the bow of a ship. Be mindful of each stroke and your form. Again, you are trying to build muscle memory.

As a final note, get comfortable padding around. Normally, you spend about 90% of your time paddling and only 10% surfing. When learning how to surf, you will spend closer to 95% of your time paddling. Don’t worry though. The 5% of time you actually spend surfing will be glorious!

Step 3 – Duck Diving/Turtling

Duck Diving: As the first big wave approaches, firmly grasp the rails of the board and pushing forward, plunge the front tip into the base of the wave. Take a deep breath and follow the board downwards. Point your toes. As the wave passes over your back, you will automatically rise to the surface. Start paddling immediately. Remember that the key to momentum is hydrodynamics. You want to make yourself a torpedo shooting through the water. Keep it sleek.

Turning Turtle (Turtling): Long boards, especially as you first learn, can be a little awkward at first. Larger and more positively buoyant, they are harder to sink through a wave, and you may find it necessary to “turn turtle” in order to get past the breakers. As the wave approaches, firmly grasp the rails of the board. Leaning either left or right, barrel roll into the wave, submerging yourself and holding the board over the whitewater. As the wave passes, roll yourself back onto the top of the board and continue paddling immediately. This is an essential maneuver for all beginners when learning how to surf on a bigger board.

Step 4 – Approaching the Lineup

Follow the old-timers, they know what they are doing. Follow the others out and around the wave, careful to stay out of the way of surfers who have already caught their wave. You don’t want another surfer going over you, any more than they want to swerve to avoid you. Be polite. Follow the other surfers and wait your turn. Surfing etiquette is important when learning how to surf. If you don’t follow the rules, other surfers will get annoyed with you.

As you reach the lineup – turn your gaze to the horizon. First, you will see a set of waves approaching. In the distance, they will be faint rolling swells lined up regularly. Timing is key to catching a wave. If you miss the first, be ready for the second. You may be too far in, or too far out. Watch where the other surfers are catching their waves and try to put yourself in that place. Positioning yourself in the right spot of the wave is another one of the surfing basics.

Step 5 – Catching Your First Wave – The Best Part of Learning How to Surf!

In this section, we’ll talk about the best part of learning how to surf! That is, actually riding the wave!

If you’ve already spent a little time in the ocean, you have probably been body surfing or body boarding before. You already know how to catch a wave, now you have to take the board with you. Unlike body surfing or boogie boarding, you will be catching the wave much sooner.

As the wave approaches, line yourself up, aiming slightly to the left or to the right, depending upon which direction the wave is breaking. You want your nose pointed towards the shore but tilted slightly in the direction you want to move. Paddle hard, keeping your feet straight out behind you and rigid. As the wave starts to crest, and you feel the momentum carrying you, give two more quick paddles and push forward on the board, tilting down the face of the wave.

Look up! You will inevitably follow your gaze. If you are looking down at the trough, you are going to end up down there. Learning to set your railing gauge is a deeply personal skill that comes with practice. You may expect to spend some time learning to dive off the front end of your board. Finding that sweet spot between catching the wave and riding it is the art of surfing. Don’t be discouraged! The moment that you stand up on a wave and feel the power of the ocean under your body, you will be hooked. I promise you this much!

learning how to surf in san diego
Standing up, yay!

How Long Does it Take to Learn How to Surf?

Usually, you can at least stand up on your board for the first time after a few hours in the water. Of course, this will depend on your athletic ability and comfort in the water. However, with proper instruction – standing up can be achieved in a single surf lesson.

After you stand up, getting comfortable surfing to the point where you can stand up without thinking about it and turning in the waves will take weeks or even months. Like any sport, you need to practice consistently. It took me about 3 months of surfing nearly every day until I really felt like a natural in the water.

Learning how to surf isn’t easy but it’s well worth it!

The Best Surf Spots when Learning How to Surf in San Diego

If you are vacationing in San Diego, and just looking to have a surf experience, I recommend (Everyday California). Providing boards, wetsuits, and instructors, you can have a fun and safe supervised surfing experience without a lot of effort or initial expense. Their center is also located at La Jolla Shores which is one the easiest and best beginner surf spots in San Diego. For 10% off booked surf lessons with Everyday California, use code GOSURF10 online or over the phone.

Alternatively, I am now offering private 1 on 1 surf lessons in Encinitas, also with all equipment provided.

Nearly as important as the fundamentals when learning how to surf; is having a surf break suited for beginners. If you start surfing on an advanced or even intermediate wave, learning how to surf is going to be even more difficult. The best wave to learn how to surf on is a soft, slow breaking wave. This will allow you plenty of time to stand up on your board and practice the surfing fundamentals shared above.

My favorite beginner surf spots in San Diego are:

You can read more about each of these beginner surf spots in San Diego here.

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  • Gavin Bechtold

    Gavin has been living and surfing in San Diego for over a decade. He loves the ocean and is lucky to call San Diego home. Frustrated with mainstream reviews, he set out to create the best source of surf reviews for San Diego beaches. Check the About page for more info!