For all the great mystique surrounding surfing, it’s actually not that hard to ride a wave. On a huge board, in the right conditions, with a decent instructor, most people will get to their feet the first day. And it feels amazing—like sliding across the kitchen floor in your socks, only the floor is the ocean, and you’re walking on water.
The hard part comes when you love that feeling. When you decide you want to surf for real, and on your own. There’s equipment to master. Rules. Lingo. Tides. Swells. The sea is always changing, and you have to learn how and when it’s willing to play. You’ll go out in slop. You’ll get turned back by waves that are too big. You’ll get tossed around underwater and cut your feet on rocks and get smacked with your board. It’s humbling.
But it’s also worth it. One day, maybe in a year, or two years, or even three, you’ll paddle like mad into a glassy, green, unbroken wave, slide down its slope and dig your board’s edge (the rail) into its face, sailing right across its heft in a low crouch. When the wave breaks around you, you’ll skid out in front of the foam, letting it carry you farther in toward the beach, until you finally sink into the sea, face to the sky in exaltation, while your board pops out from under you like a champagne cork.
“Look!” a mom will say, towing her small child toward the beach, plastic bucket in hand. “A surfer!”
What To Expect on Your First Lesson
Yes, you should get a lesson. They’re not crazy expensive—about $50 to $125 for your first time, depending on whether you go by yourself or with a group—and include a board and a rash guard or wetsuit. “We spend about 20 minutes on the beach going through a lot of safety stuff, learning about the ocean, rip currents, tides, and hazards,” says Richard Schmidt, owner of an eponymous surf school in Santa Cruz, California, who has been teaching surfing for 40 years.
After that, you’ll post up on the sand to determine your stance and practice pop-ups, smoothly transitioning from your stomach to your feet. When it’s finally time to surf, you’ll head into the whitewash to practice catching already broken waves and popping up to stand. Your instructor will give you a push at first to help you with speed and timing.
Your First Board
Board rentals run $20 to $40 for a half-day, so if you find you love surfing, it’s worth buying your own. “You want a soft board as you’re learning,” says Schmidt. “It’s a lot safer for the beginning surfer and also for everybody else.” As for size, bigger is better. An eight-, nine-, or ten-foot board has enough volume to catch even tiny waves, which is what you’ll be aiming to ride.
Get the Right Wet Suit
It depends. Using a surf forecasting app such as Surfline or Magicseaweed, find out the water temperature.
Parts of a Wave
1. Shoulder There’s slightly less power here, which makes it a good place to hang out while you wait. If you catch a wave from here, be careful not to drop in on someone coming from the peak
2. Lip The very top of the breaking wave, used mostly by advanced surfers to do tricks.
3. Barrel The hollow part of a breaking wave. Getting inside is a surfer’s dream, and can be called getting pitted, barreled, or shacked.
4. Peak The part of the wave with the most power to push you. Surf away from the area that is breaking.
Parts of a Surf Break
1. Lineup The place where a group of surfers is waiting for waves to break.
2. Outside The area outside where waves are breaking. If someone yells “outside” in a lineup, a bigger set is coming. Paddle for the shoulder or the horizon.
3. Set Waves tend to arrive in groups of anywhere from three at a time to the low teens. Timing your paddle out so you go between sets is a good idea.
4. Inside The area inside where the waves are breaking.
5. Whitewash The foam after a wave has broken. Your first lesson will take place here.
Know the Rules
The rider has the right of way. When heading out to the lineup, paddle around the area where people are riding waves in toward the beach. It’s your responsibility to avoid riders.
Don’t ditch your board. If you let go of your board, it could hit you or someone else.
Don’t drop in. The person nearest a wave’s peak, or who has been waiting the longest, has priority. Letting them have the wave helps everyone avoid collisions.
Face the horizon. That’s where the waves are coming from. Duh.
FAQ From a First-Time Surfer
How do I take off a wetsuit?
“Peel it like a banana,” says Corey Senese, owner of Coreyswave Surf Lessons in Montauk, New York. “Right-side out is not gonna work.” If you have trouble getting started, have a buddy pull the neck hole down over both of your shoulders. You should be able to get it from there.
Do I have to get up really early?
Maybe. Many surf spots (in California, for example) have glassy waves first thing in the morning that get choppy and unsurfable once the wind picks up. Mornings are more likely to be glassy on the East Coast as well, but there’s more variability. In some places, the waves are great all day or clean up in the early evening. Surfers call the latter dusk patrol.
Some old-timers don’t suffer newbies lightly. They call clueless newcomers kooks. “If you are aware of your surroundings and you’re nice, you won’t get in trouble,” says Senese. That said, many of the rules are there to keep everyone safe, so it’s best to be aware before you head out.
Is skateboarding a good way to practice?
“Skateboarding won’t help with your pop-up, but it helps with the stance and turning—the toe-edge, heel-edge feeling of turning your board,” says Senese.
What about sharks?
There were only 88 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide in 2017, with five fatalities (zero in the U.S.). The same year, lightning killed 16 people in the U.S. alone. Still freaked out? Try the Sharkbanz Modom shark leash. It uses magnets to irritate sharks’ electroreceptors and make them go away.
Are there rules about which beach I can and can’t surf on?
Yes, but generally only in the summer, when non-surfers want to enjoy the water as well. Ask a lifeguard or surf school, read signs, and look for yellow flags with a black ball in the middle. That means surfboards are not allowed.