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The Basics

Many people fear surfing because they fear the water and surf. Even if you take part in other water activities, you may still feel uncomfortable with the ocean and waves. This is typically due to not understanding the movement and forces of the water. Getting hit by the face of a wave, even a small wave, can knock the wind out of you. Yet it could have been easily avoided by moving slightly to one side or ducking the wave. It's all a matter of reading the water. This will be an important aspect of learning to surf.

Surfing started with the Polynesians and was first documented in Hawaii by Captain Cook's crew in the 1700s. Surfing was a large part of the Hawaiian culture with references in their songs, chants and prayers. It wasn't just for royalty: everyone surfed. One of the most famous Hawaiian surfers was Duke Kahanamoku, introducing surfing to the rest of the world. The Duke first became renowned for his swimming. He held several world records and won gold medals in swimming during the 1912 and 1920 Olympics. Duke passed away in 1968, but is still remembered and revered by the surfing community and Hawaiians.

Entering the Surf

It is important to be comfortable in the waves. You should be proficient at bodysurfing and bodyboarding, and an excellent swimmer before you head out into the surf with a board. If you have limited experience in the waves, start off bodysurfing on small beach break. Bodysurfing doesn't require any equipment, though swim fins help. This will teach you to read the waves and the water, and how to streamline yourself in the water. After you've gotten a feel for maneuvering in the waves, try some slightly bigger waves, around 3 feet. As the waves get larger the strength of the water increases dramatically.

Next you're ready to try out a bodyboard or "boogie-board". A bodyboard is a short 3-foot foam board that you lie on. Most bodyboards have a shock cord called a leash that attaches the board to your wrist. This prevents you from loosing the board and having to swim into shore to retrieve it. The boogie-board will teach you how to duck the board through the waves, and how to time to waves to catch them. For bodyboarding you'll want to be farther out than bodysurfing. Once you've master these you're ready to try surfing.

It's best to spend some time watching surfers. Look for when they start paddling, where they position themselves on the wave, how they get up, which way they go on the wave, and how the waves are breaking. When you first paddle out, you'll need to adjust your weight and position on the board. Start by catching a few waves and riding them in on your stomach. This will help you get your weight right and allow you to get used to the feel.

Many surf instructors will tell their students to first come to their knees and then their feet in order to stand on a surfboard. This is not the best method, because it is difficult to balance in that position and you're adding an extra step. You should go directly from lying down on the board to a squat position with both feet on the board and your center of gravity low. This is often called the "pop-up" method. Try this at home before you get to the beach. It is fairly difficult to do on the floor, but will be easier on a surfboard.

There will be a "channel" of deeper water on the side of where the waves are breaking. This is where you paddle out, so you don't have to go through the waves. When you get out, try to stay to the side of the pack of surfers. This way you won't get in their way and they won't get in your way. There are specific rules of the road when surfing. The most important rule is the surfer that catches the wave closest to the wave's break has the rights. If you don't have wave rights you must stay clear or kick out of the wave.

As a beginner it's important to find the right surf break to learn. The best break has a sandy bottom, small waves (1 to 2 feet), and a fairly long ride. The long ride can be the most difficult to find. Beach break is usually the best location.

You'll need to find a board to learn on. To begin with you should rent a board. Most local surf shops will rent and may offer lessons, but call around first. The board should be long enough to float you and wide enough to be stable. A good way to measure is to reach one arm up over your head. The board should be as tall as your outstretched hand.

The only other equipment you need is surfboard wax, a leash, and maybe a wetsuit if the water is cold. The wax is rubbed onto the top surface of the board to make it less slippery. Wetsuits are handy because they'll protect your stomach from rubbing on the board and keep you warm. They'll also protect your skin from the sun and give you a little extra buoyancy. Don't forget to wear lots of waterproof sunscreen all over, including your back if you're not wearing a wetsuit.

Surfing Terms

Wipe-out - A wipeout is when you fall off the board.

Inside - Being caught inside means that you are inside of where the waves are breaking. This is a dangerous spot, because you have to fight all the incoming waves to get back out. Also, if there are any loose boards, they're headed your way.

Intermediate Surfing

The first surfboards were made of wood and could weigh up to 150 lbs. That would be a little difficult to get down to the water. In 1926 surfboards began to get lighter, finding alternative methods and materials. In 1935 saw the first fin or skeg attached to a surfboard. Surfboards didn't see another major change until the 1960s, when using resin and fiberglass was developed. Two board types became available: the longboard and a shorter board.

As your surfing skills improve you'll want to buy a surfboard. You'll need to decide whether to buy a longboard or a shorter board. Longboards were considered the old cruiser, for the old fogies. But that isn't really the case today. Longboards have benefited from new design techniques, so they too can shred. Your decision may be based on the general surf conditions in your area. Longboards are great for small surf, which is prevailing for most places. Shorter boards aren't able to catch or ride small waves. So if you're not living on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii or on a hot California break, the longboard might be better.

An unfortunate aspect of surfing is the politics. Most breaks get crowded, which means waiting your turn and fighting for position. Usually it just happens naturally, but sometimes it's a lesson in diplomacy. The rule of thumb is to just be courteous. If you get in someone's way just apologize. There is still the odd sexist comment, something like "you should be in the kitchen". But if you're a surf girl, it's not stopping you cause you've heard it before. Besides, the best way to change that mentality is to get out there and shred with 'em.

Off the Lip Cut Backs

As you progress with your surfing skills, you'll learn more aggressive moves and tight maneuvers. These maneuvers take a long time to perfect, the more radical the more difficult. Though surfing is less about doing stunts than just about being out there. Many surfers refer to the sport as a religious experience. They feel closest to God when they're surfing. Probably because it's one of the few sports that require very little equipment: just you, the board and the waves.

Recently competitive women surfers have made some progress with increased prize money and more competition. It still has a long way to go though. Women's International Surfing Association (WISA) was one of the first organizations to promote women's surfing competitions. It was founded in 1975 in order to run a professional contest circuit for women. Shortly after WISA, the International Professional Surfers group added women's surfing to their events. Today the 2 most active groups promoting women's surfing are Waterwomen and the Association of Women Surfers.


  • Don't take weather and water conditions lightly. Find out what surf and weather conditions are forecasted.
  • Don't surf in waves that are over your skill and comfort level.
  • Don't' drop-in on fellow surfers.
  • Respect fellow surfers and respect the water.
  • Don't paddle against a rip tide. Ripe tides are relatively narrow so you want to paddle to the side to get out of it.


  • The leash is a must.
  • If you don't need a wetsuit, try the new surf shirts. They're made of thin nylon material, like a swimsuit. They keep the sun off your back and protect your stomach from rubbing on the board.


  • If a surfboard is headed at you, you should duck under the water and cover your head with your arms.
  • Stay clear of any fishing lines or traps. They can get tangled in your leash and around your legs, creating a dangerous situation.
  • To begin with there should always be someone on shore that can keep a look out for you. Usually there will be a lifeguard.
  • Be aware of the rip tide, know where it is.
  • Keep an eye on where you are in regards to the shore. Currents can carry you out as well as along the shoreline.

See SheGear Stories for A young woman and the sea, By Rell Sunn

Rell was a legendary female surfer from Hawaii, who passed away at the beginning of 1998.

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