Beginner Series | Learning How to SUP Surf
Contrary to popular belief, SUP surfing is not easy.
My first foray into SUP surfing ended with humiliation. I could barely manage to balance on my board–much less actually catch waves–and eventually got tired of falling and paddling back to the beach in shame. After spending more than a decade longboarding, I had mistakenly assumed my transition to SUP would be a breeze. I was wrong.
That day I learned SUP surfing and prone surfing are two different beasts and the sooner you accept that, the quicker you will improve. So take a deep breath, reign in your pride, and prepare to embarrass yourself during the first couple attempts.
With that said, a few pointers can go a long way. So before you paddle out, check out these helpful beginner tips for learning to SUP surf.
Get the Right Board
Choosing the right board will make all the difference. Raceboards, inflatables and touring boards are not built for surfing and will only stifle your progress. When choosing your first SUP surfboard, you’ll want a board that is buoyant and stable. This means a board in the eight- to ten-foot range, approximately 30 inches wide and with a volume of 140 to 200 liters. It’s also important to have enough rocker–the bottom curve of the board from the nose to the tail–so that you don’t bury the nose at the bottom of every wave.
When in doubt, it’s best to talk to a local shaper who will be more than happy to share their knowledge with you. It’s also a good idea to demo a couple different boards–either from a friend or at demo zones at events such as #PPG2017. This will give you a feel for the different types of boards out there and help you make a more informed decision when purchasing your first sled. Lastly, remember to always wear a leash to protect both yourself and those surfing around you.
Paddling Through the Surf
Now that you have the right board, it’s time to catch a few waves. But before you go bounding off into the water, it’s a good idea to scout the waves so you know where to paddle out. If it’s your first time SUP surfing, avoid crowded areas and look for a spot with gentle waves. Also keep an eye out for other hazards including submerged rocks, shallow beach break, or swimmers.
Once you are ready to get out there, walk your board out to about waist-deep water and then hop on. It will be easier to paddle out on your knees, or even lying prone with the paddle blade under your chest and the handle sticking out over the nose. If you prefer to stand, remember to bend your knees and keep your feet staggered–similar to your surf stance–to help keep you balanced, especially when paddling through whitewash.
The key is to paddle hard into the whitewash putting weight on your back foot to pop the board over the foam, and then use your momentum to punch through. You’ll find leaning back substantially actually helps you mount and then overcome the whitewater. A more advanced technique involves angling the face of the board toward the wave by pushing one rail down in the water with your foot. Known as edging, this helps deflect some of the wave energy as you near the crest. Also don’t ever let go of your paddle, having to retrieve it on the shore is both annoying and makes you look extra kooky.
Once you gain more experience, catching waves on a SUP is much easier than on a traditional board. But until you know what you’re doing, just getting the board pointed in the right direction is a challenge. The key is to start slow and be methodical in the waves you choose.
Standup paddling gives you a big advantage because you’ll have a better view of the sets coming in. When choosing a wave, leave yourself enough time to get your board turned around without rushing. Once beginners start trying to hurry, they usually end up falling before the wave even gets to them.
To make faster turns you’ll need to master the pivot turn, which makes the board easier to rotate. This technique involves stepping back on the tail of the board to lift the nose clear of the water and then paddling on the opposite side of the direction you want to turn.
A common mistake is that if you start paddling for a wave with your board pointed to shore–like you would on a prone surfboard–the board will turn away from where you want to go. A better technique is to turn into the wave as it approaches. This means paddling parallel to the wave before taking a few hard strokes (either left or right depending which direction you want to go on the wave) to turn towards the beach as the wave gets close. While turning towards the beach, you’ll also want to move your feet from parallel into surf stance so you can brace for the sudden acceleration of catching the wave.
Now that you’ve caught the wave, you’ll find riding it is actually easiest of all. Despite having a paddle and a larger board, your surfing instincts will take over. In fact, having a paddle allows you to not only stay in mushy waves and get to that nice inside section, but digging your blade in the water can help you make tighter turns and better keep your balance.
The best strategy to improve is to practice, practice, practice. If you put in the time and effort, you’ll become more familiar with all of these techniques until eventually they’re second nature. Until then, have fun and remember that even the best SUP surfers started somewhere.