How to SUP: Paddling Out in Surf

If you want to surf, you need to first paddle out. Keep in mind these seven tips to get you from the beach to the waves.

by Rob Casey

Zane Schweitzer, Surftech Shootout 2010, Santa Cruz, CA USA
Zane Schweitzer, Surftech Shootout 2010, Santa Cruz, CA USA
Zane Schweitzer, Surftech Shootout 2010, Santa Cruz, CA USA
Zane Schweitzer, Surftech Shootout 2010, Santa Cruz, CA USA
Zane Schweitzer, Surftech Shootout 2010, Santa Cruz, CA USA

Watch the waves for a few minutes before going out.  Are you comfortable with the wave size?  Can you turn easily on a wave and handle a crowded surfing area?  If not, pick a less crowded break with smaller waves.  Inquire from local surf shops on where the best beginner beaches are to avoid conflicts on more advanced or crowded breaks.  In areas such as Southern California, some beaches have specified SUP-surfing sections.  You can be ticketed if you paddle in the wrong area. Decide from the beach which wave you want and observe where others are surfing in. Make sure you paddle out where others are not surfing in--that’s just one facet of surfing etiquette you should be aware of prior to entering the water. Bone up on wave-riding etiquette with’s 10 rules.

Enter the water on a beach that is clear of rocks and large groups of people, and always use your leash in surf.  If a big wave comes in, it's possible to lose control of your board, which becomes a projectile and could endanger yourself or others.  That's not a smooth way to introduce yourself on a new beach. If a wave does come in, don't get between your board and the beach. Stay on the seaward side of the board--otherwise, it can be pushed by the wave right into you.

Walk your board to about waist deep, then get on.  If you're feeling unstable, paddle out on your knees or butt, and choke up on your paddle.  If there's a strong onshore wind (wind coming into shore) consider paddling out prone (on your belly) with the blade of your paddle under your chest and shaft and handle sticking out over the nose of your board.  Paddling out sitting down also reduces wind resistance.

Stand up in paddling stance (or Hawaiian stance) in smaller waves up to about knee-high, with both feet about 12 inches apart, facing the nose and positioned in the middle of your board. Paddle as you normally would on flatwater over each wave.  If you feel unstable, bend your knees as the wave passes below you. Keep paddling until you get out past the incoming waves or until you see a wave you want to surf.

Start out in paddling stance (feet parallel), if the waves are waist-high or larger, and take some hard strokes to gain speed.  As the wave nears you, step one foot further back on the board to lift the nose out of the water, making sure each foot is on either side of the board center.  Bend your knees to lower your center of gravity for more stability.  Paddle hard with short quick strokes as the wave begins to pick you up and go under your board.  If the wave is really steep, move even farther back toward your tail to allow it to pass under your nose (see photo sequence above). You can use your paddle as a quick brace on top of the wave if you feel unstable or if the crest breaks on you.  Keep paddling as the wave passes and be prepared for more waves to paddle over.

Push down one rail in the water with your foot to angle the face of the board toward the wave, which deflects some of the wave energy as your near the crest. Called edging, this is a technique used in surf kayaking, where much like standup paddling, duck dives are out of the question.  If you feel tippy, get lower and widen your stance.  When in doubt, paddle.  Just having your blade in the water adds stability.

Don't let go of the paddle if you fall in while paddling out, and make sure when you come to the surface that you're between the waves and the board, and hold onto the leash by the board, which is called short-leashing. When there's a lull in between the waves, get on the board and continue to paddle out. If you're a beginner in the surf, consider a surfing helmet to protect your noggin from colliding with your gear in a wipeout.

-- This article is based on material from Rob Casey's forthcoming book, Stand Up Paddling, to be published by  Mountaineers Books in spring 2011.

Schweitzer, enjoying the Steamer Lane spoils of a challenging paddle out; Photo Rob Casey