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Learn How To Surf With These 5 Indispensable Skills



The best surfers in the world make the sport of kings look easy, but so can you once you’ve mastered the necessary skills.

Known for its history as a pastime of Hawaiian royalty, surfing is a mix of adrenaline and blissful calm. Luckily, surfing is made up of a handful of skills and techniques. Each one, however, is difficult to learn and even more difficult to master. Hone them, and you too could be king. Here are the 5 skills every surfer must do well to learn how to surf and be an ace in the water.

Read the water

If you know how to read it, the water is constantly telling you things about the incoming swells, the tides, and most importantly, where you should set up for waves. The shape of the swell dictates how far forward your weight should be on the board: if the waves are slow and rolling, slide yourself forward to make catching the thing easier. If it’s breaking fast and steep, scoot back so your weight will fall directly onto the tail when you stand up.

Pop up

Perhaps the most important skill to build when you learn how to surf, the “pop up” makes or breaks your ride. Master this in all conditions, and the rest will come easily. A perfectly executed pop-up is more like a burpee than a push-up: when you press up, your feet should fly under your chest and land at the same time. A common mistake is placing your hands too far forward on the board during the pop-up. Don’t do this. Place your hands close to your waist, so your arms are making a chicken-wing bend. This orients your weight farther back and will land you where you want to be: over the tail.


Like surfing itself, paddling looks easier than it is. Because you have to balance on your chest and hips while making powerful strokes with your arms, tipping wildly is common among beginners learning how to surf. Stability begins in the core. By keeping tight the muscles of the stomach and back, you’ll be able to slice through the water in full control. No matter how choppy the water, keep your board flat and your body stiff as a board. Don’t make the mistake of thinking each paddle stroke should carry you a hundred yards. Paddling isn’t about brute strength. It’s about technique and keeping a quick, fluid pace.

Board Control

Beginning surfers who have experience riding snowboards or skateboards will learn that there is one crucial difference with surfing: you must control your board along two axes. That is, you have to balance between the toe and heel edge—like snowboarding and skateboarding—but, crucially, you also have to balance between the nose and the tail. When you ride on a solid surface like snow or concrete, this is not an issue. But in the water, it’s everything. Once you’re standing up on waves, you’ll realize something else: your front foot is your accelerator, and your back foot is the brake. More often than not, you will want to sink most of your weight over the front foot to maintain speed on small-ish waves. If you start to slow down as the wave subsides, you can shift your hips toward the board’s nose for a little extra gas.


Trimming is surfing in a straight line along the fastest part of the wave, the pocket. That’s where the speed is. Getting there and surfing parallel to the beach—unlike pure beginners who surf straight toward the sand—is the way to maximize your ride time. There are two ways to get there. First, you can catch the wave heading toward the beach, turn back onto the wave, and adjust your board accordingly. Second, the more advanced way, is to catch the wave at the angle you’ll want to be pointing while trimming. It’s harder to catch the wave with an angle to your board, but you’ll zip directly into the pocket for the fastest, longest ride possible.

Duck Dive

Getting out past breaking waves can be the toughest thing about surfing. When the waves are breaking close together and with a lot of force, it can feel near impossible to get past the break. (Sometimes though, like at reef breaks, it is possible to easily paddle around the break.) The only way to bust through breaking waves is to duck dive. Paddle toward the wave to get some speed. A couple of seconds before the whitewash nails you, press down on the nose of your board, with your hands as far forward as possible. Try to get well below the turbulent water. Don’t forget to press down on the back of the board with one foot. A lot of surfers raise the other leg as they do this to maximize the force pressing the tail down. When the wave has passed over you—hopefully you are still squarely positioned in your paddling position—resume your strokes as soon as possible. If it’s a good size, the wave will usually push you back. Just start paddling right away. Two steps forward, one step back.

Have any other key recommendations to help ambitious Adrenalists learn how to surf? Let us know in the comments below or @DegreeMen.

Cover Photo Credit: Mike Baird /

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