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Surfing 201


Beyond Basics Surfing Course for Intermediates

Surfing 201 in the follow on course for surfers who have mastered the basics covered in Surfing 101. Surfing 201 takes a deeper look into understanding the forces that we use in surfing and the techniques we will use to catch more waves, and ride more waves. Before reading this section you should have already read Surfing 101 and the section of How waves are made.

Reading the Waves:

Understanding the surfing area is crucial to understanding how the waves work and distribute their power. Most beginners cannot get into position, because they lack the skills or knowledge. or they have failed to read the conditions correctly. This diagram illustrates the typical surf break scenarios. The waves are breaking away from shore on a shallow bottom, either a reef break or a sandbar. Some waves break onto the beach as shore break, and other waves will be produced around the headlands as a point break. Each wave zone has a different character. Generally we would recommend staying out of the shore-pound, and away from the point breaks until you have more skills. Surfing the shore break is risky because of the chance of you getting dumped and or going over the falls. More injuries happen in this type of wave than any other. you can get hurt in waist deep water, if you get dumped on your head or neck. Waves breaking is slightly deeper water away from the shore will be better for mastering the beginner and intermediate surfing skills. The seafloor surface should ideally be sand or smooth bottom. Sharp living reef is not recommended. The water depth should usually be four to five feet deep or deeper. Remember in shallow water you will not be able to dive headfirst. The area where the waves are breaking is called the impact zone.  The first this to observe when reading the waves is how the whitewater is distributed. Look for the channels, and the area of the largest breaking waves. If there are other surfers on the break watch where they are paddling out. When watching the surf it is important to wait until you have see the entire set of waves. Waves usually come in groups called sets. There are a group of smaller waves with some larger ones in between. When you know what the pattern of the set is going to be you can plan you surfing strategy better to take advantage of the wave energy.

The surfer’s ski lift:

Rip currents are the surfer’s ski lift. Understanding how water moves around a breaking wave gives us the option to use the water flow to our advantage. Water flows shoreward by the action of the breaking waves. The flow causes water to build up at the shoreline and flow along the shoreline until it reaches a channel At the channel the water flows back out to sea in a rip current. Rip currents are dangerous to swimmers, but intermediate and advanced surfers can use this flow to assist them get out through the waves to the take off zone. In the diagram you can see the water flowing around a typical sandbar break. As you can see the water flows to the beach in the impact zone. This is the worst place to try to paddle out because the water flow is working against you as you try to paddle out. If you paddle around the impact zone you can get a boost from the water flowing out the channel. This will require fewer paddle strokes to get you out the back. The waves tend to be smaller or unbroken in the channel’s, because the water is deeper there. So you will not have to fight your way through as many waves on the way out. In bigger surf with a stronger rip, you could meet a stalled wave or a standing wave. The standing wave may break across the channel so you should duck dive your board under the whitewater.

About Rips: The power of the rip depends on several factors; the size of the waves fueling the rip, the area of waves feeding into the rip, the shape of the underwater seafloor, & the depth of the channel. A deeper channel will have a slower rip. A shallow channel will have a faster flowing rip. A long shoreline may have a long shore current close to shore that goes sideways until it meets the channel. Surfers can often spot the channel by observing the flow of sand and other debris caught in the out flowing water. The other telltale sign is the channels usually occur at the shoulders of the waves.

Water moves in a circular motion: The flow of water around a break is roughly circular. There may be two circulations of water one on the left break and one on the right side of the break. One of these circulations may be stronger than the other one. The dominant side of the break will depend on the the angle that the wave approaches the shore.  When surfing a break it is good to follow one of these circulations as you paddle out for the next wave. Surf in at the impact sine or the shoulder of the wave, then paddle across to the channel then paddle out the channel. Use the out flowing current to push you out then pull out of the channel when you have reached your desired take off zone. if you stay in the rip too long the flow will take you outside the break then may curve around behind the take off zone. The outer part of the rip is called the head. It is usually where the water gets a little deeper, and the water flow disperses or spreads out. You will tend to get pushed left or right depending on which side of the head you are positioned at.

The wave unfolds: Each wave has a story. A beginning a middle and an end. The wave goes through different stages of its life cycle as it starts to break. First is the unbroken Green wave, that starts to rise. The wave starts to peak as it reaches its maximum height. Then the surface tension starts to break and the wave breaks in a cascade of whitewater. After the wave breaks it may continue to roll along as whitewater, and may even reform and re-break closer to shore. Waves can break slowly and smoothly, or they can break suddenly and erratically. Choosing a wave that is predictable is going to make your surfing experience much better. The best type of wave to learn on is a spilling wave, that has some whitewater spilling down the face. If the face is not too vertical or hollow. Beginner surfers will want to ride the whitewater foam after the wave has broken. Intermediate surfers can start by taking off in the whitewater, then cutting across the wave to the open face of the wave. As you get more advanced and get stronger at paddling you will be able to take off earlier on the unbroken part of the waves.

Choosing your takeoff zone: Where you position yourself to take off on the wave will depend on your skill level, the wave, and your paddling strength. Novice surfers have the least paddling power. So novice surfers will usually position themselves more on the inside of the break closer to shore and catch the broken part of the wave. This called a late takeoff. (in the non -critical part of the wave). The whitewater gives the most push from behind. The novice does not need to paddle very mush to catch the wave. Sometimes just getting in front of the whitewater is enough to catch a wave. Taking off on the inside means that you do not have to deal with the sudden rush of the wave breaking and the steep face of the wave. The wave is slower closer to shore and is has less vertical force. The novice has to take care not to nosedive the board. Nose-diving will occur if the surfer is too far forward, or if they do not paddle for the wave.



This sign usually accompanies high surf or strong shore-break. The symbol is a swimmer going over the falls. This guy is going to land on his head. Don’t be this guy!!

Intermediates surfers will want to start further out, away from shore, where the wave starts to break. if the wave is spilling or crumbling they can get just inside the edge of the whitewater. This will give them a longer ride. And it will give them more chance of getting onto the face of the wave. The trade off is that they will have to paddle harder to catch the wave. The ideal takeoff point is to get get just inside the whitewater, but towards the shoulder. Intermediates can get to their feet earlier, and trim the board towards the shoulder. Moving across the wave means they can get more speed and stay in the steeper pocket of the wave. They should try to get ahead of the whitewater and head for the open face of the wave. Steering and turning in the whitewater is difficult because the board does not grip the turbulent and aerated water so well.

Advanced Surfers will tend to favor the early takeoff. To take off early you will be positioned just outside the whitewater. Starting to paddle early when the wave is more full and less steep. The surfer builds momentum and as the wave pitches up they can pop up to their feet before the wave breaks. Getting onto a wave early will give you more speed and more ability to get positioned to take the drop as the wave breaks. The surfer can then ride in the pocket of the wave in the steepest most critical parts of the wave. This gives them the ability to ride the most powerful part of the wave, if they want to.

Some waves are too big to ride deep. The deeper and closer to the pit or pocket of the wave the more power there will be. the face is steeper and the lip is moving fastest there. Some waves will be too big and too fast to ride at their most critical section. that does not mean that you cannot ride the wave at all. An oversized wave can be ridden out on the shoulder or in the later stages after is has broken and expended some of its energy. The wave can be ridden as it reforms close to shore. Being deeper in the wave is not always better.

Getting in too deep: When you decide where to position yourself to takeoff. you will need to consider the speed of the wave and the direction of the wave. And how fast it is breaking. Some waves break so quickly that you cannot take off directly down the fall-line. As the intermediate surfers take off of faster waves they may get caught inside the whitewater and cannot get out to the face of the wave. This is usually because they took off too deep or too close to the peak.

Angled Take Off: The solution is to take off more toward the shoulder of the wave, and to take of at an angle. Angled take offs will slow down your forward speed slightly, so you need to be a strong paddler. Once you start paddling for the wave do not stop. Start out with a slight angle only pointing slightly towards the open face of the waver. Put a lot of emphasis on the power paddling at the front of the wave. and add a few extra strokes to ensure you have forward speed. After you get speed use your hands to push down on the board’s nose for better trim. Then you will want to stand up quickly, or better yet to pop up directly to your feet.

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