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How to Surf Broken Waves

How to Surf Broken Waves

  1. Work out where to surf.
  2. Learn about weather patterns and surfing conditions.
  3. Before setting out, learn these 10 basic surf safety rules.
  4. Attach your leash to your back foot just before entering the water.Walk out into the waves with the board by your side, not in front of you.
  5. When there is a gap in the waves, turn your board to point directly up the beach, and jump onto the board from the side, onto your belly.
  6. When you see a wave approaching, begin to paddle towards the beach.
  7. When the wave lifts the back of your board, do 3 extra strokes.
  8. If this is your first wave, it is a good idea to catch it in the ‘prone’ position in order to get a feel for how to control your board.
  9. Now that you can catch a wave in towards the beach, it’s time to try and stand.
  10. Learn how to fall safely.
  11. Surf the wave in towards the beach.
  12. Experiment with turning.
  13. Practice.


Learner board. If starting from scratch, it is all too tempting to grab a friends old shortboard and jump in at the deep end…. Don’t! All you’ll be doing is hindering your progress in the long run. Start properly; by learning to read the waves and getting to your feet in an environment you will be less accustomed to. Foam surf boards are perfect for shortcutting the learning journey. They are extremely buoyant, forgiving, and catch waves really easily. They really are worth the investment. For a 6ft male, you’re going to want at least a 7 ft board (if thick), but preferably an 8 ft board. If you’re 6ft and rather weighty, you’ll want to go bigger still (9ft or 10ft). Beginner packages are also worth looking at.
Foam surf board

Wetsuit. First thing to think of when buying a wetsuit is what thickness you will need. In general, for any water temperature below 20 degrees C, it is advisable to use a full length 3/2 (3 millimetres thickness on chest and back, and 2 millimetres on arms and legs), for water less than 15 degrees C use a good 4/3 or a 5/3 (as well as gloves, boots and hood), and for water colder than 10 degrees C you’re gonna need something in the 6 mil range (as well as gloves, boots and a hood). Second thing you need to think about is how much you wish to the spend- the more you spend, the warmer and more flexible your suit will be. It is generally much cheaper to order a wetsuit online than in the shops, however should be unsure of your size, there’s no harm in trying on different models in a shop and then ordering them for cheaper online (I wouldn’t feel bad about it as the surf retail mark-up percentages are ridiculous!)! Billabong Foils are a very cost effective model and come in a variety of thicknesses as well as running hood, gloves and boots lines.
Billabong Foil wetsuit

Whereas if you want top of the range, Rip Curls Flash bombs are super stretchy, extremely warm, and dry very quickly allowing you to comfortably get into your wetsuit however many surfs you can squeeze into your day!
Ripcurl Flashbomb

Leash. You will need a leash to keep your board attached to you at all times. There are various types available, but for a Mini Mal you should buy a 6 or 7 foot leash.
Surfing leash

Soft Board Rack. Should you only have a small car, you’re going to need some way of transporting your board to the beach. To do this I’d recommend buying a soft rack as they’re versatile and pack up very small.
Soft board rack

How to Surf Broken Waves

It is all too tempting to grab your board and dive in at the deep end with the rest of your peers outback, however investing time in swallowing your pride in the initial stages of learning to surf by staying in the shallows, catching the white water (already broken waves), and working on your fundamentals, can really pay dividends when working up the learning curve in the later stages.

Learning to surf is not like learning to snowboard! When you fall snowboarding you get straight back up again, however when you fall off of your surf board, you have to wait around for the next wave before you get another opportunity. Should you be out back with the rest of the surfers who are much more experienced, therefor position themselves better in order to steal all the waves (only one person per wave), you may be waiting around for hours trying to catch just one wave! Be realistic and stay in the white water until you are ready to progress.

Photo Credit: Designlazy.com


1- Work out where to surf. Once you’ve bought yourself a board and a suit, it’s time to think about getting in the water and giving it a go. Before you do so however, you need to know where! For some insider knowledge on surf spots near you, check online at www.magicseaweed.com, or ask at your local surf shops.
2- Learn about weather patterns and surfing conditions. For you to be able to surf, there need to be waves! To check whether there is surf in your local vicinity, use a forecasting website such as www.magicseaweed.com. Click through to your area and view the forecast. Firstly, you need to check whether there are any waves. Wave height, period and direction will indicate this. The larger the wave height, the bigger the waves. The period is the time in seconds between waves on the open ocean, the larger the period, the further away the waves were generated and the stronger and better organised the waves will be. The wave height and period will combine to give you a certain height and power of wave depending on the local topography, however in general, anything over 3 foot and 10 seconds should give you waves with enough strength to carry a beginner in the white water. The swell direction should be heading from the open ocean to where you’ll be surfing without interruption by land, for there to be a decent sized wave.
Key to surfing clean waves, is the wind direction. When the wind is blowing from the sea to the land (onshore), it disrupts the lines of the swell and result in ‘messy’ waves. When the wind is light and blowing from the land to the sea (offshore), there is little to no disruption of the waves leaving a clean surface to the water and allowing the waves to break with order. When learning in the white water, the wind direction isn’t too important as any wave above a certain power will carry you, however when you progress to surf unbroken waves, conditions will be best when the wind is blowing light offshore.
Also you will need to take into account the size and times of the tides, particularly should you live in an area of large tidal range- Can you only surf your local spot at certain stages of the tide? Is your local wave ‘friendlier’ to beginners at certain stages of the tide?
3- Before setting out, learn these 10 basic surf safety rules (O.K so when I used to run a surf school I would teach these to kids, but they are still very much relevant!)
  • Never swim or surf alone- if you do, at least let someone know where you’ll be going and when you expect to return.
  • Wear sun screen and keep well hydrated- not only will you be getting burnt from above, but UV rays will also be reflected off of the surface of the water. Drink plenty of water as an energetic day on the beach, under a strong sun, often leads to dehydration and sometimes even sunstroke.
  • Know your local breaks and beaches- what are the hazards?
  • Be aware of flooding and ebbing tides- what happens at your break at different stages of the tide?
  • Always use safe equipment- if something is falling apart or if the fibre glass on your board has cracked, not only are you damaging your board by continuing to surf, but you are greatly increasing the chances of damaging yourself!
  • Always swim or surf between the corresponding lifeguard flags- if your break is patrolled by lifeguards, then be sure to use their services in the appropriately determined area.
  • Always listen to advice from lifeguards- Yes it may feel a little odd being ‘told off’ for the first time since you left school 10 years ago, but lifeguards have a tough job and sometimes get justifiably cranky! Ultimately, they are looking out for your safety so it’s best to just appease them.
  • Learn to recognise rip currents- Rip currents are the outward movement of water, caused by the energy of breaking waves having nowhere to go once they hit the shore, that pull back out to sea. They tend to only take you to the back of the breaking waves, but they are the main cause for rescue on most beaches around the world. If you get caught in one, stay calm, but most importantly, stay attached and on your surfboard. Paddle sideways towards the breaking waves, these will then hopefully take you back to the shore. If you’re having difficulty and need help, the internationally recognised sign to request assistance is to put one clenched fist up into the air and to hold it there.
  • Respect other surf users- learn surfing etiquette.
  • If in doubt, stay out- Yes I know it’s a bit goofy that I’ve made it rhyme, but if you turn up and the waves are cranking yet nobody is in the water and there’s a red lifeguard flag flying, there’s probably a good reason for it! Similarly, if you’re unsure as to your ability in larger or dumpier surf, it’s best to leave those days until you have the experience to tackle them confidently.
4- Attach your leash to your back foot just before entering the water (don’t walk down the beach with your leash on as chances are that you’ll trip!). If you are unsure which is your back foot, let yourself fall forward and see which foot instinctively puts itself in front of you in order to stop you falling, the foot that remains behind you will be your back foot.
5- Walk out into the waves with the board by your side, not in front of you. If you carry the board in front of you into the waves, it will be pushed back into your face. Walk through the water until you are roughly belly button deep.
6- When there is a gap in the waves, turn your board to point directly up the beach, and jump onto the board from the side, onto your belly. Imagine there being a line running from the middle of the tip to the middle of the tail, this line should dissect perfectly down the centre of your body. The board should be lying flat on the water i.e. neither the nose of tail should be either sticking upwards, or into the water. Adjust your position backwards or forwards to correctly balance. A general rule of thumb is that your toes should be just hanging off of the back of a Mini Mal (should it be correctly sized for you).
7- When you see a wave approaching, begin to paddle towards the beach. To paddle, rest on your sternum, look upwards, keep your body relatively still, reach your hands forward as far as it will stretch without having to alter your body’s position, and with a closed but flat hand, draw the water towards the tail running your hands down the side of your board as far as you can reach. You should alternate your strokes similar to front crawl, rather than in unison like butterfly stroke.
8- When the wave lifts the back of your board, do 3 extra strokes. This is very important to ensure that you actually catch the wave! Too easy is it to get excited and forget these 3 extra strokes. To be sure that you don’t forget them, count them in your head or even out loud if needs be!
9- If this is your first wave, it is a good idea to catch it in the ‘prone’ position in order to get a feel for how to control your board. To do this, after your 3 strokes, place your hands down on the board in line with your chest, with your fingers lightly gripping the rails (the sides) of the board. Look forward and then push your body weigh upwards using your arms. Hold this position and steer the board towards the beach. If the nose of the board digs into the water at this point and you topple over (nose dive), next time, adjust your weight further back on the board and remember this new position. Conversely, should you be paddling furiously but not catching any waves, next time be a bit further forward on your board.
10- Now that you can catch a wave in towards the beach, it’s time to try and stand. Once you have completed your 3 extra strokes, place your hands on the rail in line with your chest and push up. As you push up, drive your front hip forward twisting as you do so in order to have the outside of your front foot facing forward, keeping your hands on the board. You should aim at landing your front foot in between your hands, angled at 45 degrees towards the nose, with your back foot resting on its’ instep, still near the tail of your board. Again, imagine a straight line down the middle of your board dissecting your feet in half. Look forward, and rise to a crouched position bent at the knees and the hips, but with a straight, upright back. Practice this movement out of the water first.
11- Learn how to fall safely. You will fall the first few times you try this, which, in itself, is a necessary skill to learn in order to avoid injury. Firstly, remember that you will be learning in shallow water, so no diving. Attempt to fall flat on your front or on your back so not to penetrate the water too deeply. When surfacing, often your board will be floating above your head or you may have accidently pulled on the leash causing the board to jolt backwards towards you. It is important to cover your face and head with your arms so to avoid the hard bits of the board (particularly the fins), from causing you damage.
12- Surf the wave in towards the beach. On consecutive attempts, begin to experiment adjusting your weight back and forth, or your foot positioning back and forth, to see how the board reacts. It may take a couple of hours to get to your feet, but keep at it and success will most definitely be worth the effort put in.
13- Experiment with turning. Turning in the white, turbulent water, will be much more subtle than on an unbroken wave, but it is best to start practicing these techniques where your wave count will be significantly higher than when surfing out the back on unbroken waves. Although it is possible to turn using the rails when moving quickly on an unbroken wave, core to turning is through rotating your body and changing your fin direction, and not through leaning on your rails. To turn, you have to have your knees and waist bent i.e. you have to be low to the board otherwise the torque created from twisting your body will not result in you turning. You also need to have your weight adjusted to the tail of your board in order to shift the fins to face the new direction. Drop your weight down and towards your back foot, twist from the top down, resulting in your shoulders facing the new direction that you want to go, and the board will begin to turn. On the white water do not turn more than 45% away from the direction of the wave as otherwise the wave will pass you by. Once facing this new direction, re-align your posture to a neutral position, and balance out your weight to avoid stalling. From this point, turn back in the opposite direction and attempt to snake your way towards the beach.
14- Practice. Although you may think that you have mastered standing up, chances are that your ‘pop up’ will need speeding up and refining before you are ready for the unbroken wave. You should aim at popping up in one quick burst (watch other surfers and compare their speed and technique to yours), with your feet consistently landing in a balanced position. You need to make this process become second nature to you as there will be hundreds of other variable to consider in the next phase of your learning.
  • Practice, practice, practice!
  • Although you may feel a little self-conscious staying in the white water, investment in learning all of the necessary skills and movements at this stage will greatly speed up your learning of later manoeuvres.
  • Find a surfing buddy. This stage of learning is much more fun if you have someone to laugh at and help point out your errors.

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