Everyone should know how to get up on a surfboard. It’s fun, useful (if you’re on vacation near any sort of waves), and easy—once you acquire a few skills and learn to navigate the water. For help on how to surf that first wave, we turned to legendary surfer Rob Machado and pro Kai Lenny for their step-by-step plan.
Step 1: Find an instructor.
Depending on your location, take advantage of any instructors or schools that offer beginner lessons. (Aside from Machado and Lenny, we learned some beginner tips from the instructors at Skudin Surf School in New York’s Rockaway Beach.) They’ll provide you with the essential safety information and etiquette you need before you even meet your first board, including watching for other surfers in the water; carrying your board correctly and in the right area back to the shore; and making sure not to fall head-first in the water.
Step 2: Get a surfboard with a leash and fins.
Sure, it might sound obvious, but picking the right board to start is key. Remember, you’re not a pro just yet. Typically, you’ll want to use a longer, soft board to test the water. It’s more stable and won’t hurt as much if and when you wipe out on your first few tries. “The thing that deters people a lot is when the board hits them,” says surfing legend Rob Machado, adding that “longer is better,” maybe 8-9 feet. And depending on your location, you might even be able to rent some gear. (If you’re near New York, Skudin Surf rents out boards to surfing students.) But if you don’t have an instructor at your disposal, stick to softer boards that are longer than your body, and you’ll be riding a short board before you know it.
Step 3: Wear a wetsuit and apply sunscreen.
Beware: One of the hardest parts about surfing is getting a wetsuit onto your body. Even more challenging? Taking it off. If you’re in a colder climate like New York or even in California, Lenny suggests wearing a wetsuit to stay warm. Plus, it’ll keep “you on the water for a lot longer,” and offer some extra protection if you crash. You might also want to invest in or try to find a rash guard.
But the essential gear doesn’t stop there. According to Lenny, you should always remember to apply sunscreen. And even if you’re wearing a wetsuit, once you start surfing more often, the risk of skin cancer becomes even more of a threat. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “one in five Americans will develop skin cancer over the course of a lifetime.” Time to re-apply.
Step 4: Find a wave.
“The first thing is visibly seeing the wave,” Machado says. While predicting the perfect waves can be tricky, Machado explains you can usually expect them to arrive in “intervals,” usually in 10- to 15-second cycles. Aside from timing, it’s really all about your intuition. “You’re going to have this kind of moment where you decide, ‘OK, I’m going to try to catch this wave,’” he says.
Step 5: Get on the wave.
Lying face-down on the board with your feet positioned near the back edge, turn towards the shore and start paddling. Of course, the conditions and your location will determine how you approach the wave. “If you’re surfing in a reef break, the reef is going to be a lot shallower,” Machado says. At high-tide, he adds, the waves “won’t break at all, they’ll just be crashing on the [beach] floor.” Generally, if a tide is high, you’ll have a short ride to the beach. At low-tide, Machado says you have to remember the water is shallower the farther you go out, which is also where the waves will break.
Step 6: Stand up if you can, but be prepared to fall.
It’s best to practice this step on the beach before you ever head out on the water, and most instructors will start you out this way—because, did we mention you’re probably going to fall?
Imagine there’s a line running the length of your surfboard. When you pop up, you’ll act like you’re doing a push-up. Kick your legs up and turn your body, so one of your legs (whichever is most comfortable) is positioned on the middle section of the board on the invisible line, and your back foot is planted near the back of the board. (Most will have an area where you can see where the fins are fastened underneath. Aim for that section.)
When you’re finally on the water, stand up on your board when the back of your board starts to rise and you’re “dropping down the face” of the wave, according to Machado. Sounds easy, right? Hitting your mark on your board will determine whether you fall off immediately or ride the wave to the beach.
Step 7: Do it again—and again.
Do what feels right, and don’t overanalyze every step. As long as you follow basic safety tips and have the proper gear, the majority of first-timers won’t have enough time to really think about which step comes next in the process and just need to practice. The most important part of learning to surf is to take to the water and get a feel for it. “You could sit here and break it down in steps,” Machado explains, “but when it’s happening in real life, it’s almost kind of chaotic, like everything is moving and changing. And that’s what’s so cool about surfing—it’s never really the same.”