Know the geography, go with a friend, know how to swim, be aware of currents.
Location, type of break, tides, currents – beach break, point break, reef break
Step One – while still on the beach, put the board on the sand, lie face down and practice the motion of paddling. Once you’re comfortable in this position, try getting up to your feet. First try the classic pop-up, which is basically just as the name implies. You simply “pop-up” into the classic surfer’s stance with either your left or right foot forward, whichever feels more natural. If the pop-up seems too difficult, try the slow rise. With your hands still flat on the board, raise your hips high, then bring the back foot forward first and get it set before swinging the front foot around as you raise your torso. Slow and easy is the key.
Step Two – Wait for a lull before entering the surf. Walk out until the water is about chest high, then hop onto the board and get yourself into the paddling position that you practiced on the beach.
Step Three – When paddling out, try to keep your body relaxed while fully engaging your core. Make sure to keep your feet out of the water. Either rest them on the back of the board or keep them up in the air. Make sure that your body is centered on the board and well balanced. Keep your chin high and off the board, but try to keep your neck as relaxed as possible. The paddling motion should be slow, fluid, and consistent. Alternate arms, reaching forward with one as the other exits the water. Slightly cup your hand as you push through the water.
Step Four – Turn the board around and ride some whitewater before you go much further. Don’t even try to stand up unless you really feel like it. Just ride that surfboard like it’s a ten-dollar boogie board. You’ll probably feel goofy, but you’ll get a taste of what surfing feels like as the tail end of the wave’s energy picks you up and carries you back to the beach.
Step Five – After a few runs through the whitewater, get yourself back into the paddling position and prepare for the hardest part of your day – paddling through the oncoming waves in order to get to the outside of the break and into a position where you can actually catch a few, or at least try. Paddling through the waves requires one of three techniques. The push-up is the easiest and most common, but really only works on smaller waves (which, as a beginner, is what you’ll be surfing anyway). When the wave approaches, grab onto the sides of the board and do a push-up from the waist up. Imagine that your hips are tied to the board, but push your shoulders as high as possible. This helps to provide stability and downward pressure on the board, both of which make it all the more likely that you’ll ride over the top of the passing wave without falling off. The second technique is called a duck dive, which works well for larger waves and essentially involves diving under the approaching wave along with your surfboard. This technique is a bit more advanced and only works with short boards as they have less buoyancy to fight against, therefore you should probably avoid it for the time being. With longer boards, the third technique is often the best – the turtle roll. As the wave approaches, grab the sides of your board and roll over so that you’re now under water and the fin on the bottom of your board is pointing toward the sky. This way you offer less surface area for the wave to push against. Once the wave has passed, roll back onto your board and start paddling again.
Step Six – Once you’ve actually managed to paddle out, it’s time to start thinking about position, timing and trim. These are the three basic terms that apply to the art of catching and riding waves. Position refers to where you are physically positioned in relation to the wave. You want to be just in front of where the waves are starting break and lined up perpendicular to them. Timing refers to when you paddle into the approaching wave in order to catch it. In general, you should start paddling when the wave is about two board lengths away. If you paddle too slowly, or start paddling too late, the wave will pass right under you. Start paddling too early and you risk getting too far ahead of the wave and ending up in the whitewater left after it breaks. Don’t worry if the first few waves get away from you. These skills take practice. Soon enough everything will fall into place – your position will be perfect as will your timing, and when this happens, you’ll feel the surfboard suddenly accelerate underneath you. This is the moment where you stand up and start cruising. Now all you have to worry about (other than staying up) is trimming. Lean left, turn left, lean right, and you’ll turn right. Although that’s a gross oversimplification, it’s pretty much how trim can be explained and also explains how you can ride that wave for a longer period of time by turning to follow the curl.
Step Seven – Now that you’ve caught a few waves and surfed yourself to exhaustion, it’s time to get out of the water and go brag to your buddies. The most important thing here is to never let the surfboard get between you and the wave. Just like entering the surf, you need to wait for a lull before trying to exit. Make sure and pay close attention to undercurrents as well as rocks and other structures.
Boards – if you’ve never surfed, you’ll want to start with a soft top. These boards have a layer of foam on top and offer several advantages. They’re very stable, which makes it much easier to stand up and stay standing. Plus, the soft foam is far less likely to draw blood if the board happens to come between a breaking wave and your face. If that’s not incentive enough, you also don’t need to wax them as the foam provides plenty of traction. For beginners a longer board is better, although it will depend a little on your weight and height. Something in the 8 to 10 foot range should work for most adults, slightly smaller for kids.
Leash – unless you want to spend most of your day swimming after your surfboard, you’ll want a leash. As a beginner, it’s important to use a pretty long one, at least the length of the board you’re using and preferably a foot longer. Also, make sure that the one you’re using has a quick release tab on the ankle cuff. That way you can easily unleash yourself in an emergency situation.
Wax – if you’re not using a soft top surfboard, then you’ll need to use surf wax in order to provide traction. If the board has never been waxed, you’ll want to put down a base coat followed by whatever wax suits the water temperature where you’ll be surfing. If unsure, simply ask the local surf shop. Spread the first layer from rail to rail, followed by a second from nose to tail. You can also use a wax comb to roughen the surface or freshen up old wax before hitting the water.
Wetsuits – the more comfortable you are in the water, the happier you’ll be and the longer your surfing session will last. If you’re lucky enough to be surfing in the tropics, a simple rash guard should suffice. If you’re in California or anyplace with cooler water temperatures prevail, what you wear will vary depending on the time of year, but, generally speaking, a full length 3/2 should keep you pretty comfy. This will cover everything except your head, hands, and feet and will be 3mm in the chest and 2mm in the arms and legs.
Local knowledge – nobody wants to pack up and drive twenty miles to the beach only to find a flat ocean with zero catchable waves. There are several resources online that provide up to date surf reports. Familiarizing yourself with these resources will maximize your chances of catching some waves. Local surf shop are also a great resource.