The wave knocked me off my feet, took me under and tossed me around. After a few harrowing seconds underwater, I popped back to the surface.

“Go over or under those. Not through!” called my boyfriend over the roar of the surf. He was twenty yards ahead and almost past the whitewater.

“Gee, thanks!” I called back, shaking water from my ears.

It was my first time surfing. The water was freezing, I was borrowing my boyfriend’s shortboard, and the waves were huge. I badly wanted to learn, but the rough conditions and my lack of knowledge were making it difficult.


Is learning to surf on your bucket list? Do you dream of catching waves on your next beachside trip? You can sidestep my first-timer mistakes by following these tips when planning your first surfing experience:

  • Use a longboard. Longboards are more stable and catch waves easily.
  • Go when the waves are small, ideally 2-3 feet.
  • If possible, surf where it’s warm — it’s more enjoyable to be in the water.


Let’s fast forward to your next beachside vacation. With a 9′ longboard in hand, it’s time to practice “popping up.” This key move will get you from your stomach to standing. Be prepared: it takes a lot of core strength.

  1. Lie on the board on your stomach.
  2. Push your chest up. You’ll find yourself in a loose “cobra” yoga position, minus the extremely arched back.
  3. In one motion, jump to standing. Your feet should end up straddled, with about 2-3 feet of distance between them. Most people position their left foot forward of their right. Your hips should then face right, and your gaze should be forward. (If you are more comfortable with your right food forward, your hips will face left.)

Practicing the “pop up” on the beach will make it easier to do once you’re in the water.


Attach the surfboard leash to your ankle. It’s time to get wet.

SAFETY TIP: The leash, usually a couple yards long, will trip you if you don’t carry the excess. Avoid falling before you even get in the water (and save some face) by carrying the leash as you walk across the beach.

Once you’ve waded out to waist-deep water, you can start catching whitewater waves. These waves have already broken, and you can catch them on your stomach. Practice paddling. Feel the way the wave catches your board and moves you forward.

Once you’ve caught a few waves on your stomach, try standing up. Remember the “pop up” you learned earlier on the beach? It’s time to show it off. When a wave catches your board, push your chest up and jump to standing.

This is probably as far as you’ll go during your first surf session. You’ll most likely need at least one more — or even a few dozen more — sessions practicing in the whitewater. Don’t fret. Surfing is one of the hardest sports to learn. It takes sincere determination and commitment. No one can expect to become the next Kelly Slater after the first time out (or even after the first 100 times). Surfing isn’t about performance, it’s about enjoying yourself and the beautiful world around you.


Once you feel comfortable catching whitewater waves, you’re ready to go after breaking waves.

To catch a breaking wave, you’ll need to paddle out through the whitewater. If you’re at a popular surfing beach, aim for the area where all the other surfers are bobbing in the water. Before doing so, make sure you understand proper surfing etiquette.

As you paddle out through the whitewater, wave after wave will obstruct your path. Paddling out is often a two steps forward, one step back mission. Until you make it past the whitewater, you and the waves will be moving against each other — and the waves will always win, unless you successfully maneuver around them.

Use these maneuvers to minimize the wave’s impact on your outbound progress:

Turtle Roll

If the wave hasn’t broken when you meet it, you can paddle over the top of it. Once it has broken, it’s time to turtle roll.

Make sure the nose of your board is pointing directly into the wave. Grab the rails (not the nose or the tail) near the middle of the board and roll sideways. The board will end up on top of you, fins facing up. Your body will act as an anchor. As the whitewater rolls over you, it will try to snatch your board away, so hang on to it tightly. As soon as the wave passes, roll back over. Now, paddle on!

Ditch n’ Dive

Waves will catch you off guard. One might break earlier than you thought, move quicker than you expected or suddenly appear out of nowhere. When a wave is upon you, it’s too late for a turtle roll. It’s time to ditch n’ dive.

This one is easy: ditch your board; then, dive underneath the wave. You’ve saved yourself from the wave’s force, but you’ve left your surfboard to fend for itself. The wave will toss your board around; be prepared, the strained leash will pull on your ankle. After the wave rolls by, grab the leash and reel your board back in. Now, paddle on!

WARNING: When in proximity of other surfers, do not ditch n’ dive. It puts others at risk when you give up control of your board.

Rag Doll

Sooner or later, you’ll end up in the “washing machine” — spinning around underwater at the mercy of a wave. Whether you wiped-out or failed miserably at a turtle roll, it doesn’t matter. Tumbling crazily about, there’s not much you can do to improve your situation. What you can control is your reaction.

Being underwater can be scary. Feelings of panic are natural when you can’t breathe. But, struggling to get to the surface before the wave has passed will only exhaust you, it won’t get oxygen into your lungs any faster. Fight the temptation to fight the wave by mastering the art of rag doll: let your body go limp and surrender yourself to the wave. After the wave has passed (thanks to the buoyancy of saltwater) you should find yourself at the surface. Get back on your board and shake the water out of your ears. Now, paddle on!

SAFETY TIP: When you’re underwater, you and your board might collide while the wave is tossing you both around. Cover your face with your arms to prevent injury.


Now that you’ve made it past the whitewater, it’s time to catch some breaking waves! Learning to pick the right wave is an intuition only experience can teach you. If it’s your first time paddling out through the whitewater, odds are you’ll be quite tired. Take a breather. A wave will come to you.

Pop Up

When a wave comes along, paddle hard! You’ll need about five good arm strokes to get yourself moving forward and allow the wave to do its work. When you feel the wave catch your board, jump to your feet. Keep you knees bent. Are you still standing? If you are, it’s time to…


You’ve caught a wave! As you fly across the water, slap on your biggest grin and embrace the joy. You’re surfing! ☼

[This is a MatadorU assignment.]