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Learning to surf

Surf school

Australian surf instructor Kristen Veltmeyer has kindly put together some information aimed at helping you get into surfing. Just the basics to help you on your way. To learn more we suggest you try a surf school or camp. We hope you find these articles useful…

Choosing a surfboard…

So, you want to learn to surf? Well, first things first - you're going to need a board. There are three main types of boards you can purchase.

The soft board

This is made of foam and can be seen in action at most surf schools. It costs around $500 for a new one, or you can pick up some second hand ones from surf shops, schools or even Ebay for as little as $200-250. The advantages of the soft board are that it's buoyant, wide and easy to catch waves on. As it's soft, it's much harder to hurt yourself falling off. There are rubber fins, which mean less fin slashes. Also, a soft board basically signals to everyone that you are a beginner, and you'll find they are therefore more accommodating of your initial floundering. The main disadvantage of the soft board is that once you are past the beginner phase, you will need to purchase a fibreglass board to keep progressing.

The fibreglass board

A fibreglass board is composed of three elements. Firstly, in the centre there is a foam blank. This is the core of your board. Around this is some matting, and then this is covered by a layer of fibreglass. The main advantage is that you can surf this board as long as you like, and the majority of other surfers ride the same sort. You can often get advice from those with similar boards on how to best utilize its' abilities. If it gets dinged, the board will normally be okay for another surf or two, provided you put waterproof tape over the hole. The disadvantage: It's easy to hurt yourself. Normally a bad injury won't happen unless you can't handle your equipment or are surfing in conditions far beyond your ability, however prepare yourself for small bruises, cuts and battle scars.

The epoxy board

Jury's still out on this one. Similar to a fibreglass board but covered in Epoxy resin. These boards are hard wearing, which means they get less dings than a fibreglass board. However, when you do ding it, you must get it fixed IMMEDIATELY, and it does cost a lot more. Still, they're more buoyant than fibreglass, making for fun smaller days. In summary - it's not good or bad, just different. A board like this may be a good addition to your collection.

Long or short?

It depends on your body size, age and fitness. For the sheer beginner, I almost always recommend a mini Malibu (between 7 and 9 foot).

When standing next to a potential board, always stand in front of it with your arm straight up in the air. You want it to be at least as high as your wrist, so that it's not too short to put your toes over the tail without sinking the nose. When looking at the width of a board, it needs to be at least 19 inches and not too thin if you are an adult. This means it will float you, allowing you to paddle onto waves without sinking.

There's nothing more frustrating than seeing a beginner on a tiny short board. Forget looks or cool sprays, for your first board, you want something that is going to get you on those waves. When you get better, you can choose whether your next board will be longer or shorter, depending on your surfing style and the waves on offer.

The longboard

A longboard is traditionally any board over 9 foot. The floatation is a huge advantage when paddling out or getting onto waves. An advantage long boarders have is that they can get on the wave earlier. This enables them to sit further out than the short boarders, and therefore have first pick on the incoming waves. The disadvantages: the size. If you are 5"6 and ever have to carry a 9"3 down the beach, you'll know exactly what I mean! Travelling with it is much harder. You can't duck dive them; instead you have to do an 'eskimo roll'. More board means more risks; it's important you learn to control it straight away as letting it go is a huge hazard to other surfers. It's very hard to take a steep drop on a long board, hence why you should get on the wave earlier.

My first board was just a fraction shorter, at 8"3. I found it a good size for me when I was learning as I had very little arm strength or paddling power for the first few months. Long boarding is also a different attitude - you'll find most are very friendly and less aggressive than their younger shortboard counterparts. Also, there are a lot of other beginners using the same board, which means you can swap tips.

The shortboard

Unless my client is a young child or extremely fit, I generally tell them to steer clear of shortboards for at least six months. A shortboard requires a much higher level of fitness due to the amount of paddling. It's important to have an excellent paddling technique as otherwise you will use up too much energy without results. It generally takes about 3 or 4 months to get your paddling to a good level, which can be too frustrating for beginners wanting to catch waves. The advantages are that you can duck dive through waves, which is an amazing feeling. Again, this requires proper technique. There are far more 'tricks' that you can do on a shortboard. To understand the difference, imagine a skateboard ramp. A person on a regular skateboard has far more options than that of someone on a retro Malibu shape. They are also extremely responsive compared to longboards. For example, a move that would get you a small turn on a Malibu will get you a big turn on a shortboard.

I started riding my friends' shortboard about a year ago. I feel at my most comfortable on either a 6"4 or 6"6, which is 19 and a half inches wide most of the way through, and over 2 and half inches thick. It's big enough to float me, yet small enough to throw my weight into some carves. Duck diving feels incredible, and is far easier than the constant 'eskimo' rolls to get through sets on a longboard. You can take much steeper drops on a shortboard without worry about falling on a huge slab of fibreglass. This means you can surf bigger breaks and paddle out more easily.

The final word

Whichever board you choose, always be open to the possibility of surfing others. I surf both longboards and shortboards and enjoy both. At the moment I have a cross over board, or 'fish'. It's a good all rounder for me with the conditions on the Sunshine Coast, which can range from tiny to 6-7 foot. In trying new boards, you'll often find you learn more about your surfing, and get an appreciation for other surfers and their equipment.

Bookmark and Share Kristen Veltmeyer

Your first surf…

This article is based on what I teach my students during their first lesson or two. I realize it's a bit harder to understand without a live demonstration, but if you wish to practice jump ups and so on, get a friend to read you the tips while you do it.

A question: What do you think is the most dangerous thing about surfing?

When I ask people this they often reply, "Sharks!", "Rocks!" or even "Sand!" .…But it's actually other surfers. And to them, you're also another surfer.

So the most important thing you can do in the water is control your own board. The board is attached to you by a leg rope. When you put it on you should have it around your back foot (more on that later) with the leash out to the side and the fat end of the leash at the back.

NEVER put the board between the wave and yourself. The board will fly back and hit you, and it's not pretty. When you are going out into the ocean, hold it out at your side, hands on the rails, with the nose facing towards the ocean.

NEVER LET GO OF YOUR BOARD. If a wave comes you can lift it over, push it through, or if it's really big, grab the front and dive under (with the board still at your side, facing forwards so it doesn't hit you. People will always appreciate it if you don't just let the board go.

When you're paddling out, always paddle into a wave straight. If you let a wave hit you sideways, you're going to roll and the board might hit you. Same goes for catching a wave, always paddle straight for shore (until you've advanced enough to learn the proper turning technique. This is an intermediate skill and takes a while).

KEEP YOUR SPACE! Between yourself and your other surfers. See how long that leg rope is? If you lose your board it can hit anyone within that radius around you. It's all very nice to sit and chat to your friends, but things won't be so friendly if you've broken their nose. Keep at least a double arm span between you and the other surfers. I can't emphasise this one enough!

The 'STEPS' technique

When I teach people to surf, I use something I made up called the 'STEPS' technique. So I get them to lie down on their boards and go through the letters with me.

S - The first S is for straight. If you look at fibreglass boards, there is a line straight down the middle of them (called the stringer). Even if you don't have one, imagine there is a line right down the middle of your board. Now line your body up with it. You want your weight to be evenly balanced. You will also paddle onto a wave with your board facing straight into shore.

T- Toes on the tail. This is an approximation of where you should be on your board. Too far forward and you will nosedive, too far back and the wave will pass under you. This is a measurement we use on the mini-mal's, obviously if your board is longer or shorter you may have to shuffle a little further forward or back. But you'll know when you get the sweet spot.

E - Environment. Make sure you're catching a wave that is suitable for you. Maybe it's some whitewash or a gentle green one. Just as long as it isn't the dumpers. Make sure you start paddling early enough to catch it, and that there isn't anyone else on the wave already (you can pull off by sitting up on your board).

P - Paddling. It doesn't matter how many Barbie paddles you do, unless you're moving some water, you're not going to get the wave. You need to lift your chest up to get your arms in deeper. Pull your arm down like a swimming stroke, and if you paddle just under the rails you will get a nice flow. You want a deep enough paddle that the water is over your elbow. A few of these slow, deep paddles, is far better than frantic ones.

S - Standing. The hard part! To practice this, get a friend to read you the tips as you do it. Lie down on your board and go through the previous STEPS so you're in the right position. Visualise it.

Pull your hands up right by your chest in a push up position. Your arms should look like chicken wings. Now push through and jump up. To land in the correct position your front foot should be in the centre of the board, your back foot one step behind. Your body should be completely side (as are your feet) on with your head facing forwards.

It takes practice to get it right, but the easiest way is not to think about it too hard. Dumb it down. Try not to get your legs tangled together and instead focus on going from facing forwards to having your body sideways in one fluid motion.

Bookmark and Share Kristen Veltmeyer

Choosing the right break for you…

There are three kinds of surf breaks: beach breaks, point breaks, and reef breaks. This article will help you tell the difference and also to distinguish rips and sweeps. With this knowledge, you will be better equipped to pick the waves and breaks that are right for your ability.

Rips and Sweeps

For the beginner, these concepts are both hard to comprehend and scary. Once you understand how they work and learn to read the surf, however, they can help you identify the best spots to paddle out and surf.

When a wave is created, the water rushes into shore. Once here, a 'rip' is formed. This is a channel of water heading back out to sea. These can range from a weak pull to a strong current.

The most important thing to remember is that it will only go as far as the breaking waves. If you are caught in one, you shouldn't panic. You are not, in fact, going to be washed away to China. Instead, rather than trying to swim against it, turn in the direction the rip is going and paddle up and across it to the breaking waves. Once here, you can get a wave in.

'Sweeps' are similar to rips, except the body of water moves across the beach. These can also range from strong to weak. When you paddle out, you should pick out a landmark on the shore to use as your 'marker'. That way if there is a sweep and you drift down the beach a little, you can tell how far you've gone and also where to paddle back from.

Understanding the waves

Waves are formed from two things. Firstly, wind, which pushes the waves. Ever wondered what other surfers are on about when they say 'on shore' or 'off shore'? It's actually quite simple. When the waves are being pushed into shore from behind by a strong 'on shore' wind, they soon crumble and become messy, or as we surfers call it, 'blown out'. By comparison, an 'off shore' wind comes from the shore towards the ocean, smoothing the waves over and making them clean, glassy and a pleasure to ride.

The second element in forming waves is the different formations at the bottom of the ocean. These can include rocks, sand banks and reefs, both natural and man-made. When the wind passes over these, the different surfaces cause a surge and hence, waves are created.

Point Break

This isn't the Keanu Reeves movie, but a favourite break of many beginners. A point break is formed when the wind pushes waves over rocks under the surface of the ocean. An important feature is that because rocks are permanent, the waves will always break in the same place. Whilst care must be taken when surfing around rocks, if the tide isn't too low there should be enough water over them to ensure you don't hurt yourself.

On the side of the point break there is normally a 'shoulder', and a light rip, which is water traveling back out to sea. You will be able to spot it as there are no waves breaking there. This is the spot where you will paddle out (remember, rips only go out as far as the breaking waves). From here you can paddle across into the take off zone.

The waves will hit the rocks and then roll away from them. For example if the rocks were to the left the waves would break from left to right, or vice versa. Occasionally you will get a set of rocks where it breaks in both directions, in which case you sit to either side of them and wait for the waves.

The biggest advantage of point breaks are that they create a nice, fatter 'spilling' wave. It gives the surfer more time to get to their feet, and a smooth face to practice their turns. In small conditions it's the ideal wave for long boarders, and also excellent for beginners. In large conditions its good for experienced surfers when the beach breaks are messy and 'blown out'.

Beach Break

Most stretches of beach are composed of sand banks. The wind goes over these and creates waves. In between sand banks you will see 'rips', where the waves are not breaking and the water may be a little discoloured. This is simply where the water runs back out to sea after coming in as a wave. Again, a rip only goes out as far as the breaking waves, so you can use this to paddle out the back.

The thing that makes beach breaks harder is that the sand banks are not a permanent fixture of the beach. You may get used to surfing a particular bank, come back in a few weeks and find it isn't there anymore. You can't stay in the same place the whole time like you can with a point break, which means more paddling than most novices are used to. Finally, the waves are steeper, and less fat.

A beginner can still have a lot of fun on the whitewash (waves that have already broken) but to take the drop on a green wave they must get to their feet quickly or otherwise have the ability to turn and 'cut across' a wave. A beginner must be patient in learning to 'read' the waves and may not be successful straight away. It's important to have a good attitude.

Beach breaks are popular for short boarders as it is a faster, more explosive wave and requires less effort to catch. In small conditions it is good for long boarders when the points are small. In large conditions it is ideal for experienced short boarders and those on small mini-mals.

Reef Break

For experienced surfers only. The waves break over a razor sharp reef bottom, leaving little room for error. However, for the big wave surfers, reefs can provide the ultimate thrill of huge barrels. Just think of Teahupoo and Pipeline. However, the dangers are very real. Reef is rarely smooth like rocks are, and these breaks are often far away from land (unlike beach and point breaks). Add in the possibility of sharks, severe injury and fear, and it's a potent mix many surfers steer clear of.

Bookmark and Share Kristen Veltmeyer

Competition surfing…

Ahhh, yes, the much loved surf comp. Whether the prize is $50,000 at Pipe or a trophy at your local club presentation, we all love to get good results. Here's how to do your best in competitive situations.

The standard competition set up consists of a judging tent, officials/judges, a heat/scoreboard where the official will put up times, competitors and scores, surfers, supporters, a contest area, and three coloured flags.

There are three flags used during a competition and each flag change will be signalled to the surfers by a horn, whistle or hooter.

Green flag - This is to signal the start of your heat. You may now proceed to catch waves and be scored on them.

Yellow flag - This signals you have five minutes left in your heat. The competitors from the next heat will paddle out and sit to the side until the red flag.

Red flag - The heat is over. It's time to come into shore on your tummy. Any waves after this will not be scored.

Heat rules…

  • A ride will be scored when the surfer gets to their feet and takes their hands off the rail.
  • To gain maximum points, a surfer must execute manoeuvres cleanly and with power in the pocket (closest to the breaking part) of the wave.
  • The waves will be scored from 1-10, taking into account the conditions and differentiating between each wave to determine a clear ranking of competitors.
  • Surfers may be penalized for dropping in or interfering with another surfers wave.
  • Each surfer may catch up to a certain amount of waves and will be scored for their best two rides.
  • The surfer with the highest combined score from these two waves is the winner.

Things to remember at a competition…

  • Act appropriately. Be fair, courteous and show some self-control. This means no abuse, distracting or bullying. Let your surfing do the talking.
  • Respect the officials' decision. Even if they couldn't judge their way out of a paper bag (this does happen on the odd occasion!), there's nothing worse than gaining a reputation as a bad tempered competitor. If you require more explanation, ask politely and listen. You can often gain valuable insight into your surfing from their tips and comments.
  • Keep your equipment in good condition.
  • Make sure there are no sharp edges, dings are either repaired or taped over in a worst-case scenario. Make sure your board has enough wax and your leg rope is applied correctly.
  • Don't be afraid to pull out.
  • There's no shame in stepping down if it's ridiculously big; it certainly beats putting yourself into a dangerous situation.
  • If you have friends or family coming, make sure they are supportive of all competitors.
  • I have seen some shocking Mums and Dads trashing other competitors, as well as their own children. Not a good look and it makes everybody else angry.

On the day…

Get up early. If you're not already excited, at least you've got time to prepare. Get as much as you can ready the night before, and get a good nights' sleep.

Eat a good breakfast. Porridge, fruit or cereal. If you can only stomach something light go for a muesli bar. Drink heaps of water.

Watch the surf. Identify rips, sweeps and sandbanks. Check out the wind and swell directions on the net, or ask the lifeguards.

Watch others. Observe where they are paddling out. Also look for where the best waves are within the contest area.

Go for a free surf beforehand. This lets you get a feel for the waves on the day. You won't have to spend valuable time paddling round to find the right spot.

Check when you're on. Have a look for when your heat is. If it's one of the first, get yourself ready! If not, use the time to watch the other surfers. See what manoeuvres and approaches to the surf are working. Where is the best spot to sit out there? If family and friends are there take the time to chill out with them.

Try not to freak out. Contrary to what Billy Madison says, "Peeing your pants is NOT cool!" Well, not before you get in the water, anyway. A competition may seem scary, but try to dumb it down: it's a 20 minute heat and you only have to get two waves. The other stuff is what you build it up to be in your head.

Amp up. I'm a huge music lover so I believe in playing some loud tunes you love to get you in the mood. I'm a rock chick so I like Foo Fighters, Muse, Switchfoot and Rage Against The Machine if it's big. If it's tiny, something a bit more mellow and fun. Whatever floats your boat, really!

You're up!

Take a few deep breaths before you go in. Calm down and get yourself in the right head space. Go out with a good attitude and you will enjoy the experience far more.

Take your time paddling out. You don't want to waste all your energy straight away.

Be picky. When I first started I would go for wave after wave and the more tired I got, the worse my style. You're better off waiting for a couple of nice ones.

…but not TOO picky! By the same token, if you've only got one or two waves by the time the yellow flag comes up, go nuts! Try to ride the waves in as far as you can for maximum points.

Be nice to your other contestants. Don't put them down. Say 'hi' as you go in, or a quiet 'nice wave' when they come back out. Try not to chat away due to your nerves. Just relax. You're out there to catch a couple of waves.

Enjoy the afterglow. Sometimes nothing goes right in a comp. So just relax, laugh it off and have fun watching the others surf. There will always be more waves.


Whether it's celebrating a win, learning a new manoeuvre or what not to do, you always come out of a competition knowing something else. And that's what surfing is all about.

Bookmark and Share Kristen Veltmeyer

Surfing etiquette…

Surfing etiquette is a little trickier than learning to set a table properly. For starters, there are many 'unwritten rules' that a novice may not know. Here's how to play fair in the water…

Left-handers and right-handers: I'm so confused!

When a surfer refers to these, keep in mind that we judge left and right when we are out the back, paddling for a wave in towards shore (so for the person watching on the beach, left looks like right, and vice versa).

A right hander breaks from left to right. The whitewash (broken wave) will go in this direction. A left hander breaks from right to left.

What is 'dropping in'?

'Dropping in' entails getting in front of someone else riding the wave and potentially ending their fun and causing injury. In a contest you will get penalized or possibly disqualified for this. It's also about the most offensive thing you can do to another surfer. See the next question on how to avoid doing this to your fellow surfers.

Who has the 'right of way' on a wave?

It really does depend on the crowd you surf with. Keep in mind that friends will often jump on each others' waves for fun. This doesn't mean that you should do it in a pack of surfers you don't know well. Unless someone calls 'party wave' or 'all aboard' don't paddle for it. Also, and I can't stress this enough, don't even think about jumping on a wave with someone else unless you can ride across it and stay out of their way with ease.

There have been many different ways used to determine who has right of way on a wave.

Back in the day, there was a 'first one standing' rule. However, this could be abused by longboard riders, as they can get on the wave earlier, before it begins to peak.

Another rule is that surfers should take turns. It's easy to get excited and want to catch everything, but remember that there are plenty of waves and therefore, everyone should get a turn. Sometimes there will be what is known as a 'line up', where the surfer at the top of a pack will catch a wave in, then the next person will go, and so on. But people fall off, or miss waves, so be aware of that and make sure everyone is getting a few before you go for your next.

There is one constant rule, and this is enforced in competitive surfing. The surfer that is 'closest to the curl' has possession and right of way. By curl we mean the breaking part of the wave.

Say we have two surfers sitting out there, facing towards shore and waiting for a wave. Layne Beachley is on the right, Kelly Slater on the left… So if it's a left hander, and breaking from right to left, the surfer on the right (Layne) has possession of the wave. She's closest to the breaking part. And, likewise, if it's a right hander, breaking from right to left, Kelly has every right to proceed to tear it up.

In conclusion, use your common sense and discretion, and don't be afraid to ask others for their advice.

When you're paddling out, and a surfer is heading straight for you, what do you do?

For starters it's best to try and paddle back out via the rip (channel to the side of where the waves are breaking). This will take you back out without punching through stacks of white wash. It also ensures that you are out of the way of the incoming surfers. However, I totally understand that there are moments when there's not a lot you can do! They're coming straight at you, and you don't have a lot of time. Etiquette wise, if they are catching a green wave and going across the face, always paddle towards the white wash (broken wave) so you don't shut down their ride.

If a collision is unavoidable, don't roll your board over. The other board will run over it, and this is how a lot of dings are caused (not to mention, quite a few fights). Your board has less impact to hurt someone without your weight attached to it. So jump off it and dive under, being careful to grab your leg rope so you don't hit them again. Once you come up, apologise to the person for getting in their way. Acknowledging you were in the wrong diffuses a lot of tense situations. And try your best not to do it again.

Bookmark and Share Kristen Veltmeyer

Nutrition for surfers…

The best way to think about food is as fuel. You wouldn't put dodgy gas into your car. You want to be putting in the good stuff. See junk food for what it is; an occasional treat. Fill up on healthy, fresh food.

Protein is the big one. Red and white meat are beneficial. Eggs are a great source of nutrition. If you're not a big fan, mix them in with pasta or make omlettes. For the vegetarian readers, chickpeas, lentils and leafy green vegetables are also an option.

Carbohydrates are great, as long as you stick to the brown stuff. Brown rice, brown bread, rice crackers and anything you can cook up using brown flower.

Fruit and vegetables are the perfect snacks for hungry surfers, and provide the bulk of vitamins and minerals. Get a taste for them, and choose fresh over the canned stuff.

Other treats are cordial (it helps make drinking all that water a little more interesting), water ice blocks and sorbet. And I'm in love with smoothies.

What to eat prior to surfing? As little as possible, in fact. Food takes a long time to break down and isn't really your best friend when Eskimo rolling or getting dumped. If you've got the munchies, some fresh or dried fruit, or a muesli bar. Drink stacks of water and save the hamburger until after your session.

By the way, there's something about the salt water that makes everything taste sensational after you've been out there. Bon apetit.

Bookmark and Share Kristen Veltmeyer