The Surfing Bibliography - Learner surfer's FAQ

This page last Modified: Thursday, 02-Sep-2004 20:46:34 BST

Omissions, corrections and/or additions to items published/released before 01/01/2008? Please email me - it would help if you made SURFING the first word on your subject line.

Please note that these lists will not include any items published/released after 01/01/2008 until further notice.

The reason is that I simply don't have the time to keep maintaining these web pages for the foreseeable future.

There is an excellent learner's FAQ written (mainly) by Chris Payne at the excellent Surfing Vancouver Island website.

What do I need to do before I start?

Before starting to learn to surf, you must be able to swim. The importance of this cannot be overemphasised. Consider that surf craft are usually built mainly to ride waves, occasionally mainly to catch waves. In neither case have they been built to be lifesaving devices. It is your responsibility to ensure that you do not endanger your own life, or the lives of others who may be forced to come to your rescue, should you be forced to swim.

Before you begin to surf you should be able to swin at least 100 metres without stopping. Once you have learnt to catch and ride small waves (say up to 1 metre high) then make sure you can swim 500 metres without stopping. If you want to ride 2 metre waves and bigger then be sure you can swim at least 1,000 metres without stopping, and be able to swim at least 25 metres underwater.

Whats the best exercise to do to prepare me for surfing?

Swimming. You can't beat swimming as a preparation for surfing. Swimming will exercise many of the muscles you will use to paddle your surf craft, it will improve your aerobic fitness, and it will increase your water confidence. Just watch the faces of your non-swimming friends as you easily paddle past them to catch your second wave while they are still paddling out to catch their first!

Can I get lessons on how to surf? Are they worthwhile?

Yes, they are available, depending on where you are. If you live in the U.S., Australia, U.K., etc there are plenty of options - just pick up a local surfing magazine and check the advertisments. If you live in a non-surfing country but are going somewhere to learn, try a magazine from that country. If all else fails contact the surfing association of that country.

Are the lessons worthwhile? Well, given that some of them can get you standing up on your first day (if you want to stand up!) and given that they will (or at least, should) teach you some water safety, then yes they are worthwhile. Some things however, can't be taught, so like most things, the more you surf, the better you'll get.

What is the drop-in rule?

The drop-in rule is the unwritten rule that governs who has the right to ride any given wave. The unwritten law that gives rise to the drop-in rule is "One wave, one person" - in other words there should never be more than one person taking off on any wave (unless by prior agreement). The drop-in rule has two versions, both of which have the object of ensuring one wave, one person.

The first (and I think older) version of the rule is "first person to their feet has right of way on the wave". This version worked fine while everybody stood, and everybody had more or less equal equipment. Now that the lineup is awash with standups, kneeboarders, bellyboarders and other things, it's not quite so workable. The basic thrust is still relevant though - if someone else is already riding the wave, don't try and catch it yourself - remember, one wave, one person.

The second and currently more predominant version is "person taking off closest to the breaking part of the wave has the right to the wave". This works well in most situations - the person taking off closest to the breaking part of the wave has made the most commitment to the wave and deserves the wave, whatever equipment they are on.

The two versions don't quite co-exist, unfortunately. Imagine a situation where someone on a surf ski can catch a wave a long time before a standup surfer further inside. The ski rider has right of way under version 1, the standup under version 2. Bearing in mind that version 2 is by far predominant, most people would say the standup surfer has the right to the wave. Because every surf-session and every wave is different these rules cannot be hard and fast - as a rule of thumb, if someone even looks like they'll catch the wave and they are closer to the breaking part of the wave than you, don't try and catch it.

Surfers who drop in a lot (ie take others' waves) will find they have no respect and may suffer the consequences, ranging from a friendly talking to, through verbal abuse to physical violence. So the golden rule is DON'T DROP IN.

What sort of surfboard should I buy?

As I know nothing about surf skis, bellyboards, kneeboards, longboards or kayaks, I'll limit my answer to short boards. OK, as a beginner, you need a long, thick, wide board. The objective is to get something that will easily allow you to catch waves and be stable and forgiving when you are learning to stand.

Single fins and thrusters (3 fins) are fine, but don't get a twin, quad or 5-fin board - these are usually built to be highly manouverable and hence are not as stable. Of course many thrusters and single fins are also unstable. That's why you need to go for length, width and thickness - ease of paddling and stability.

How long should your board be? At least one foot longer than you are tall. How thick should it be? Many of the latest thrusters are very thin and very narrow, completely unsuitable for beginners (No, you don't want a board exactly like Kelly Slater's, you want a board like Kelly Slater learnt on - long, thick, wide). Try looking for second hand surfboards that are a bit older - they're more likely to be thicker and wider.

If you have surfshops in your area try getting the staff to show you some beginner's boards - don't buy the first one you see, shop around, it pays. If you only have one surf shop you're probably better off taking their advice than guessing.

If you are in your early teens and are still growing, consider buying a second-hand mini-gun in the 7' - 8' range - it'll have the length and probably the thickness you'll need, even if it's a bit narrow. The advantage is that as your skills improve and you want to surf bigger waves you'll already have the equipment to do it. Don't be concerned that your big board may seem unresponsive, you will learn to trim and turn properly and end up being a much more powerful surfer than if you learn on a 5'6" twinfin! When you want to buy a small wave board you'll also have a good idea of what you want after your experience riding the bigger board. Finally, another surfing watch-word - it's better to be over-gunned than under-gunned. If in doubt, buy the longer board.

How are wave heights measured?

This is a very grey area! OK, the vast majority of surfers measure wave size in feet down the face of the breaking wave. Some surfers measure the wave height down the back of the wave. Measuring down the back of the wave seems to have no redeeming features at all to me, but each to his own.

OK, so how do you judge how big the wave is down the face? The easiest way is to watch someone riding the wave standing up, make the assumption that he/she is 5'8" - 6'0" tall, wait 'til they stand fairly straight, and call it by their height eg. if the wave looks to be as high as their head, it's a 5 - 6' wave (remember the surfer will rarely stand fully upright, so lop off a foot in your estimate to compensate). Simple!

If only it were! It's extremely rare for a wave to get bigger after it's started to break, and it's a very good wave if the wall continues at the same height after the wave has started to break. The vast majority of waves quickly get smaller after they have begun to break. Sometimes they may be smaller but hollower, more often smaller and flatter. So often you end up saying something like "Oh, it was 6' peaks, 4' walls".

The other variable is the steepness of the wave face - a wave can be 6' high but so flat it's barely rideable, or it might be 4' high but hitting a reef and pitching forward 3'! This is why you'll hear people say "fat 6'" or "hollow 4".

The other wave height measurement is fear. My own personal scale goes something like: anklesnappers, 1', 2', 3', 4', 5', 6', 8', 10', big, oh s&*@!

So generally speaking, just compare it to the height of someone up and riding, lop off a foot to compensate for them crouching, if it's looks scary lop off a couple of feet to compensate for the fear factor, and you'll be somewhere around a figure your peers will accept!

Below is some more commentary on the subject that Jonathan Hoag sent me (thanks Jonathan!) - I'm reproducing it as I received it:

In USENET alt.surfing, thread: How do you judge wave size?

On Sat, 11 May 1996 08:57:55 GMT, (jona) wrote:

>I hear lots of different methods of judging wave size.  I'm going to
>take a survey - check the one you believe is correct; one answer only.(We all know  what is supposed to be the correct way, right?)

>   face of the wave just before it breaks
>   some portion of the face of the wave before it breaks
>   open ocean deep water swell size
>   back of the wave
>   consensus          (I heard others say it was ___ feet)
>   conservative      (in Hawaii this would be ____ feet)
>   local standards (in our locality it would be ___ feet)
>   double (or whatever) overhead

[I got interesting replies.  Here's one, I can send you all of them if you want just for 
some fun reading. JH]
In Hawaii, we "measure from the back," meaning, we essentially cut the  wave face height 
in half.  The reason (I think) is because of  Californians in the 50s and 60s 
sandbagging to surprise newcomers to the  islands.  I know it's stupid, but it's the 
standard that everyone uses. 
Nowadays, if you don't call it like the locals do, you'll be put down big  time.  The 
local media, especially the radio, perpetuate the underestimating. 
So, three feet is head high, six is double overhead.  Don't even ask what  twenty-five 

When I was working at the Eddie in 89, I asked the judging panel how big  they thought 
it was.  There was a long silence before someone (I think  Jack Shipley) said, 
"Overhead!"  I guess only Ken Bradshaw is allowed to  make the call at Waimea.

Interesting personal observation:  a six foot wave in the Country is bigger  than a six 
foot wave in Town.


P.S. Right now, Town is one-to-two feet.
Neal Miyake
In USENET alt.surfing May 27, 1996, 
my reply and new heading: Answer: How do you judge wave size?

Thanks for the many replies this thread has elicited - lot's of good responses.  First, 
the answer: 
surf height is measured on the wave's face, from the trough to the crest.  Yes, I know 
that's just a textbook definition.

First point, the BIG GUNS.

I spoke with George Downing, one of the first inductees into Surfing's Hall of Fame here 
in Hawaii.  He makes the call on when to hold the Eddie Aikau Quicksilver Waimea big 
wave contest, minimum 20 ft required for this contest.  George said, if you're talking 
about height use the "dictionary's definition" of height, "vertical", i.e. vertical 
height of the face before it breaks, despite the fact that there is some addition of 
height because a wave sucks out some of the water in the trough.

I also spoke with Rick Grigg, oceanographer and long time big wave surfer.  His answer 
was measure by the book (oceanography) - the height of the face, trough to crest.  He 
also brought up the interesting point of the psychology of judging wave height.  The 
"correct" measurement will assure acceptance/approval among other surfers (you're "in"); 
someone who doesn't know how to measure correctly is "out".  The idea of group 
identification is in itself another very interesting topic (new thread? maybe too much 
analysis; we surf because it's fun).

Another surfing great disagreed, however.  Rabbit Kekai told me the height is measured 
from the back of the wave.

Second, artificial DISTORTION of what's plain.

Mark Cunningham, lifeguard at Ehukai Beach Park (Pipeline) admitted that surfers may 
have gotten jaded due to their familiarity with waves of all sizes.  This was in 
response to my claim that presently wave heights are underestimated compared to what we 
judged waves to be around 20 years ago.  I lived and surfed on the North Shore of Oahu 
back then and it seemed people had some consensus about judging size.  (I still surf now 

Another well-known big (or small) wave surfer, James Jones, said big waves are 
underestimated.  He said when it reaches 20 ft or more "all objectivity goes out the 

George Mason, meteorologist and professional surf forecaster for Wave Track/Surfline 
said it's "like beating your head against the wall" in describing his efforts to 
persuade people that the correct measurement is the face of the wave.  In fact, the surf 
forecast from Wave Track/Surfline will mention "head high", etc. to escape the problem 
of varying scales of wave measurement.  Through George's efforts one of the daily 
newspapers prints the definition, height measured from trough to crest, under the daily 
surf forecast.


I have to admit that there is a good number of surfers here in Hawaii who believe the 
back of the wave is the height of the surf.  The big problem is the back of the wave has 
a very gradual slope which makes estimating height very difficult, plus you can't see it 
from the land.

Anyway, replies to my thread reflect this confusion: changing judgement when in another 
locality, peer group scale, using a body-size scale, reducing the face size by a factor. 
 I contend the back of the wave measurement is also a reflection of a too-conservative 

Not only are surfers misled, the surf forecasters are influenced.  I am a 
meteorologist/forecaster for the National Weather Service in Honolulu (a neat job for 
which I thank the Lord).  I spoke against the back-of-the-wave measurement misconception 
with some of the forecasters here.  Even though they know what the book says - they were 
told by some of the surfers and county water safety employees that surf measurement was 
actually the back of the wave!  We get surf observations from lifeguards and observers 
that seem to me to be on the conservative side.  (Peter Cole never has adjusted his 
scale downward though.)  You've heard of the difference in measuring north shore waves 
in Hawaii even compared to south shore waves.  So we as forecasters are caught in this 
cycle of incorrect measurements, yet we're issuing forecasts and even high surf 
advisories based on these "measurements".  I do still want to thank all water safety 
personnel who do a great and courageous job.


Let's quit worrying about what others think and call it like it is.  I know there is 
going to be some differences, but we could all realize the benefits of more uniform 
measurements between different locations around the world.  (Sorry so long-winded!)

Jonathan Hoag

[Views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer, the 
National Weather Service.]

Where should I surf?

Generally speaking you should stick to beachbreaks, ie. waves that break over sand, rather than waves that break over rock/coral. Some beachbreaks are very dangerous though, so you need to exercise some common sense. You also need to be aware that the seas are dynamic, often rapidly changing places - what may be perfect for beginner surfers now may not be in six months, next week, tomorrow or even an hour from now. Keep your wits about you and take the advice of any lifeguards or experienced surfers around.

OK, what kind of beach break are you looking for? Places where the waves roll towards shore (known as spilling or surging waves), rather than rearing up and breaking violently (known as plunging waves, or "dumpers" in the Australian vernacular). Plunging waves can be quite dangerous, even over sand bottoms. When you have become expert plunging waves are the ones you will seek out, but in the early stages, avoid them.

Nor do you need the waves to be particularly good - remember you're just learning the basics of catching waves and being balanced on your chosen craft, and to learn those basics any wave will do. You're probably better off staying away form the better waves initially, as the more experienced surfers will take them all anyway (and remember, you don't want to drop in!), and you may be on the receiving end of some verbal if you get in their way. Staying with waves the experts ignore will pay off big time in the first stages of your surfing career - you'll get all the waves you want and will therefore advance much more rapidly to the stage where you can paddle out with the experienced surfers and be accepted.

Wherever possible surf with a friend. Some people think that it's best to surf with another learner (and spur each other on), some think it's better to surf with a more experienced surfer so that you can learn from them. In either case you will learn from the other surfer, and increase the chances that there'll be someone who can help you should things go wrong (but remember you should be self-sufficient in the swimming department). The other big advantage of surfing with someone else is that you immediately cut the chances of you being bitten by a shark in half :-)

What are the dangers in the water?

By far the most dangerous thing in the water (apart from pollution) is your own surfcraft - you are far more likely to come into heavy contact with it than anything else in the water, including rocks etc. The next most dangerous thing in the water is other people's surfcraft.

Forget sharks, seasnakes, rocks, stingrays etc etc. You'll probably never see any dangerous animals in the water until you've been surfing for quite a while, so just forget about them. As for rocks, you'll soon discover that you're usually washed around and past them rather than being driven into them, even when it looks like hitting them will be unavoidable.

So in the beginning concentrate on avoiding being hit by your own and other peoples equipment. When you wipe out cover your head and face with your arms and hands, which will help to protect against really nasty injuries. Consider wearing a helmet, especially in big surf (when your craft will hit you that much harder ...) and in crowds. You'll soon develop a sense of where your craft is during a wipe out, but to start with at least when re-surfacing keep your head covered in case your craft is travelling toward you at great speed on the surface.

As for other people - try and stay out of the way of anyone actually riding the wave. This is both safer and improves the other persons ride - something you will appreciate yourself when you are riding. In the end though, because you can't control other peoples actions, sooner or later you'll collide with someone. Keep your head covered and on re-surfacing check to see that the other person is not injured or needing help. If the collision was your fault, be very apolegetic!

Omissions, corrections and/or additions to items published/released before 01/01/2008? Please email me - it would help if you made SURFING the first word on your subject line.

Please note that these lists will not include any items published/released after 01/01/2008 until further notice.

The reason is that I simply don't have the time to keep maintaining these web pages for the foreseeable future.