Beginner Surf Spots
CLICK HERE for an exclusive guide to 20 of the best beginner breaks in North America, with the lowdown on the beach scene, local surf shops, and more.
It's the rapture—that's why we surf. The bliss that envelops your soul the moment the ride begins. And while it's true what they say about surfing not being easy, we're here to tell you the rest of the story: that learning to carve turns down a rolling wall of water is perhaps the greatest adventure in sports, that you'll catch your first wave soon, that a lazy day at Waikiki is as satisfying as an epic one at Cloudbreak, and that all the wipeouts along your progression from kook to kahuna are as much a reason to paddle out as tube rides and that righteous tan.
To get you on board as fast as possible, we kick things off with some tips to flatten your learning curve from C. J. Hobgood, pro surfing's 2001 world champion, and his twin, Damien, number four on the 2005 tour. For the past three years, they've been reflecting on their own development while hosting Camp Hobgood, a skills clinic for top amateurs. "The first time I ever stood up on a wave, I thought, This is the best thing I have ever done," says C. J. "I haven't had a ride since that's felt so good." So pull on your trunks and grab some wax—it's your turn to stand and deliver.
C. J. and Damien Hobgood's speedy plan to get you surfing like a star
- Scout from Shore: Surfing fundamentals start on land. If you can't read the waves, you risk burning out in poor conditions. Know what to look for (see "Anatomy of a Break," next page), then pick your moments. "For every foot of wave height," says C. J., "watch the ocean for five minutes." Look for patterns: If surfers are drifting, be ready to battle a current. If bigger sets are rolling through, time your entry to avoid a thrashing.
- Paddle Out: Make your journey to the lineup as easy as possible so you save your mojo for catching waves. If you've scouted well, you'll know if there's a channel that avoids the brunt of incoming sets. "Always watch the locals," says Damien. "They know the tricks." When there's a lull in the waves, sprint—you can rest when you're outside the impact zone. Don't fight through larger crashing waves; instead, "turn turtle" by grabbing the rails of your longboard and rolling onto your back while the whitewater passes over. If you're on a smaller board, "duck-dive" the swell by plunging the nose under the surface, then popping out the back side.
- Catch a Wave: In theory, this is simple: Move faster down the face than the water rolling up it. In reality, it takes lots of practice. "Even on a longboard, you still have only a few seconds before the wave passes," says C. J. Start in the whitewater of waves that have already broken, as they're moving slower and more of the wave's energy is already on the surface. Begin paddling hard well before the wave reaches you; kicking helps, too. Ride the first few waves you catch on your belly so you get used to the sensation.
- Stand Up: "There isn't some golden trick," says C. J. "A lot of it is just doing what feels natural." Practice popping up on your board on the beach. Grip the rails and jump up on both feet. Once standing, you want a relatively wide stance, with your feet centered and your back foot about eight inches forward of the tail. Bend your knees and extend your arms for balance. "It might look ugly, but you'll get better over time," says C. J. "I used to be called Wounded Seagull."
- Wipe Out: "Three things beat you up when you fall," says Damien. "The bottom, your board, and the lip of the wave." Fall actively and you can minimize the abuse. When you feel yourself starting to bail, try to jump into the smooth water on the wave face so you avoid the lip and your board. Put your arms over your head and face to protect against dangerous injuries. As for equipment, make sure your leash is at least as long as your board; this will make it less likely to snap back and batter you.
- Learn to Turn: Once you're standing up consistently, it's time to extend your rides by surfing parallel to the shore rather than right at it. While you're popping up, stare down the line of the breaking wave, in the direction you want to go. "Then lean forward and put pressure on your front foot," says C. J., "like a skater dropping into a halfpipe." When you hit the trough, shift your weight to your back foot to carve toward the lip. Hoot with gusto—now you're really surfing.
Surfology: Anatomy of a Break
How To Find Your Way Through the Liquid Labyrinth
- Lineup: Experienced surfers gather here—where most swells are peaking and about to break—to jockey for position. Who-ever's closest to the peak gets first dibs on the wave.
- Shoulder: The section of wave down the line from the curling peak. Catching a ride here is easier but bad etiquette, as you'll drop in on top of the surfer who earned priority.
- Impact Zone: The most dangerous part of a surf spot, where crashing waves release their energy. Always paddle around it on your way out to the lineup.
- Inside: Many waves retain a smaller, smooth face long after they break. This is a good place for developing surfers to work on their skills, since veterans who take off on the peak will often exit the wave early.
- Soup: A.k.a. the whitewater, this is the surfable froth of a dying wave. It's the easiest place to catch a ride, thus an ideal place for novice surfers to practice popping up onto their feet.
The best beaches for practicing your moves offer slow, gentle waves and a no-pressure atmosphere. Here are six of our faves.
- Surf Report: Warm and sunny, with consistent waves year-round (but best in summer). Try Canoes, an easy right break near the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
- Scene: Touristy. But in the water, it's pure "aloha."
- Bonus: In winter, watch the pros go big at Pipeline, on the North Shore.
- Wax Run: Hans Hedemann Surf Rentals
Santa Cruz, California
- Surf Report: Waist-high sets that break 200 yards from shore; nippy, 55-degree water (wetsuit required) in summer.
- Scene: Packed with locals, but the most welcoming spot in Santa Cruz.
- Bonus: Après-surf, play pinball at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
- Wax Run: Cowell's Beach Surf Shop
Corolla, North Carolina
- Surf Report: Here on the northern end of the Outer Banks, you'll find warm water and mellow surf from spring to late summer.
- Scene: A relaxed hot spot for East Coasters from Maine to Miami.
- Bonus: Scuba diving at hundreds of offshore shipwrecks.
- Wax Run: Corolla Surf Shop
San Onofrestate Beach
San Clemente, California
- Surf Report: Long lines of whitewater for boogie boarding and longboarding. Find low, slow-breaking peaks at Dogpatch.
- Scene: A family-friendly mecca since the 1930s—with a few RVs and beer bellies.
- Bonus: Cameos by longboard legends like La Jolla native Joel Tudor.
- Wax Run: Rip Curl Surf Shop
Cocoa Beach, Florida
- Surf Report: Picnic Tables, north of Patrick Air Force Base, churns out gentle rollers year-round.
- Scene: Novices from Tampa and Orlando; seasonal snowbirds.
- Bonus: Watch rockets launch at Cape Canaveral while practicing your own takeoffs.
- Wax Run: Ron Jon Surf Shop
Robert Moses State Park
Long Island, New York
- Surf Report: The break near the Field 5 parking lot is newbie- perfect in summer.
- Scene: Gothamites escaping the heat (you're just 48 miles from Manhattan) and, in August, armies of (mostly) benign jellyfish.
- Bonus: Great angling for striped bass.
- Wax Run: Bunger Surf Shop
From the mouth of free surfer Rob Machado.
For the past decade and a half, Rob Machado has surfed the planet. In the 1990s he was a top competitor on surfing's pro tour, lauded for blending a soulful style with aerial acrobatics. Today he's the most sought-after free surfer, riding far-flung breaks for films and photo shoots. (He still competes on occasion, winning Oahu's Pipeline Pro in February.) And while he's lost track of all the breaks he's visited, his Zenlike approach to wave hunting is as legendary as his Afro. Mark Anders recently quizzed "the Mob" about the chemistry of a good trip.
OUTSIDE: On the pro tour, you surfed the world's top breaks all the time. Why did you bail?
Machado: The tour dictated my whole year—I always knew where I had to be. In February, it was Australia; then Tahiti, then Fiji. I started feeling like I was in Groundhog Day. My first trip after I retired was to New Zealand. It felt so good to go with a tight little crew and surf a wave we'd heard about for the last ten years.
What's the biggest challenge of surf travel?
Surfboards. They're always a pain. I used to have these big bags carrying eight boards, plus wetsuits and towels. I've learned to keep them light, because if you start loading too much gear inside, the baggage guys get pissed and throw it around. I also put bubble wrap between the boards. Then just cross your fingers.
How do you deal with locals who might not want to share their break?
Usually people in remote areas are really excited for you to be there. But it's their surf spot and maybe they don't ever get to leave, so you have to be respectful. That can mean not surfing. I was staying in Beqa, Fiji, in this village. It was Sunday, and you can't do anything there on Sundays. So I just posted up under a tree with some locals; 14 bowls of kava later, I crawled back to my room.
All the travel and exertion makes it tough to stay healthy. What's your trick?
Stay on top of all your cuts. You'll get reef cuts and won't even realize it, then you wake up the next day and they're all red and swollen. Pack Band-Aids and Tea Tree Oil and take care of yourself.
Name one big surf trip you dream about.
Chile. I saw a sliver of it when I went there in 2004. The coastline is equivalent to Cabo San Lucas up to Alaska, and there are waves all over. It's out of control.
School's In Session
Hone your fundamentals at these sweet international spots.
- Australian School of Surfing (Coolangatta, Australia): Run by former professional surfer Nancy Emerson, this Gold Coast institution mixes holistic instruction (you'll focus on not just technique and water safety but also overcoming fears and mental blocks) with high-tech tools (watch video playbacks of your rides and wipeouts on a laptop). Five-hour group programs, with three to five students per instructor, are $275. Private instruction from $110.
- La Casa del Sol Surf School (Montanita, Ecuador): This town of 1,000 has the funky-cool feel that Baja's Puerto Nuevo had 20 years ago, the Pacific water is 76 degrees year-round, and your hotel sits right in front of the sandy beach break. Plus, at $500 for the week, all-inclusive, you can focus on mastering your takeoff—not on blowing your budget.
- K59 Surf Tours (La Libertad, El Salvador): It's the perfect way to take your skills to the next level. Your personal guide—an experienced local surfer—is on call 24/7 to show you El Salvador's best Pacific waves, including the speedy, right-breaking peaks at K59 (think Southern California's Trestles, without the crowds), just steps from your door. You'll stay in one of six cozy casitas in a gated community on a private stretch of coastline, about 50 miles south of San Salvador. From $110 per night.
- Las Olas Surf Safaris (Sayulita, Mexico): This women-only camp treats students like queens: morning yoga sessions, afternoon massages at your villa overlooking the Pacific, and evening mango margaritas. The staff includes pros like 2005 women's world longboard champ Kristy Murphy. From $1,195 for seven days.
Beyond Blue Crush
Surfing's finest film moments were never meant for the multiplex.
Taylor Steele, the auteur behind 1992's groundbreaking video Momentum and dozens of flicks since (including Sipping Jetstreams), shares his Cliff Notes for the cutback canon.
- Morning of the Earth [Albert Falzon, 1972]: "When Nat Young and Michael Peterson run down to the Australia waves, you just want to go with them."
- Beyond Blazing Boards [Chris Bystrom, 1986]: "Showcases the 1980s shift from longboards to shortboards, with soul surfing by then-champ Tom Curren."
- Kelly Slater: In Black and White [Richard Woolcott, 1991]: "Kelly surfs lines on waves that we didn't think were possible."
- Sprout [Thomas Campbell, 2004]: "Joel Tudor, Dan Malloy, and others riding in exotic places like Sri Lanka and Morocco. Perfect for someone who wants to get a feel for the sport."
Forecasting the perfect wave.
In the 1964 classic Ride the Wild Surf, Steamer Lane (Tab Hunter) and the gang are headed for some G-rated coupling at a North Shore luau when someone hollers out a surprised "Surf's up!" Given the sophistication of today's surf-forecasting technology, that scenario feels even more dated than Steamer's high-and-tight boardshorts. Smart, 21st- century planning allows you to time your sessions around the waves. Here's how it works:
- Start by checking out online forecasts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration presents color-coded U.S. maps depicting swell size and direction, for instance.
- Before packing your car, try to confirm conditions by phoning in to daily recorded reports from the beach (provided by lifeguard stations and surf shops). The precise direction the beach faces will affect how much swell energy the break captures, and onshore winds can make any waves choppy.
- Scout from shore and remember that a peak silhouetted against a gray sky is nearly impossible to gauge. Wait until you see another surfer on it before making a call.
- Paddle out only after you're confident you've seen a bigger set roll through—you don't want to be surprised in the water.
Fit to Surf
Don't ruin great waves with supbar fitness.
Surfing daily is the best way to stay wave-ready, but what if you live in Wichita? For you, we tapped Tim Brown, a physiologist who works with champ Kelly Slater, and Chicago's Pete Lambert, a phys-ed teacher who swims to stay in shape for Lake Michigan's sporadic breaks. Their plans build the strength, endurance, and balance needed to thrive on the waves.
Strength: Tim Brown's workout mimics the effort of paddling out. Twice a week, start with three 30-second sets of push-ups, switching from narrow to regular to wide arm placement with each set. Then do the six dumbbell lifts below, completing seven reps for each and three sets of the series, with no rest between lifts or sets. (Use enough weight so that it's difficult to do the seventh rep.) End with three sets of pull-ups, alternating a narrow, regular, and wide grip.
- Reverse-Grip Curls: Hold the dumbbells on your thighs, palms facing your legs. Keeping your elbows tucked into your waist, slowly curl the weights to your shoulders, then lower them back down.
- Front Military Press: Hold the dumbbells at shoulder height, palms facing out. Press weights overhead and 12 inches in front of your head until arms are straight. Slowly lower to shoulders.
- Bent-Over Rows: Holding dumbbells in each hand, bend forward at your hips while looking straight ahead and keeping your back flat, until your back is almost parallel to the floor. Lift weights to your chest, then slowly lower them back down.
- Overhead Triceps Extensions: Press the dumbbells overhead. Keeping your elbows close to your head, slowly lower the weights behind you until your forearms are parallel to the ground, then slowly raise them back up.
- Upright Rows: Hold the dumbbells against your thighs. Raise the weights to your shoulders, extending your elbows out to your sides (they should finish above your shoulders). Slowly lower them back down.
- Behind-Back Upright Rows: Hold a dumbbell in each hand, behind you, with the backs of your hands against your butt. Slowly raise the dumbbells along your back as high as you can while keeping your wrists straight. Slowly lower them back down.
Endurance: Pete Lambert builds lung power with pool workouts that approximate the stroke and effort needed to paddle out and catch a wave.
- Twice a Week: Swim 4 x 50 meters with a float buoy strapped to your feet, then 8 x 25 meters with your head above water.
- Once a Week: Sprint 6 x 100 meters, 8 x 50 meters, and 10 x 25 meters. Rest for 30 seconds between each interval.
- Build your lung capacity by increasing the number of strokes you take between each breath, starting each lap at two and increasing to seven.
Balance: Brown suggests tuning your equilibrium with a balance trainer like the Indo Board ($100). Three six-minute balancing sessions per week, in a surfer's stance, should do the trick.
- Level 1: Keep the board level for 90 seconds; in this same position, bounce a tennis ball against a wall three feet away for 90 seconds; then stand still with your eyes closed for another 90 seconds. Master this, then take the exercises to the next level, and so on—without letting the board hit the floor.
- Level 2: Rock back and forth.
- Level 3: Stand still in a squat position.
- Level 4: Do slow squats.