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Learn How to Watch Surfing

Learn How to Watch Surfing

Have you ever watched a football game on TV, and as the teams line up for the snap said to yourself, “They’re definitely going to run it...” ?

How did you know? Because you’ve watched tons of football and have learned how to pick up on situational clues that help inform what will happen next. Maybe it was third-and-one, and the offense stacked the line with two extra tight ends. Or the wideout moved in motion toward the ball for another layer of blocking. Whatever the clues, it took a well-trained eye to recognize them and form a foundational understanding of what was going to happen before it happened.

The same thing is true with surfing! The difference is most homes in America are not watching dozens of hours of surfing each year. In fact, most people have watched very little surfing at all. Even if you fall in the rare minority of folks who revel in watching surf films and edits on Instagram, you’re only ever seeing the highlights and never the full picture.

You can’t learn to play football by watching the highlights, and you can’t learn to surf by watching the clips— You learn by watching the whole game.

So before you wrestle your way into a borrowed wetsuit for the first time—plant yourself on a towel and watch. Don’t watch the Wedge on a 20 foot south swell in July, watch your local beginner break. Where are the families surfing? Where are the old guys, the moms, the 10-year-old kids waiting for waves? Where are the best longboarders in town perched with eyes out to sea ?
Sit still on the sand, and immerse yourself in the whole scene.

I’m willing to bet that you’re going to see a lot of good surfing, a lot of bad surfing, and a lot of cringy mishaps—you know, near-misses, lost boards, and fiberglass-denting collisions. But what you will also see is where the waves break, where the best surfers sit, and where the impact zone isHere is my short list of things to watch for while you study the lineup:

  1. What is the surf doing today and are you comfortable in those conditions?
  2. Where are surfers paddling out?
  3. Are there both lefts and rights? (Waves that can be ridden either direction down the beach)
  4. Watch the best surfer(s) in the water: where are they sitting, which waves are they taking off on?
  5. Where are the novice surfers sitting and taking off? (Oftentimes it will be off to the shoulder—slightly down the line—from where the best surfers are.)
  6. Are there any little peaks breaking that nobody else seems to be taking advantage of?
  7. What kind of boards are everyone else in the lineup riding? Are they riding equipment that resembles yours?  (Hopefully there are a bunch of longboards and mid-lengths in the water, because that’s a clue that you’re probably in a decent place to learn).

Once you can answer the questions above, take it a step further… start trying to predict how different situations will play out:

  • Watch a surfer paddling for a wave—is (s)he going to catch it? Is (s)he very obviously not in the right spot?
  • Watch a set wave break the horizon—does it look like this is going to be a really good one? Try to predict which surfer is going to get it based on the position they are sitting in the lineup.
  • Watch people up and riding—can you see a potential collision brewing long before it happens? 
  • Did someone time their paddle-out poorly and end up taking a set wave on the head? Could they have waited one more minute and had a much easier path out to the lineup?

Just like the football analogy, the ability to read all the variables and start making educated guesses about what is happening next means you are really starting to understand the subtleties of what is happening in the surf zone. 

This ability comes with time—of course—but it also comes with watching with purpose

As you familiarize yourself with the surf lineup, use your time wisely and watch with intention. 

I promise you it will speed up the learning curve tremendously.

This article is an excerpt from our upcoming Almond's Guide to Your First Year of Surfing