So you've got two weeks' vacation in L.A., far from New York, Chicago or Houston, and you're dreaming the classic dream — to surf in SoCal. To pull it off you've got to toss out the myths and know the ten steps that get you up on a surfboard and keep you there.
Crucial preliminaries: Don't fall for the B.S. that long boards are dorky. You will surf on vacation only if you use a 9-10 foot board (for women, an 8-9 foot board). And being a snowboarder or skateboarder gives you almost zero advantage. The only athletes really pre-equipped to surf are butterfly swimmers – they can paddle like hell to keep up with a wave, then (thanks to those shoulders) “pop up” on the surfboard to ride it in.
You want 2-3 foot surf, never bigger. Go to an uncrowded beach so you won't be a hazard to experienced surfers. Pick your uncrowded, low-surf beach at surfline.com or swellmagnet.com, by checking their live surfcams and surf conditions. Once you get out on the water and you're on your board waiting for a wave, observe “wave etiquette” or a total stranger will beat the crap out of you. Under wave etiquette, wait your turn for a wave whose “peak” – that white cap that's beginning to break – is closer to you than to anyone else waiting. Never get in front of a surfer on a wave – known as “snaking” or “dropping in,” it's cause for violence.
Still interested? Here then, are the 10 crucial steps to learn how to surf on your summer vacation:
1. The Pop-Up
Practice this yoga-like move by doing a pushup flat from the floor or sand, then hopping your feet forward to where your stomach just was. Do not stand up where your feet already are. The jump forward from the pushup stance to near the center of the surfboard is a must. Practice this a lot on a floor to get the trick.
2. Goofy-Footed or Regular-Footed?
Never try to deny which footed type you are, or you'll never get a chance to surf. Figure out if you are goofy-footed or regular-footed by running in socks on a hardwood floor toward a wall, then try to slide and stop. Which foot do you put forward? Goofy-footed is right foot forward. Regular-footed is left foot forward.
Sit in the place that makes the board parallel to the water, not with either end “submarining.” This gives you maximum glide. Beginners sit too far back, usually, and are totally exhausted by unnecessary over-paddling.
4. Paddling into the Break
Look for a “channel” where waves aren't breaking, a calm area where you can pass between waves. But if a wave does come while you're paddling out, get through it by “turtling,” which sounds hard but is very easy. Take a big breath, grab your board rails, and flip your board (and yourself) completely upside-down to zip under the wave. Try it out and then repeatedly use this fun, easy skill.
5. Choose Your Wave
The curl, or white cap, should be 20-30 feet deeper into the ocean than your board position. Look both ways to be sure nobody else is paddling into that wave, then start paddling as hard as you can the other way, toward the beach.
6. Grab the Wave
This is the point where lots of beginners fail. You're on your wave, lying on your board and you're pointed toward the beach. Unless you paddle as hard as you humanly can to move the same speed as the wave, it zips right past you. Butterfly swimmers have the muscle needed here. Everyone else has to suck it up. Seriously suck it up.
7. Pop-Up Timing
This timing is the biggest mistake beginners make. Once you're moving with the wave's momentum, you'll feel a strange sensation — the wave is catching you. It's great! But beginners feel the “sensation,” stop paddling and try to pop up on their board. The wave then goes under them and is gone. Somebody else catches that wave. When you feel the sensation, paddle two to four strokes as hard as you possibly can. Then pop up.
8. Pop Up Technique
As you did in your floor practicing, do a push-up from your surfboard and land on your feet where your stomach was. Your feet must be sideways to the board, your body twisted at the waist, your feet turned out a bit duck-like. The board will try to tip so be focused on landing at dead center with both feet at same time, shoulder-wide apart, knees bent. If you are goofy-footed, your right foot will be closest to shore. Regular-footeds will place the left foot closest to shore.
9. The Ride
How do you ride to the beach, the ultimate dream? Stay ahead of the curl. If the curl is catching up to you, add some speed to your board by walking the plank forward — take only one or two steps forward. Or, lean back on your heels or forward on the balls of your feet, which catches the board edge just as you catch your edge in skiing. As the water catches your board edge, point your “leading shoulder” — the shoulder closest to the beach, where you want to go. Your board will follow.
10. Exiting the Wave
When you realize you can't make it past a breaking wave, give up. Do not attempt to paddle through it. Take a huge breath and try to jump through the wave, away from the beach and into open ocean. (This is to avoid the whitewash and not get carried to the beach, which forces you into a long and tiring paddle back out to the break). If you get pushed underwater, grab your leash and “walk” hand-over-hand up the leash to get back to air. Never push your board out when you fall – that turns a board into a dangerous missile headed at other people's chests or heads. Grab your board if you can, reach for your leash if you can find it. If you get tumbled by the ocean, don't flail trying to find “up.” Instead, go limp. You'll naturally come up to the surface.
Here's some other stuff you should know, but if you teach yourself the Ten Rules, you'll be able to surf on vacation in Los Angeles:
— Expect to see about 40 surfable waves per hour, or 60 per hour on a good day. That means you will have a turn only about twice per hour if 20 surfers are waiting in the water. If you pick a spot out in the water and stay there, eventually a wave will come to you. Then it's your turn. That's why locals patiently sit on the boards far from the beach.
— Don't go to crowded areas. The crowd of guys who have been surfing there for years, and are waiting often nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, won't let you have your turn. You'll get “snaked” by a local who back-paddles around you to take the wave.
— You wax the top of the board, not the bottom. The rental shop will sell you the right one based on the day's water temperature. The wax grips the bottom of your foot, giving you needed friction on an otherwise slippery board. Wax the middle two-thirds of the board. You'll use about ½ to ¾ of a bar on a long board.
— You can tell a beginner by how much shit they schlep to the beach – towels, board bags, clothes. People can steal your stuff, a wave can wash it to sea – or the sand can claim it. Put on your board shorts and wetsuit in the car, lock up everything and hide your keys in the bushes or in your wetsuit key pouch.
— Use a wetsuit until the Pacific turns really warm, which usually isn't until late August or early September.
— To avoid injury, warm up your cardio system and get in some good stretching before you surf. Shoulder and elbow injuries are common, as are hamstring, calf and neck injuries.
Dave Surber, who moved to Los Angeles from Michigan four years ago, is an entrepreneur and working actor, yoga instructor, rock climbing guide and former professional snowboarder.
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