This is the first in a series of articles on learning how to surf. Keep an eye out for more surf tips on reading the weather and waves, learning basic skills and going out the back to ride green waves. The tips have all been tried and tested at my surf school in Raglan
What Equipment do I Need?
It’s much easier to learn how to surf if you have the right equipment from the beginning. A common error people make is trying to learn on a board that is too small. This will seriously handicap you and you’ll probably find it difficult just to lie on the board and paddle – standing will be near impossible.
I’ll go into detail about suitable surfboards soon, but first let’s list all the equipment you’ll need if you want to learn how to surf properly.
- Leg-rope + string for attaching it
- Fins + fin key
- Wax + waxcomb
- Tail pad (optional)
- Board bag (optional)
That’s pretty much all you’ll need. If you damage your board a ding repair kit might come in handy but it’s probably easier just to get any dings professionally repaired.
What You Need to Know About Surfboards
This image highlights the main parts of a surfboard:
You’ll soon realise that there are several different tail shapes. The above board is a swallow tail. Different tail shapes have different characteristics but when you’re learning to surf it won’t be that noticeable. Most beginner’s boards come with round or square tails.
Another term you will come across is volume. The volume of a board is important because 2 boards with the same width, length and thickness can actually vary significantly in volume. One might float you well and be easy to paddle and surf, the other may not float you well at all. You can find out a suitable volume for your size and ability using this volume guide from CSA Surfboards.
Surfboards come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, plus the materials they are made of vary greatly too. They fit in to 2 broad categories, long boards and short boards.
These 2 types of boards almost have 2 separate cultures around them. Longboards are great for catching small waves and cruising or performing traditional surfing moves like riding the nose. The shortboard is more suited to waves with some power and shortboarders are usually keen to surf more aggressively, performing vertical turns, air moves and sharper turns.
It doesn’t matter whether you see yourself as more of a longboarder or shortboarder, you need to learn how to surf on a longboard first. Doing so will not only make it easier to learn, it will teach you the proper way to turn a board and you can take that skill with you if you become a shortboarder in the future.
Soft-tops are a type of board made specifically for beginners. They are usually shaped like a typical longboard but have a soft deck and rails to reduce the chance of injury. Most surf schools use these and they are the best option when you’re starting out.
If your small in size go for a soft-board around 8ft long, average size male or larger female around 9ft long, if you’re over 90kg or 6ft tall you’ll probably find a 10ft board easier.
Some people don’t want to be seen with a “learners board” and think that they will learn faster on a tiny shortboard. That is a huge mistake to make. The top brands of soft-top actually surf really well and it takes a while before you outgrow them.
I recommend you have a few surf lessons so you’ll probably be on a soft-top anyway, but after that it’s good if you can hire one for a little while (a week or 2) and surf as much as possible. Aim to learn the basics on it and get to the point where you can stand up easily, stall and accelerate your board and perform basic turns both directions plus catch and ride across unbroken (green) waves.
Once you’ve got the basics of surfing sorted on the soft-top you can move on to a more conventional board that will still be easy to surf, but will be a bit lighter and easier to manage.
There are a few companies that make these kind of boards. NSP, Torq and Bic are a few to keep an eye out for. They still have the same outline as a longboard, surf pretty well and are made out of some sort of moulded plastic and are usually a bit cheaper than your standard board that is made from foam and fibreglass.
These boards usually come in models suitable for beginners so length will be the main deciding factor, based on your size.
You could also go with a standard fibreglass board, however the dimensions will vary and you’ll need to make sure that the width, thickness and volume are all suitable for your size and surfing ability. Best to ask for help if you go this way.
The good thing about these next-step boards is they have a range of models that go from full longboard down to hybrid boards (smaller but still longboard shape and round nose), down to fat shortboards. If you want to progress to a shortboard you can benefit from using these different models as you improve.
What You Need to Know About Other Surfing Gear
Wetsuits are vital in New Zealand even in summer. They keep you warm, stop you getting rash from your board, and also help reduce injuries to some extent. Do you want to surf through winter? If you really want to learn how to surf you kind of need to, and it’s not that cold if you have a good wetsuit.
Wetsuits are named by style and thickness. A full length suit is called a steamer, a short arm and leg wetsuit is a springsuit. A 4/3 means 4mm thick rubber on the body and 3mm for the arms and legs. Wetsuits generally come in 4/3, 3/2, and 2ml.
For winter in NZ you’ll need a 4/3 steamer or maybe a 5/4 down south. A 2ml short arm steamer is good for summer, as is a springsuit.
There are other features like chest zips, batwings etc and they are always changing. You get what you pay for and a good suit is a good investment. If you can only afford one wetsuit for all year round, I’d say get a 4/3 steamer as it’s better to be hot than cold.
Leg-ropes attach you to your board and are a must have for safety reasons. Some models will also need a small string to attach it to the finplug in your board, but many of the modern legropes have the string built in so you don’t need to worry.
The size of legrope you need will depend on your board size and the waves you want to surf (the bigger the waves the longer the legrope). When you buy one tell the person you need it for a longboard and they will get you the right size. A standard 6ft shortboard legrope will not work well with a longboard.
If you need a string, when you tie it on, make sure it doesn’t overhang the rail of your board as this can easily damage the rail. Tie it nice and tight so that the legrope’s “railsaver” lies over the rail. The best way to tie it is to loop it through the leash-plug as shown in this photo >>
Fins are also vital for your board as they give stability and a pivot point for turning the board. Some boards have fixed fins so you might not need to worry too much, but there’s a good chance you’ll have detachable fins so you’ll need to know a little bit about them and how to insert them.
They come in a huge range of shapes and sizes but most boards will come with stock standard fins that are suitable for it.
Soft-tops, next-step boards and shortboards will generally have 3 fin plugs. You will find that the longer boards may have a large centre fin whereas the smaller boards will have 3 small fins. The large centre fin will stiffen the board up and add stability.
When you buy your first board, it’s good to go with the standard fin setup it comes with – you know that it will work. Don’t get too technical about fins until you’ve got a bit further down the track.
For now just learn how to attach and detach them using a fin key. You can get these at any surf shop cheaply. Do the fins up tight but don’t go overboard. They should sit flush with the board’s surface and make sure that you put the fins in the right places. The fin that is curved on both sides goes in the centre plug, the 2 side fins only have 1 side curved and this side should be facing out. Common sense really.
Wax is applied to the deck of your board to provide grip for your feet. You won’t need it on a soft-top as they are already grippy. There are different batches for different water temperatures so make sure you ask for the right one. If you try and use summer wax in winter it will be hard as a rock and your foot won’t grip. If you use winter wax in summer it will be greasy and slippery.
I recommend sex wax – green or purple label for the NZ winter, orange or red label for summer (from memory so double-check at the surf-shop).
Rub it on nose to tail, then rail to rail and repeat until you have little bumps forming. Get a wax comb too and use it to remove old wax or to comb the top layer for extra grip.
A Tailpad can also be used instead of wax for your back foot. They are good for shortboards but don’t worry too much when you are still learning to surf on a longboard.
Boardbags are vital for travelling overseas but optional otherwise. A good idea to protect your board when it goes on the roof of a car.
There are 2 types, a basic day bag or a travel “coffin”. You can get a basic boardbag pretty cheap but the travel ones will cost a few hundred bucks as they are much bigger and can often fit several boards.
Should I Learn How to Surf before I Buy Gear?
I would say go get a few surf lessons, maybe even my beginners surf course in Raglan. Then if possible, hire a soft-top and go somewhere where you can surf everyday for a week or so. This will get you to the point where you are ready for a next-step surfboard.
Then go to a surf shop or look on trademe for a next-step board in a size suitable for your height and weight as mentioned above. You could go brand new or secondhand as you will keep this board for quite a while. If you do go secondhand, just make sure the rails aren’t cracked and there are no dings letting in water.
Think about buying the wetsuit, board, legrope, wax all in one hit and you will be able to cut a bit of a deal. The standard fins should be included with the board’s price.
If you surf regularly, eg twice a week, stay on that board for 6 months to a year and you’ll hone a solid technique and be ready to move on to a new board. Maybe a fat shortboard with plenty of volume or a nice longboard if that’s more your style.
Hope that helps for those of you who want to learn how to surf. If you have any questions on equipment feel free to let me know!