Beginning to be an Intermediate Surfer

How do I progress from being a beginner surfer to an intermediate surfer?

This is the most common question I get, and I am going to preface the answer -

Reading the ocean is the foundation of surfing.

When waves break on the shore they offer opportunities for us to ride them, every wave is different and therefor offers a different way (or ways) to ride it. But before you can ride that wave you need to be able to see where you want to go, to see the path you want to surf, to read the ocean.

No matter what level surfer you are, catching the wave and popping up in the right place is the hardest thing in surfing. Once you are standing up on your board on the right part of the wave, surfing is easy. Reading the ocean, choosing the right wave, paddling into the wave at the right spot (entry), and popping up seamlessly are the hardest parts of surfing.

Beginner to Intermediate

This transition is where surfing begins to transform form a defined task into an Art. The beginner surfer has a very defined task - catch the whitewater, stand up and ride to the beach. Once you can stand up on the unbroken wave - the waves turns into a canvas to dance upon. Exciting

First we need to define the 2 categories:

Nick Carroll did a great job on Surfline so I will quote him:

A BEGINNER is a surfer who is yet to successfully paddle out alone and catch and ride a wave cleanly to its logical finish.

An INTERMEDIATE rider is a surfer who can successfully paddle out alone at a familiar location and catch and ride waves to a logical finish frontside or backside, confidently using the three basic surfing turns - bottom turn, top turn and cutback.

Quote taken from Surfline here:

Great definition, but we need to focus in.

Let’s define the transition between beginner to intermediate:

The final stages of the beginner surfer - competence at catching mostly broken waves and going straight to the beach.

The early stage intermediate surfer - learning to catch unbroken waves and riding the face of the wave (going along the wave).

So let’s make the assumption you can catch a broken wave, stand up and ride it straight to the beach and you are now attempting to catch unbroken waves and ride along the face of the wave.

Firstly, let’s celebrate your achievements so far, because the broken wave is very random and turbulent, its actually quite hard to catch a broken wave and stand up. In order to do this you must read the water in front of you (so you can see where you are going and see the path you want to take), ‘feel’ what water is doing underneath you, and have the strength and balance to stay on your board. So well done.

There is a perspective you have developed as a beginner that needs to be acknowledged so that you can retain it. Surfing begins as soon as you begin to paddle for a wave (not once you have stood up). The beginner surfer begins surfing the wave as soon as they start to paddle for the wave, as you begin to paddle you are pointing the board toward the direction of where you want to surf to (the beach), this ensures that the pop-up is simply part of surfing ie. nothing changes during the pop up, you maintain your speed, and can keep the board pretty stable. Inversely for most intermediate (and advanced) surfers, surfing begins once they get to their feet, this is the WORST perspective you can have in surfing because it downplays the importance of the entry and pop-up.

The beginner feels no pressure to stand up quickly because the beginner can stand up at anytime because he/she is surfing the wave the whole time. If you can take this concept and perspective into the rest of your surfing life then you will develop much faster.

So in order to catch unbroken waves, look for the same thing you were looking for as a beginner - a path to where you want to go, ie. how you want to surf the wave. Now you have already been doing this in the (mostly) flat water in front of the whitewater, you now need to learn to look for the path on the unbroken wave. So as you begin to paddle for the wave you are looking for the path, and already beginning to surf the wave and as you pop-up it doesn’t affect your surfing (its part of surfing).

During the process of popping up you need to try to maintain your speed and direction by keeping the board stable - not letting it nose dive or the nose come up, or wobbling from rail to rail.

So to summarize the concepts:

  1. The skill of reading the way water moves in front of you (and feeling it underneath you) must be modified to unbroken waves.

  2. The skill you have developed of being able to pop up slowly during the turbulence of the broken wave must be modified to do so during the acceleration of catching unbroken waves.

Practical tips

Below is a 7 step process to make the transition from beginner surfer to intermediate surfer, there is no rush, enjoy the process and stay safe.

  1. Stay in beginner mode and practice changing direction in the white water, (lying down) go from directly facing the beach to making small S turns from left to right by leaning from rail to rail, this should be subtle and gentle with the focus on maintaining speed.

  2. Try the same thing on your hands and knees,.

  3. Then standing.

  4. Practice going along the unbroken wave lying down, (there is no pressure to stand up).

  5. Then try going along an unbroken wave making small S turns from left to right by leaning from rail to rail, this should be subtle and gentle with the focus on maintaining speed.

  6. Try the same thing on your hands and knees.

  7. Then standing.

And stay on the same board you learnt on.

Audio version here:

Keep surfing.