Catching waves

Through this article, I hope to make your life a little easier and more rewarding when out in the surf on your SUP board.

Words and pics: Scott Warren

SUP surfing is one of the most enjoyable ways to get out on the water. The feeling of floating over the surface is unlike anything else as you glide effortlessly on a wave. It’s also one of the most beneficial for your skills and fitness as your push yourself to catch more waves and burn plenty of calories as your paddle. Catching waves, however, is not an easy skill to master, especially when conditions become a little trickier or the waves get bigger. Through this article, I hope to make your life a little easier and more rewarding when out in the surf on your SUP board.

Jargon buster
a position out beyond the break waves.
Inside: being inside the breaking waves.
Caught Inside: being on the Inside and unable to get Out-Back easily.
The Line Up: the optimal position for catching the waves.
Rip Current: water flowing back out to deeper water from the shoreline.
Take Off: the point where you catch the wave a begin riding under its power.
The Surf Zone: the name given to the entire shore area, water and waves where surfing takes place.
The Drop-in: when you have caught the wave and drop-in to the wave to start riding it.

SUP surfing… it’s easy
You might already be a reasonably experienced paddler or even a surfer of traditional prone boards, so does that mean you will be out there catching every wave you see on your SUP? Well, whilst it will undoubtedly be advantageous for you, it’s also very easy to miss waves when using a paddle. The biggest advantage you will have in the waves is your vision due to being stood up and the power and speed that comes from using a paddle. However, these can also be your biggest problem, as we will look at next.

The paddle
Firstly let’s tackle the paddle. So you have more speed, can quickly move around the surf zone and can produce lots of power to catch waves, so that surely means catching them is easy, right? Well, not so. Have you ever tried to do a sprint start on your board? Even 14’ narrow race boards will quickly turn in the opposite direction to your paddle side, so imagine what a shorter all-round or surf shape board will do. They practically spin in a circle before you have moved anywhere.
So what can you do to combat this and get yourself lined up to catch waves easier? Welcome to the school of less is more.

Too much power
Sometimes less is more, and when your start paddling to catch waves, this is undoubtedly true. Too much power will result in the board turning quickly, so instead, take some smaller, softer strokes to get going and then paddle harder as your speed increases. This will also allow you to keep yourself stable against any bumps on the water’s surface as the board will remain flatter as you gather speed as well.

The draw stroke
When you start paddling for a wave, using a draw stroke is a great way to hold your line better as you build up speed. It can also help you keep in position against wind and currents while waiting for other waves to come through. You place the paddle out wider than your usual entry point and pull the board’s nose slightly before completing your stroke in a curved motion to do a draw stroke. With practice, you can angle the blade to adjust how much draw you create, helping you to paddle on one side for longer.

I can see everything
By far, the biggest advantage of SUP surfing is how much you can see due to being stood up. If you have ever prone surfed, lying down in even two-foot waves restricts your view of what’s happening around you. So now you can see everything, does that mean you should go for every wave? Well, the answer is a yes and no depending on the situation and location you are surfing.

Yes – try and catch everything
One of the best ways to progress is to throw yourself in the deep end and try to catch every wave in sight. Being so active in the surf zone will push your progression as you have to deal with more waves, paddling out and riding them back in. Every wave is unique, so you learn way more skills such as different turns, positioning and controlling your board than if you are stood way out beyond the breaking waves all the time.

No – watching is sometimes best
Whilst riding waves is a great way to learn your surfing skills, sometimes getting out back and watching will teach you more. You can start to see wave shapes, the best position you should be in and what the other paddlers and surfers are doing. The opportunity to have a break should also be taken, as it’s surprising how quickly SUP Surfing can tire you out. There is another reason, too; surf etiquette. I will cover this in more detail later on, but for now, just because you can catch every wave doesn’t mean you should. If it’s busy in the surf, be sure to let other people get their fair share of waves.

It’s all about positioning
The way you catch waves on a SUP is different from prone surfing as you can’t just sit in one spot watching the waves, then spin 180 degrees and start paddling. If you did that on a SUP board, you would most likely end up being side on to the waves by the time the wave you are trying to catch passes under you. Instead, you want to position yourself side on to the waves or facing towards them before starting to paddle. Then as you begin to paddle around to meet the wave, you will be ready to take off aiming at the beach.

The line-up
On beaches or reefs, you can often see a particular position where the waves will break first, usually over a sand bar or higher part of the reef. This position is what surfers call the lineup. As the prime place to catch waves from, surfers will line up at this position to wait their turn to catch the next wave.
Using your feet

So now you have a rough idea of where you should be and how to paddle for waves, what’s should you do with your feet? If you recall my first article, ‘Footwork’ (SUP Mag UK June 2021 issue 29), you may well remember the ‘Ready’ stance. All too often, I see beginners out in the waves stood in their normal paddling stance until they are just about to catch the wave. They then do a big jump back into a surf stance, fall off the back or side of the board, and miss the wave more often than not. So what’s happening here?

If you are just about to catch the wave, you are more likely to miss it if you make a sudden big movement. As a rule of thumb, the bigger a wave gets, the faster it travels, so you have to be paddling faster as well. A big jump will suddenly stall the board as you apply downward pressure with your body weight, effectively hitting the breaks. The wave then passes under the board, or if you get it slightly wrong, you can fall off sideways as you lose your balance.

The Ready Stance
Using this stance instead allows you to keep your balance, control the board and keep paddling until you have fully caught the wave. From this stance, you can quickly move forwards or backwards depending on if the wave flattens out or peaks up tall. The Ready Stance is simply a slight offset in your feet, so your front foot is pointed towards the centre, and your back foot comes back and behind, so you are in a 45-degree angle to the board’s direction. You have opened your hips, meaning you have maximum balance and can control the board how you need to.

The last three stokes
So you are doing all of the above but still missing waves, chances are you’re missing the last three stokes. As you begin to catch the wave, it is all too tempting to let the adrenalin take control and try to get riding it straight away. This is the critical point where the wave fully peaks, and you need to complete the drop-in. All you need to do is keep paddling, take three more big strokes and don’t rush trying to ride the wave; after all, your paddle is a huge advantage if you keep using it. From there on, it is controlling the board and enjoy the ride.

Let’s sum it up
SUP surfing is a great way to enjoy your paddling. It’s addictive, great fun and pushes your general paddling, unlike most other SUP disciplines. It offers you consistent challenges, every session is different, and the progression is endless. Sometimes it can be frustrating when you have a tricky session or the conditions aren’t right but don’t be surprised if you find yourself researching new moves or studying swell predictions.

If I could give two bits of advice to beginners, it’s this. Firstly take your time to learn about the surf zone, waves and what makes them break. Studying the conditions to get some basic knowledge will pay you back a thousand times over when you hit the beach. Secondly, when you are ready, sit and watch for 10 minutes first, watch what the waves are doing, how other surfers position themselves and where the dangers might be. Then when you are ready to go, get stuck in and enjoy the ride.

Surf etiquette
SUP is a very popular recreational activity and sport now, with its ease of use and accessibility makes it a great way to get into watersports. This very nature also means that things like SUP surfing is not beyond the recreational paddler and learning to SUP surf is in many ways easier than prone surfing. One of the advantages is how easy it is to get out-back on a SUP board on smaller days, so you can quickly find yourself out with other surfers and ready to go.

Stand up paddlers, however, are often given a bad reputation in the surf, and you may well have heard surfers saying how the paddler just caught everything and dropped in on someone else, for example. Surfers are also very protective about their home spots. Usually, they dread the summer swells when tourists, novice surfers, and other water users hit the beach, meaning the surf zone can be intimidating.

Whilst I won’t cover every rule of surf etiquette now, here are a few essential pointers to get you going. Please do, of course, take some time to research surf etiquette before you hit the waves so you and others can enjoy your time on the water even more.

Paddle out and take your time – if there are other surfers in the water when you first paddle out, be prepared to wait for 10 or 20 minutes before catching a wave. This will show everyone you’re not just going to come charging through on your big SUP board and wipe everyone else out.

Take the first wave easy – don’t rush to get the big moves in straight away; show you can control your board and are capable of being in the surf.

Give others room – don’t crowd over someone, especially if they are on a prone board. Being stood up can look intimidating especially wielding a paddle.

Find a wave to yourself – if it’s busy, look for waves to surf by yourself. On a SUP board, it’s easy to paddle off to find the empty waves, whereas surfers will often stay close to the main peak.

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