Are you a stand-up paddleboarder looking to learn to SUP surf? Surfing waves on a SUP is a very different sport from flatwater SUPing. To surf waves on your SUP, there are a few new skills you need to acquire.
Not to worry though, if you’re comfortable paddling your SUP in flatwater, including on those windy and choppy days, you probably have a good head start over a beginner SUPer or even surfer!
As an experienced SUP surfer, I often get to help friends get started on their SUPs in small waves. The following 10 tips are dawn from my own experience as well as seeing others learn and progress. Here they are:
1. How to SUP surf: getting the right gear
Surf SUP board
If you want to SUP surf, the first thing you’ll need is an adequate SUP board. Is that different from a stand-up paddleboard used for cruising or racing? Well, that depends on your current SUP size.
In order to ride waves on your SUP, you need to balance floatability and maneuverability. The longer a SUP board, the slower it will turn in the surf. The wider a SUP board, the less it will hold up in hollower waves.
A good surf SUPer could probably make do any SUP board in waves, however, depending on your level and the type of waves you ride, it can be much harder to learn on a non-surf SUP. I could go on for hours about surf SUP feature choice based on skill level, waves type, riding style, etc. But let’s make it simple:
- For SUP surfing, pick a SUP size smaller than what you use for cruising or touring. If you ride a 10-12 foot SUP, choose a 9′-ish surf SUP. If you’re used to cruising on a 9-10 foot SUP, get an 8 to 9′ SUP for waves.
- For SUP surfing, pick a board no wider than 30 or 31″ – that’s usually the case for a 9″-something SUP. Too wide will not work well other than in really mushy waves.
- Get a SUP that has a surfboard-type shape, vs one that looks like a canoe or a floater. It should typically look like an oversized shortboard surfboard or an oversized longboard surfboard.
- Try to choose a surf SUP that’s not too heavy. As a rule of thumb, choose a surf SUP you can grab by its handle and carry under your arm all the way to the water without needing to put it down for a rest.
At the beginner stage, it’s usually best to stay on the higher end of the surf SUP size spectrum (though again, shorter than a flatwater SUP). Don’t expect to learn to surf SUP on a 7″!
Be aware, however, that if you get hooked on SUP surfing, you’ll probably switch to a smaller SUP after just a few months so you can ride better waves. A used board is therefore a good option for your first surf SUP.
Surf SUP paddle
When cruising or touring on a SUP, you can typically get away with any sort of SUP paddle, including a heavier adjustable paddle made from plastic and/or metal.
For SUP surfing, however, using a super lightweight paddle makes a big difference, when paddling through the surf, when changing sides for quick turns in the wave, when pushing your paddle away from you before getting smashed by a wave, etc.
So my advice is, invest in a full-carbon SUP paddle. They are pricier, but you can probably find a good second-hand deal – that’s why I did for my first paddle.
What about surf SUP paddle size? For touring and cruising, your paddle should generally be a few inches taller than you. For SUP surfing, on the other hand, your paddle should be about your height (harder on the body to paddle but easier to maneuver).
With a brand new paddle, you’ll typically adjust it once by cutting it down to the right size. If getting a second hand, make sure the paddle is not too short to begin with!
Surf SUP leash
Your third essential piece of gear when learning how to SUP surf is your leg rope. Since your first surf SUP board will likely be bulky and relatively heavy, you’ll typically need a longer and thicker leash – a regular surfboard leash will likely snap quickly as your SUP keeps getting swept away by a wave, pulling hard on your leash (and leg).
With regards to length, a rule of thumb is, get a leash that’s at least the length of your surf SUP. On the other hand, an excessively long leash will keep tangling around your feet, and will make it more likely for your SUP to hit another surfer when a wave drags your board away.
So if you’re choosing a 9-foot surf SUP, go for a leash in the 9-10 foot range. Do not pick a coiled leash for SUP surfing! They can be dangerous due to both recoil and extended length in the waves.
A standard surf SUP leash thickness, e.g. 5/16″, will generally do. If you’re faced with several options, the heavier your surf SUP and the stronger the waves, the thicker a leash you want.
Thicker and longer leashes, however, have more drag in the water – you may feel it if you paddle a lot. Typically however, you’ll learn SUP surfing in mellow waves.
2. How to SUP surf: picking the right spot
Besides equipment, the next most important factor is finding the right place for learning to SUP surf. Here are some key things to look for in a good beginner surf SUP spot:
Gentle small waves
Look for a spot with smaller waves and gentle whitewater, no big sets breaking across the horizon.
A channel for paddling out
You want a spot where waves are breaking in one area and a relatively flat water channel on the side for you to easily paddle back out to the lineup on your SUP.
Smooth water surface
You want a beach with little or no chop, meaning which typically implies no wind or slight side/offshore wind (wind blowing toward the waves, not the beach). It’s a lot easier to learn to SUP surf when the water surface is glassy between the waves!
No rocks for SUP surf
Look for a place with sandy bottoms or, if there are rocks, enough water depth. While learning to SUP surf, you will fall quite a lot. When that happens, you don’t want to hit shallow rocks nor break your SUP on them.
A beach entry spot is better than a point break where you need to jump off the rocks with your SUP. Also, try to pick a beach break without a strong shore break – it can be very hard pushing your big SUP across those waves.
For learning to SUP surf, choose a place with few surfers/SUPers. You’ll often have to let go with your SUP board in the waves while learning, with the common risk of hitting someone. Also, if there are too many good surfers in the lineup, you may not be able to catch a lot of waves.
3. How to SUP surf: getting out into the water
One of the first challenges of learning to SUP surf is to get out in the water. If you’re learning at a beach break, the first thing you need to learn is how to push your relatively bulky SUP through the shore break while holding your paddle in your other hand. Initially, you’ll want to get past the shore break before hopping onto your SUP and stand up paddle toward the peak.
The technique simply involves floating your SUP board on top of the water, grabbing it firmly by its handle, and dynamically pushing it toward and over each incoming whitewater or small wave. Keep your SUP perpendicular to the wave so it doesn’t get dragged backward toward the shore.
After you walk out in the water for a while grabbing your floating SUP and paddle, you’ll start getting too deep to walk. At that point, get onto your surf SUP board in prone position.
Tuck your paddle blade under your torso, with the handle sticking out far in front of you, like an arrow or a ship bow. Then, start paddling with your hands like on a surfboard.
This is a very handy technique for paddling in small surf until you build up the skills to stand up paddle through the waves. Advanced SUP surfers often use surfboard-style prone paddling when conditions make it hard to stand up paddle to the peak, or for resting their leg muscles after riding many long waves.
If the spot you’ll be learning to SUP surf at is a point break (and you have no other option), the prone paddling technique will also be very valuable. Typically, getting out at a point break involves jumping off the rocks and immediately lying down prone on your surf SUP with your paddle tucked under you, paddling out with your hands.
4. How to SUP surf: paddling through the surf
Once you’re comfortable getting out in the surf and getting past the shore break (or jumping off the rocks), The next stage in learning how to SUP surf is to stand up and paddle to the peak.
How to stand up on a surf SUP
While you may already know how to stand up and paddle on flatwater, paddling in the surf is a different story. Chop and waves typically make it hard to get up and stay on your feet. Also, your surf SUP will typically be smaller and less stable than your cruising SUP.
Beginner surf SUPers often start by kneeling on their board before standing. Kneeling can definitely help you build up your balance on your new surf SUP in waves. You can get familiar with your board’s size and proportion, and where to place your knees/feet. Paddling while kneeling on your surf SUP is in itself the first challenge.
Standing up in the surf initially takes patience and perseverance. At first, you will fall so many times you may be tempted to give up. Again, having a flatwater channel for paddling out next to the wave area helps a lot, but not every beach spot has this kind of configuration.
Popping up without kneeling
Some SUP surfers find that going from a prone position to kneeling to a stand-up position actually makes things harder. Although it may seem more challenging, you can practice popping up on your feet from lying down prone, like surfboard riders do at takeoff.
This forces you to immediately get in the right stance on your surf SUP, ready to face the incoming waves.
Another option is to first sit on your surf SUP, then bring your feet under you to pop up (no kneeling). Before popping up, you put the paddle down across the SUP in front of you. I find this popup technique the easiest to perform.
Pro tip: if your surf SUP is much smaller than you’re used to and/or there is significant chop, making things very unstable, try to stand up as quickly as possible and start paddling immediately. The initial momentum from your moving SUP will help you find your balance more easily.
On very small and unstable SUPs, advanced riders often start by taking a few strong hand-paddling strokes in prone position before standing in order to get their SUP moving for better stability.
Surf SUP paddle stance
When cruising on a SUP, you typically stand with your feet parallel and facing forward. You may use a similar stance on your surf SUP, however, depending on your board’s size and shape, you may feel more stable pulling one foot slightly backward- e.g. a few inches back.
This can help spread your weight over the board’s center area.
Passing whitewater and breaking waves
I’ve talked about paddling through small waves while in prone position with your paddle tucked under you. Once you get comfortable standing and paddling around moving water, you can practice going over whitewater while standing.
This is a subtle skill and you will initially fall almost every time you try to paddle across whitewater or a breaking wave. The trick here is to face the wave head-on, perpendicular to it, and take a strong paddle stroke at the exact moment you hit the wave/whitewater.
Simultaneously, shift your weight slightly backward on your surf SUP and push the board up against the wave with your feet.
This technique will take practice and may not work with bigger crashing waves. For stronger waves, you just jump off your surf SUP and let the wave sweep it away until the leash stops the SUP’s momentum.
Be prepared for a rough pull on your ankle and leg – try to let your body flow along with the wave to reduce the impact of the pull.
5. How to SUP surf: positioning yourself for waves
Once you’re comfortable paddling (standing up) and passing small waves, you’re ready to get to the peak. When learning to SUP surf it’s easier to try to catch green, unbroken waves vs whitewater. Broken waves generally move and shake your SUP a lot and tend to make you lose balance.
So you mentally pick an incoming green wave in the distance and paddle toward it. Once you’re close enough, you need to turn your SUP around toward the beach. Turning quickly is a crucial technique in SUP surfing.
180º surf SUP turning technique
You do this by taking wider circular paddle strokes away from the rail opposite the turning direction. You also push one foot backward toward the tail while turning, which helps your board pivot around its tail.
Once you’re facing the beach, start paddling hard to gain momentum before the wave starts pushing you. Be sure to have your weight centered so your surf SUP is floating evenly on top of the water and your tail and nose are not underwater.
Parallel turning technique
Turning your surf SUP around 180º typically will make your board lose momentum, which you then have to build up again before the wave gets to you.
A more advanced technique for catching waves on your surf SUP is, as you’re paddling toward an incoming wave, you turn slightly to get parallel to the wave while still paddling.
Then, as the wave starts reaching you (you’re still paddling), you take another hard stroke to turn toward the beach (say a 45º course change) while simultaneously dropping into the wave.
With this technique, you never stop paddling and maintain the momentum of your SUP, progressively adjusting your direction from facing the wave to facing the beach for takeoff. This avoids doing a hard 180º U-turn followed by heavy paddling to get moving again.
SUP surf takeoff positioning
When learning how to SUP surf, one of the challenges of catching waves is understanding when and where to turn around (or paddle parallel) and get into the wave.
While shortboard surfers typically need to place themselves right where the wave starts breaking, as a SUP surfer you have flexibility due to higher speed (momentum) and paddling power (using a paddle). This lets you catch wave much earlier.
This means you can place yourself further to sea and catch the waves before they start breaking – hence before surfers do! That’s one of the reasons surfers dislike surf SUPers so much: they’re able to catch waves long before they do, giving them the right of way for those waves.
6. How to SUP surf: paddling into a wave
So you’ve turned your surf SUP around and you’re now about to drop into the wave to ride it. As you’re about to take off on your surf SUP, you take stronger than normal paddle strokes to boost your SUP into the wave.
The best approach to paddling into the wave is to take a series of fast, short, hard strokes – vs longer normal strokes when merely moving around. Try to use your hips for stronger paddling power.
If you’re catching the wave early, you need more boost than if the wave is already close to breaking. One way to help your surf SUP tip over into the wave is to shift more weight onto your front foot and load up the nose – you can even slide your front foot slightly forward.
As mentioned, when paddling on your SUP you’ll generally have your feet parallel or nearly so. Once you drop into the wave, you switch to a surf/skate stance, that is with your feet sideways with one foot forward and the other backward.
Whether you have your left foot (“regular”) or right foot (“goofy”) in the front on your surf SUP depends on your natural stance (typically the sams stance for all boardsports).
The switch from a parallel stance to a surf stance must be very quick immediately before dropping into the wave.
As soon as you feel your SUP dropping into the wave, you should pull back your front foot, or in a hollower wave, even shift your whole stance backward to avoid nosediving.
7. How to SUP surf: riding the wave
For most SUPers, riding the wave is the easy part! You just let yourself glide down the green part of the wave (left or right depending on the wave) and enjoy the ride.
The size of your surf SUP (typically significantly larger than a surfboard) will often give you the momentum you need to maintain speed as the wave peels.
Sometimes, the wave you’re riding may soften up and lose energy, in which case you can use your paddle to get some speed again until you get into a more dynamic section.
Adjusting your stance is an important aspect of SUP surfing a wave, particularly on bigger surf SUPs. When you’re losing momentum, you can shift your weight forward while paddling at the same time. When gaining speed, or when the wave gets hollower, shifting your weight back can prevent nosediving.
Once you get comfortable riding a wave, you can start practicing sharp turns on your surf SUP using your paddle as an additional fin. So as you make a turn at the bottom or at the top of the wave, start sticking your paddle blade into the water on the side of the turn to make it sharper.
8. Getting out of a wave on your surf SUP
There are times when you need to get out of a wave on your surf SUP, e.g. when you realize someone is riding in front of you (avoid collisions), the wave closes up before you, or you just feel like exiting the wave and paddling back out.
Getting out of a wave as you’re about to drop into it, other than just diving off your SUP and hoping for the best, requires using your paddle to slow yourself down until the wave passes you by.
Kicking out of a wave you’re already engaged in on your surf SUP involves using your feet to steer your SUP forcefully up and out of the wave.
Sometimes, the only way to exit a wave on a surf SUP is to jump off and hold on to the leash. Try to scan the water first to make sure there’s no-one downstream from you who might get hit by you SUP.
In this guide, I tried to share as much as possible of my experience to help you get started with SUP surfing. Each of the steps mentioned is important and will take some time to master.
Graduating to a small surf SUP will typically make your wave riding more lively and fun, but your paddling, takeoff setup, and wave passing may be more challenging until you acquire the required balance skills.
SUP surfing is my greatest passion, if you stick to it, it may just change your life. It will also keep you in great shape for years, just be sure to stretch and warm-up before your sessions.
(1) “Campeonato de España de Longboard y SUP” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by El Coleccionista de Instantes
(2) “Campeonato de España de Longboard y SUP” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by El Coleccionista de Instantes
(3) “stand up paddle boarder” (CC BY 2.0) by dcysurfer / Dave Young