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Learning To Surf On A Shortboard: Can It Be Done?

Learning To Surf On A Shortboard: Can It Be Done?

As a beginner, you may be tempted to start learning to surf on a shortboard. Perhaps you have a shortboard hanging around, or you’ve found a well-priced second-hand shortboard online.

Or maybe you’re just itching to invest in that hot-looking thruster to show off at the beach. Or, you just feel like you have the fitness and drive to start directly on a shortboard instead of wasting time on a longer beginner surfboard. Can you do it? Should you?

You certainly can, many people, including myself, have learned to surf on a shortboard. Would I do it again? The answer is a resounding NO!

Learning to surf on a shortboard will steepen your learning curve and slow down your progression. Catching your first real waves may take you months instead of weeks, possibly adding years to the time needed to truly surf the waves in style.

Even though I’ve been surfing for decades, I still regret wasting my first few surfing years trying to learn on a shortboard (because it was cool) instead of paying my dues on a big stable board with sufficient volume for my weight. I feel I never really caught up on that wasted time, and could have been a much better surfer today had I started the right way as a kid.

See also: complete hands-on guide to learning to surf

By the way, if you’re learning to surf, be sure to also check out my post about the greatest sunglasses I’ve found to actually go surfing with (as opposed to hanging out on the beach).

Also check out my in-depth review of OMBE, a very effective online surf training program with a progressive and interactive coaching approach with land, water, and surf skate drills. It uses a unique – and unified – method for building your skills in both surfing and surf skateboarding.

Why is learning on a shortboard harder?

When you’re learning to surf, you need a surfboard with lots of float and stability. A shortboard, typically 5’10 to 6’6 in length, requires a lot of wave power and very accurate positioning and weight distribution from the surfer (unless s/he is a really small person).

Learning to surf requires spending a lot of time on your board, and that’s much harder on a 5 or 6-foot shortboard that doesn’t have enough buoyancy for your weight. Even on a longer surfboard, it can take at least 6 months to learn to consistently catch a wave, pop up, and get to the shoulder of the wave. Doing so on a shortboard may add months to this learning stage.

Paddling is also harder on a shortboard. Popping up is significantly more unstable than on a longer board. Likewise, takeoffs are steeper due to the shorter length. The only thing that may be easier to learn on a shortboard is duck diving since there’s less volume to push down under the wave.

Starting to surf on a shortboard can make you waste a few months learning the basics vs a couple of weeks. Learners who set out to learn on a short and narrow thruster, but then switch to a longer board (e.g. an old single fin) immediately find themselves making much faster progress and getting much more waves.

What’s a good surfboard to learn to surf on, then?

As a beginner learning to surf, you should typically start with an 8-foot long board, and put in the necessary time, perhaps a whole year, to get your paddling, pop up, and balance basics down. You then work your way up to a shorter board. In fact, even before that you may start without a surfboard, bodysurfing or bodyboarding so as to get familiar with where and how to catch a wave.

It’s important to start with the right board and then move on to smaller boards as you get better. The slower you move down board sizes, the faster you’ll become a better shortboard surfer, there are no shortcuts. Many newbies who try to learn to surf on a shortboard end up quitting due to the steep learning curve.

As mentioned, an 8’+ longboard is a good choice for learning. Soft boards (foamies) shaped like mini-malibus (7 to 8 feet) are also a great option. The added foam volume will allow you to paddle faster and provide good stability when trying to pop up on your feet.

Learning to surf on too big a board, however, is not ideal either. Longboards over 8’2 are generally cumbersome and hard to maneuver, for paddling, turning around, and riding the wave. The best boards for learning to surf are sized between a shortboard and a big longboard – again, in the 7-8 foot range.

A good and inexpensive option to start on is something like a 7 or 8-foot Wavestorm foamie (Amazon page) – the size you’ll need depends on your weight and height. Your board will soon get all beat up and waterlogged but that’s OK, it will still work much better than a shortboard for learning.

wavestorm 8' classic soft top surfboard

Another good option is to get a 7+-foot Bic or Torq surfboard, which have a very durable epoxy construction as opposed to a regular polyester foam and resin shortboard (much easier to break and pricier). Once you get better, you can continue to learn on a shorter board though with enough volume such as a 6’6 Fourth Chilli Bean or Doofer (6’4).

What if I still want to learn to surf on a shortboard?

Again, it’s definitely possible, I know because I’ve done it. Just be ready to work harder and longer than someone with a more adequate learning surfboard. For example, someone with the right board may be able to pop up and actually ride waves after 6 or 7 weeks of going 3-4 times a week for at least 2 hours each session.

Unless you like learning the hard way, your learning experience on a shortboard will be much less fun and enjoyable as on a longer, more floatable board. On a shortboard, for example, you need more power to get going in a wave, which means to have to sit closer to the impact zone – get ready for long idle floats or some beatings near the peak.

On a shortboard, you’ll also need to paddle harder to get speed because of the lower buoyancy, so unless you’re a very fit person, you get tired sooner than others in the session.

You also need to get up on your feet earlier in the wave compared to a longer board, as once you’re going down the face of the wave getting up on that small board will be nearly impossible. Finding your balance on a shortboard is also tougher, including for paddling. In short, you have to build up sharper surfing skills sooner when learning to surf on a shortboard.

Which techniques do I need for learning to surf on a shortboard?

The following techniques, while they apply to learning to surf on any board, will be more challenging for you to master on a shortboard:

  • Floating and paddling on your shortboard: for a beginner surfer, this step takes time (much less on a larger board). You have to find the right body placement for paddling, such that your board is as flat as possible on the water. On a shortboard, every inch counts!
  • Popping up: the smaller the surfboard, the harder the pop-up move and subsequent balancing. You’ll need to practice the pop many times including on land. Your pop largely determines the rest of your ride.
  • Riding the wave: on a shortboard, keeping your back foot at the rear pad, bending your knees with your weight on the back foot, and steering with your front shoulder will help you find the right stance.


To recap, yes you can learn to surf on a shortboard, but doing so will typically cost you a lot of extra time and effort vs getting started on a longer surfboard with more volume. Everything will be harder, paddling, taking off, popping up, riding down the face… Except perhaps duck diving, but that’s something you’ll generally work on past the complete beginner phase.

Trust me, learning to surf on a shortboard will NOT give you a head start, on the contrary, it will slow you down and perhaps even prevent you from eventually reaching your full surfing potential. Many surfers feel this way!

Photo credits:
Featured: “Cursos surf 3-08-2012” (CC BY 2.0) by SURF&ROCK (Miguel Navaza)

James Toner

Saturday 2nd of January 2021

Thanks for the tip! Currently learning on a short board, around 6'10 as it's the only board I have. Whenever I catch a wave, I can only get to the point of having my knees on the board and can't seem to pop up onto my feet. How might I be able to work on this?

Big Kahuna

Sunday 3rd of January 2021

Hey, your knees should not touch the board, that may be a sign your board isn't big enough for your weight and current level. You also need to keep practice your pop on the sand until it becomes fluid. Ride on!