Everyday surfer problems: mastering the take off

The second in a series of tutorial articles by Jez Browning of UniSURFity surf coaching, in which he looks at common surfing errors and key techniques for improvement. This week it's that most fundamental of skills, the take off.

What is an intermediate surfer? It’s a term that gets misused and heavily confused within the surfing industry. Some define it as the ability to control the surfboard and link intermediate level surfing manoeuvres on backhand and forehand. Top turn, bottom turn, cutback, re-entry, duckdive, and finally, a medium wave count. That final part, wave count, is key.

It’s a huge stumbling block for those surfers finally getting out back and attacking unbroken waves. Those lacking in wave knowledge often become locked in a frustrating vicious circle of beatings and fatigue. There is a fine line between catching waves and the wave catching you, and as entertaining as nose dives are to watch, it's a different story for the person flailing in the foam.

The most important part of surfing, isn't actually what you do on the wave, it’s more to do with how you get into that wave. The take-off sets the entire tone to that ride. If you clamber up to your feet, get in super late, or have to adjust your original line slightly. The rest of that ride will suffer. You’ll have to play catch up or adjust to regain control of yourself and therefore your ride. Put simply, a solid start leads to a solid finish!

The key points are:

  • Timing
  • Efficient Paddling
  • Prone Trimming
  • Smooth and unobtrusive pop up
  • All of these lead into the most important turn in surfing, the bottom turn. However that requires its own specific chapter.
  • So let’s look at each one in more detail.

1. Timing

Get this bit wrong and you either paddle for barely a ripple or get slapped across the neck and go visit Davey Jones’s locker. So keep your eye on the wave. Most select their wave, turn, then paddle as fast as they can. Not even one glance back to see the wave. This ultimately ends up paddling too much and taking off too late. So keep your eye on the wave. Check that your wave is not blocked by someone bobbing in your way. The wave should be beginning to stand up and the face will be steepening up. More or less 45° (I've never surfed with a protractor before), and you should be getting up to your feet when the wave is feathering. What the hell is feathering? This is when the wave has reached its maximum height and is about to spill over. There will be a soft crumbly (feathery) edge to the lip which indicates it’s a second or two away from chucking over. If you’re surfing somewhere hollow, then this will be much quicker and more intense. Timing is all about trial, error and how you read the wave. How can you read something if you’re not looking at it? Start looking at the wave, starting from where it’s coming from and then down the line where it’s going to.

2. Efficient paddling

Splashing in swimming is a sign of wasted energy and also a lack of grip in the water. Paddling isn't any different. You read of all sorts of technical aspects like moving your hands in an S or zig-zagging etc. In my opinion it’s all rubbish. Just get your cupped but relaxed hand, fingers together. Enter fingers first (45°). Pause a little to let the air disperse (air is turbulence, turbulence, bad, no turbulence, good.) This pause enables you to GRIP the water better. The arm should be as deep as comfortably possible without making your body roll. It’s not just your hand that shifts water but your forearm as well. The stroke should be just below your initial entry point through to your waist. By then the opposing arm should be in. Paddling should be arm over arm, not double paddling. A double paddle at the very end before take off is fine for an extra push but not the whole time. May have worked in Big Wednesday but it’s not going to work for you. Why? Ever tried swimming butterfly, ever tried it without the double kick stroke too? I rest my case!

Oh, and the most important part is your stroke rate should match your speed. Paddling as fast as you can right from the get go is just like wheel spinning a car. You should have gears, 1st, 2nd and 3rd etc, kicking into top gear just as the wave hits you.

3. Trimming

Oh yes, our good old friend trimming. Trimming doesn't just start when you’re on your feet. It starts as soon as you begin to move forward.

Right this bit is vital and it’ll turn you into a wave catching machine. However to believe it you need to understand the science behind it.

Your board does two things; it keeps you afloat due to its buoyancy when you’re not moving (this is known as a displacement hull), then as it heads towards wave riding speed it becomes a totally different and exciting beast (a planning hull). With no speed whatsoever the board will sink beneath you, but add just little bit of speed and you can stand on your board easily. This transition, however, can prove problematic.

Why? Well let’s face it, we’re trying to drop into a liquid ramp. It’s moving and constantly changing, but in essence it’s like a ¼ pipe skate ramp and we’re at the top. Watch any skater about to drop in on, and they stomp that front foot down and really commit to the drop. We have to do the same, but we’re lying down, and then jumping to your feet 1/3 of the way through the drop. So firstly you need perfect lying down position. Find this simply by lying down and lifting your pelvis off the board and pushing through your chest. If the nose reacts and pushes down then great. Then, without moving, lift your chest off the board the nose should start lifting up. This movement is exaggerated as the boards get shorter.

When you start paddling for a wave you should gradually lift your hips and push your chest, to counteract your nose lifting. This is a balancing act and requires practice. Your nose should never submerge.

This technique whilst still paddling enables you to throw your weight into the drop. Get it right and it’ll buy you gliding time before your board starts to descend down the face. If you just let your board drop and extend your arms then it’ll effortlessly lead you into the next part which makes or breaks all of the above hard work.

4. The pop-up

It’s amazing how many variances there are of this method which primarily differentiates us from every other waver rider. There’s the Aussie pop up, the 2 step, the 3 step; some look like some bizarre dance move, others like an arthritic Granny climbing up from the floor. All of these are fine to get to get you to your feet for a quick taste of surfing in the whitewater. Yes there are some excellent surfers with questionable pop-ups. I can say for sure they’re missing at least one manoeuvre from the get go. If you want to really progress and surf to your maximum ability, then there is only one. The super quick and efficient pop up. This is one move where both feet land on the board simultaneously, straight into your perfect solid stance. On a shortboard it’s from the tops of your knees. On a longboard it can be from your toes.

To start describing this in text isn't going to do it justice, so you’ll have to wait until next time for a breakdown video.