How To Be A Good Surfer

| posted on March 16, 2011

A good surfer knows where to they will catch waves before they paddle out. Photo: Maassen

Pay attention. A good surfer pays attention. Small children, newcomers, and people wearing denim sprint unknowingly into the surf. A good surfer pays attention. Don’t operate by guesswork. Check the surf. Know where the waves will be breaking, where they will not be breaking, where you’ll catch waves before you ever become wet, then paddle out.

Surf cameras, surf apps on your phone (cell phones in general), websites, blogs: If you must. But check the surf. Everyday. In person. Surfing is a practice, and it is to be treated as such.

Take care of your equipment. Fix your dings. Change your wax. Learn what works for you, and learn how to ride it. Learn when to ride it. Know how you want to ride a wave before you do it, and choose your board accordingly.

Think. About your waves, about your boards, about your place in the lineup. A good surfer thinks.
If you’re not a kid, let the kids be. Kids are shitheads many times, but they are kids, so don’t get mad at them for being kids.

To that end, a good surfer is a good steward. Of the break. Of the spot.

Shut up. Realize that there’s not a whole lot to say. Yes, the weather’s fine, and yes, the waves are good, and yes, we all hope the wind stays off of it, and yes, it’s really crowded. We all get it. So let it be. A good surfer shuts up.

Let a few go. As much for yourself as for the rest of the people who eventually catch them. Duke said it first: “Wave come, wave go.” The sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be.

Oh, and this: There’ll always be a better wave. Than the one you missed, the one you just rode, whatever. There’ll be a better wave. The sooner you learn this, the better off you’ll be.

Know how to deliver a good stinkeye, but don’t do it unless necessary. Let your surfing do the talking, operate with the understanding that you are going to get waves because you can.

On this point: Surf at a spot that suits your skill level. A good surfer does not get in the way, does not insert himself into a lineup where he does not belong. Instead, he surfs at a spot where he can get waves, because he can.

Pro tour, competition, surf celebrities, star-studded movie premieres: Okay. But don’t get too excited by any of it. Know that the great aim of all of these entities is to promote “industry” and that the great aim of industry is to get you to buy things. This is truth.

If you have allowed the purchasing of products to become a major part of your surf experience, put this magazine down, sit in a quiet place, reflect.

That said, don’t be overzealous. People try to make money. Understand this, come to terms with it, participate in it where appropriate, but mostly ignore it. Realize it has nothing to do with your experience of surfing, and move on.

Buy surfboards. Know what’s involved in making a board, even if you don’t make the board yourself. Know that it’s a product of craftsmanship, a skill that requires precision to a sixteenth of an inch, a skill that is honed over time. Appreciate this. Also appreciate that you likely don’t have these skills, and find the best person who does that you can have a relationship with.

Pay full price for you board. Because it’s worth it, and because shapers are surfers who don’t get paid enough for what they do. Bring a six-pack when you pick up the board, discuss its making.

Claiming waves is for kids and pro surfers who have been taught to believe that the rest of us are impressed when they grab their genitals after pulling into a tube. We are not.

On that note, insert tube, exit tube. Arms below the shoulders. You are not a wide receiver, you did not score a touchdown, and this is not the Super Bowl.

But: experience some joy. If you feel like you can’t contain that self-congratulatory hoot, don’t. Hoot. Holler. Laugh. Smile. That’s why you’re out here.

Whatever you do, you do not flip off the wave. You do not stick your tongue out. You do not look back to the lineup like an excited puppy dog waiting to see who saw you get pitted. You’re happy. You’ve done well. Good for you. That’s enough, now. Paddle back out, try again.

Speaking of which, stay humble. If surfing hasn’t taught you this by now, keep paddling back out. It will.

Helmets, unless surfing a treacherous slab reef: no.

Clean lines. Know what you can do, but more importantly, know what you cannot do. Surf top-to-bottom, cleanly. That is the aim.

Airs, unless you can do them in a manner seamless with the riding of a wave, are ill-advised.

Airs, that is, are ill-advised for 99 percent of us.

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we shouldn’t try. It’s okay—good, even—to do things that are ill-advised sometimes.

Always pull in, even if you cannot make it, even if you do not know how to ride the barrel. A good surfer pulls in.

There are women in the lineup. Let them be surfers. They do not want to be hit on when they’re going surfing, and they do not find this attractive. They want to go surfing, same as you. Respect this.
That said, if you want to sneak a peek, go for it.

There is a pecking order, and it is to be respected. Know where you fit in the lineup, and respect this. Wait your turn, because it will come. When it comes, when somebody tells you to go, go. If you don’t make this wave, know that you will be waiting a lot longer for your next one.

A good surfer knows he doesn’t need to fight, but he also knows he doesn’t need to move aside for anybody. Respect, sure, but not fear.

Paddle out to crowded alpha-surf spots with the understanding that it will be crowded, that you will not get waves. Expect this, deal with this, participate in this. Do not complain.

On travel: Put in work. Find a spot. Score it. Be quiet. No Tweets, no Facebook, no pictures, no blogs, no braggadocio. Surfing can teach you how to experience joy and excitement, and how to keep that joy and excitement to yourself. Allow it to do so.

Sometimes you mess up. Sometimes you fall. Sometimes you fail. Don’t punch the water. Don’t scream. Get back on your board, paddle back out.
Always paddle back out.

Surfing is not golf. It is not tennis. It is not to be pursued on the weekends, or in the summer. It is a lifetime commitment. A good surfer knows this.

  • Tim Winton-Brown

    Thank you for this… This article is great – simply great.
    It has remnded me of many things I love about surfing.
    Thank you.

  • Tim Winton-Brown

    Thank you for this… This article is great – simply great.
    It has reminded me of many things that I love about surfing.
    Thank you.

  • ricardo

    hi Brad,

    some of your points are very well stated and I hope this piece is read by many. thing is some of the other points sound so regional. what I mean is that surfing is a global thing and has been for a long time. the whole black wetsuit, white board, stoic surfer persona of So Cal is just that. there are other places with rich surf culture where people have different ways of doing things. and that is OK. diversity is how the earth maintains itself.

    the Brazilians always get criticized for “claiming” waves. it’s a cultural expectation to show passion when an emotional moment occurs. watch any Latin American football match.

    the same sort of humility that you propose all surfers should aspire to is lost in some of your comments like telling people they should not wear helmets or do airs.

    the big conundrum in surfing is everyone trying to define it -like Dave Parmenter in the recent TSJ saying that if you don’t have templates passed down from your Hawaiian uncles then you aren’t shit.

    “Speaking of which, stay humble. If surfing hasn’t taught you this by now, keep paddling back out. It will.”

  • Javier

    This is an excelent articule i just started surfing and i learn a lot just by reading the articule thank you for all the information that i didn’t know; your more than welcome to come to Costa Rica and surf if you haven’t been here. keep it up it’s a great piece.

  • Mits

    How to become a good surfer: Don’t read “how to” articles.

    As long as you’re having fun and are not ruining other peoples fun you’re good in my book.

  • sebastian

    it is good to be reminded to shut up

    claiming waves is the least criticized aspect on brazzos,

    you guys violate surfing ethics all the way,

    stay in Rio !!

  • blair

    this is one of the best surfing articles i’ve ever read. so right on and definitely got me laughing! lord i hope some kooks read it…

  • Matt Browne


  • average joe

    Hey, I was feeling like I’d been messing up in the water, like maybe the other guys are talking trash about me, like maybe I’m still an intruder, not worthy. Basically a bunch of self-doubt and insecurity about my surfing. Even though at one spot a couple of guys I don’t even know chatted with me a little. Even though I made a huge pigdog left yesterday. So in this pool of doubt I reached out, I searched the web for “am I a good surfer?” which was how I was feeling. And I found this article. It was just there, right when I needed it. It calmed me down. It helped me reflect on what I can do, and on what I can do better. I liked the part about being a good steward of the spot. Thanks man.

  • Don

    Thank God this guy knows everything there is to know. This isn’t self-righteous at all. Clearly, these are objective truths.

  • Steve

    Yeah Love this article. Actually read it in the printed mag and just now looked it up online as it is relevant to a conversation I’m having with mates. Stoked to find it. Thanks mate for sharing. Spot on.

  • Tony

    I am thinking of taking up body boarding and then surfing. I like the good comon sense this guy has written and about all the rules of surfing. Only thing I don’t agree with is the last statement . Golf and tennis are life time commitments. But I still understand what he is saying 🙂 What that statement did for me is kinda mad me feel not so excited any more about learning because I will only have time to body board in the summer. So I hope I still can be good at it. I have all ways body boarded like 3 to 5 times every summer most of the time with a sponge bob body board lol. I can stall until I am at the top of the wave and drop in and turn and ride along the wave. I can turn both directions. It seems really easy. Only thing is I don’t understand what waves not to catch. For instance I see everyone pass on waves that look really tall and perfect but maybe those are not the right ones to ride. Well thanks for the article I enjoyed it allot.
    ~Tony from Southern california

  • Ringo`

    i thought a realy deep and meaningfull add this kid is obviously good at surfing probs toop 200 in aus best artical ever good on u mate

  • Nicole Brooks

    Oh my gosh. After what happened to Bethany Hamilton, I never surfed again. But thanks to this article, I’m back in the waves. 😀 🙂

  • G

    Just know the rules in the lineup and don’t be out if you can’t handle it.

    But please quit the bullshit about how people are aloud to express their excitement or using facebook or not. I could not care less about about that. Setting up rules about something like that is just plain stupid.

    Statements like that does not make me proud of our sport and makes us look like cavemen.

    Mit’s comment is what real surf spirit is about.

    “As long as you’re having fun and are not ruining other peoples fun you’re good in my book.”

  • stevie mac

    i must admit i dont have much trouble on the donegal coast, every1 into surfing seems very welcoming and more then helpful, i did surf in long beach nyc and it wasn’t too friendly.

    i love the points made in this post, and yes, there’s always another wave

  • paddle boarding huntington beach

    Practice makes perfect. I think for most people, in the beginning, they are scared to even tread the waters. I know my first time, I thought the waves were going to knock me out and after 1 bad experience i wanted to quit. I’m glad I didnt because it has definitely been a rewarding experience.

  • George Leone

    Good comments! Tony, the bodyboarder–keep doing it, then stand-up surfing will be easy. Keep your stoke up. You don’t have to be great or even good to feel the true stoke. You just have to get in the water. And be humble. We’re all learners in the line-up. I realize that I learn something every time I surf. It may be a little tweak to my cutback or something inconsequential, but I look for it.
    This month is my 50th anniversary of when I stood up and rode to the beach for the first time. I went out this morning in junky 1-2 ft. surf and was totally stoked. Maybe I should learn how to do airs. Why not? (I think I’ll search on-line right now!)

  • Tash

    What an awesome article! Highlights the fact that surfing teaches presence and being in touch with oneness. Love it!!

  • david grant

    wow, great article! i found i do some of these and will try not to in the future 🙂

    great for remembering why i started surfing in the first place

  • J

    Seek Jesus and HE will solve all of your problems, nothing else will. God Bless.

  • Ceili

    this is the best article i have ever read.

  • Sarcasm

    What a factual article! Not at all obnoxious, self righteous or arrogant in any way. At all.

  • Dan

    Although I agree with the organic aspect of this post in terms of knowing your limits, surfing where you belong, not getting in the way… Who cares if someone claims their waves, celebrates an achievement or a milestone, or is generally happy and enjoying myself. Too many a times do I encounter really good surfers who just don’t look like they are having fun. No wave was good enough for them, no air was high enough, and someone always get’s in their way causing them to yell, threaten or act like a jerk. If you are not having fun you might want to pick up a new hobby. If you don’t enjoy yourself and leave every session grumbling you need a new hobby.

    I am a New York surfer, transplanted into the San Diego surf scene. In New York there is camaraderie in the water. People talk to each other, they hoot and holler at people when they do something good. It’s almost like west coasters try to act like New Yorkers on the street while in the water and whereas New Yorkers don’t talk to anyone on the street they are as friendly as San Diegan in the water. You’re all so chill til you put on a neon colored wetsuit… Then you become a true jerk.


      It depends on where you surf in San Diego. I learned how to surf in imperial beach a few years back and the locals there were mostly cool, giving me advice and what not. At the same time I have been to other spots here where the guys are, just like you said, true jerks. What spot do you normally surf?

  • RasMike Wilmeth Cmt

    Some truth, some bullshit. He forgets rule 1, Unless a guy has burned you, never tell another surfer how 2 act, how to surf, or esp. how to express joy! Me n my boyz are all long time surfers and in N. cali, we roll up rockin Mexican music screaming like bandits,fat joints in our mouth jump out, strip buck naked ,throw the suits on and go out like monkeys on acid. Claimin every wave, . every snap, screaming for each other and just having a full stoke fest. We could give 2 fucks what some barno stiff necks think of our antics…

    • sdhello

      A jackass and proud, CONGRATS!

    • wickedwahine

      Wow. This is why the HAWAIIANS should have never taught the rest of the world how to surf. No respect. No Aloha.

  • Gabriela

    How to be a good surfer:
    PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!! Only real and best way to get better. how do you think proffesional surfers do it?:)

  • surfysurfy

    “Helmets, unless surfing a treacherous slab reef: no.” I disagree with this statement. Just got hit on the head by the rail of my board and had to go to the ER with a concussion. It has made me reassess protective gear for surfers. It was a totally innocuous wave but I was thrown and smacked. Helmets were used by pros in competitions during the 80s and I’m unclear why it was phased out. Crowded line up, rocks, reefs, a lot can go wrong and the last thing you’d want is to be knocked out and drowned when it could’ve been prevented with a helmet. I realize there is a cool/kook factor wearing one but I hope over time this changes because many deaths could’ve been prevented with the use of a helmet and these days they are small and lightweight enough that surfers can easily surf without even thinking about the fact that they have one on.

  • stan :)

    omfg , i loved it (french here ) this is exactly what my surf teacher tolds me <3 #ThxForThisArticle

  • Surfer dude

    How can I avoid claiming an amazing wave? Subtle claims are a form of natural body language that display excitement when you feel great, its not even a concious effort. Basically this article is saying don’t have fun, don’t get upset, be without emotion.

  • Derel Swanson

    OK ok, this guy IS saying some great things, along the lines of what I believe in, which are basically “don’t be a loudmouth kook” who thinks he rips, but hasn’t seen himself on video yet. Not many are going to be able to have the truth handed to them like that in the article above, but those are the people that need it the most, i.e. try paddling out at 2nd Point Malibu when it’s “firing bro” and telling that to anyone, you will most probably end up in a fight with most of the people in the water who are guilty, this is why I take my leftovers at Zuma Beach instead of the crowded spots here (all).