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The Surfers Pathway

Updated: Mar 23

Learning to surf can be a minefield of big questions and ambiguous answers. What surfboard should I be riding? When is the best time to go surfing? How do I improve my technique? With so much to learn it's natural that mistakes are made. This brief guide is for beginner to intermediate surfers who are unsure of the best pathway to take to progress. It will outline five key stages of surfing progression and give and overview how to navigate each one.


The Beginner Surfer

Here we meet at the start of every surfers journey. Diving into a new sport with little to no idea of what to do or where to start. Some start with a surf lesson, some with a friends beaten up old surfboard, some through gateway sports like bellyboarding or surf life saving. What most beginners do have in common though, is that they don't realise the addiction they're about to contract.

To achieve a smooth transition into the sport of surfing, my best advice to beginner surfers, would be to seek advice. Go to your local surf store (I'd recommend Freeriders Falmouth) and speak to the experienced staff about surf spots and equipment. Ask your more experienced friends for guidance and advice, or best of all, seek out professional coaching and instruction.


Equipment: A wetsuit is the best place to start. Unlike a surfboard, your wetsuit requirements are unlikely to change in the first couple of years, so take the plunge. Make sure to try on a few brands to find the best fit, chose the right thickness for the time of year you'll be surfing through, and speak to your surf store about pricing and the differences between options. As a beginner, you're best off hiring boards for now. Bigger is better, so large foam surfboards like the ones we use will give you the best chance of getting to your feet early on. However, it likely won't be long before you want to try something a little smaller and more manoeuvrable like a smaller foamy or minimal, which is why I tend discourage buying a board right away. The best board to begin is unlikely to be the best board to continue progressing on in a months time, so it's usually best to wait until you've found your feet and have a better idea of what is right for you.


Locations & Conditions: To begin with, surfers are best off learning in waist(ish) deep water where it's safer and catching 'whitewash', the waves which have already broken and are spilling straight towards the sand. To surf whitewash there's no real requirement for specific conditions so beginners could surf most days (so long as it's safe to do so) and should instead figure out which beaches and tides are learner friendly. Choose locations with lifeguards, not too much current, no submerged rocks or reef, and avoid large swells and strong winds (for your enjoyment and safety!). Look for mellow beach breaks and ask locals/lifeguards for the best tidal conditions at that spot.


Focus: At this stage it's all about the pop up, riding the wave towards the sand, and figuring out basic board control. Learn proper technique, focus on making the pop up smooth rather than fast, and make sure to catch loads of waves to practice on. Don't rush, catching waves and popping up well are the foundations of all else to come, so take the time to get it right! Once you're finding your feet you should work on board control (turning left and right), and look to catch some small green waves (or reforms). A good goal for the beginner surfer would be to achieve multiple changes of direction on a whitewater wave, or identifying a green (breaking) wave, and riding along the face for the first time. For some this might all come naturally in the first couple of lessons, for others it may take many lessons or some months. For the fastest progression look into taking beginner surf lessons.


The Learner Surfer

No longer a complete beginner, this is where you start to get a feel for the sport whilst learning more about how the ocean works. There's no solid line to cross, but we tend to say that Learner Surfers have had a handful of lessons, around a months’ worth of consistent surfing experience, can catch and stand on whitewater waves consistently, can catch and ride small green waves or reforms, and can turn and ride left and right along the wave.


Equipment: Sometime in the learner stage it'll come time to try a slightly smaller board, like downsizing from a 9ft to an 8ft foamy, or starting to experiment with hard boards. Smaller boards will feel harder to pop up on, but will make it easier to turn and manoeuvre your board so this tends to be the natural progression in surfing. At this stage you might look to buy your own board so that you can surf more consistently without having to hire or take a lesson every time you wish to surf. Remember that volume is your friend so be realistic about your needs. As you're still learning you shouldn't go too small too fast, and make sure your equipment still allows for consistency and success!


Location & Conditions: Learners can still gain plenty from surfing whitewash and this is where most of your surfing will happen. However, you should take opportunities to catch more green waves and reforms, so look to surf beaches with a low, shallow gradient as the waves tend to spill and reform multiple times. You should start to get a feel for basic surf forecasting so take a look at forecasting sites like Surfline, Surf-forecast and Windy. Ideal conditions would be smaller swells (below 3-4ft) and light winds. Remember that tide plays a big part in how the waves break or even if the spot is surfable in the UK, so make sure to look into the best tidal conditions and time your surf around that.


Focus: Learner surfers should surf consistently to improve (ideally 2-3 times per week), working on making the pop up smoother and faster, and work to improve board control. Learn how to speed up, slow down, and turn left and right on whitewater waves. Work to progress onto green waves, looking for reforms and surfing 'out back' on small days whenever possible. Becoming a stronger paddler and building ocean awareness are vital for improvement, so get into the habit of paddling a little deeper, and take the time to learn as much as you can about surf forecasts, tides, rips and currents, and the way that waves break (the latter comes primarily from time in and around the ocean).


Improver Surfer

A big difference between Learner and Improver surfers is paddle fitness and wave catching ability. The improver surfer should be able to get further into the lineup, paddle out back on 1-3ft (thigh to head high) days, catch green waves, ride left and right on the open face, and possibly even perform basic manoeuvres like bottom turns and top turns. This stage bridges the gap between beginner/learner surfers and intermediates, so may take a lot of time and effort to negotiate.


Equipment: At this stage it's worth really experimenting with your equipment and figuring out what works for you. You should definitely be looking to ride hard boards, but the size and style you choose will depend on your ability, size and surfing style. Many surfers have multiple boards (referred to as a quiver) as different boards are better for different conditions. For example if you bought a big board or foamy as a beginner/learner, it may be worth holding onto for the smaller/weaker days of surf, and then have your shiny new hard board for when the waves have a bit more push. To remain consistent all year round it's worth investing in multiple wetsuits for different seasons, as well as accessories for when it gets cold during the winter months.


Conditions and Location: Being able to forecast reliably is essential to get the best waves, so by this stage you should have gotten into the habit of checking your local surf forecasts regularly. There are so many options for surfing beaches in Cornwall, all of which break in different conditions, so good forecasting will allow you to surf most days. Challenge yourself to surf larger waves than those you're used to (within reason - surf with friends or close to lifeguards for safety). Take every opportunity to surf out back on the green waves, but don't turn your nose up at continuing to surf reforms and whitewash as you'll always learn more from a bad surf than no surf at all!


Focus: As with before consistency is key, surf regularly to get your wave count up. This stage can be frustrating as learning to read, catch and ride green waves is one of the hardest parts in surfing, so find a way to enjoy the process (you surf better when you're having fun!). Positioning plays a huge part, so get into the habit of staying active in the surf. It's rare that a wave will come straight to you, 95% of the time you'll need to move into the correct position to catch a green wave. Now that you're surfing out the back more often, its up to you to make sure you learn and abide by surf etiquette. This becomes more and more important as surfing grows in popularity and lineups become more crowded, it's how we ensure everyone has a good time and is able to stay safe whilst surfing. On the face of the wave, improvers should be learning how to generate speed and perform basic bottom turns and top turns as these are the foundations of most good rides.


Learner and Improver surfers may want to consider our Progressive Surf Courses or Private Surf Coaching for the best ways to progress.


Intermediate Surfers

Becoming an intermediate surfer is largely about comfort and confidence in the line-up. Intermediate surfers should be able to paddle out and navigate overhead surf comfortably, have a good understanding of wave selection and surf etiquette, and be capable of catching, taking off on and riding green waves with a high level of consistency. At this stage of a surfer’s career, it's largely about working on 'on the face' ability as intermediates should now have the experience required to position and catch waves more often than not.


Location and Conditions: For intermediate surfers it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. Consistency is still important but may become more difficult as chasing decent waves becomes a big part of your focus. By now you should have a good understanding of what conditions work best at your favourite breaks, and have a good catalogue of spots to fall back on when the conditions aren't ideal at your go to spots. Still though, don't shy away from subpar conditions, you'll be surprised how much fun onshore surfs can be, and often these conditions allow you to surf without a crowd and have your pick of the waves.


Equipment: This is the stage where you can really start to experiment with your equipment. If riding shortboards is your goal then now is the time to go for it as you should no longer need the additional size of minimals and midlengths to help catch waves and get to your feet. Stick with boards with a little extra width, length and volume. You don't need high performance equipment to learn more advanced manoeuvres and may get held back by how skittish and reactive performance boards can be. If shortboarding isn't your goal, then hopefully you've had the opportunity to try out plenty of boards to find something that suits you and your style. Aim to learn more about the boards available to you and what their differences are.


Focus: Intermediates usually have a lot to learn in terms of technicality whilst riding the face of the wave. Hopefully basic manoeuvres are starting to make sense and intermediates should be able to generate speed and perform basic bottom to top turn combinations. A big part of learning to perfect these manoeuvres and learn new, more challenging ones, will come from being able to read waves well, knowing what manoeuvre to perform on different parts of a wave, and having the technical knowledge of how the manoeuvre is performed. This process can take a lot of trial and error but can be sped up by studying other surfers, getting footage of yourself surfing, or most of all by getting professional coaching.


Advanced Surfers

With the time and commitment required to become an advanced surfer it's realistic to say that it usually takes many years to reach this stage. For many advanced surfers, this sport has been a lifelong commitment and something that will consume a majority of their spare time. Advanced surfers are generally comfortable in 4-6ft (overhead to double overhead) surf and are capable to performing a range of more advanced manoeuvres such as snaps, floaters, re-entries and barrel rides.


Location and Conditions: Advanced surfers are generally capable of surfing most conditions, and decisions on when and where to surf become largely personal preference. Some choose to explore and surf many different waves, some choose to surf their local spot at every opportunity, some choose to push themselves by surfing larger waves at more dangerous locations, others choose to stick to what they enjoy. The opportunities are endless as you start to learn that with the right equipment and attitude, most days can offer up something worth getting wet for.


Equipment: Equipment also becomes a matter of personal preference at this stage. Learning about the different options available will help you find the right board(s) for you. Most surfers collect a quiver of different board types for different locations and conditions, for example a longboard for small days, a midlength or funboard for cruisy days, and a shortboard for more critical days. Niche differences which affect the way a board rides will start to play a part in your selection, like tail shape, number of fins, fin templates, rocker, concave, rail profile, glass weight and material. This opens up a whole new realm within surfing that you can choose to explore and capitalise on.


Focus: For advanced surfers goals will likely become more individualised and specific, so having a focus will depend on what type of surfer you wish to become. Progress can come in the same ways as for intermediate surfers but will branch to more challenging and specific manoeuvres. Surfing with friends of a similar level is a great way to push one another, give and receive feedback and increase confidence in larger surf. Gather footage of yourself when possible and take video analysis coaching sessions for the best way to find areas for improvement. Most importantly have fun, becoming an advanced surfer allows for new ways to enjoy the sport as the ocean becomes a playground rather than a proving ground, and give yourself a pat on the back for excelling in one of the hardest sports to learn.


Rounding it up

You may have noticed that I haven't provided any time frames for how long the stages of surfing progression last. That is because progression varies so much from person to person and depends largely on levels of commitment, current physical fitness and how well someone already knows the ocean.

Surfing can be very difficult to learn when you consider how long it takes most people to become intermediate or advanced surfers. However the beauty of it is that all you need is a board, some ocean, and a plucky attitude. If you are riding a wave in any form, you are surfing, so this guide is less a pathway to success, and more a pathway for technical progression should you choose to take it. Progress is not essential in surfing as surfing in its simplest form can offer enjoyment, but it does open you up to more opportunities within the sport, as well as offering that special feeling you get when you succeed in something that you've spent weeks, months or even years trying to achieve.

Obviously, there is a lot that this guide has omitted, a full guide to surfing would take an entire series of books to cover, but hopefully it does help point budding surfers in the right direction. More articles will appear here over time covering other aspects of surfing such as surf etiquet, surf forecasting, wave selection and board types in much more detail. If there's a question you'd like answering then contact me at The Search and I’ll consider writing it up in the next blog post!



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