Learn How To Surf

The Surf South West guide - How to Learn to Surf


Learning to Surf - the basics

Surfing has never been more popular in the UK – with an estimated 250,000 Brits surfing regularly, and 50,000 more taking it up each year.

The best way to learn is to take lessons. Surf South West offers lessons from March until November, 7 days a week – from half day sessions to weekends, week long courses and one-to-one coaching.

Surf South West have helped over 10,000 people of all ages to ride their first wave through our surfing courses, a unique, truly unforgettable experience that will stay with you forever.

Girl surfing for first time during lesson

It's surprising how quickly learning to surf can be achieved with the correct instruction and the right equipment. We have the know-how to get you on your feet in the shortest possible time. And our surf schools at Croyde and Saunton are located on two of the best beaches in the UK.

We have put together a few tips to get you started and to give you a flavour of what’s involved in surfing. All of these key points are covered in detail on our surfing lessons.

Catch a wave

Before you even think of catching a wave, make sure you are stable on the board. Start paddling for the wave way in advance, to build up enough momentum to enable the wave to take you. When you feel it pick you up, the natural instinct is to grip the board and attempt to get up, but this is when you should put in a final 2-3 powerful strokes, to give you the forward push you need. Spend plenty of time practising this procedure without even trying to stand up, so you become proficient at catching waves.

"When you feel it pick you up, the natural instinct is to grip the board and attempt to get up, but this is when you should put in a final 2-3 powerful strokes, to give you the forward push you need."

Master the pop-up

The holy grail of surfing is to get from a prone position to a standing one in one clean motion. The ‘pop-up’ is like a squat thrust with a twist, because you need to jump to your feet and turn your feet so that they are at a right angle to the board, simultaneously. It’s definitely the hardest part of surfing, partly because it’s a unique movement, that you don’t encounter elsewhere, and partly because there is so little margin for error, what with the unstable surface. The alternative is to pop to your knees first and then stand up – not exactly textbook and not particularly stylish but if you want to experience the feeling of standing up on a board at an early stage this method can work – however it can lead to bad habits so ultimately you’ll need to master the real thing. the advantage is that you’ll catch more waves and progress to standing more rapidly, but ultimately you’ll need to master the real thing.

Keep in trim

Every board has a ‘sweet spot’, where it is perfectly stable and balanced and will move ‘in trim’ with the wave. You need to position yourself on the board correctly to allow it to travel in trim. If you’re too far forward, the nose of the board will sink – too far back and you’ll cause it to stall – like driving with the handbrake on. When you are centred, the nose of the board will sit just above the surface of the water.

"If you’re too far forward, the nose of the board will sink – too far back and you’ll cause it to stall"

Perfect your paddling

Paddling – whether to get out through the waves or to catch a wave in – is a key surfing skill. The action is similar to front crawl but you need to keep your body as still as possible, just using the shoulders and arms to pull rather than twisting the body or head. Keep your feet slightly apart on the board to aid stability.

Practise away from the beach

You may not live close enough to the beach to practise your surfing regularly but you can improve your skills be practising your paddling and the pop-up. Swimming front crawl is the most useful way to practise paddling, ideally using a pull buoy so your legs aren’t contributing, and alternating steady swimming with powerful sprints to emulate the intermittent frantic paddle for a wave.

Press ups and squat thrusts will help strengthen the right muscles for the pop-up – mark a line on the floor, and practise jumping up from a face down position so that your feet land on the line.

Steer the board

The telltale sign of a beginner is someone who, once they get to their feet, heads straight for the shore. Surfing is about steering along the wave at an angle, the way the wave breaks. Keep a low, bent-knee stance to assist your balance and turn by looking in the direction you want to go and rotating your body the same way. Shift your weight to the balls or heels of your feet, depending on what direction you want to turn.

"Keep a low, bent-knee stance to assist your balance and turn by looking in the direction you want to go"

Wipe out safely

Falling off and going under are par for the course. Try to relax, cover your head and curl into a ball when you fall off and keep your mouth closed. Keep your head covered even after you break the surface, until you know where your board – and everyone else’s - is.

Take it slowly

Don’t put yourself out of your depth – literally and metaphorically – too soon. Many people try to progress to the unbroken, green waves ‘out the back’ when they aren’t experienced enough. It’s much more sensible to stay in the white water while you perfect your skills. They’re like the nursery slopes of surfing.


I've just spent a week with you in Croyde and it's been one of the best weeks I've ever had! The staff couldn't have done any more to help me feel welcome and they were all brilliant teachers. At the beginning of the week I couldn't have imagined how much they would improve my surfing from only just standing up every 10th wave to standing up almost every time and getting out the back onto some proper green waves, as well as explaining tides,currents and where the best places to look for equipment and where to avoid!! I look forward to seeing you all again in a few months and hopefully improving my new found passion for surfing further. Thankyou all.

- Andy

Only fools rush in

Never just get straight in the water and start paddling out, even if you are familiar with the beach. Spend a few minutes looking at what’s happening, at what other surfers are doing and at the size and frequency of the waves so you know the safest and best place to get in. If you’re not sure, ask other surfers, or a lifeguard if there is one. Try to avoid surfing alone.

Learn surf etiquette

It’s very bad form to ‘drop in’ on someone. This means if another surfer is already riding a wave, it ‘belongs’ to them and you shouldn’t try to catch it yourself.

If you are paddling out and a surfer is heading towards you, they have right of way so it’s you who needs to move out the way.

Girl surfing for first time during lesson

The Gear

To get started, all you need is a surfboard and a wetsuit. All provided by our surf school. As an absolute beginner, you’ll learn on a large foam board. These are made out of rigid foam with a soft foam exterior so it won’t hurt when it bonks you on the head. These boards are very buoyant and easy to handle, but not much use in bigger waves, once you get to more advanced levels.

Most beginners in the market for buying their own board start with a mini-mal, which is basically a mini longboard, usually between 7-8 feet long, fairly wide and fairly thick. This offers the stability and buoyancy of a longer board but more manoeuverability than a true longboard. Make sure the board has a rounded nose. Many beginners make the mistake of buying a pointy nose board because it looks the part, but it’s less stable and sits low in the water, so it’s harder to catch the waves on. The golden rule is the smaller the board, the more manoeuverable but the less stable – and vice versa.

Don’t buy a board before you’ve tried it, or one similar. You can hire a few different boards to get a feel for different things, or try some from a surf school. Make sure that where you buy know your ability and goals, and are aware of your weight and height. It’s a good idea to get advice from someone who has seen you surfing. A secondhand board is another good option, or you could buy a mass-produced moulded board.

After some time on a mini-mal you have two options. You can go for something shorter and faster or something longer. Shortboards are generally anything less than seven feet in length and longboards are over nine foot long. As a general rule, longer boards have greater buoyancy, a more drawn out turn, and paddle faster into waves. They are much harder to get through bigger waves on the way out. Shorter boards sink more in the water, are a little more unstable and slower to paddle, but very manoeuvrable, navigating under the waves on a paddle out with greater ease. Longboarding is becoming increasingly popular in the UK.

Get a leash at least six foot in length, any shorter and your board may hit you in a wipe out. As a rough rule get a leash the same length as your board but no less than six feet long. And finally, make sure your wax is cold water wax and remember, it goes on the deck of the board, not the bottom!

What to wear? You’ll need a wetsuit, the thickness of which depends on where and when you’ll be surfing. For the UK, you’ll need a 3:2 suit for summer surfing, and a 4:3 for spring and the start of winter. In colder weather – in the UK from October to April-May you might want to consider wearing neoprene booties, gloves and a hat, too.

The thicker a wetsuit the less flexible and light it will be, which is the trade-off for warmth. Under your wetsuit, wear your usual swimwear (but nothing with protruding knots or seams which might rub). A rash vest can prevent rubbing of the neoprene against the skin which can cause chaffing in joint areas and provide extra warmth.


Book a lesson with us now and experience the thrill of surfing and join us in the waves of Devon!