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Positioning when Catching Waves: Consistent Reading & Adjusting

Reading waves is an integral part of surfing: it’s constantly done. You need to read the wave while you sit, while you paddle to the peak, while you paddle into the wave, and while you surf the wave. In this tutorial, we demonstrate how surfers can position themselves successfully for a wave by consistently reading the wave and adjusting to what it’s doing.

Precise Positioning: Why?

Lets start with the main reasons why you consistently need to pay attention to what the wave is doing, and carefully readjust your positioning.

  1. The First reason is that reading waves is extremely difficult. There could be things like currents, winds or backwash that make a wave suddenly break in an unpredictable way.
  2. The second reason is that you need to be precise in your positioning in order to be able to catch the wave. If you’ve been surfing for a little while, you’ve probably realized that it’s impossible to paddle into a super-soft shoulder, no matter how good your paddle technique is. A lot of surfers underestimate how precise their position must sometimes be to paddle into a wave. Just being a few feet outside of the steeper part of a wave can make it impossible to catch it.
  3. Lastly, your positioning at Take Off will often make the difference between a poor or unsuccessful ride and a successful, enjoyable one.

How to Consistently Read & Adjust your Positioning?

Now lets see how surfers keep reading and analyzing a wave in order to have the optimal positioning.

#1 Keep Taking Glances at the Wave

Experienced surfers keep monitoring the wave they intend to catch by taking multiple glances at it while they position themselves.

At some point, in order to catch a wave, you will be paddling straight towards the beach, or in diagonal to the beach, which makes it hard to see the wave. Make sure to take multiple glances over your shoulder while you paddle for a wave. Your positioning needs to be precise, so check the wave as many times as you feel necessary!

Lots of beginners or intermediates turn their back to the wave and stop looking at it too soon. A wave’s shape can drastically change in just a second or two.

From what we have seen on our coaching retreats, it seems that often beginner-intermediates realize that their positioning for a wave might not be optimal, so they decide to turn around and paddle very hard even though it’s probably impossible to catch it.

It’s important to understand that the difference in paddling speed between an advanced surfer, and a beginner-intermediate surfer, is often not very big. In fact, many advanced surfers ride small shortboards, and many beginner-intermediates learn on bigger surfboards.

Therefore, beginner-intermediates on a big surfboard who already have a good swimming technique might actually have a faster paddling speed than an advanced surfer on a shortboard.

Yet, on most sessions, the advanced surfer on a shortboard will catch a lot more waves than a beginner that has great swimming skills on a big surfboard. The main difference between both is that advanced surfers have more knowledge and experience, which help them position themselves more precisely into waves.

Next time you see that you are positioning yourself a bit too much on the flat shoulder, instead of turning around and paddling hard, take an extra glance or two at the wave and reposition yourself a bit closer to the peak before committing to the wave. Only 1 or 2 feet can truly make the difference between catching a wave or missing it.

#2 Face the wave for a longer period of time.

Our second tip is to face the wave for a longer period of time.

It’s harder to read and adjust your positioning when you are paddling straight back towards the beach. Although you can still take glances over your shoulder, it’s more difficult to see the wave as a whole & properly identify the peak, colour changes on the wave & other cues.

If instead, you had a paddling line such as the one above, moving forward to your right and quickly pivoting back to the beach at the last moment, it would make it easier to keep your eyes on the wave for the entire time that you’re getting into position.

Sometimes, you will be trying to catch a smaller wave on the inside, and you will need to mostly paddle towards the beach to be able to catch it. In such a case, you could decide to paddle slightly in diagonal to the left or to the right, instead of straight to the beach. This will make it easier to see how the wave is evolving and in most cases, it will be better for you to paddle backwards in diagonal to get closer to the peak.

The easiest way to avoid having to turn your back to the wave is to stop sitting too far out. If you’re sitting much further than where the waves are breaking, your only paddling line option will be to swim straight towards the beach.

#3 Use every Paddling Directions

This brings us to the next advice: use every possible paddling lines. Even though at some point, every surfer needs to paddle in towards the beach in order to catch the wave, that doesn’t mean that your paddling line to get into position needs to be towards the beach.

As you sit on your board, it’s possible that a bigger set comes and that you need to paddle out, or a wave could hit a bit wide, and you might need to paddle in diagonal to your left, or it could be smaller and peel closer inside to your right.

The ocean is unpredictable, and by using 360 degrees of potential paddling directions, you maximize both the quality of your positioning, and the number of waves you can catch during your session.

From our experience, it seems like lots of beginner-intermediates have the habit of sitting further out than most surfers are. For some, it is because they don’t want to get stuck on the inside.

For others, it is because they don’t have the ability to paddle forward towards a wave, and then quickly spin around to paddle into it.

If you’re unable to paddle out towards the horizon and then quickly pivot towards the beach, then you can only use paddling lines that are behind you to get in position for a wave. This will limit you to only a fraction of the waves you potentially could catch.

For more tips on how to quickly spin around and more, check out the “Agility Skills” tutorial.

#4 Constantly readjust your paddling line & speed

You need to constantly readjust your paddling line & paddling speed.

Your paddling line towards the peak will rarely be straight. The moment you decide to paddle for a wave should be early enough that you only have a general idea of how the wave is going to peel. Most often surfers will make tiny adjustments until the very last moment.

Positioning yourself and reading the wave go hand in hand. As you paddle for the peak, there’s a very good chance you realize that the wave is bigger, smaller, softer, or steeper than you initially anticipated.

You will sometimes start paddling in one direction, and realize that you need to start paddling the opposite way because you’ve misread the wave. Knowing how to spin around will again be essential.

Small, subtle direction adjustments are just as important. Constantly monitor what the wave is doing and readjust your paddling line accordingly.

You might need to adjust your paddling speed; accelerating or slowing down. On some occasions, it might only be possible for you to reach a wave if you paddle full speed towards the peak.

#5 Read & Adjust to the Wave after you’ve caught it

Lastly, reading the wave & adjusting your positioning needs to be done even after you’ve caught the wave.

We can’t overstate the importance of looking at the wave and paying close attention to all the hints it can give you about how it’s going to peel. A frequent beginner mistake is to look straight down to the feet or to the surfboard. The result is that they end up dropping the wave directly to the bottom.

It would, without a doubt, make our ultimate top 5 reasons why surfers have a hard time progressing. If you are not reading and positioning yourself at the right place on the wave, your maneuvers will always be poor.

Not paying enough attention to the wave is definitely not a beginner-only mistake. In fact, we see this mistake all the time, even from surfers that have a few years of experience.

One of the reasons why advanced surfers are able to do impressive maneuvers, apart from the obvious thousands of hours of practice, is that they are very attentive to what the wave is doing. By paying attention, reading and anticipating how a wave will peel, they can make more precise decisions on what lines to draw and what maneuver to perform. Surfers with less experience have seen fewer waves in their lifetime. Therefore they can’t anticipate how waves are going to break as quickly as advanced surfers. Since they don’t have the hours of practise to process the information as fast as advanced surfers, they need to compensate by paying more attention to what the wave is doing. Once you’re up and riding, remember to constantly read and adjust your positioning.