Surfing for Sailors

The earliest modern day small boat voyagers, from Joshua Slocum onward, seemed to have their hands full when voyaging. By comparison, today’s sailors are on easy street, with unprecedented amenities and advantages across the board.

Perhaps the greatest gift of this circumstance is time, time to enjoy and expand and pursue. One of the most profound dreams being realized by a growing proportion of seafarers, of all ages and genders, is surfing. Voyaging and surfing are, like voyaging, fishing or diving, a perfect marriage. Surfers are becoming sailors for this reason, to gain access to perfect, uncrowded surf breaks, and sailors are becoming surfers because they so often find themselves in such superb circumstances for living yet another dream.

This article mostly addresses the latter category, those sailors who may have seen the odd surfing flick, and perhaps a couple of experts defying death on intimidating reef breaks and wondering how they can possibly get in on the fun. I know how you feel because I’ve been in your shoes. Just as I attempted to do for the subject of fishing with The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing, I want to do everything I can to open the door to another invaluable reward available to voyagers — the joy of riding waves. Like fishing, sailors face a unique set of circumstances with regard to surfing, making specific advice addressing these issues invaluable for smoothing and accelerating the path to success without getting hurt.

Getting started
The first step is to acquire the right gear, starting with a longboard. These catch a variety of wave forms and sizes easily, and they’re the easiest to ride. You will be standing up the first day. You can get a shortboard after you gain some experience.

I recommend Surf Tech boards (see sidebar “Steps to getting started”) because they are made with epoxy resin on a polystyrene blank, lighter and stronger than more traditional polyester resin/polyurethane blank boards. With limited storage and travel to remote locations, sailors can’t afford to be snapping boards in half like landlubber surfers. These boards also stand up well to life in the harsh conditions of living full-time on a boat deck. They may be more resistant to delamination.

And, contrary to what you may hear, dings in these boards are just as easy to repair as polyester — most sailors are familiar with West System epoxy resin. Simply buy either of the West handy repair packs with slow or fast-setting resin hardener (slow for the tropics), and a couple of packs of additives (microfibers, colloidal filler), a bit of mat and cloth, and you’re ready for anything (all vessels should have this on board anyway for extended voyages). On wax, you can’t beat finding a good brand and sticking to it (no pun intended).

Picking the right wave
Choosing the right wave is everything in surfing, the difference between a frustrating and even dangerous outing, and the exhilarating fun of ride after ride. The ideal beginner situation is to ride whitewater waves on a sandy beach break, then progress to taking off on fat spilling waves. First, practice popping up. Draw an outline of your board in the firm wet sand near the waves. Lie down on the outline. Paddle a couple of strokes, then raise your upper body on your hands (arms straight, like the top of a push-up), swing one leg up and under your body, foot angled across the board — at this point the knee of the back leg may still be lightly touching the board — then quickly rise up to stand, knees bent, head up and looking forward, arms out for balance. Next, do it all in one fluid motion. Now, which foot is back? Most people naturally have their right leg back — so this is the ankle to which you should attach the Velcro leash strap. If you feel more natural dropping your left leg back, that’s fine too, put your leash on the left ankle.

Time to paddle out, after you’ve rubbed a heavy coat of wax down on the top surface of the board for traction. Jump prone on to your board and adjust trim, not too far back or forward (mark the spot on the board logo — my nose is on the port side “A” of “Robert August”). As you encounter waves on the way out, three ways to get past them are: 1) turn turtle — turn upside down and hang on to the nose of the board so the oncoming wave forces you down, then push up on the nose to surface; 2) duck dive — not possible on longboards, but you stay upright, crouch forward and push the nose down, then as the wave passes overhead extend your body and slide aft to push the nose back toward the surface with knee and foot pressure, losing little ground; 3) free dive — especially if it’s a bigger wave, you’re on a longboard, it’s uncrowded and there’s no one directly behind you, simply get off the board and free dive down deep, then come up behind the wave after it passes, reel in your board, hop back on and keep paddling. (Note that otherwise it’s dangerous to others to simply toss your board aside and dive, and very bad etiquette.) The easiest way to get out is to ride one of the rips between sandbars, deep gutters where the wave break tends to be weaker or non-existent.

Out near the area where the waves are breaking, hold up and wait. Mark your spot with shore ranges and stay put. Pick out an incoming swell, and start paddling toward the beach (sweep the water down the bottom of the board forcefully with your hands, like a competition swimmer doing freestyle). When you feel the board tilt down and surge forward, pop up. Start out riding the white water straight in to the sand. Once that’s comfortable, paddle out a bit farther and choose a larger wave. This time paddle at a slight angle to the beach, pop up, and with foot pressure “bank” the board slightly so you take off at an angle, and begin running along the unbroken wave face in front of the white water. This is the fundamental goal of surfing.

One good way to pick a surf spot is to analyze the shape of the foam patches left by breaking waves. The edge of the foam defines the pathway you’d like to ride. Sandbars or other shallow areas where the foam patches form a triangle are perfect—sit out just beyond the apex of the triangle, and you can take off either to the right or left of the incoming peaking swells.

Where do you go from here?
You don’t ever need any board other than that superb Robert August 9’6”. You can take on big waves and small waves, messy waves and clean waves, and have an absolute ball. The steeper and more hollow the waves, however, the more critical it is to take off on your longboard far enough ahead of that white plunging wave crest and to get the bow going sideways to the beach at a very early stage in the take-off. Otherwise, the wave face bends, the back of the board cranks up, the nose sticks, and you pitch-pole (or “pearl” in surfing lingo). Shortboards are better suited to these more hollow conditions, permitting comfortable take-offs in steeper parts of the wave, and conferring the ability to maneuver all over the wave face as you ride along. These have pointed bows, greater longitudinal curvature (“rocker”), and they’re shorter and thinner, have less flotation, and are less forgiving, like driving a sports car compared to driving a bus.

If you want to diversify, go back to, click on “Longboards,” “Randy French” (or his symbol, an apostrophe and a comma together), and take a look at the 8-foot Hybrid, which is essentially a “fun board” — that is, something in between a longboard and a shortboard. Very maneuverable, a great wave catcher and suitable for more hollow conditions yet highly versatile; I absolutely love mine and I believe you will feel the same.

My third board is a 7’5” custom Bear Board built by Bill Hamilton, father of world-famous Laird Hamilton, for Eric Vogt. Eric made a gift of it to me, a large shortboard that can take on big reef break waves but is also fun in the smaller stuff, saying it was the next step up and that if I didn’t put it to good use he’d come and take it back from me (I kept my promise and it’s on its last legs now).

Surfing safely
Safe sandy beach breaks are a great place to start. Many of the great surf spots encountered by ocean voyagers, however, are potentially more dangerous point breaks, where wave trains encounter a rocky headland and wrap around it to produce long, peeling breakers, or reef breaks, where passes through shallow reefs or points of reef create corners, causing waves to break successively along an angled path into deeper water. If you take off too deep, i.e. in a part of the wave that collapses with no chance of escape, you can be thrown bodily onto sharp coral or rugged boulders with catastrophic results. Another way to get hurt is to attempt a steep, hollow wave section, and get chucked down hard into the seafloor shallows. Even sand bottom can break your bones, though rock and reef are, of course, worse. If you ever plunge down into reef and tangle your leash, you need to remain calm and undo the ankle strap so you can surface before you drown. Sailors escaping the crowd in remote areas need to be more conservative, keeping in mind that medical help may be far away.

Learn to protect your head with your arms during a fall, and to “fall flat” or shallow, rather than plunging toward the bottom headfirst. Surf boards and their fins can bruise you and cut you deeply, so get away from the board as you wipe out. Avoid the take-off zone of other surfers as you paddle out so you don’t get run over or hit (or interfere with someone else’s fun). The surfer closest to the breaking part of the wave, or the “inside,” has the right of way, so back off if someone to the inside of you is on the wave. Dropping in on someone is dangerous and in violation of the surfer’s “rules of the road.”

Sharks are another consideration. Popular surf breaks near civilization where attacks seldom if ever occur are very safe, and there’s plenty of other bait out there in the water with you. Pull in to some remote, uninhabited atoll or reef with beautiful waves, and you should proceed with caution. I highly recommend grabbing a mask and fins, anchoring near the break and free diving for at least an hour prior to surfing an unknown spot. If there’s a pack of territorial reef sharks, or larger species lurking consistently along the edge, you will likely find out about it. If aggressive gray or Caribbean reef sharks, or bull, large bronze whaler, tiger, or any other of the big, dangerous sharks are present it should be a no-go. Even the bite of a small shark in a remote area could easily be fatal.

No matter where you are, don’t surf pre-dawn or after sunset. If large schools of baitfish begin to move in to where you’re surfing, relocate or get out of the water. That said, sharks are not a major concern in the majority of surfing locations. I’ve seen others where your chances of having shark problems would be virtually 100 percent.

Why do it?
Anyone who acquires a boat and goes voyaging loves the ocean. Any person who loves the sea can’t fail to be thrilled by a sport that so intimately captures and immerses one in the beauty, power and grace of one of the world’s most impressive phenomena — the breaking wave. Arm yourself with the right equipment, pick the right conditions and regardless of your age you can do it, very safely, no problem. Surfing will keep you in superb physical condition. It’s incredibly therapeutic. If you’ve never felt your soul smile, get out there and ride a few waves.

By Ocean Navigator