How to Surf Big Waves

Big wave surfers are a special breed. They ride waves that could easily snap a ship in half. But we're not here to discuss super high surf. We're here to talk about the kind of "big surf" that can be expected by an average surfer. Big surf would be anything that is overhead +.


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    Make sure you have some experience already. As a semi experienced surfer, we are going to assume that you are aware of channels and how to properly get into the lineup.
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    Find the peak of the break you want to ride. From your observations on shore, you've noted which peaks are breaking and how they are breaking.
    • If the wave forms a tube/barrel/green room, whatever you want to call it, be careful not to attempt to go through the wave where the tube is being formed. Most likely you will be sucked "over the falls" and end up back on the inside in a used condition.
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    During your paddle out it's best to go through the wave in the green portion, not the white water. Exercise extreme caution not to mess up a surfer's ride on your way out. Avoid being an obstacle in the water.
    • Obstacles in the water get hurt, badly sometimes. Paddle out of the way of a riding surfer or a surfer attempting to catch a wave remembering that you should always cross the wave behind the rider, not in front of them. Proper use of channels will help you avoid these situations.
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    Hug your board through white water. If the wave is not "throwing a lip" and appears "mushy", there's not nearly as much danger of going over the falls, but the white water can push you back quite a ways. When passing through white water, hug your board making yourself and your board as hydrodynamic as possible. Once the wave passes, from the hugging position begin paddling right away. This allows the buoyancy of the board to work to your advantage.
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    Regardless of the size of the wave, you always want to be as close as you can to the peak of the wave. That's the place the wave first starts to break. If you're completely unfamiliar with overhead (OH+) surf, then you definitely want to start with a mushy wave.
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    Focus on the take-off. When surfing OH+ mush, as with all waves, the take off is paramount. Muscle memory will help you with your take off and the drop in. Don't be overly surprised at the speed of your drop in. You'll be traveling anywhere from 20 to 50 mph depending on the size and power of the wave. Keep your eyes on what is happening with the wave in front of you. If the lip is starting to break further in front of you then you can get before it does, it may be time to bail or pull out. Often on a mushy wave you can drop in front of the white water and pull back into the green on the other side of an inside peak.
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    Depending on the type of board you are riding, position yourself near the peak. A longboarder will naturally sit outside further than a shortboarder. The longboarder can use distance more easily to gain the speed/momentum required to drop in on the wave. The shortboarder will want to catch the wave by the steepness, doing only 4-6 paddles to drop in.
    • An experienced surfer can actually catch a wave after it's started to break. The take off is infinitely more difficult as the white water is raging all about the surfer, balance is much more difficult and sometimes even maintaining contact with your board can be a challenge.
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    Aim to get into the green part of the wave. From take off to dismount that's where the fun is. Sure, white water surfing has it's own set of thrills, but ask any experienced surfer, the green is where to be.
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    Handle hollow waves with care. Riding hollow waves is much more difficult than riding mushy waves. The danger level is increased dramatically by how hollow the wave is.
    • When a wave is "throwing a lip" and creating an empty space inside itself, the forward motion of the water is tremendous. Boards are snapped and bodies broken.
    • Hollow wave riding usually requires a much later take off than a mushy wave. Decisions must be made instantaneously in order to avoid wipe out.
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    Beware of waves that throw a lip early. It is usually very difficult if not impossible to catch one of these. They generally arise when the wave hits a reef or a sandbar. The sudden obstacle underwater forces the power and the water toward the surface. Sometimes (as at Suckouts, San Elijo State Beach, Encinitas, CA.) when the wave hits the reef it "jacks up" as much as 25% of the wave height while traveling less than 10 feet. The experienced surfer uses this boost to help them drop in on the wave.
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    When surfing near a jetty, beware of the "bowl." A curious phenomenon that occurs when water rushing in and water rushing out meet in the same place. There is usually a peak, and the "sections" of the wave from the peak turn toward the shore, like a crescent moon. Sometimes the ends of the crescent close out and can doom the surfer's ride.
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    Be careful of going "over the falls". Inexperienced surfers will often attempt to catch a wave long after they should have let it go. It's not uncommon to see surfers pulled by the wave, not riding it at all, over the top of the wave and into the soup (an experience called "over the falls"). Truly a nasty experience that should be avoided. Don't continue to chase a wave that you will not be able to take off on. Of course it's great for cleaning sinuses...
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    Keep calm as you go. OK, so you're in the lineup, you've chosen a nice wave coming in, looks like it might be OH+1/2, a good 6' - 8' wave. You're in the pocket and you're about to drop in and ... holy carp! That's a long way straight down! Seems like you're gazing into the chasm of your doom. No worries! You are! You can bet your bottom dollar that the first 3 or 4 waves are not going to be good. You'll feel like Cody Maverick's first wave on Penghu Island against Tank.
    • You get over the shock of how far down it appears to be, and look off to the sides. Look at the peak next door. Check out how "vertical" the face of that wave is. Not nearly as bad as it looked from the peak during your near death experience earlier. You notice that by watching the tubing waves next door that there's space to actually drop in on that peak, and make your take off.
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    Roll with the punches if you lose your board. It will happen to you eventually. You're dropping in on an OH+ wave and ... son of a gun! Where'd my board go? You'll lose contact with your board, you will be airborne hurtling down the face of the wave. If you've got the skills, there's a good chance you can connect with your board again and successfully complete the take off. This difficult maneuver is called an "air drop" and happens more by accident than by design.
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    Look out for tubing waves. Tube riding is extremely difficult and frankly, it's uncommon in California to get tubing waves most of the time. Generally you will find mushburgers, but when things are working together in perfect harmony, tubing waves can be found. Not at all beaches, but the special breaks that are blessed with the tide, current and bottom that allow waves to tube.
    • Once you've got your tubing wave, you want to get into the tube correct? Believe it or not, you may be traveling faster than the wave, and want to slow down. To do this most efficiently is simple. "Pet the cat". This means that you put a portion or your hand into the face of the wave. How much you want to slow down is how deep you put your fingers in. Be cautious not to dig to deep lest you end up being swallowed by the tube you're riding...
    • When in the tube, the forces pushing up on the rail of your board that is in the wave are trying to get you to "circle the tube." This unpleasant experience occurs when the wave catches your rail and flips you upside down inside the tube, and subsequently over the falls.
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    Keep an eye out for obstacles. As always, local knowledge is good to have, but if you're surfing an unfamiliar break, pay special attention to any "boils" you see in the water. This usually indicates an obstruction that should be avoided, like a reef or protruding rock. If you surf near Santa Barbara or Ventura, you may even come across abandoned pipes leading to the water that were once part of the oil industry.


  • Large waves have the power to hold buoyant objects (like your body) underwater for extended periods of time.
  • Be aware of obstructions in the water, nothing worse than taking off and looking down at a pile of rock.
  • Watch out for other surfers! As always, look toward the beach to make certain you have room to make your take off! Look to the left and to the right to determine if other surfers are going after the same wave.
  • If another surfer is in position and has right of way, respect their ride! Don't drop in (snake) on their wave. Bad reputation to have.
  • If another surfer is in position and appears to be going for a wave you like, ask them which way they are going, right or left? If they pick the opposite direction you were considering, go for it! Sometimes they won't hear you, sometimes they will ignore you, but what have you lost? You may have gained the wave of the day!

Things You'll Need

  • Your board
  • Your trunks/wetsuit
  • Your leash (advisable for bigger days)
  • Your wax or a wax comb if your board is sufficiently waxed
  • Your courage
  • A towel

Article Info

Categories: Surfing