Basic Paddle Technique
Paddling is one of the least appreciated and one of the most critical aspects of surfing. Ineffective paddling means you’ll catch only a fraction of the waves you could be catching, and for those waves you do catch, you will find yourself in less than ideal positioning. Surfers spend well over three quarters of their time in the water paddling. For the few precious seconds you spend actually riding a wave, you’ve spent considerably more paddling to the lineup, paddling against currents, paddling to position, and ultimately paddling for the wave itself.
Therefore it’s well worth focusing on what it takes to paddle efficiently and effectively. Efficiently in terms of expending the least amount of energy possible, and effectively in terms of getting the most out of each paddle stroke.
Keep it Flat
Keeping your board flat on the water is key. If the nose of the board is tilting too far up, that means the tail is dragging too far deep. This creates a lot of drag meaning you are not moving as fast as you could be over the surface of the water (ineffective). By extension, you are having to paddle much harder to move the same distance (inefficient). On the other hand, if your nose is submerged, the forward motion will force it down even deeper causing you to sink very quickly. This is called “pearling.”
All this sounds simple enough, and it would be if the ocean surface was perfectly level all the time. The reality is that the ocean surface is constantly in flux and you need to constantly make adjustments to keep your board as level as possible. This is why glassy conditions are so ideal since it makes paddling efficiently and effectively practically effortless. Choppy conditions are particularly challenging because you are constantly having to make adjustments to compensate in an effort to keep your board level.
Leveling Your Board
Now that we understand why a level board is so important, let’s look at how we actually level the board. You can adjust the orientation of your board through body placement and the weight distribution of your body itself. Body placement causes significant changes in orientation while altering the form of your body (compacting or extending) while paddling is used to fine tune the orientation.
The Sweet Spot
By moving your body up on the board, you move your nose down. By moving it back on the board, you move your nose up. Changing your body placement results in significant adjustments to the orientation of the board but doing so while paddling is not ideal for two reasons. First, it takes a lot of energy and movement to place your hands on the rails so you can shift your body forward and back. Second, by having to use your hands, you interrupt the momentum you’ve been building up in your paddle. Therefore, it’s best to learn where your “sweet spot” is on your board and train your body to lie as close to that spot as possible. Adjustments should be made only under absolutely necessary circumstances.
For beginners, once you’ve found your sweet spot, take a note of where your body is relative to some marking on the board. For example, your right shoulder is next to the shaper’s name or logo. You could also consider etching a line on the wax with your fingernail or laying a small piece of duct tape as a reference point. As you progress in skill, you’ll find that the sweet spot may change depending on the type of waves you are surfing or the style of your surfing. Over time, your body will just feel when it is not on the optimal location on the board and optimal body placement will become second nature.
Arching Your Back
You can fine tune your weight distribution on your board by compacting the shape of your body such as arching your back. By arching your back (compacting your body), you shift weight away from the nose causing it to lift out of the water. By bringing your chest closer to the board (extending your body), you lower the nose.
This is by far the most difficult aspect of paddle technique because you are using muscles you would otherwise never use. Therefore, beginners are not able to arch their back as far as they need to. Over time, you eventually develop these muscles and can arch your back for prolonged paddling being able to take increasing advantage of this paddle technique.
The key to using this paddle technique is positioning your body further up on your board than you might think ideal. In this position, you will pearl your nose without arching your back. However, with your back arched, you will keep your nose hovering just above the water with enough room to lower your chest slightly and still keep from pearling.
The reason why arching your back is such a key aspect of paddle technique is that you can fine tune the orientation of your board very quickly. By simply raising and lowering your chest, you can react quickly to sudden changes on the ocean surface. And since you don’t need your hands to change your body positioning, you can continue to maintain your paddle momentum while altering your weight distribution (and therefore your board orientation) all at the same time.
Weight Distribution on a Shortboard
Altering weight distribution through the arch of your back is particularly critical on a shortboard. Since there is far less surface area on a shortboard, the slightest adjustment to your weight distribution will result in a noticeable change in the orientation of your board relative to a longboard.
For experienced surfers, this is ideal since you can adjust to drastic changes in conditions very quickly such as late take-offs or fast pitching waves. For beginners, this proves to be extremely challenging since the degree of arch required to effectively control weight distribution on a shortboard is very extreme. This is why you can spot a beginner on a shortboard from miles away – they will invariably have their nose shooting straight into the air with their body positioned practically over their tail. If they move even an inch further up, they will pearl their board simply because they have not developed the flexibility to arch their back as needed. On the other end of the spectrum, observe any seasoned surfer paddling a shortboard and they will have their body positioned in the upper third of their board with their back arched keeping their nose hovering perfectly above the waterline. As such they are able to cover a lot of ground with effortless paddling.
Weight Distribution on a Longboard
The margin of error on optimal weight distribution on a longboard is far wider than that of a shortboard making it an ideal choice for beginners. Relative to a shortboard, shifts in weight distribution on a longboard have a smaller impact on board orientation making it much more forgiving. Additionally, since the paddle momentum of a longboard takes much longer to dissipate, the penalty for using your hands to make minor shifts in your body position is not as “expensive” as that on a shortboard. Breaking paddle rhythm on a shortboard for even a few strokes will find you close to a dead stop. A few missed strokes on a longboard however will just result in a decrease in speed.
In addition to arching your back, another effective method of altering weight distribution on a longboard is by bending your knees. By lifting your feet to the air, you distribute your weight forward on your board causing the nose to dip slightly downward. Some combination of back arching and lifting your feet can be used to make even more precise adjustments to board orientation.
Paddling Into Waves
The effect of weight distribution becomes exponentially pronounced when you’re paddling for a wave. While paddling from point A to point B may encounter a few errant chops for which you must compensate, now you are looking at a mass of water with a constantly changing grade of inclination. Nonetheless, the same rule applies – keep your board flat.
Particularly for beginners, two things typically happen wrong when trying to catch a wave which can be blamed on flawed paddle technique. You either pearl or fall off back.
What works when paddling from point A to point B does not work when paddling for a wave. Remember that now you are paddling down a slope. If you keep the same weight distribution, your nose will dive caused by the downward force created by the slope.
As you feel the wave lift under you and the downward pressure exert on your nose, you need to compensate by arching your back further and keeping the nose from pearling. Only in dire circumstances should you consider shifting your body position back while you are already committed to paddling for a wave. The reason for this is not only the break in paddle momentum you are creating by using your hands, but also the risk of losing your balance by bringing your hands in to hold the rails. While paddling for a wave, your hands not only create forward momentum but also act to some degree as gyroscopic balances spinning along your sides.
On a longboard, bending your knees can be a particularly effective way to redistribute weight while paddling for a wave. A technique many longboarders use is to start off by paddling with their feet high and chest up against the board. This ensures that the board is flat against the slope of the incoming wave. As the they begin to feel the downward pressure on their nose, they slowly compensate by lifting up their chest off of their board and, in cases where the wave starts to pitch unexpectedly sharply, bring their feet down to further adjust their weight distribution bringing the nose up even more.
On the other hand, position yourself too far back or arch your back too much and you create unnecessary drag with your tail. This drag diminishes the likelihood of your board catching the force of the wave. This happens more often than pearling. What typically happens is that beginners over-compensate, experience pearling for their first few attempts, and become conditioned to do the extreme opposite which is to over-compensate. The cycle of bad habit continues when beginners then try to compensate for their over-compensation by catching waves deep inside. Since they are so far back on their board, they need the wave to be practically breaking for it to override the drag being created by the tail.
Although these late take-offs compensate for their faulty weight distribution, it is far from optimal and usually results in mediocre rides in the whitewash. Worst of all, learning stalls because they are not able to catch waves early enough to ride the face of the wave where surfing really happens.
The key to catching a wave in general is to catch it as early as possible. By doing so, you allow yourself the most amount of time to generate speed and get to the face of the wave. It is on the face of the wave where you are able to generate even more speed, perform maneuvers, and really enjoy the act of surfing.
Catching a wave as early as possible requires that your board be as flat as possible during the most critical point of a wave where its slope is steep enough for your board to harness its energy. This critical range of time is a function of the size of your board and the strength of the wave. In general, a bigger board requires less strength from the wave and the critical range is much larger while a smaller board requires more strength and the critical range could be a few milliseconds.
The chance of reaching this point sooner increases if you manage to keep your board level throughout the process of paddling for a wave. If you are over-compensating, you will pearl and have little to no chance of catching the wave. If you are under-compensating, you are creating drag and requiring more strength from the wave before you are able to harness it effectively diminishing that window of opportunity.
You don’t see two page spreads of Slater’s mean S-paddle technique. You don’t hear groms drooling over Simpo’s arched back on the southside of the pier. Steele will not be featuring an underwater shot of Machado paddling into a Tea’hupoo monster. The fact is, paddling is simply not a glamorous thing. It’s boring. It’s a pain in the ass.
But it doesn’t have to be. Nor should it. Perhaps Jaimal Yogi said it best in his surfing memoir, “Saltwater Buddha,” where he makes a connection between life in general and paddling out on a particularly choppy Nor Cal break …
… the waves were like endless frothy barricades. I’d been paddling for twenty minutes and I still wasn’t outside. I pushed and pumped and heaved and whined. The sea punched and kicked and jammed sand down my throat. And in the midst of this abuse, I realized how much I loved surfing.
I loved the actual riding of the wave, of course. But I also loved the challenge of the paddle … the more I thought about it, the more I realized every surfer has to like paddling, at least a little.
This was because extremely little of each surf session is spent actually standing up on your surfboard on a wave – maybe one percent – so if you’re looking to have a good time it’s essential to find a way to enjoy paddling, or at least good naturedly bear it. And in that way, I thought surfing is kind of a good metaphor of the rest of life.
The extremely good stuff – chocolate and great sex and weddings and hilarious jokes – fills about a minute portion of an adult lifespan.
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