Without question, the main thing you need to keep in mind is to stay out of or get out of the way of those who may be coming down the line in front of you as you paddle out. Other than dropping in on someone else's wave, this is the biggest cardinal sin of surfing and a gross breach of surf etiquette. Pick and choose your path to the outside with care. Time your launch into the the surf zone when there is a lull between sets. Or, if possible, just paddle around the surf zone and make your way from the far side to place yourself in the lineup. This will really only work on a point or reef break where the wave breaks in single spot. You do not want to endanger yourself or other surfers.
So here are some tips I use to reduce my chances of getting in someone else's way while I paddle out:
- Find the least congested path to the outside. Make sure you take into consideration where surfers will be should waves start coming in while you're paddling and surfers start catching them and begin coming at you.
- Time it. Plain and simple, wait for a lull if you can then haul ass. You will spend less time flailing around in the wash endangering other people (and yourself!).
- If your timing fails, you find yourself in the middle of a set and there is a surfer coming down the line at you, point your board in the direction from which they came and start paddling to the wash so they can complete their ride without having to take you in to consideration. "What?! I'll get pummeled by the white water!" Exactly. You did the right thing and hopefully someone will return the favor. If not, you've got some surf karma coming your way.
- If it is absolutely safe and clear to the outside (no surfers up and running in your vicinity) and you find yourself looking eye to eye with a walled up wave ready to crush you, consider turning up the juice and trying to paddle over it or pierce through it if you can. I use to freak out in those situations. Not realizing the dynamics of the wave, I'd give up, ditch my board (don't be that guy!) and swim under them. That just sucks and don't do this. I've since learned that I had more ways to clear it than I thought. A little hint: You don't have to make it over the wave unscathed to clear it without much problem. Paddle your hardest up the face and if it starts to pitch on you, hang on to the front 1/4 of your board with everything you've got, duck your head and pierce through the remaining face. You may lose some ground but not as much as you think.
- Do not ditch your board under any circumstances. OK, occasionally you will, but if you keep thinking in the aformentioned mode, you'll do it less often. :-)
You know one thing about paddling in general I've learned. I see folks who are exhausting themselves paddling like a maniac either paddling out or paddling in to a wave [unsuccessfully]. If there is one word I can place in your head each time you move your arm to paddle, that would be - make sure each stroke is deliberate. It's not the quantity of your stroke(s), it's the quality. I can now cover as much ground or generate as much speed with 6 strokes as I used to be able to do with 10 strokes. Do the math. I'm not as tired anymore.
It's kind of ethereal since it's all by feel, but, just make sure you are pushing water when you stroke rather than slapping or splashing water. Concentrate on completing your stroke by following through till your arm is completely extended behind you. It'll make a huge difference.
If you want a more advanced tip for paddling: Use an "S" stroke with your arms. With your right arm, make your stroke look like an "S". With your left arm, draw it as a mirror image.
One more thing about paddling...
If you are reading this you are either a beginner or a novice. That being said, you have no business being in any surf over 4ft. Matter of fact, a beginner should be in nothing over 2ft. Given we're not trying to tackle 10ft surf out there, don't be afraid to let the wave work you. Mentally prepare for it. I do. I am constantly saying to myself, "well, I'm about to get pummeled." And you know what? It's never as bad as I expect. With that attitude, you may even enjoy it as you marvel at Mother Nature.
Also, open your eyes when you're underwater. It helps relieve some of the chaos. I remember one day out at El Porto, I got caught inside with a chest high wave about to beat my ass. I tried to pierce through the face but the wave was strong enough to rip the board out of my hands. As I went under, I opened my eyes just as the wave caught my board and drug me backwards a few yards underwater. It was cool because it looked similar to a slingshot underwater flinging me in reverse. I could see little air bubbles trailing behind me (or in front of my face in this case) as I sped backwards. Anyway, open your eyes and let these little waves have their way with you. You'll survive and you'll really appreciate the skill these guys have who tackle the big ones.