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Surfing in its complexity

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This is Fufo. He is a local of Playa Venao, Panama and has been surfing (tearing up) these waters for the past 13 years. He manages the surf shop and hooked me up with a pretty nice fiberglass longboard…a rarity in rental land. After asking for a quick photo, we spoke about the waves and surfing in Panama vs. San Diego. I felt a bit inspired and decided to write this bit on technique….
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Surfing, there ain’t nothin’ like it. Paddling out into big waves, catching one and riding it down the line, wiping out and being held under for 10 seconds, and ending the day with a burrito. There are a few key elements that I have become more and more aware of in my past 15 years of surfing (give or take a few years due to my land-locked move to Boulder).
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Over and over again I notice beginners making the same mistakes that will potentially crush their souls and possibly their boards as well. So, I thought I’d write a little insight into what exactly goes on in my brain during a session. If it helps just one person….job done (maybe this guy I am staring at out in the breakers getting bashed will come across this one day too).

– Upon arriving at the beach, it is best to find a good vantage point where you can survey the overall situation of the water. Higher up is better. From here you can get a general idea of where the waves are breaking, any rip currents present, and where the billion other surfers are (generally everyone paddles to the same break, even if there are other waves to be had).
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– Once you are down on the shore, board in hand, don’t just run right into the water and start paddling out. The key to some good surf sessions is how observant you are of the environment around you. Take about 5 minutes (or more for really big surf) and look out at the sea. What you are looking for here is a number of things that will make the next few hours of your life a lot easier.

– Pay attention to where the waves are breaking, where they start breaking, and where they seem to taper off and possibly not break at all. The latter is most likely the best spot to paddle to the outside with minimal effort. If there is a rip current, you can also use that to your advantage to get out quickly. However, sometimes in low-tide the waves can break in a rip current and it can get messy.
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– Watch the waves and count how many come in a set before there seems to be a lull in activity. Keep track of how long that lull is as well. Also – notice the size of the waves in a set, the first, on average, tends to be the worst and smallest, the last is usually the biggest and breaks even further out. This will be important to remember in the water when you are picking out which waves to catch.

– Next check out where the other surfers in the water are. If there are a lot, it can be tricky paddling out directly towards them…you might get slashed.
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– At this point I also take notice of the best spot to catch the wave and then look back on the shore to find a landmark to keep track of it. When you are in the water, the current will usually pull you down the beach and if you don’t have a mark on the shoreline – you will end up losing your good spot and wondering why the surf sucks so badly.

– Depending on the break, I usually start paddling out when the last wave of a set is forming. This will give you the full advantage of that lull period. If you don’t make it to the outside during that lull, take notice of where you are in relation to where the big waves are breaking. You don’t want to get stuck right at the point where each wave is crashing down, this is where the wave releases its full power and you my friend, will not like it.
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– Once outside the breakers, it is generally good surfing edicate to stay a bit further on the edge of the other surfers already in place. As they each catch a wave you can start paddling closer to the best spot.

– Keep an eye on your landmark and do everything you can to maintain position. In my experience, most surfers tend to drift away from the good spot they paddled into and at certain points I may even be left all to myself to surf it, if I have kept track of my mark.
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– These days the majority of people are surfing on shortboards – which need pretty specific conditions for a good day in the water and will limit the areas of a break you can actually surf. I have come to prefer the long board for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that they will easily catch four times the amount of waves as a short board and can handle much smaller waves as well. The long board (damn you autocorrect)  will paddle very quickly through the water so you end up expending much less energy and will last a lot longer in your session. Another advantage is being able to sit above the water and thus out of the cold, making everything quite a bit more pleasant.
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– The final insight I can offer is about paddling into a wave. This really can only be learned by experience, but the key is to balance your weight on the board. Too far back and you will never catch anything, too far forward and you will pearl it every time. Just at the right point on the board and you will be able to shift your weight ever so slightly forward or back just by the arch in your back and the bend in your legs.

There you have it, killer swell brah. Go out and smack the lip, WAPAHHHHHH!!!

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