You can learn a lot about waves – and about yourself – when you have no choice but to surf tiny waves on a regular basis. Small waves are not fun. In fact, if you are a shortboarder, they can mean extended bouts of sulking, frustration, passive aggressive behaviour, and even outright despair.
But let us never forget that Kelly Slater grew up surfing at Cocoa Beach in Florida, which is tiny wave central.
So before we begin, let’s take a moment to watch the king himself navigate ugly, onshore mush with speed, style, flair, and persistence.
So what can we learn from surfing small waves that can make us better surfers?
1. Learn how to generate speed
When you ride a shortboard in small waves you need speed simply to stay afloat. The trick is learning how to pump effectively, and get maximum speed out of any available wall. Long, arcing bottom turns aren’t going to do you much good in tiny waves, but quick projections and multiple pumps will help you build and maintain momentum.
If you’re into performance surfing, the speed generation lessons you learn from riding small waves will be exactly the techniques you use to race much bigger walls when the surf gets good.
2. Learn to read a wave
Small waves give you the opportunity to study and analyse the mechanics of wave motion. There is no point focusing on the next section on a tiny wave, because the sections are paltry little humps. Instead, you look further down the line, learning to get a feel for more strategic surfing.
Pro surfers usually have a clear idea of the lines they will draw on a wave, way beyond the impending manoeuvre. Granted a lot of their actions are automatic, based on a lifetime of practice, but small waves certainly provide a great learning opportunity to develop this kind of foresight.
3. Improve your style
If you exhibit an ugly, aggressive surfing style when riding tiny waves, you’ll probably have a horrible style when the surf gets good. Watch guys like Dave Rastovich or Rob Machado in small surf. They look as groovy as they do in heaving pipe. Next time the waves are small, don’t despair. Paddle out and practice your stance, your arm positioning, and bending your back knee to get a lower centre of gravity.
When you iron out your kinks in small waves, you’ll surf with a whole lot more style when the surf gets big.
4. Complete manoeuvres fast
On small waves you don’t have the luxury of time. If you see a steep “whackable” section ahead of you, then you need to hit that baby before it crumbles to your feet. So you develop a more sensitive surfing approach. You’ll know how to quickly apply extra pressure to the tail to produce that sharp upward projection, without having to do a drawn-out bottom turn.
Cutbacks also need to be completed with way more speed than usual. There’s no time for lazy, long arcs – you need to slice a tight line to get yourself back to the pocket and back around again.
5. Stay in the power pocket
You really don’t want to spend much time out on the shoulder of small waves unless, of course, you’re riding a 9 foot longboard. But if you’re a shortboarder you most definitely want to remain in the power zone. This is as close to the peeling lip as you can possibly be, because from here you can generate maximum speed.
Staying close to the power pocket is a lesson you’ll be eternally grateful for. It teaches you not to be a shoulder hopper, and not to be afraid of staying close to the action. The more time you spend here the faster your surfing will progress.
6. Have a sense of humour
Small waves are not serious. You sometimes see guys huffing and puffing in small conditions, and you wonder why on earth they take it so seriously. Small waves are no place for tension. If someone drops in or gets in the way, make a joke. Take the opportunity to be less focused on competition and pay more attention to the ocean itself.
Have a laugh with some friends. Bodysurf a bit. Just enjoy the act of surfing, rather than trying to tear waves to smithereens. Good waves result in competition and hassling, so when it’s small take a deep breath out and have a good time.
7. Try out some different boards
If you don’t usually surf fishes or alternative craft then small waves give you an opportunity to experiment with different forms of surfing. You’ll almost certainly enjoy the ease-of-paddling, the longer, more intentional lines, and the different kinds of flow more voluminous craft offer.
Take a mini-mal for a spin and try cross-stepping up the deck. Practice bending your back knee way down to manoeuvre that plank, and enjoy breezing through fat sections that would usually sink your shortboard.
Disclaimer: riding a mini-mal is a whole lot of fun a few times, but if the waves remain small for more than a month you may nevertheless sink into a deep depression.
8. Gift the gift
Small waves provide the perfect opportunity for you to pass on the gift of surfing to someone else. They’re always down there, the wide-eyed groms and learners doing crazy freestyle paddling on their soft tops. Remember, they’re super intimidated by a good surfer like yourself.
You seem like a God, the way you race along those walls. It is their dream, a dream they might give up on if they take too many beatings or don’t catch a wave. If you see someone who could use a little push in the right direction, or a word of encouragement, don’t be shy. It will mean the world to them that a good surfer gave them advice, and you’ll feel great about being an expert.
Surfing is a gift and we’re so lucky to be living in an age when such a luxury is even available to us. Let’s pass on the stoke and aloha, if only when the waves are small.
9. Appreciate good waves
If you spend a few weeks tweaking your style, ensuring you have an ultra-low centre of gravity, and pumping your way across tiny waves, you’ll be in for a big surprise when the Wave Gods send some juice in your direction. Firstly, you will have maintained a level of surf fitness that you otherwise would have allowed to fade. Secondly you’ll be so used to scrapping for speed and flow that on good waves you’ll be flying.
Hard work and deliberate practice pays dividends, and when your big opportunities come you’ll be primed to take them. Surfing is a relationship – and you’re in it for the long haul. Whether it seems exciting or boring, through good times and bad, if you have the opportunity, get out there and make the most of the surfing experience.
Remember: one day you will surf your last wave.
And at the end of your life, you’ll never regret having spent a few extra hours in the ocean.