Being Aggressive isn’t Always Bad, and Other Surfing Lessons I’ve Learned

I’ve found that being an aggressive surfer is very different from being an aggressive person. Being an aggressive surfer, in the positive sense of aggression, means paddling towards peaks, hunting for waves, and staying engaged and active in the ocean. Being an aggressive surfer doesn’t mean you yell at people, or run people over. Those are just aggressive people who happen to surf.

Should I be aggressive in the water?

Being aggressive means you are critical and analytical in the water: where is the impact zone, where are the waves lining up the best, where is the peak, who is paddling where? These kinds of assessments will improve your surfing. Plus, paddling towards the prime take-off zones, even if you aren’t taking off on them yet, will get your mind set on going for those bigger set waves when you’re ready.

When you are an aggressive surfer, it’s because you have a craving for catching waves, you’ve got a need that can only be satisfied by that perfect left or right for the day.

When you’re an aggressive person who surfs, however, you get angry at people because they are not as good as you. You get impatient and mean. This is not the same as surfers who politely tell people not to surf their break because they know it’s too advanced for them. If a local nicely tells you it’s too dangerous (as I had happen long ago when I paddled out to a spot I was ill-prepared for) then say thank you and listen to them, because they have your best interest in mind.

The truly mean people who surf, however, will name-call and want to start fights. They will hog all the waves, not because they are especially good at surfing (although sometimes they are), but because they hate to share and want to establish their superiority. This is not the kind of aggression you are aiming for.

Aim to be the surfer always searching the horizon, paddling against the current, and working his or her butt off to get the best positioning and paddling the hardest for waves.

There are two definitions:

aggressive: ready or likely to attack or confront; characterized by or resulting from aggression

aggressive: pursuing one’s aims and interests forcefully, sometimes unduly so

Credit Webster’s Dictionary

Pursue your aim of improving and catching waves forcefully and with purpose, but not “unduly so,” and you’ll not only enhance in surfing, but gain more and more confidence as you become deliberate and focused on your surfing.

Once I get the hang of longboarding I should try shortboard right away, right?

Do not, under any circumstances, immediately buy a tiny little 5’8” surfboard with all the bells and whistles, exceptionally high-quality skegs, and any other fancy-shmancy new design out there on the market right now after surfing your beat up old 9’ longboard for three months and deciding it is time to up your game.

Surfboard designs are an absolute joy to explore once you’ve gotten some serious water time under your belt, but thinking you’ll go from beginner longboarding to shortboarding within a couple of months is only going to leave you frustrated, upset, and with an expensive board collecting dust.

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started surfing was going too short, too fast. I went from longboarding to shortboarding, got frustrated, stopped surfing, tried longboarding again, got scared of bigger waves, went to boogie boarding to up my confidence, then finally learned my lesson.

Instead of radically changing your surfboard style, take baby steps. Although this might seem like the more expensive route to take because it requires buying a couple different boards, it will save you time, money, and heartache in the long run. Plus, these days you can find so many used boards online or from friends or in shops, that going out and buying a retail price board when you’re a beginner is bananas.

If you’re lucky to have parents who surf, borrow their boards, find friends who will lend you their beaters, or buy something used first. The important thing is to take small steps as you step-down your board sizes. I started off surfing on a monster 8’ 6” longboard that I could barely get my arm around. It was thick, buoyant, and ridiculously stable—perfect for a beginner.

Once I felt myself really working on waves to do more turns, I stepped down to my mom’s old 7’2” funboard. It wasn’t the bulky mass of my previous board, but more often than not I turtled my board more than I duck-dove it. Because it was still thick, it floated me wonderfully, and caught waves with ease. Plus, I could take off on waves that weren’t as steep, getting me comfortable with my pop-ups on a smaller board that wasn’t yet a potato chip.

After several months of this board, I found myself wanting to make even harder and sharper turns. I was tracking along the face of the wave instead of going straight, and starting to maneuver along the face. It was time, once again, to step down.

On to my 6’ mini-longboard, a gem of a surfboard. It was blue, round-nosed, and significantly thinner, yet maintained stability thanks to the wider shape. Because it had a good width, I could try going for steeper waves without having to be completely in the impact zone, acclimating myself to the increasing size and power of heavier days. I could do more turns and began carving.

Fast-forward to today, and my boards of choice include a 5’9” or 5’10” thruster, or my trusty 5’8” fish for smaller waves. It took time and patience to get myself into waves on these smaller boards, and a lot of work at improving my surfing and adjusting my style as I shortened the length and thinned out the width each time. But, it allowed me to get super comfortable on each progression.

So many times, I see people out in the water on tiny shortboards, who are still learning how to paddle properly. Unless you began surfing very young on shortboards, or you’re just one of “those people” who can effortlessly pick up new skills, do yourself a huge surfing favor and take your time. If I had, I would have saved myself so many hours of aggravation! Don’t make my mistake, and don’t feel like you must dramatically shorten your board right away just because all the cool kids are. I promise, you’ll get there just as quickly if you don’t rush yourself.

How quickly will I improve?

I wish there was a formula for how quickly you can expect to improve in surfing, but there isn’t. As with most skills, the more practice and hours you devote to it, generally the better you will get. Unlike many sports, however, waves can be limited, few and far between, or poor weather conditions can keep you out of the ocean for months at a time depending on where you live.

That being said, you will progress over time, but unless you’re surfing every day or at least twice a week, improvements will generally be gradual.

And guess what? That’s how it’s supposed to be. You’re not going to get barreled overnight; you will not magically be able to do snaps and hacks and floaters just because you’ve devoted hours and hours to being in the water. But the best way to get better is to keep your confidence up and to stick to places that feel safe. Like going for too-short of a board too quickly, testing your limits too fast does way more harm than good. Instead of aiming to charge scarier and gnarlier waves, aim to make adjustments while surfing similar breaks with similar-sized waves.

It’s much easier to see progress when we control as many variables as possible. Maybe last week you were going straight at your home break, but this week you’re angling down the face and not falling, (that is a massive accomplishment, by the way) then celebrate because you’ve just accomplished something amazing! Make your situation consistent, and your progress will be noticeable and measurable. Then it’s a matter of slowly working your way into bigger and heavier waves, just as you have worked your way to a shorter board.

Will people get mad at me if I am not very good at surfing?

Yes. Sometimes, people will tell you you are somewhere you really shouldn’t be and to go in. In those cases, listen to them, because they probably know better than you do. The difference between people who are mad at you because they want everyone out in the water to be safe and people who are just trying to intimidate you can be a fine line, so pay attention to the circumstances.

If you almost ran someone over because you weren’t watching who was on the wave, then you probably deserve to get yelled at. If you simply paddled out and started getting dirty looks from people, pay attention to the vibe of the crowd because it may simply be a competitive break.

Fellow surfers will get mad at you, and that’s also okay. I got yelled at hardcore by a veteran out in the water a while ago, and it was the best thing to ever happen to me. He got super upset when I couldn’t make it out past the wave and messed up one of his turns, yelling and telling me he wanted to fight my boyfriend, being all scary and hulking and terrifying, so much so that I cried on my way in.

But then I paddled out again the next day and everyone saw that I stuck it out, and everyone had been yelled at by that veteran at least once in the water, so I suddenly became a part of the community in a small yet powerful way. Getting yelled at can mean many different things, but you have to pay attention to what it means and who is saying it when you do get called out, because that is how you learn.

How you don’t learn is by disregarding the people who have your interests in mind, because you can hurt other people or yourself if you’re surfing in waves that are too intense for you. You also don’t learn when you take every yell and comment personally, because it means you won’t get back out there and keep surfing. Listen to your instincts, be polite, but stand your ground when you know someone is just trying to scare you off.

Should I always let people who are more skilled than me take-off on waves?

This is such a tricky one, because many times it’s important to be deferential to those more skilled than you out in the water. They have surfed there for a long time, and being respectful to others is an important aspect of surfing. If you start going around willy-nilly taking off on waves other people are on, you’ll get yelled at, beaten up, or even worse (but not really because violence is bad), taken off on when you get a wave all to yourself, and how much will that suck?

When you’re a beginning surfer, let the more skilled surfers catch the bigger waves. Go for the smaller waves or the shoulder of the wave. Be polite and aggressive (in the good sense) but don’t be a wave hog. The awesome thing that happens when you are polite with the surfers out in the water (although I may be biased because I am a girl) is that the veterans will see your respect and return it. They will start to call you into the waves they know they can’t make, or tell you that they are going left so you can go right.

Treat other surfers the way you want to be treated: with respect, kindness, and stoke. After all, it’s not only annoying to have people drop in on you, it can be insanely dangerous too. I was paddling out through a set wave when a shortboarder took off on a longboarder, and they both collided. I saw them coming at me, dove under the water, and popped up to find a 3-inch chunk take out of the nose of my board. If my face had still been there, I’m not sure I’d be here writing this right now.

So, yes, sometimes it is better to let other surfers who are better than you take off one waves. But, as you begin to refine your surfing, don’t become so shy and anxious about taking off on waves and possibly burning someone that you never paddle for a wave. Once you’ve established graciousness and rapport with your surfing community, accidentally burning someone you couldn’t see because of the white-wash is not the end of the world.

And, when you’re more confident and you’re sitting closer to the peak, paddle hard and take-off, because you’ve earned that spot. I’ve had several times when I took off on waves deeper than someone else, and the fellow got all mad because he had seniority over me. But, in the etiquette of the surfing world, I had priority. Even though I knew that, I got nervous that I’d messed up. I felt terrible, thought I was total kook. Looking back, I see that that guy was in the wrong, and I was in the right, in that instance. Becoming a better surfer means taking more risks and making mistakes, so if you’re constantly afraid of making too many mistakes you’ll never advance.

All in all, each of these answers has come to me with time, practice, and making mistakes. I’ve learned the rules of surf etiquette from friends, fellow surfers, parents, articles, and plenty of apologies. I didn’t even know I had some of these questions during the times I experienced those incidents, because I was still starting out. I didn’t know how little I knew, but now I know a little better, even though there’s so much more I still have to learn. Hopefully, now you’ve learned a little more too.

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