Surfing 101: pic-by-pic beginner’s guide and tips

Surfing is an adrenaline-filled water sport that is increasingly becoming popular among Filipinos, not just for adventure- and thrill-seekers but also for families wanting to try something new and exciting. I never thought I’ll ever be able to go surfing because a) I didn’t realize we have it here; b) I always thought it’s expensive and c) well, I was never sure if I’ll ever be able to stand on my board and look cool like everyone on TV!


It was just coincidence, or maybe even fate, that got me to try surfing. I’ve tried surfing for the first time in San Juan, La Union, when I was on a “settle-back-to-the-Philippine-life-by-traveling-domestically” mode after coming home from my 1-year volunteering stint in India.

Long story short, I was traveling with couchsurfers in Sagada where we met Larry, a Canadian couchsurfer. He mentioned something about surfing in La Union (which you can go to from Sagada by taking the Baguio route) and since I have never tried it and I had no day limit on travel, I ended up in San Juan, a few kilometers from more known San Fernando. 🙂 And the rest, they say, is history!

My first board! I actually have an actual surfing photo but I lost my camera. 😦

Well, that was just in March 2013 so it’s not a long one. But, to add credibility to this post, I will count the number of times I’ve actually gone surfing:

  1. San Juan, La Union – March 2013
  2. Liwliwa, San Felipe, Zambales – August 2013
  3. San Juan – December 2013
  4. San Juan – February 2014
  5. Baler – April 2014
  6. Liwliwa – June 2014

So, obviously, I am still a beginner. Hehehe

But, I have progressed from having a surf instructor coaching and pushing me all the time to not having one and even paddling far out to catch bigger waves. Of course, I still don’t get to stand on the board all the time and of course, I still get wiped out. However, if you would permit me (if not, just close this tab/window already!) I would love to share some tips and tricks from experiences so maybe, just maybe, you’d feel stoked to give surfing a try!

1. Wake up early.

Surfboards lined up for your choosing

According to surfers and based on observation, surfing early (like just before sunrise until about 8 or 9am) is really great coz you get better waves and there aren’t too many people [to crash into] yet.

2. Choose a board you feel comfortable with.

Beginners (especially first time surfers like Rosh) normally use long boards, especially soft top ones (fiber glass but with foam if I’m not mistaken).

Ask recommendations from your surfing instructor or surf shop owner. If the surf board doesn’t feel right once in the water, go ahead and change it. Better change than not enjoy. Well, better not to change in the first place so you save on those precious minute-for-hire moments!

Common board rental rates: per hour = P200 (US$5); half-day = P400 ($10); full day = P800 ($20). Negotiable, especially if you’re renting several boards. I think renting half-day (4-hours) is most economical. You and a buddy can take turns per hour coz believe me, after the first hour, you’ll be like: “Can I get some rest, please?”

3. Get surfing lesson/s. 

Getting surfing lessons - a must
Especially for first time beginners, ALWAYS get surfing lessons before venturing into the water

I hope this is mandatory for all! Safety first, not just for you but for other surfers too! It’s very important to get surfing lessons for you to learn how to position yourself (are you a regular [right foot back, left foot forward] or a goofy [left foot back, right foot forward]), keep your balance, and be safe when you get wiped out (which will happen, one way or another!)

Surfing lessons are normally P200 (about US$5) per hour.

Reminders: Put sunscreen, a lot of sunscreen! Wear shirt or rash guard to avoid irritated chest. Long sleeves and/or leggings to avoid the harshness of the sun.

4. Tie the leash securely and get into the water.

December - Surfing Weekend in La Union
Soft top boards are lighter (like the one I’m carrying) while the other fiber glass board is much heavier (but with more control I think).

Tie the leash securely on your ankle (left or right, depending if goofy or regular, respectively) or your lower leg (for some). It’s not just an accessory. it’s actually to keep the board in close proximity when you get wiped out.

You’re ready so go and carry your board into the water towards the area where you want to begin. If you can’t lift it, well, get someone to lift it for you! Hopefully, you won’t need to do it often (actually supposedly just once in and once out in an hour’s surfing time) as you would most likely remain in the water for a while.

5. Find your spot. 

Ready to get stoked?!

Join the surfing queue and keep in mind to respect the other surfers. Take turns. Be aware of your surroundings. If you’re a super beginner without instructor to herd, coach  or push you, best to stay close to the shore as it’s quite tiring to swim/paddle to go farther. Don’t worry, you’ll immediately see the beginner’s area. Just look at where most of the surfboards are!

Surf Patrycja and Kyle
Maybe you can have your own, special personal instructor? Hmm. 😉

Or go somewhere farther (if super beginner, better to have an instructor with you). Just be careful to check if the area is still a “surfing area” since some of the shorelines might be rocky. We don’t want you ending up hurt and wounded upon reaching the shore.

6. Wait for the waves, patiently! 

February - Being Silly while Surfing at La Union
Being silly keeps the boredom away while waiting

Sometimes, it could be flat (as in no surfable waves) so you gotta wait it out. Goof around or chat with a fellow surfer, even though he or she is a total stranger. Your neighbor might be able to give you some more tips and tricks! Or, like my friend Leah, be super focused so you don’t miss any opportunity!

7. Feel the waves

Be in tune with the rhythm, sway and push of the waves

Just because the waves are coming your way doesn’t mean that you should go on ahead and catch it. You must feel the rhythm, sway and push of the waves. Is it strong enough to carry you to the shore? Does it require a lot of paddling or do you need just a little push? An instructor would be really helpful as they tell you when to get ready for which wave and which one to wait out. In time, as you keep surfing (or trying to surf at least), you will be more in tune with the waves and you’d learn how to spot for a good one!

8. PADDLE!!!

February - Paddling Faster during Surf Weekend in La Union
First time to surf without an instructor. My arms killed me!

Paddling is probably the most tiring thing when surfing. Either that or battling the waves and current as you walk/glide/swim back to the surf area after reaching the shore. A neighbor surfer once told me: even if you think you’ve paddled hard, paddle harder coz it’s still not enough! And it’s true! Once I’ve decided to surf without the instructor pushing my board, I had to work twice, no maybe thrice, as hard to catch the waves in time. Or to catch it at all! So, my advise, have some breakfast to give you energy!

Circle Hostel in Zambales and La Union gives free surfer’s breakfast (bread, banana, peanut butter/cheez whiz) for guests.

9. Lift yourself.

Remember what your instructor’s taught you!

Once your hard paddling bears fruit and you feel that you’re ready to ride this wave, the next crucial task is managing to lift yourself up. Don’t feel bad if you weren’t able to ride the wave the first second, third or heck, even the seventh time! It happens. Lift yourself too fast, you’re ahead of the wave or you might get outbalanced. Lift yourself too slow, you might miss the push of the waves. So, just remember what the surf instructor taught you:

  1. Push yourself up using your arms (which should be positioned near the center, close to your chest, to avoid being out balanced when putting pressure to the board), and simultaneously
  2. Bend your left (or right for goofy) leg so that your feet touches your right (or left) knee.
  3. Then, push your body higher by adding the force from using your left and right feet (still at the tail) to stand up.

I’m probably not explaining it properly but resulting pose should look somehow similar to the photo above. And, don’t worry, part of the lessons back at the shore is for you to practice lifting yourself up. It’s something you need to get used to which will only happen if you keep on trying.

10. Balance (find your center).

Goofy poisition, center of the board
Remember THIS moment.

So, you managed to lift yourself and stand on the board! Congratulations! The next goal then is to actually stay on the board and not be annihilated before you can say ‘surf!’ The key to staying on the board is in finding your center, literally. If your weight is on the sides, you drop; on the tail, you fall over; on the nose, you dive. Normally for us beginners, usual stance would be: right (or leg) foot near the tail and left (or right) foot on the center, with body bending a bit forward.

11. Ride!

Surf Anthony
Can you feel how stoked Anthony is?!

Once your balance is sorted out, the next thing to do is, what else, ride! Avoid looking at your board’s nose and always look ahead. You need to always be aware and see if you’re bumping into someone or some surfboard already! Don’t hesitate to shout “tabi!” or “move away!” if it happens!

Be especially careful in San Juan since the surf area is small and there are a lot of surfers and also swimmers. Both Liwliwa and Baler have long shorelines and wider surf areas.

12. Revel!

Surf Vineet
To tell you the truth, this is the one and only time Vineet had THIS moment. lol

Let the waves push you and the wind kiss you! Enjoy this moment, you’ve earned it!

However, in case you’re about to bump into another surfer or a swimmer, always think of safety first! As a beginner, you won’t be able to control your board’s direction that much yet. So apart from shouting “tabi” and “move away”, be the bigger person and drop from your board if necessary (as the leash is attached to you, dropping and staying would also serve as “brake” for the board). It’s a bummer, I know, but it must be done.

13. Repeat!

Surf Ciel
Way to go Ciel! (Instructor at the back pushed the board for you, yes?!)

So, if you missed your “all-the-way-to-the-shore” moment, just keep getting back in the water and trying to stand on the board. The fun and adventure in surfing isn’t just having your cool “surfer babe/dude” photo but in the whole process of making it happen! So just keep repeating and trying and repeating!

14. Have your (mandatory) photo with your board!

Surf Matt
Matt, a Californian who surfed for the first time in Zambales (photo grabbed from Kapil)

And, for proof/souvenir, always have your “look, I surfed” picture taken! It doesn’t matter whether you got on the board or not — you’d still look 10 times cooler than before. Haha

15. Enjoy the moments beyond surfing!

Still one of my most favorite shots from surfing weekends


Normally, people would go surfing at high tide which falls mostly in the early morning and in the late afternoon just before sunset. People also go surfing in the middle of the day (I’ve also tried it before) but the waves might either be super huge for beginners or super flat. Plus it’s also too hot!

So, spend most of the day sleeping or hanging out with fellow surfers and friends. Reserve your energy till the afternoon surf hour. And after giving it another try, grab a beer, chill and watch the sunset. Treasure the moments beyond surfing. Be thankful for the wonder that is the Philippines. Keep chillin at night, swap surf stories, enjoy the company. Surf again the next day. Life is a beach, and we’re the bums who rule it.




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