Proper Progression When Learning to Surf is Key to Success

Proper Progression When Learning to Surf is Key to Success

"Learning to surf is like climbing a ladder - you can't miss any steps to get to the top."  Jon Diberto Sandbanks Surf Cottages. 


Proper Progression When Learning to Surf is Key to Success

By Mike Sandusky

We see it most days in our shop - guys and girls wanting to learn to surf on shortboards, or beginners looking to make the jump from a longboard to a shortboard. Although we do our best to explain the consequences, our advice is not always taken and this leads to frustrated surfers, surfers not progressing or surfers giving up the sport entirely.

I thought it would be helpful to exemplify in detail my learn to surf story including my timeline for learning and the boards I used along the way to help my progression. This should reinforce the importance of learning the fundamentals on a longboard, progressing to a funboard, and then graduating to a hybrid or shortboard - should one desire. 

Before I get into the fine details, here is a quick summary of the rationale of why Surf Ontario and surf schools recommend learning on a longboard before slowly progressing to shorter boards.

Why learn on a Longboard?

  • increase wave count - catch more waves - accelerate learning
  • more stable
  • provide adequate float
  • paddle faster and easier
  • get longer rides
  • forgiving for slower pop ups
  • more fun - positive experience and more apt to go out again
  • get on the wave early
  • less frustration
  • take off timing not as critical

The benefits of slowly progressing to a shorter board

  • no shock of trying to pop up on a board too small
  • smoother transition in all facets - pop up, paddling, turning and riding

When am I ready to try a shorter board?

  • You're catching green waves when you want
  • You're successfully riding about 80% of the time
  • You can paddle out - you can make it out the back
  • You can surf down the line
  • You can and know how to read waves while surfing
  • You can control your board in a crowd and in whitewater 
  • You know surf etiquette

The more time you spending learning on longboard boards, the faster you'll progress to shortboards if that's your ultimate goal. Too often, folks try to ride shortboards and never learn because they can't catch any waves. 

If you're still with me, thanks so much for reading as I believe this is important information for beginner surfers.

Below is a detailed account of how I learned to surf in my early twenties. I am by no means a ripping surfer, however I was good enough to take the longboard division win at the Wyldewood Gales in 2015 and win the shortboard division at the Gales in 2016.

This blog is meant to show a background of board progression and timing that you may use as a template or guide.

Summary of Learning Progression by Surfboard before stepping down in length by time:

  • 9'4 Longboard - 3 weeks
  • 8'6 Longboard - 2 weeks
  • 7'6 Funboard -   4 months
  • 6'8 Funboard -   7 months
  • 6'5 Shortboard - 3 months
  • 6'1 Shortboard - 3 months

*Note: these progressions work for those surfing daily or regularly - add time if you are only an occasional surfer.

After this progression, I felt comfortable to ride any surfboard. I still own and ride all the above boards except for the 8'6 longboard.

Here is the story of that progression: 

You're in your early twenties and have just finished University - what now? Apply to various corporations? Look for a career, a desk and a new tie to wear every day? Move back home with your parents and accept defeat? Go back to school? Of course not!! You go to Hawaii to learn to surf!

For me, there was no other choice after graduating. I was 21 years old, had just completed a 5 month long work contract and was ready to tackle the world. Since working life could wait, why not go travel and see what this surfing thing my sister had talked about from her travels was all about.

I booked a couple months in Hawaii to do just that. My first experience was trying to learn on my own using a big soft top somewhere on the north shore of Oahu. Like many, it wasn't a good one - I rented a board and caught a few waves but I menaced the locals unknowingly and it was time to leave Oahu for another island. (No, this haole wasn't blackballed, I'm exaggerating but I had always planned on island hopping).

The next attempt at surfing was on another soft top in Hanalei Bay, Kauai at the pier break. I did the whole beginner thing - paddling while positioned way too far back on my board so I didn't nose dive/pearl - which of course is futile as the board won't plane and catch the wave. The results were a rash on my chest and legs so bad it forced a good two week break away from the surf.

The next island stop was Maui where I came across Ho'okipa Beach Park on the North Shore. I saw a local Hawaiian teaching someone how to surf on the inside section.  A lesson! What a concept! So I scheduled one with Gerald the next day - a small price to pay for a farm kid from land locked Ontario with a dream of surfing.

The lesson was great. He taught me on a 9'0 longboard and I had a lot of success with his guidance. He let me use his board a few days thereafter and I was working the inside reforms systematically.  I bought a 9'4 longboard so I'd have my own board to learn on. It was a custom board made for a large Hawaiian man so it had plenty of float for this 160 pound kid.

This would be my board to learn on for the next two weeks. Three sessions per day - white wash ride after white wash ride until I made it out the back and got onto some forms or green waves and started going down the line. I recall my shoulders aching at night from paddling so much but since I had a return ticket home, I had to maximize my effort while there.

By the end of this trip I was ready to step down in length; however that would have to wait until next winter. I flew my 9'4 home in a box and it would be the board I surfed on the lakes with the following spring and summer and the board I used to teach my wife-to-be Whitney and a few of my good friends on.

Over the summer I surfed the longboard consistently on Lake Huron and Lake Erie while dreaming of surfing in Maui for the winter. I taught my man Craig to surf at Port Burwell on Lake Erie and convinced him that Maui was worth a visit. With that, we booked a getaway with the goal of improving our surfing. Two pasty white farm kids heading to Maui for the winter to surf, picture that. 

The surf is considered to be either large or very large in Maui in January. Because of the serious swell, there are smaller spots where the waves wrap in for those mere mortals such as Craig and I. 

After one week I realized I was still meeting my requirements to progress, so I traded the 8'6 in for a 7'6 Gerry Lopez, taking the advice of the guys at the surf shop in Maui. This would be the board I would really learn on. It was short enough to loosen up my surfing, but long enough that my wave count didn't suffer and I kept learning the flow of surfing.

We surfed a solid 1 to 2 sessions per day depending on the wind and got many waves. We surfed mainly Kanaha and Kahului harbour as the swell was consistently massive. This was before the popularity of paddle boarding so many times it would be just Craig and I sharing the peak. We got to surf Ho'okipa sporadically and saw Pe'ahi 'Jaws' going off with Laird and the strapped crew getting towed into some bombs. 

On the right is an 8'6 Water Cooled longboard I bought as a step down from the 9'4.

I would stay on this board for the rest of the winter and bring it (along with a custom 8'0 for Whitney) home to surf on the lakes. Here's a video of the 7'6 on the lake. 

Toward the end of this trip I also tried a 6'8 Kazuma shortboard (pictured below) and realized I was ready to step down once again - but this would have to wait for the next fall.

Mike Sandusky paia maui kazuma surfboard

After another summer of working, surfing on the lakes and teaching others about fresh water waves, it was time for another endless summer. This trip Whitney would join me as we planned a month in California, three months in Hawaii, four months in Australia, and a couple of weeks in Fiji before heading home for the spring.

I was getting a good handle on the 7'6 in beach breaks in California and when we got to Maui, I spoke with shaper Chris Van deVoort (RIP) of Watah Man Surfboards to help build me a good transition board to get me to the next level.

He suggested a 6'8 fun shape - so that's what I had shaped - pictured below.

mike sandusky watahman surf boards vandevoort paia maui

The loss of 10" was noticeable but was certainly doable although it took a bit of an adjustment. I still had a solid wave count and I was making the waves and getting down the line. Here's a video of one of the first waves on the new board - you can clearly tell by the old VHS video below I needed time on it and had to work on positioning and cutting back! 

This would be the board I would stick with for the rest of my time in Hawaii and Australia. I hit up the beach breaks and points in Australia - and learned more about surfing etiquette. Australia has some of the most populated breaks in the world and they have arguably the best and most competitive surfers in the water. You couldn't dare make any etiquette mistakes as a Canadian trying to snag a wave! Our last stop was Fiji which was absolutely incredible and the 6'8 helped with the bigger surf, being that it was a longer board.

We arrived home in May and it was time to hit the lakes and get to work in order to save up for another epic trip. The following winter Whitney and I did a quick trip to Maui where I proposed on the Haleakala volcano and ordered another surfboard from Chris Van deVoort. The next step down was a 6'5 rounded pin (pictured below) that I could use on the bigger waves in Maui and in the solid beach breaks to come on our travels. I still had the 6'8 and 7'6 in my quiver for when the waves weren't as good.

mike sandusky watah man surfboards maui paia

Stepping down 3" and dropping a fair amount of volume was a good change. I could really feel the sensitivity of the board now and any subtle movements would make the board respond. However, I was ready for this change as I had put in my time on the funboard.

With my now wife Whitney, we planned another endless summer trip - I guess you could call it Endless Summer II. We made a brief stop in Hong Kong and then it was straight to New Zealand for five months, a month in Western Australia, and a couple weeks in both Thailand and Indonesia. We would get our travel fix in before heading home the following spring.

New Zealand was where I really learned to watch the local wind, swell, swell angles and setups to know where to surf. There are so many nooks and crannies in New Zealand that you can get good waves pretty much any day on either island. I used all this knowledge to help predict and find waves on the Great Lakes. And vice versa, I now use all the knowledge gained on the lakes to use when travelling abroad to know where and when to surf. 

After a couple months in New Zealand, I was now ready for my first shortboard. I met up with the guys at Del Surfboards in Taranaki and told "Walshy" the shaper my story. He enthusiastically shaped me a 6'1 shortboard for the local waves and the waves to come in Western Australia

To be honest I had envisioned getting some kind of fish as my next board but Walshy said "no, you want a board for when the waves are good."



mike sandusky del taranaki custom surfboards new zealand

I'm glad I listened. I mean he had 40 years of shaping experience and I had about 5 years of surf experience, so I'd be a bonehead not to. Why was this a good choice? 

Shortboards, when you're ready and able to surf them, work well in most conditions. They're shaped to fit in the pocket of the wave and they have enough rocker to allow you to take off on steeper waves and control your speed. The tail isn't so wide that you're skipping down the face of the wave.

The board simply worked, and as I got more practice riding it I was really able to generate speed and do what I wanted on the board - relatively speaking from the farm kid from Southwestern Ontario. I was and am not a pro by any means, however having the ability to feel, do and go where you'd like on the wave was thrill and a by product of the years of work I had put in the past so yes, I was stoked and proud of my accomplishment.

By the time I got to Indonesia, I was ready for the waves though my body wasn't; I spent the first couple of days adjusting to the new surroundings if you catch my drift. But once I was healthy, I was surfing everyday and was in tune with my board.

SIDE NOTE....You may be asking how did I fund all these travels? Hard work, camping while travelling, not drinking, not buying anything unnecessary and saving. So for any of you would be travellers out there, make your plan and stick to it. Sounds like a future blog post in itself?!

In summary, the more waves you can catch and successfully ride, the faster you will learn. You can spend hours in the water 'surfing' but if you're not catching any waves you're just surviving and getting exercise.

Get on the right board and stay on it. You'll know when you're ready to make the move and we'll know when you're ready by how you describe your surfing.

With the birth of the surf shop, I've tested over 50 different models so I've been able to get a better sense of what works in which waves along with which fins and which fin setups are best. Matching the right board with the conditions keeps surfing exciting and helps your progression. Below I'm riding a new 6'0 V3 Rocket by Lost Surfboards on Lake Erie. 

It's this background and knowledge we share with you at the shop. We know what it takes to learn at any age and we feel confident in the boards we suggest.

See you at the shop!

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