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June 11, 2021 7 min read

Learn how to position yourself to find, catch and stick to waves that have not yet broken.

Learn how to position yourself to find, catch and stick to waves that have not yet broken.
This article explains the theory behind how to position yourself to catch green waves. You will understand how a surfer can swim for a wave and catch it without nose diving, without going over, and without getting stuck on top of the wave.

Keep in mind that this is one of the most difficult things to learn as a beginner. There is no substitute for practice. The more time you spend in the water, the more waves you try to catch, the better you will become. The theory in this article will complement your practice and will probably speed up your progress and save you a lot of frustration.


How to find and position yourself to catch a wave

1. Understand the different stages of a wave

how to catch a wave - different stages
Credit: @barefootsurftravel

Stage A:
The wave is just a bump. At this stage, it is impossible to catch this wave. This ripple is only an indication that a wave is coming soon.

Stage B:
This is where you want to catch a "green wave". This wave shape has the perfect power and steepness for you to catch it. In Stage A, the wave is not powerful and steep enough for you to catch. In the C stage, it is too vertical for you to do your "take off" (technique to stand up on the surfboard).

Stage C:
The wave is breaking. The lip is already starting to crash at the bottom of the wave. At this stage, the wave is too powerful and too steep to catch, especially for beginners.

Stage D:
The wave broke and it became "white water".

2. Position yourself well on a wave
  • Sit about 4 to 5 meters away from where the majority of the waves break. Why? Because if you wait at the exact spot where the majority of waves break, when you turn and swim for a wave, you will catch white water that has already broken, or worse, the wave will break directly on you.


  • Where are the more experienced surfers waiting? They probably know where to sit in the ocean more than you do. This does not mean sitting right next to them and fighting for their waves. It's just an indicator of how far you should swim to the horizon.


  • We often see beginner surfers sitting much farther back than very experienced surfers. This does not make sense. Either there are no waves that break that far on that day. Or, if there are waves breaking much farther away than where the experienced surfers are sitting, it means that they are "rare" and much bigger waves (the ones you probably wouldn't want to catch as a beginner surfer!).


  • Look at the horizon and find "bumps". What you're looking for is a "Stage A" ripple that will later transition to a "Stage B" about 3 to 5 meters behind you.


  • Pick a wave, turn around and give it a minimum of 8 strong swim strokes. You want to swim hard enough to pick up the speed of the wave as it transitions from "stage A" to "stage B".


3. Catch and stick on a "green" wave

The difference between "white water" and "green" waves
how to catch a wave - beginners complete guide
The force of "white water" pushes you forward. When you first start surfing, you may start by catching white water waves in your first few sessions. These "crashing" waves are relatively easy to catch because the power of white water pushes you forward. You can catch most white water waves without even paddling.
How to catch a wave -salters - blog


The force of a "green" water wave is gravity. The first thing you need to understand about "how to catch green waves" is that they do not offer "forward propulsion" like white water. The force that allows you to enter a wave that has not yet broken is gravity. You must visualize yourself swimming down a "hill" that is advancing beneath your board.

How to "stick" to a green wave without going over it

Swim strongly with long, deep movements in the water. This is especially important for catching waves in the B-stage. You need to give it everything you've got while swimming, especially when you feel the tail of your surfboard start to rise on the wave: this is a key moment to "stick" on the wave.

The positioning of your body on your surfboard is key. As we saw in the article "How to swim on a surfboard", the correct swimming technique is not only about the "crawl" movements, but also about the correct positioning of your body on the surfboard. You are correctly positioned when your chest is perfectly centered on the width of the surfboard. Place your body high enough on the board so that the nose is about 3 to 6 centimeters out of the water, while keeping your head up (pretending there is a soccer ball between your chin and your surfboard).


how to catch a wave - salters


The "Surfer A" swims with long, strong, deep strokes. He is correctly positioned on his surfboard, with his nose sticking out about 3cm from the water. Two seconds later, "Surfer A" is lifted higher on the wave. As he gets higher on the wave, he creates more space between his nose and the water. But Surfer A keeps his head down at this critical moment, putting more weight towards the front of his surfboard. This weight makes the difference between "sticking" on the green wave, or going to the back without catching it.


how to catch a wave - salters - blog


"Surfer B" swims with short, shallow strokes. He is positioned too far back on his surfboard, causing the nose to come out of the water significantly. Two seconds later, Surfer B is lifted onto the wave. The space between his nose and the water becomes even larger as he climbs higher on the wave. Surfer B is too far back on his surfboard and does not bring his head closer to his surfboard during this critical moment. It is impossible for him to "stick" on this wave and he will slide backwards off the wave.


Tips for your Take Off :


take off tips-how to catch a wave


You should do your take off at 2/3 of the wave height. Once you feel your tail rise, and when you think you have swum enough to "slide" with the wave, give two final strokes, place your hands on the board under your pecs, arch your back and take off!


Take off tips - how to catch a wave


There comes a time when you have to get up on the surfboard. When you are sure you have got the rhythm of the wave right and have given it 2 more crawl movements, don't hesitate and do your take off! A common mistake is to continue to swim on the wave until you have gone all the way down. Arching your back will help prevent nose dives and slow down your speed, so you don't go all the way down the wave while lying on your board.


Common mistakes

  • Don't do short, quick swim strokes. Continue to make long, long range strokes. Go deep underwater with your hand and arm for optimal propulsion


  • Don't swim at too much of an angle into the wave. At first, you should swim perpendicular to the wave, facing directly into the beach. This is the most efficient way to catch green waves. Once you feel very comfortable catching green waves, you may want to start swimming at a slight angle to help you go left or right on a wave.


  • Don't think you've paddled enough. When in doubt as to whether you have swum enough for a wave, give 2 or 3 extra crawl strokes before your take off.


  • Don't be afraid of nose dives. A nose dive is when a surfer crashes the nose. The front of the board accidentally sinks into the water when trying to catch a wave, usually sending the surfer forward for a spectacular wipe-out at the bottom of the wave.


  • These are never caused by swimming too hard. Instead, they often happen when you hesitate, don't swim hard enough, lose speed, and are pushed down the wave after being caught on top of it. It can also happen if you swim with your body too high on the board and your nose is already sinking in the water before you even catch a wave. Finally, nose dives also happen when you try to catch a wave at the wrong stage. Instead of catching it at "stage B", you try to catch it at "stage C" (when the wave is too steep and pushes your surfboard hard forward, sinking your nose into the water).


  • The last thing you want to do is put your chest down on the board because you are afraid of nose dives. Nose dives happen because of inefficient swimming technique (you swim too slowly) or because you catch the waves at the wrong stage (Stage C). Moving your body backwards on the board will only slow you down even more, and increase the likelihood of a nose dive.


  • Don't rely on your surf coach to position you in a wave at Stage B without noticing how he or she does it. A big part of your surf coach's job is to position you perfectly at the "Stage B" of a wave, so that you can catch it. He might bring you over the horizon a little if a bigger wave is coming, or he might move you closer to the beach if the wave is smaller. Your coach does this so that you end up in the best possible place to catch the wave (in stage B). It's good to have fun and practice your surfing technique, but you need to understand where and why he positions you in certain spots in the waves. When your coach places you in a green wave, look over your shoulder before catching the wave to remind yourself: this is the kind of wave you'll be looking for when your surf lessons are over!

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