How to Catch More Waves at a Crowded Break

Summertime means big time crowds.

Summertime means big time crowds.

You’re suited up, waxed up, and ready to surf but there’s one problem: the surf is packed.  Every tom, dick, and harry within driving distance seems to be floating out past the breakers.  No surfer loves a crowd. Many surfers, especially women surfers, cite crowded line-ups as something that gives them fear and anxiety in the water.  Yet, some water-men and water-women know how to work the crowd like a real estate agent at cocktail party. So with summer on its way in Australia and in light of the recent Nick Carroll article about mistreatment of women in the water, I think it's time we talk about dealing crowds.

The truth is that you can surf safely and successfully in a crowded line-up.  

Manage Your Expectations

"The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations…  Well, those are really good days."

~ Ray Wylie Hubbard

Low expectations in anticipation of an event or experience are seriously life changing because you can only go up.  I call this the New Years Eve Factor. In my teens and twenties, year after year, I made plans, paid exorbitant sums for exclusive parties, and/or talked about what I was doing or who I was going to kiss at midnight on New Years Eve.  Nearly every NYE was a colossal disappointment. Every set-back - the line was too long, he kissed someone else, there was a cooler party that I couldn’t get too - clouded any experience that I was having at the present moment.

Think about the New Years Eve Factor when you go surfing.  Do you over-hype swells? Are you disappointed by your wave count at the end of every session? Do you expect an empty line up on a Saturday morning in Sydney?  There are approximately 2.5 million recreational surfers in Australia and 23 million in the United States. The reality is that any spot that is user friendly or near a big city will be jam packed at peak times.  

So try to surf during off-peak times if your work and family commitments allow.  In Sydney, off peak times do exist, even on weekends. Try swapping your Sunday morning session for a Sunday evening session.  

But the most important thing to do alongside dropping your expectations is too step-up your gratitude for any time you get to spend in the ocean.  Don’t forget about the stoke and profound joy you felt when you started surfing. Extend aloha to others and remember that we were all beginners once.  Beginners are not only deserving of fun but their fun quota may actually exceed that of an experienced surfer.  Make a conscious decision to keep your joy in mind and remember that you're privileged to be in the ocean at all.  Hell, you could be landlocked so don’t tarnish your aquatic good fortune with a negative attitude.

Even at beginner spots, you’ll encounter a crowd, perhaps a even more dangerous crowd. Time to get crowd-wise.

Even at beginner spots, you’ll encounter a crowd, perhaps a even more dangerous crowd. Time to get crowd-wise.

If Crowds Scare You, Time to Educate Yourself

Many of us experience fear related to surfing in a crowd.  We replay our worst case scenarios in our heads as soon as we know it’s busy.  Many women, even accomplished surfers, are afraid of surfing when it’s busy.  The common refrain, “I just can’t deal with all those people,” really boils down to being scared that you’ll:

  • Injure yourself,

  • Injure someone else,

  • Get yelled at or humiliated,

  • Be intimidated by other surfers (men),

  • Get in the way of a more advanced surfer.  

You will encounter all of these worst case scenarios if you surf long enough.  It’s inevitable but you can decrease the frequency by analyzing the break, the crowd, and implementing a strategy to deal with these things.  

Start with a Serious Surf Check

Every session should begin with a thorough Surf Check especially if you haven’t been surfing for that long or you are surfing an unfamiliar break.    Part of this Surf Check includes identifying patterns about where and how often the waves are breaking. You should use markers on the beach and on the cliffs or horizon to the sides of the waves to consistently paddle to the best spot to catch waves.  You can also watch the crowd, pick out where the best surfers who are catching the most waves are sitting and sit near them. Just don’t sit too close or you might get some evil stares. Use their positioning as an indicator of where the wave is breaking. When you make analyze the break, correctly identify the “Sweet Spot” where the waves are breaking most frequently, and adjust that spot as conditions change, you’ll catch more waves and feel in tune with the ocean or “in the zone.”  

Are You Hunted by Waves or a Wave-Hunter?

A word about the that Sweet Spot you’re looking for.  It was once said that there are two kinds of surfers: the Hunted and the Hunters.  The Hunted are constantly getting pounded by waves. They linger too far inside and react to waves as they break on their heads.  The Hunters respond to waves by paddling directly to the Sweet Spot, turning, paddling and riding a wave. Next time your at your local break, watch the Hunters.  They are the surfers you see repeatedly getting the best waves, every set.

When you do your Surf Check, look for the Hunters.  Choose a left or right hand wave, see if you can spot someone catching good waves consistently, and mark where they are taking off with something on the beach.  Once you’re out in the lineup, adjust your appraisal. Decide where you believe the wave is breaking and paddle to that spot. That’s the sweet spot. Not only does this give you an opportunity to catch more waves, but you’ll be closer to where the waves are breaking so you can duck-dive sets more easily.   When you take off, look over your shoulder and watch what the wave is doing. This will give you more details to add to your Sweet Spot appraisal.

After you’ve ridden a wave, paddle back towards the Sweet Spot and wait your turn for your next wave.  At breaks where the takeoff zone is small and well defined, exercise extra tact and respect of other surfers.  You will only reap the benefits of your correct Sweet Spot appraisal a couple of times if you’re a wave hog. Do NOT paddle past people who are waiting patiently.  

Do you get caught inside a lot? Here’s a classic example of a surfer that is “hunting” waves and already out the back in position to catch the set and a surfer that is about to be “hunted” by a hungry set wave.

Do you get caught inside a lot? Here’s a classic example of a surfer that is “hunting” waves and already out the back in position to catch the set and a surfer that is about to be “hunted” by a hungry set wave.

Crowd Control: Strategies for Dealing with Crowds

In addition to knowing where the “Sweet Spot” is and consistently paddling to that spot, you can adopt a strategy to deal specifically with the crowd. A game plan can really increase your wave count and decrease your stress.  Here are some strategies to avoid the crowd that work to varying degrees depending on where you’re surfing:

  1. Go for the Insiders: At my home break in Southern California, there’s practically a whole other surf spot on the inside if you don’t mind hollering off the groms.

  2. Sit Outside with the Crusty Crew: If you have a bigger board and/or a lot of patience, you can sit on the outside with the old guys and try your luck on the best sets of the day.  

  3. Wait for the 2nd or 3rd Wave of the Set: Let everyone else go for the first wave and paddle as fast as you can to the outside for the 2nd or 3rd waves of the set.

  4. Spin and Go: This works particularly well at point breaks.  Sit to the inside of a section, watch closely to see if someone falls then spin and go before the next guy does.

  5. Down the Beach: Surf a less crowded peak or break down the beach.  

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How to Handle Dick Heads

After reading Carroll's article, I had a "me too" moment.  A couple of years ago, I was surfing at my local break on a Friday morning.  My daughter was in the playground with another mother from Surfing Mums while I was enjoying the 2-3 foot little running right handers that broke at the end of my street.  It was low tide and a lot of the waves were fast. Occasionally, a surfer would get lucky and make all the sections but more often than not, the wave would shut down washing the surfer off his or her board.  I'd caught a few waves and was having a jolly good time in the sunshine when I spun for a wave and took off. I had seen a surfer down the line but thought I saw him fall off. I had no idea an older male local was right behind me.  I kicked off immediately and apologized profusely.

The guy followed me back out into the line up screaming such a vicious line of obscenities for such a long period of time that other surfers started to take notice. Another man told the guy to calm down.  He kept yelling that he had barely caught any waves among other things and paddled back out the outside. I felt humiliated and somewhat scared. I recognized the guy from my neighborhood but he obviously didn't recognize me when he called me a "blow-in."

Within a couple of minutes, he was flying down the line on another set wave.   I was shaking and nearly in tears, but I gently lifted both of my arms and extended my middle fingers as he passed on his umpteenth wave.  I am not condoning retaliation but this felt damn good. The guy told someone I know that he was frustrated because he didn't have much time to surf because he had a new baby.  Whoa, welcome to life as a surfing mom.

It took me a few months to shake this incident, I always paddled down the beach when I saw the guy.  But eventually, I started saying hello to him every time I saw him part to squash my mistake, part to watch him squirm.  I believe in being polite, respecting the unwritten law of surfing, and apologizing when I am wrong but I also refuse to be berated, taken advantage of, or treated differently because I am a woman.  

Nothing - not limited time, tenure at a particular break, being an ex-pro - gives you the right to act like a dickhead.  The ocean is an equal opportunity space. We are all privileged to swim in its waters and dance on its waves. Don’t act like a jerk and pay attention. You belong there.

Imagine how easy surfing by yourself is when you’ve mastered urban surf zone crowds? Like butta.

Imagine how easy surfing by yourself is when you’ve mastered urban surf zone crowds? Like butta.