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What To Do When A Wave Breaks On You

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While smaller breaking waves are fairly easy to deal with, one of the greatest fears of surfers is to get trapped under a large breaking wave and get injured. However, regardless of their size, it’s important to learn what your next move should be once you see a wave breaking out on you while surfing. 

When you see a wave breaking out on top of you it’s important to maintain your posture, Be watchful, don’t panic, and tell yourself you’re going to be alright. Moreover, it’s essential to know the different types of waves, like Closeout and Plunging, in order to assess the situation and act accordingly. 

If you want to become good at surfing, you must learn how to ride a breaking wave. Furthermore, you should also know how to catch waves before they start breaking. Doing so will give you all the confidence you require to face these waves head-on. 

a large wave breaking

The Proper Way of Riding a Breaking Wave 

A breaking wave can be a serious challenge at times, which is why you must always follow the correct technique for riding these surfs. As a beginner, you should start from shorter waves (around 1-2 meters tall) before working your way up to the larger ones. Here are a few steps that will allow you to ride a breaking wave with ease.

Step 1: Paddle Into the Wave

After you’re done scouting the conditions, it’s time to paddle out into the water. While doing so, it’s advised that you keep either to the left or the right of the breaking waves. If the wave breaks under you, this pre-emptive action would prevent any drastic accident.  

Best Time to Paddle Into the Wave

While surfing a wave, you need to make an effort to perfect your timing while paddling into the wave. Waves normally arrive in groups of three or four, and since you had previously observed the waves, you should know when there’s an interval between sets. 

This interval is when you should start paddling towards the wave. At this stage, the new wave should be around 6 feet away from you. This will allow you enough time to gain enough momentum so that you can easily ride the wave.

Step 2: Maintain Correct Board and Body Position

Keep the tip of your board up when paddling through the breaking waves so that you can easily pass over the rushing water. As you hit the peak while paddling, use your arms to hold yourself up and glide down on the breaking wave. Doing this will stabilize your body and make you better prepared for taking on the breaking wave.

What to do When a Wave Starts to Break

Once you’ve passed the whitewater, the wave will start to break and you’ll be swimming head-on into the ocean floor. However, don’t worry, there are still a few maneuvers you can execute if a breaking wave is about to smash you in the face.

Duck Diving 

One of the best bets you have to survive a breaking wave is simply managing to duck dive. Duck diving calls for getting beneath a wave by gliding your board into the water. You achieve this by straightening your arms and crunching up your knees at the rear of the board. Lastly, you simply straighten your body as soon as you reach under the wave, allowing your surfboard to carry you to the opposite side.

However, if you’re surfboard is fairly lengthy or heavy, it might be difficult for you to force it underwater. Therefore, to perform a duck dive effortlessly, it’s recommended to get yourself a shortboard that is usually around 6.6” long. This will allow you to get your surfboard under the wave with minimum effort. 

Turtle Roll 

Another way you can steer through a breaking wave is if you’re able to perform a turtle roll. This skill involves turning the board upside-down while keeping your elbows bent. Once you’re in this position, the wave will pass over you, preventing you from getting washed backward.

However, before performing a turtle roll, you first need to wait for the wave to come towards you before you flip your surfboard. As you face the wave head-on, you can start flipping your board with its fins facing towards the sky. Next, simply pull your surfboard closer to you by grabbing it from the center and manage to maintain a verticle position in the water. To survive the rest of the breaking wave, you need to hold on to your surfboard as strongly as you can. 

Getting Back Up on the Surfboard

You’ve done the difficult part. Now it’s time to get back up onto your feet. To pull yourself up on the surfboard, you can either jump to your feet in a single motion, or you can lower your knees first and then gradually rise to your feet. 

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. While the shortcut is to instantly jump to your feet on the surfboard, it can often cause you to lose your balance. Therefore, as a beginner, you practice both these techniques with your surfboard in the sand before venturing into the water. 

Bailing Out

Duck diving is not effective against huge waves, often ending up in you getting thrashed into the sea. Therefore, when you are facing a large surge, you should opt to bail out and avoid getting yourself in an accident.

A simple method of bailing out is to just leap right off your surfboard and dive into the oncoming wave. To do this, you should take a deep breath before diving feet first into the wave,  which will allow your head to be closer to the surface of the water while trying to get out of the water..

However, panicking when bailing out on a breaking wave would not only waste your energy but also allow the water to drag you with the wave. Therefore, it’s advised to stay as calm and composed as possible under such situations. Moreover, if you feel the water pressure is too much for you,  simply put your arms around your head and let the water drag you around until the tide clears.

Types Of Breaking Waves           

Once you’ve assessed what type of breaking wave you’re facing, it’ll be quite easier to identify a suitable maneuver that can handle the waves effortlessly. Learning about different types of waves is the first thing you should do as a surfer.

Left vs Right Wave

From the surfer’s perspective, a wave that breaks away to the left is known as a left wave. Similarly, a wave breaking away to the right from the perspective of the surfer is known as a right wave. 

A surfer attempting to catch a left break wave must turn their surfboard left to ride the wave while a right break wave can be ridden by simply maneuvering to the right. It’s important to stay alert while riding these waves as they can break away very quickly.

Closeout Wave

These waves tend to break out suddenly from all directions, rendering them completely unrideable in either direction. Fortunately, these closeout waves are easy to identify as they run almost parallel to the horizon, with no angles or slopes significantly visible. Moreover, if you’re faced with such a wave, your best bet is to immediately bail out with your surfboard. 

A-Frame Wave

Also known as the Split Peak, the A-Frame wave is formed when the approaching wave breaks from both sides. Due to splitting from the peak, these waves often form an upside-down A, thus resulting in the name; A-Frame Wave. 

If you’re positioned at the center of this wave you have the option of maneuvering to either side as soon as the wave splits in half. A great thing about this type of wave is that two surfers can ride this wave at the same time. 

Plunging Waves

Also popularly known as dumping waves, these form a traditional tube or barrel-like structure, making them pretty difficult to ride for inexperienced surfers. These waves tend to form when surfing from deep to shallower water, however, they can easily be maneuvered by using a longboard such as this one by Modern Surfboards.

Determining Rideable Waves

Before heading out with your board, you should be able to differentiate between rideable waves and the ones which are going to thrash you into the sea. Here are a few ways you can assess if the waves are surfable for you. 

Know the Conditions

The first step in surfing is scouting out the ideal location. Every beach has its distinct underwater layout, and these characteristics determine when and where a wave will break out. Therefore, it’s important to observe the pattern of the waves in the sea before jumping in with your surfboard. 

Read Breaking Waves

To read a breaking wave, you should first identify a lump forming near the horizon. Once you have spotted the lump, try and look for the peak. This is where the wave is going to start breaking from. 

The breaking wave will take the direction of the steepest side of the wave. This is the direction in which you will ride your surfboard. If you cannot spot a steep angle on the incoming wave, chances are that the wave is going to close out. 

Catching Unbroken Waves

Now that you know about the different types of rideable ways, it’s time to learn how to catch them before they start to break. These steps will help you deal with breaking waves more effectively.

Stages of a Wave

Waves aren’t formed out of the blue; they go through various stages before they become rideable. If you’re looking to catch a wave, you should know the phases it goes throw until it becomes a monstrous breaker. 

Wave StageWhat it Looks Like
Stage AThe wave is as small as a bump and cannot be caught due to its small size. 
Stage BThis wave has an ideal steepness for you to paddle into. 
Stage CThese waves break apart as the tip crashes down on the water and are too steep for you to catch. 
Stage DThe wave has completely broken away at this point and its impossible to ride it. 

Position Yourself 

Now that you know the basics, it’s time to dive right into the art of catching waves. Start by positioning yourself at least 5 meters behind the spot where you believe the wave will form a tiny, hill-like shape. As soon as you observe a swell approaching in the water, lay down on your surfboard and get ready. 

How you position yourself on the surfboard is critical to riding a wave effortlessly. The best method is to align your chest directly to the center of the board while keeping your body as straight as possible. Moreover, you also need to ensure that your head is up and your nose is at least five to six centimeters above the water. 

Match The Speed of The Wave

Once you’re in position, it’s time to start paddling. When the swell is just a few feet behind you, begin paddling deep strokes until the wave rises into a hill form. A general trick used by amateur surfers is to synchronize with the pace of the wave and let gravity do the rest. 

Further, there’s no need to paddle intensely with rapid strokes as this can cause you to become imbalanced and fall off. For best propulsion, continue to use extended, full-range arm motions. At this stage, you should be already riding a glorious green wave.  

Control Your Board 

Now that you’re riding the green wave, It is advised that you use a cobra position to stabilize both yourself and the board to keep the momentum going. To observe this stance, you need to raise your feet to the top third portion of the wave and bend your knees to achieve a better balance on your board. 

Moreover, never forget that your eyes are your most important tool while surfing. Try focusing down the line of the wave to get a better idea of how you should be handling the current and your surfboard. 

Additional Measures To Deal With Breaking Waves

Sometimes, breaking waves can have the better of you even if you follow the correct steps. Therefore, you can take some additional safety measures to ensure that these waves do not pose any risk to you. 

Get Better at Holding Your Breath

A strong breath-holding skill is compulsory for surfers. If you are unable to hold your breath for less than a minute, chances are that you’ll find yourself in trouble more often.

Therefore, you should take out a stopwatch and measure how long you can hold your breath. If you can hold your breath for anywhere between 1-2 minutes, you’ve got nothing to worry about. However, if that is not the case you should start working on increasing your time.

A good posture and diaphragmatic breathing are great ways of increasing your lung capacity. The latter is also known as ‘belly breathing’, and fully engages your stomach and abdominal muscles. Not only does this allow your lungs to fill in more air than average, but it also helps you relax in such situations.

Conserve Your Energy

If you fail to conserve your energy you’ll be unable to hold your breath which can be catastrophic when battling a huge surge. Therefore, when a gigantic wave crashes down on you, don’t waste your energy by thrashing around like a madman. Be patient and focus on keeping yourself stable, as this will allow you to conserve enough energy to battle breaking waves. 

Store Your Oxygen

Moreover, storing a fair amount of oxygen will also assist you in maintaining your stability and control when tackling a wave. Some amateur surfers tend to start inhaling as much air as they can before colliding with a wave. This simple trick not only allows them to maintain composure but also grants them a ton of oxygen to work with if getting thrashed inside a broken wave.  

Frequently Asked Questions 

Why Do Waves Break?

Waves tend to break as they travel into shallower water. The speed of the bottom part of the wave decreases, while the top part overtakes and flows beyond it, resulting in a broken wave. 

Are Breaking Waves Fatal?

Breaking waves can be dangerous if you’re an inexperienced surfer. Most waves, such as plunging waves, can result in a surfing wipeout which can cause you to fall off your board and injure yourself. 

What Is a Shore Break and Is It Dangerous?

A ‘shore break’ occurs when a wave starts to break immediately near the shore. Riding a shore break is seriously risky as any misstep can lead you in getting washed onshore. Therefore, as a beginner, it’s important to read the surf report of the beach to find out which type of waves are going to surface on a particle day. 

Which Board Should I Use to Catch A Wave?

Using a longboard is often better for beginners as compared to using a shortboard due to their large surface area. This provides more balance and aids in tackling breaking waves more efficiently. 


Handling breaking waves can be a daunting task, however, with the right knowledge, you can take on any monstrosity out in the sea. Practice the methods discussed above to manage breaking waves effectively and prevent any accidents while surfing. 

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