All the styles, superstars and sacred rules of surfing you need to know
From the unique terminology, to the athletes taking the sport forward, discover all you need to know about the world of surfing.
Surfing: the short version
Put simply, surfing is the act of riding a wave standing up on a surfboard. Using surfboards of varying lengths and construction – from fibreglass 'shortboards' that are less than 5ft [1.5m] long to hard foam 'longboards' that are 10ft [3m] and above. A surfer catches a wave just as it’s cresting, riding along the wave’s 'face' as it breaks toward the beach. Once upon a time, surfing was done only in oceans, but now the sport is practised in other bodies of water, like the US Great Lakes, the Mediterranean Sea, and, as many are hoping is the case in Tokyo, in artificial wave pools.
The origin story – the history of surfing
Surfing has been dubbed 'the sport of kings,' thanks to its origins on the Hawaiian islands, where it was practised as a recreational activity by the islands’ royalty and commoners alike. Historical research has found that other Pacific cultures – from Fiji to Peru – also surfed for fun on various crafts. But it was in Hawaii, in the early 20th Century, where surfing first sparked the global phenomenon that the sport became in the following decades. Visiting surfers from the US mainland and Australia took the sport home with them. In the US state of California and the Australian state of Victoria, surfers transformed the sport into a global, multibillion-dollar apparel industry. In 1976, a world surfing tour was formed – its most current iteration is the World Surf League. The sport’s governing body is the International Surfing Association, which today represents some 55 nations from around the world.
What are we watching, exactly? How does surfing work?
This depends if you’re watching 'freesurfing' or competition surfing, shortboarding, longboarding, or tow surfing. Here’s the breakdown:
This just means surfing outside of competition. It may look like there are no rules of engagement when you look out into the waves at a crowd of freesurfers, however, the truth is there are many codes of conduct at work. The most sacred rule is the surfer who's closest to the crest of the breaking wave and who's on his or her feet first, has the right of way. And once that surfer is up and riding, all other surfers are responsible for staying out of their way. Oh, and if you’re out there and someone catches a really good one, it’s cool to give them a 'hoot' to let them know of their impressive ride.
Competition rules vary slightly between organisations, but all surf contests consist of divisions, broken down by age and gender, and timed heats in which between two and four surfers compete against each other, the winner being the surfer whose best two combined wave scores advances to the next round.
As mentioned above, shortboards are generally 6ft [1.8m] or under. They're the most popular type of surfboard in the sport today. When surfing a shortboard, a multitude of fast, quick manoeuvres is the goal.
Since longboards were the first type of surfboard, they're considered the sport’s 'classic' choice. Longboarding is all about style – smooth, relaxed control of the board as you move along the face of a wave is the goal.
This is the sport’s most recent addition and it’s reserved for only the best and bravest surfers in the world. In the early 2000s, surfers in Maui, Hawaii – led by Laird Hamilton – wanted to start riding waves that were above 50ft [15m] in height. The problem was that, more often than not, those waves move so fast that it's extremely difficult to catch them by paddling alone. Hamilton and his crew discovered that by using a waterski rope and an engine-powered zodiac, they could meet the giant waves’ speeds. They added straps to small, heavy shortboards that could absorb the shock of 50ft-plus waves and eventually switched over to using jet skis to tow each other. Today, tow surfing has evolved into a highly technical discipline that has allowed surfers to ride waves that previous generations only dreamed of riding.
I want a go. What kit do I need for surfing?
Not much, to be honest. All you really need is a bathing suit, some surf wax, a board and a 'leg rope' to keep you connected to your board. These days, most popular surfing beaches have surf schools, where instructors can give you a few lessons, or nearby surf shops where you can rent a board and have a go at it on your own. Just remember the sacred rule mentioned above!
The tricktionary – what are surfing’s key tricks and techniques?
Here are the manoeuvres you’re going to want to understand inside-out:
This is surfing’s most prized manoeuvre – and one of its most difficult. A barrel forms as a wave’s crest pitches forward and over, forming a hollow chamber within the wave. The bigger the wave and more shallow the bottom, the larger the barrel becomes. It's extremely difficult to acquire the timing, balance and spatial awareness to duck into a barrel and emerge. But practice makes perfect!
The bottom turn
This is surfing’s most fundamental manoeuvre. A bottom turn happens after a surfer has stood up and dropped down the face of the wave. Once at the trough, or bottom, of the wave, the surfer then pivots their momentum toward the open face of the wave. The speed of the drop is then transferred forward, propelling the surfer along the wave. Think of the bottom turn as the surfer’s gas pedal.
The top turn
If you’re on a shortboard, the top turn is the next most fundamental manoeuvre after the bottom turn. As you’re riding along a wave, its crest, or 'lip,' seems to just be hanging there, taunting you to 'hit' it. So that’s what you should do! A good surfer will generate extra speed by dipping back down to the wave’s trough and engaging another bottom turn, which will then propel them vertically up the face of the wave. Once their board has made contact with the counterforce of the wave’s crest, the surfer will then redirect downward and back onto the wave’s open face. A solid connection with the lip will generate a huge spray of water – and trust us, there’s no better feeling than crushing a big top turn and showering your nearby friends with the spray.
Once a strictly functional manoeuvre, the floater has become an element of style in the surfer’s repertoire. Not all waves break along the beach perfectly, so when a surfer encounters a breaking section of the wave that's too long to bottom turn around, they must use their speed to ride up, onto and across the crest, or lip, reaching the other side of the breaking section. A well-executed floater can take on the appearance of anti-gravity, as the surfer is both perched on and moving across a breaking wave.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that surfers, confronted with sections of waves where once only a floater would be considered the logical next step, decided instead to channel their inner skateboarder or snowboarder and launch off the wave. The air began as a humble ollie off the lip. It soon evolved into an 'air reverse,' or 360 off the lip. Today, the amount of variations done by the world’s best surfers is dizzying, from inverted 540s to alley-oops to back-flips.
Names to watch out for
- Kai Lenny – the next-gen Laird Hamilton. Over the last two years, he's shocked the surfing world by riding some of the biggest waves on earth as if they were 5-footers, doing 360s and other airs on walls of water seven or eight storeys high.
- Carissa Moore – The four-time world champion has pushed women’s surfing to new heights over the last decade. Combining power with style, Moore is one of the best surfers in the history of the sport, male or female.
- Caroline Marks – In 2018, at age 16, Marks became the youngest surfer to ever qualify for the Women’s World Surf League championship tour. She went on to win Rookie of the Year that season and, in 2019, took one of the two spots for women at the upcoming Tokyo event.
- Kanoa Igarashi – Igarashi is by far Japan’s most successful professional surfer. He is a consistent force on the World Surf League championship tour, where he won the 2019 Corona Bali Protected Pro.
- Jordy Smith – With multiple World Surf League championship tour wins under his belt, this South African possesses the rare combination of power and finesse when it comes to high-performance surfing. Whether the waves are 2ft or 10, Smith is always one to watch.
- Mick Fanning – The three-time world champion rose to fame as 'White Lightning,' for his mop of blonde hair and ability to seemingly go faster than anyone else on a wave. Now retired, Fanning has set his sights on obscure destinations where the surfing potential is promising.
- Lucas 'Chumbo' Chianca – Chumbo is a close second in line to Kai Lenny when it comes to surfing some of the biggest waves in the world. He's smooth and sturdy on his feet, yet has the ability to pull mind-blowing aerial manoeuvres on waves that, not long ago, people believed could not be surfed in such a way.
- Eli Hanneman – Hawaii’s young star is absolutely unbelievable when it comes to airs. Hanneman's already turning heads and will be sooner than later on the world stage.
- Bronson Meydi – Born beside one of Indonesia’s most high-performance waves, Meydi is growing up to be a worldwide threat. His toolkit is wide-ranging, from big barrels to bigger airs and he’s only going to get better with age.
- Molly Picklum – The up-and-coming Australian competitor is not only lethal in small waves, but she’s getting better and better in bigger surf, too.
- Julian Wilson – Wilson has electrified the surfing world since he was a 'young gun' up against the very best surfers on the world’s best waves.
- Kolohe Andino – Like Julian Wilson, Andino has been in the surfing spotlight since he was a tiny toehead being pushed into the waves of his California homebreak by his dad and former world tour surfer, Dino.
Where can I see more?
Before there was a dedicated pro surfing world tour, there was a travelling cadre of surfers beaming their exploits to surf fans via film. Does The Endless Summer ring a bell? It has been surf films that have often been the biggest drivers of style and technical advancement in surfing – and that's still the case today, even with the huge amount of content available on the internet and on social media. Watch some of our favourite modern surf films.
- Pipe Masters: Professional surfing's most iconic event, held at the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. One of the most dangerous and challenging waves in the world, each year since the 1970s, Pipeline reveals those pros with the most guts, grit and talent.
- WSL Finals, Lower Trestles, California, USA: Southern California's 'Lowers' is considered one of the world's most high-performance waves. After a reshuffling of its annual world tour schedule, the World Surf League will now hold its final event of the season at Lowers, where the men's and women's World Titles will be decided in a single-day event at this world-renowned break.
- Surf Ranch Pro, Lemoore, California, USA: Not far from Lowers – but very far from the ocean – is the ranch town of Lemoore, California, home to Kelly Slater's groundbreaking wave pool. The Surf Ranch Pro is the World Surf League's only men's and women's tour stop at an artificial wave.
- Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge, Nazaré, Portugal: Home to the world's biggest waves, Nazaré has in recent years also played host to some of the most exciting big wave surfing events ever witnessed. This all-tow event brings together the world's bravest surfers for one day of 50ft-plus surfing.
- Triple Crown of Surfing: In addition to the Pipe Masters, the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, also hosts two other iconic pro surfing events at nearby Haleiwa and Sunset Beach. Together, this trio of events makes up the prestigious Triple Crown of Surfing. Winning the Triple Crown is one of the most coveted honours in pro surfing.
- Jaws Big Wave Championships: Alongside Nazaré in terms of the world's biggest wave is Maui, Hawaii's Pe'ahi, better known as Jaws. While the Nazaré event is all tow surfing, the Jaws event is all paddle, featuring the world's best male and female big wave surfers. Few pro surfing events are as thrilling to watch as the Jaws Championships.
- Red Bull Cape Fear: Always the wildcard, and always a fan favourite, the Red Bull Cape Fear is pro surfing's only big wave slab event. From Sydney to Tasmania, Cape Fear has featured some of the craziest competition in pro surfing.
- International Surfing Association World Surfing Games: While winning a World Surf League tour event is the highest individual honour, winning alongside your countrymen and women at the ISA World Surfing Games is the highest honour in teams surfing. Held each year at locations around the world, the ISA World Surfing Games feature teams from over 100 countries around the planet.