Home » Learn » 11 Tips for Surfing Independently in Los Angeles
Surfing and Los Angeles are synonymous. The history of surfing is intertwined with the history of the City of Angels, so it only makes sense that many Angelenos are also surfers. When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2010, my goal was to become a surfer. I grew up as a competitive swimmer and water polo player and studied ocean science throughout high school and college, so I have always had a deep connection with the ocean. But, there was always something missing: Surfing. I pursued my desire to learn and subsequently purchased a board and paddled out at my local surf spot. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was able to learn because of my comfort and perseverance in the water. I made many mistakes, from which I learned valuable lessons. I would sometimes unknowingly put myself in dangerous situations, lacked knowledge of surf etiquette, and would often paddle out at times when surf conditions were not ideal. Over several years, I took these lessons and evolved into a competent surfer with the ability to communicate surfing to those who also want to learn. Lessons are, of course, the obvious first step for most learning to surf.
However, there eventually reaches a time when my students are ready to independently pursue surfing in Los Angeles County and nothing is a better teacher than failing and learning on your own. As an instructor, my goal is to prepare my students for the inevitable pursuit of individual surfing.
The lessons I have learned are invaluable, and although most surfers keep these secrets to themselves, I will share some of mine. Take these lessons to heart to make your surfing experience in Los Angeles County much more exciting.
The ocean is always here, but I don’t always see people surfing… How do I know it is the right time to paddle out?
Picking a good time to surf is essential to learning. In the points below, I will describe the more nuanced aspects of timing, but while learning, there are various elements to consider. These include tide, wind, swell size, and arguably most importantly, crowds. Don’t try to learn during the most crowded time of the day. Pick an uncrowded beginner spot when conditions are ideal for learning (i.e., small, consistent, and mushy) and take the skills you learned during your lessons and apply them to the situations at hand. However, identifying the ideal learning conditions takes time and skill, and luckily many resources are available to make that decision easier. Ask your surf instructor about surf spots and ideal conditions, check surf forecast apps such as Surfline and Magic Seaweed, and even better yet, spend time at these spots learning how they change over time with tides, wind, and swell size. There is no better teacher in surfing than spending time in the water. So take advantage of the resources around you to identify the ideal time to paddle out.
Tides are constant fluctuations in water level caused by the gravitational force of the moon, the sun, and the spin of the earth. Tides rise and fall, and these differences in water depth change how waves interact with the seafloor. Every spot in Los Angeles works differently on various tides, so how do you know when the tide is best? Most spots in LA favor a rising tide (low to high) due to a speculated phenomenon called a “tidal push,” which helps waves fill into surf breaks. Too high of a tide will “swamp” the surf, tricking you into thinking a wave is breaking, only to have it pass under you and break near the shore. Too low of a tide will “drain” the surf, slowly sucking the energy out of the wave due to constant friction with the ocean bottom. Since every spot works differently on various tides, you must once again take advantage of the resources stated above. Better yet, try surfing the same spot in various tidal conditions. Eventually, you will be able to identify the ideal tidal range: when swell and tide line up perfectly to produce the ideal wave for that spot.
Los Angeles experiences seasonal variations in ocean conditions, determining the type of equipment necessary to remain comfortable during a surf session. As the legendary outdoorsman Alfred Wainwright once said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing,” a statement that can be easily applied to surfing. If I had to adapt this quote to surfing, I would say, “There is no such thing as a bad surf session, only improper equipment.” I own ten wetsuits, ranging from a simple vest to a hooded 5mm suit for cold water conditions and a whole quiver of boards. I am prepared for whatever the ocean has to throw at me, so I am always maximizing the amount of fun to be had. Wintertime is cold, so wear a thick wetsuit. Summertime is crowded, so get yourself a board that will allow you to catch waves among the crowd (or simply go somewhere else). Sometimes, a surf break does not have a soft, forgiving, sandy bottom consistent with many beginner spots, so booties are a great option to avoid foot injuries. Opting for the ideal equipment for the session ranging from board type, wax, leash, wetsuits, etc., will determine how much fun you have. And let’s face it, we surf because it is fun. It’s as pure and raw as a sport comes, so maximize these opportunities to opt for the right equipment. Often, surf forecast apps will even suggest the ideal equipment, so take advantage of the resources around you to maximize the fun potential.
Los Angeles is vast and full of surf bounty (if you know where to look). Surfers are notoriously secretive of spots, and over the years, I have discovered spots in LA where I am the only person in the water. This is rare (and I’m not sharing my secret). However, swell direction and environmental conditions will determine which location is best. Most surf spots in Los Angeles county are within Santa Monica Bay, which faces slightly south. Seasonal variations in climatic conditions change swell direction throughout the year. Summertime is consistent with swells coming from a southerly direction, while winter is consistent with west and northwest swells. Thus, North Los Angeles county is typically best during summertime (i.e., Malibu Surfrider), while wintertime is largest in the South Bay (i.e., El Porto). Choose the right location for the right season.
Swells (waves) are incredibly complicated physical processes. In another article, I will dive deep into how swells are formed and propagate to reach surf spots. However, identifying the difference between swell and tides is often a lesson I teach my students. Tides are caused by gravity. Swell is a result of wind and friction. As the wind blows over the surface of the ocean, friction occurs between the wind and the water, ultimately moving the water in the direction of the wind. The strength and consistency of the wind, wind direction, storm size, and distance over which the wind blows (fetch) determine the size of a swell. A powerful storm (i.e. hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons) creates larger swells than a smaller storm. When learning, these powerful swells can create hazards. Big swells mean more water is moving. Currents become more powerful, waves break consistently, and proper surf conditioning is necessary to remain safe. Thus, learning in smaller swell conditions is ideal. Swell has various characteristics that explain its size. These are wave height, period, and direction. Wave height is the distance from the trough (bottom of the wave) to the peak (top of the wave). The period is the amount of time (in seconds) that it takes for the first and second waves to pass the same point. Long-period swells have a deeper wave height, thus breaking in deeper water and causing larger waves. Short period swells, often created by smaller storms, often have perkier, less powerful waves, typically better for learning. Swell direction results from the direction in which the wind is blowing. If the wind blows from south to north, a south swell is born. If the wind blows from West to East, a west swell is born. Swell direction is also explained by the direction of the compass. Understanding swell is deeply complicated, and scientists are still learning how waves occur in the ocean. I will delve deeper into the world of Physical Oceanography in a future article.
Just like any outdoor activity, participation is contingent on environmental conditions. When I first started surfing, I’d find myself paddling out in conditions that were not ideal, which just ended in frustration. Other times, I’d be so hungry to surf that I paddled out in unsanitary water and suffered the consequences. Rain and surfing in Los Angeles is a dangerous combination. Because of our lack of rain, toxins, fertilizers, fecal matter, trash, and everything else on the ground is washed into the ocean in one foul swoop. Water quality can be horrendous and severe illness can be a result. Heal the Bay, along with other surf apps and local ocean conservation organizations, release daily water quality reports. Only surf when the water quality is considered safe. Fog is another occurrence in Los Angeles. Fog typically goes hand in hand with glassy conditions, but the waves are difficult to spot until they are almost on top of you. So these are more advanced conditions with the necessity of quickly paddling to the wave. Be smart with the weather. Catching a few waves in poor water quality conditions can result in serious illness. Totally not worth it… I have a friend who has lost all sense of smell after a month-long stint in the hospital due to surfing after a rainstorm. Don’t let this happen to you!
You wake up and look out your window to see a gorgeous, warm, sunny day. You throw all the surf equipment in the car and drive to the beach, suit up, and paddle out, only to find no waves to catch because it seems like the waves are coming from all directions. The wind has an immense impact on surfing conditions, so surfers are always keeping a watchful eye on wind direction.
The beach is a boundary zone, an area where land and sea meet, and as a result, environmental conditions are in a constant state of change. Wind can either improve or detract from the quality of a wave depending on the direction in which it is blowing. Offshore winds are ideal. When the wind blows from the land to the sea, grooming the swell and steadily holding a wave at its peak, thus increasing a surfer’s ability to stay in the critical section of the wave for an increased duration. Offshore winds also have a beautiful effect on the waves, causing the spray of the breaking wave to fly upwards and back, often creating stunning rainbows. On the other hand, onshore winds, or winds that blow from the sea to the land, have a deleterious effect on the wave, causing it to break crumbly and sloppily. Yet, onshore winds can sometimes blow lightly and have little impact on the wave’s shape. These types of winds are ideal for highly advanced aerial maneuvers.
So before you pack up your surf equipment, make sure that the wind is favorable!
(before paddling out and paddling out) (riptides, timing sets, know before you go, board choice, The waves are pumping, and it seems like an endless barrage of breaking waves. How do you know when to paddle out and where? How do you know if you have the right equipment?
These are essential questions to ask yourself before making the decision to paddle out. The ocean can be both a calm, peaceful place where waves are ridden with grace and relaxation, while other times, the ocean is powerful and consequential. All of these questions can be answered by any of the Aqua Surf instructors. These skilled coaches will prepare you for your own independent adventures. Then, you’ll be able to face the ocean confidently and understand how to push yourself further.
As the waves break and push water towards the beach, strong nearshore currents form because the water needs a place to go. The water flowing back towards open water, also known as a rip current, rapidly moves along channels in the sand or rocks. These rip currents pose a hazard to swimmers and some surfers, so identifying rip currents is essential for safety. Other times, rips act as a conveyor belt for a surfer to quickly move out into the lineup. This can be a huge energy saver but can only be done properly with proper rip current skills.
Swell also arrives in sets. This means when a wave comes, there are often many following. Trying to paddle to the lineup when a set first arrives can prove exhausting and unnecessary, as lulls, or breaks in between sets, can be taken advantage of to paddle out with minimal effort. In order to properly time the sets, you must carefully watch the waves as they break, understand how many come within sets, and then identify and react when the swell energy decreases for a short period of time.
(short-term (surf check and condition change in the water) long-term (seasonal and annual variations in the same spot).
Surfing is a sport of progression both in your understanding of the ocean and its many moods and of your own proficiency. Paying close attention to the conditions as they change during your session and reacting to these changes shows intuition. Subconsciously identifying how a spot changes through short-term conditional fluctuations shows a deep knowledge of the ocean. It is also interesting to monitor how certain spots change over an annual basis, from El Niño years to La Niña years, from winter storms to hurricane swells, they all have their own fingerprint.
Monitoring your skill level is also essential to sustaining your passion for surfing. As you build paddling muscles, you’ll find yourself paddling into more waves and making it out the back with less effort, even in more significant conditions. Identifying this progress will allow you to surf different spots that vary in wave size, shape, speed, crowd, obstacles, and even ride different types of surfboards (see our article on board shapes for more). As you improve in your Surfing, new experiences and levels of joy open up. So with the proper judgment, step out of your comfort zone!
Combining the Elements
Over time, a surfer begins to put together the various elements of understanding conditions to judge where and when to paddle out. The waves can be flawless with the proper alignment of the tide, swell, wind, and weather conditions. It takes time to identify these moments, only by paying close attention and with persistent surf checks to intuitively read conditions. Still, many smartphone apps such as Surfline and MagicSeaweed make surf forecasting concise and straightforward. These apps provide cams for easy surf checks and display real-time buoy readings and a forecaster’s interpretation of the quality of the waves. These apps are invaluable for surfers who cannot easily check conditions, but nothing is better than being there in person.
When conditions are ideal for a surf session, it becomes time to choose a spot to surf. Some locations work better in some seasons than others. Malibu is better in the summer, while more southern breaks in the South Bay have more size in the winter. Some breaks have nice, slow-breaking waves that are great for conditions, while other spots break with power and require deep ocean knowledge. By understanding all these elements, you’ll find yourself where the waves are best.
Once surfing becomes part of your life, you are a surfer. Surfing is a sport of pure joy where every other thought in the world is thrown out the window besides that of riding a wave. Because of this feeling, most surfers in Los Angeles pursue surfing as a hobby, but one of intense passion. However, some surfers opt to pursue surfing at a competitive level.
Competitive surfing can range from school teams to competing in youth and amateur competitions where judges analyze the surfer’s performance on a wave. These competitions occur locally and globally. However, competing in surfing can change one’s relationship with the sport. So keep in mind to not lose the true meaning of what it means to surf!
As Gerry Lopez said, “Style is grace in transition,” and transitioning from a student to an independent surfer is by no means graceful, but it is enjoyable. Becoming proficient in surfing results from failure, frustration, and moments of fright, but ultimately, it is for the greatest reward possible: a wave. Waves are formed hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away and travel across whole oceans only to end their journey at the beach. We, as surfers, get to experience that last breath of energy born in a turbulent system, nothing like the atmosphere at your home surf break. Getting joy out of surfing demands persistence, practice, and patience. Surfing is also an independent sport shared with millions of other ocean-driven people. Thus, proper etiquette and respect for other surfers in the water of all skill levels are necessary. Without this, crowded breaks can suck the joy from surfing and turn the energy sour. To avoid this and have the opposite experience, respect the ocean, respect the other surfers, and surf for the joy of the experience, whether alone or shared with others!
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