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Surfing Skill Levels Explained

   October 27th, 2021   Posted In: Articles  

Trying to figure out what surfing skill level you’re at is not easy because the intricacies of the sport make it very difficult to even define the actual categories of surfing skill levels. There are so many variables when it comes to surfing which is one of the reasons it is so special. It’s not like bowling for example, where it is easy to say whether you’re a beginner, a decent player, or a great bowler because it simply involves rolling a ball down a lane with the objective of knocking over a set number of pins.

Surfing is more like golf. There are so many aspects to the game including your putting, your chips, your drives, even the gear to properly play the game is extensive. Having knowledge of all of it is what determines your skill level and the same goes with figuring out your surfing skill level.

Man learning to surf

Don’t Overestimate Your Level

It goes without saying that surfing, or any sport in the ocean for that matter, has risks so it is best to not overestimate your surfing skill levels. The last thing you want is to get into a bad situation because you thought you were a novice level surfer when in reality, you are at a beginner surf level. It could lead to a traumatizing experience in the water that may make you scared to surf again.

Beginner Surf Levels Are Tricky

I believe that the category of the beginner surf level needs to be broken up even further than just that one category. To me, there are 3 clear phases of the beginner surfing level stage. The fact is, surfing is a very difficult sport because the ocean conditions are never exactly the same. For some people, it could be years before they actually get out of the beginner stage depending on how often you go out to surf and how quickly you pick it up. 

This surfing level is the very beginning. Someone who knows how to swim pretty well but has never ever taken a board into the surf and paddled. People at this stage need to first go over the basics of surfing etiquette and safety. You’ll also need to learn about all the accessories like leashes, waxes, and wetsuits before you even set foot in the water. 

Surfing Skill Levels: Beginner 1

If you are at this surf level you’ll also need to learn some of the surfing techniques while your board is on the sand like how to paddle, how to pop up, and how to execute the proper stance. It’s also a good time to watch and learn the patterns of the waves themselves while you choose the area that seems the safest for you to paddle out. You’ll likely be in this stage for one to three surf sessions while you figure out how it all works and what it actually takes to stand up.

Surfing Skill Levels: Beginner 2

After someone has gone through the stages of Beginner 1 they can advance to the next surf level. A person at the Beginner 2 level has been out in the waves paddling around one to four times and has stood up for a few seconds while riding the whitewash. A person at this surfing level still needs work on the basics like paddling and popping up but they are starting to get the hang of it. They generally just need more time in the ocean getting used to the waves and how to catch them. 

Surfing Skill Levels: Beginner 3

Once you feel comfortable and strong paddling around and standing up on the whitewash you can progress into surfing skill level Beginner 3 which gets you into the stage of actually catching waves before they break. Think of Beginner 3 as a beginner with experience. For instance, you would be able to clearly show the basics to someone who is at the Beginner 1 stage. 

I believe that the Beginner 3 surfing level is really where the magic happens and where the fun starts. You’ve been out 4 to 6 times and you are ready to paddle further out and start catching waves that haven’t already broken. You will start to ride the actual wave and start getting more comfortable taking off at an angle. You‘ll also start judging the wave which will determine whether you’ll ride it left or right.  

Surfing Skill Levels: Novice

Once you are consistently showing good judgment and are catching waist to chest high waves with the ability to go left or right then you have made it to the novice surfing level. You should also be a pretty good paddler by now with the ability to “Duck Dive” under the whitewash of the larger breakers. 

Surfers in the novice surf level will start focusing on nailing down their stance and board angle to start generating more speed and sharper turns. At this stage, you are starting to have more freedom on your surfboard which means it may be a good time to upgrade to a more maneuverable board that allows you to push your own limits.

Surfing Skill Levels: Intermediate

You’ll most likely stay at the intermediate surf level much longer than the ones before. Once you’ve hit this stage you should have good control catching and riding waves that are overhead in size. This is also the surf level where you should start traveling to better breaks that offer waves that push you faster and have more power. I believe the intermediate surf level is where you become a smarter surfer based on your wave judgment and selection.

By this time you should be comfortable pulling off ‘bottom turns’ going in both directions. This is also the time where you start trying, hopefully with some success, more complicated turns and maneuvers like floaters, re-entries, snaps, cutbacks, and laybacks. At this surf level, you may only be trying these tricks on the smaller sets while focusing on speed and flow when catching a wave in a bigger set. By this time, you should also be experiencing what it is like to get inside the barrel of the wave.  

Surfing Skill Levels: Advanced

Surfers at an advanced surfing level have it pretty much all dialed in and have upgraded to some of the top-of-the-line gear. They have excellent wave selection and get top-quality rides simply because they go out several times a week. They are landing difficult tricks and are often well known by the other surfers who are out in the same spot. An advanced surfer has the skill and strength to paddle out and successfully ride waves that reach 10 to 15 feet tall.

In my opinion, it takes the average person about 5 to 7 years of surfing consistently about 100 times per year to reach this surfing level. For instance, if I look at myself, I have been bodyboarding for about 5 years now and I still think I will be in the intermediate level for a while.  

Surfing Skill Levels: Expert/Pro

Surfers at an advanced surfing level have it pretty much all dialed in and have upgraded to some of the toThis surfing level speaks for itself. These are the guys that make beginners want to surf! They might also be competing locally or internationally against other top-tier surfers and might be sponsored by some of your favorite wetsuit brands. These are the guys winning contests by pulling off incredible aerial moves or catching waves 30 to 50 feet tall. This coveted level of surfer loves the sport and has dedicated their life to it. Most of us will never get here but it is nice to dream! Want an idea of what pro surfing looks like? Check out this recent video by Billabong and their pro surf team. It’s pretty insane!

In conclusion

I hope this helps you figure out where you stand when it comes to surfing skill levels. Remember, there are no hard and fast levels defining your surfing, so someone else’s version of surfing levels could look different from yours. In the end, all that matters is that you’re getting out in the water and enjoying the sport. Keep shredding!

Want to shop for your next surfing wetsuit whatever level you’re at? Check out our selection at Wetsuit Wearhouse for the best brands in surfing!

Wes Severson is a fitness enthusiast and bodyboarder from San Francisco, CA who is always at Ocean Beach hitting the waves. He is also an Emmy Award-winning broadcast news writer and producer and a recording artist who goes by the name Wes Magic.

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