Pain points on becoming a salted surfer. What issues do the Rick Kanes of the world face in the brine?

Sticking points in the pool-to-ocean transition include a lack of skill and knowledge when it comes to duck diving, paddling out, some etiquette, and even surfboard choice.

Painting by Derek West

What was once blasphemy is now a growing avenue to get into surfing. Thanks to wave pools, new surfers can get up on a board, bottom turn and carve with ease. In many ways, they’re advancing quicker than most beginners, but at the same time, they’ve never caught an ocean wave. 

However, these rudimental skills are a right of passage to becoming a competent surfer. Should wave pool surfers and operators focus on these techniques and etiquette to prepare surfers for ocean waves?

“You get the Waco guys, and they can put it on rail. They’re surfing pretty darn good,” said Rob Case, a professional paddling coach who’s worked with surfers worldwide and at Surf Ranch, Waco Surf, and Lakeside Surf. “I’ll ask if they’ve ever surfed in the ocean. They’re like, ‘no, never surfed in the ocean.’ Wow, that’s impressive.”

Rob is discussing his firsthand experience seeing new surfers that were made possible by the help of artificial wave technology. While many are mastering some aspects of the sport, other areas are open for growth.

“I think the big thing is the duck dive. Wave pool surfers don’t really ever need to do that. And what I’ve seen at the different wave pools, when the wave comes at them, they just ditch the board, and it’s like, oh my gosh. We have to clean that up right there,” said Rob. “I’ll just take my clients, and we’ll just sit in the impact zone and duck dive all morning until they get comfortable with that.”

urbnsurf paddling out
Heading on your way out the back is the most paddling you’ll do in a wave pool, which is maybe 1/10th of the paddling done during the average ocean session.

While these are early techniques for some, could skipping these fundamental skills by pool surfers lead to issues down the road? And who is responsible for creating a well-rounded surfer? 

A similar industry that’s seen widespread growth through both athletes, sales and more is rock climbing. Climbing gyms have opened at an unprecedented rate worldwide. Climbing shops have set new sales records, and every year there’s been an increase in the number of people identifying as climbers. Similar to surfing, they’ve also both entered the Olympics.

The number of rock gyms has far exceeded surf parks, so access is easier than ever, but with more access, there have come more issues. As new climbers make the jump from the safety of an indoor gym to the unpredictableness of the outdoors, new problems are front and center in the climbing community.

There have been many reports of increased injuries and deaths in popular destinations like Utah. Some claim gyms are responsible for better preparing guests to make the transition to the outdoors. Other articles say the ease of fake rock walls makes climbers lazy, which is a dangerous precedent.

“I think a lot of the wave pool surfers probably have better etiquette than ocean surfers in that respect because they’re used to taking turns.”

Rob Case

Could the wave pool industry see a similar issue?

Rob does not point fingers or know if the surf basin industry has reached the same point. However, he recognizes surfers need to learn about ocean dangers such as rip currents, understand surfing etiquette and know how to deal with whitewater and other surfers. Even if it doesn’t seem like the most fun you can have at a surf park.

“If I put you in a pool and I say, we’re going to practice duck diving, so when you get to the ocean, you have that skill or that technique under your belt, you’re not going to be very motivated because you’re just going to want to surf the wave,” said Rob. “So unless you’re going on an ocean trip, there’s absolutely no motivation to do that.” 

The parks Rob works with obviously allow him to input these extra techniques, and some around the world, like URBNSURF have surf etiquette as part of its beginner courses. So, there is a rising awareness of instilling these basics.

In his expert opinion, there are a handful of skills wave pool surfers should know before transitioning to the ocean. it starts with paddling techniques to get surfers through the waves and impact zones.

“People are taking off in front of them. You have to wonder do they have the awareness to know to go behind them, or do they have the awareness just to wait a split second before they make the decision to go to the shoulder?” said Rob. “It’s almost like there needs to be a session for ocean preparation. Everybody in one group will be paddling out and duck diving, and there’s a second group taking off on waves.”

Should wave pools be required to teach basic surf sense to all learners?

Etiquette has always been a big part of surfing, put in place both for the safety of everyone in a lineup and as part of the culture of the sport.

“You don’t want to pull up and go right to the top of the point. Also, I think that (new surfers) might be put off by the guy who just caught a wave, and he is back paddling me again. But there’s that social aspect. You need to work your way up,” said Rob. “But to be fair, I think a lot of the wave pool surfers probably have better etiquette than ocean surfers in that respect because they’re used to taking turns.”

Finally, different boards are another concept new to anyone making a pool-to-ocean transition. Having perfect waves makes it easy to forget about a diverse quiver and choosing the right board for the current conditions. 

“We can catch a wave with your little pool board that’s short and low volume, but you’re going to have a hard time through the flats because you don’t know how to keep the speed with the wave changing. You’re not going to have a fun experience on that board, in other words,” said Rob. “So, having a board that has a little bit more length, maybe a little bit more volume, you’re going to have more variety, so that when the wave backs off, and you weren’t aware of it, you can ride through it. I think discussing that with the surfers in the pool is important.”

The goal of the surf park industry has long focused on creating the most ocean-like wave, which may bridge this divide between ocean and pool surfers. In the meantime, surf parks and new surfers should keep Rob’s advice in mind to better maximize both fun and safety.

Endless Surf 2023A