hardware & gear

Getting off the foamie – and onto your first “real” surfboard: what to look for

This is Part 2 of my three-part series on surfboard buying – what to look for when upgrading to your first “real” surfboard (i.e. something that is hard, whether it’s fibreglass or an epoxy pop-out). If you want to read Part 1 (what to look for when buying your first foamie surfboard), you can find it here. If you’re not quite sure whether you are ready to upgrade to a hardboard, have a read of Part 1 first.

For me, surfing is all about progression – setting yourself goals, hitting them and seeing concrete evidence of your improvement. Or sometimes, backward decline (especially when you haven’t been able to spend enough time in the water *ahem*).

I think that the most visible (and exciting) marker of improvement for someone just starting out is upgrading to a new surfboard. So without further ado, below are some tips on how to approach buying your first “real” surfboard. 

What to look for in your first hard surfboard

From my experience (and speaking to shapers), a beginner hardboard really needs to be four things:

  1. wave catching machine – this means the ability to catch waves easily, including not just easy to paddle, but allowing you to catch waves earlier when the drop is less steep.
  2. stable, so that staying on the board is not a constant struggle. Improvement comes with “waves per session” and time spent on the wave (rather than under it).
  3. blessedly forgiving – that is, the surfboard gives you a big margin for error in terms of wave positioning. Even if you aren’t quite in the right spot (hint: the crest of the wave), you might just still be able to catch it. Even if you pop up slowly like an awkward turtle, you will have time to correct it.
  4. maneuverable enough (in spite the above characteristics) so that you can handle it both on land and in the water, and start learning to turn/trim the board.

This will generally mean that you end up with a board that is:

  • longer, wider and thicker (and higher in volume, which is a consequence of being longe,  wider, and thicker of course)
  • has a rounder nose
  • a mid-sized tail (not pintail, not huge fat tail)
  • a low nose rocker
  • generally softer rails

Things like being able to turn on a dime, do airs, do sharp top turns or cutbacks are not really things beginners need (unless you are supremely talented). And you definitely don’t need boards that require pumping, exact foot placement, and late takeoffs.

If someone tells you that the board they’re trying to sell you is a “performance” board – run in the other direction.

Basically, my experience has been that the boards which worked the best for me were the ones that gave me a lot of flotation (by reason of its large volume).  More float  means the board will be easier to paddle (less water resistance), catch waves earlier (less steep drops), and surf faster down the line (so you don’t get caught by whitewater).

I have also found that extra volume, and particularly length, rarely hurt my waves per session – which is what I think all beginners should focus on (practice makes perfect after all). But too little volume tended to make a really frustrating surf session. For the first couple of years of my surfing progression, extra volume only had benefits and few downsides: because I really wasn’t capable to doing anything that required my board to have less volume.

Obviously, don’t go crazy here, because you still need to find a board that you can actually control in the water. Too much volume will make it corky and unwieldy.

What are the typical conditions you will be surfing?

The other element you will need to take into account when choosing a board is the typical surfing conditions for the breaks you will be surfing.

As a general guide:

  • small gutless waves (< 3 foot) = more volume – particularly longer and thicker boards. The extra float will give you speed, compensating for the lack of power of the waves. You probably will be able to paddle out without too much trouble
  • powerful, steep waves  (3 – 5 foot) = less volume. It will be easier for you to manoeuvre and paddle onto steep waves on a smaller board. A smaller board will also be easier to paddle out back, easier to turtle roll and you might even be able to start duck-diving or at least duck-dipping it!
  • very big waves (> 6 foot) = don’t go there as a beginner. You’re welcome – I’ve just saved your life.
…. And on that note, stay tuned for my next post, which gives you a bit more detail, on how to choose the right “real” surfboard for you.


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