Paddling out to a wave with Kelly Slater is like bringing Shaq to your half-court pickup game. People stare. Some bow. A few manage a hello. But mostly they shut up and watch.
I meet up with the six-time world champion at the legendary Salt Creek break near Laguna Beach, California. The waves here are lightning quick, with hollow barrels wide enough for a Harley or two. Slater pounces on the first one that comes by, shredding it like Mark McGwire's credibility. Necks crane, following Slater as he paddles back beside me, and then everyone eyes the interloper—the guy on their turf who isn't an ambassador of the sport they all love and cherish, the guy who didn't shoot ads for Calvin Klein, the guy who never dated Pamela Anderson.
A shoulder-high wave rolls in, and, overcome by performance anxiety, I start stroking wildly.
I pop to my feet, but the bottom falls out. As I flail about, trying to regain my balance, Slater takes two quick strokes and drops in beside me. He's framed by the falling water as he threads a thin line through the barrel. He's soft but strong, and fluid through the waves. I'm fluid-challenged. The wave crashes onto my head, sending me face-first into the waist-deep water. "Take off a little earlier," Slater says as I try to shake it off (the fall and the humiliation). "Once you line up with the wave, take longer and more deliberate strokes to get into it."
I nod and head off again. Sure enough, I nail the next wave. Over the course of the day, Slater gives me dozens of tips. Other surfers eavesdrop. You can, too. Here's what I learned.
1. Count 10 Before You Hang 10.
Paddling is the most physically demanding part of surfing, and it can make or break your run. Your goal is to develop momentum before the wave sweeps underneath you and let it launch you into a standing position. Time your start so that you make at least 10 strong paddles before the wave's peak reaches you. Use long, fluid strokes, grabbing the water beneath your board with your hands cupped and your forearms almost perpendicular to the board. "Stay relaxed," Slater says, "using short little strokes to angle your board along the face of the wave." Keep your head up and the board flush with the waterline. "If the nose of the board is going under, you're too far forward," Slater says. Likewise, if the nose is pushing water as you paddle, you're too far back.
2. Use the Wave as a Trampoline.
Once the wave is underfoot, let its energy propel you into a standing position. "Practice on the beach," suggests Slater. Draw an outline of a surfboard in the sand. From a prone position, explode off the ground, using equal force from your hands and feet. If you're regular-footed, your left foot should end up near the nose of the board, your right foot back. It's vice versa if you're goofy-footed. (Experiment to find which is more comfortable.) Be as smooth and quick as possible, doing five sets of 20 reps. Dry-land training is great for experienced surfers, too, improving their quickness and balance.
3. Move to the Center.
Surfing is like politics: Take a stance too far left or right and you'll fall hard. Center your feet over the board's stringer (or centerline), straddling it with the arches of your feet. Your toes should be pointed directly toward the side of the board, your feet just slightly more than shoulder-width apart.
4. Corner at High Speed.
As you start moving down the wave, you'll feel the bottom drop out. Just then, throw your weight forward onto your front leg to generate enough speed for turning. As you reach the lower part of the wave, step on the tail to lighten the load on the nose, and then turn into the wave. "As you initiate the turn, your front leg should be straight," says Slater. "As you finish the turn, your back leg should be straight and your front leg slightly bent."
5. Embrace Failure.
"Never just wipe out," Slater says. "Be an active faller." Always try to put distance between you and your board, lest it smack you upside the head and render you unconscious. Kick it away or, at the very least, cover your head. Also, tumble toward the wave's shoulder, the part that hasn't broken yet. Avoid landing under the lip--the falling curtain of water that packs the majority of a wave's punch. Most important, never dive off your board headfirst. You could nail the bottom and really mess yourself up.
6. Essential Skill: The Duck Dive
Paddling out to surfable waves sometimes means getting past a series of less worthy whitecaps. The duck dive helps you slip underneath. When you're about 8 feet from an oncoming wave, grab your board on both sides and push up onto your knees with your butt in the air. Throw your weight forward as you rise, kicking one of your legs up with your knee bent at 90 degrees for a boost. Force the nose of your board down and under the wave. You'll slide under unscathed, too.
How to Catch a Wave
Kelly Slater shows you the way, step by drenching step
1. As the wave approaches, lie down on the board and start paddling toward shore. Use strong, smooth strokes and keep your board perpendicular to the wave, but pointed slightly in the direction you hope to go.
2. As soon as you feel the wave start to pick you up, push down on the rails of the board just below your chest and, in one swift motion, pop up to your feet. Never go to your knees first.
3. Stand sideways on the board with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. Make sure your back foot is over your fins--the rudders underneath the board. Your front foot should be just under your chest and pointing forward.
4. Now, aim the board toward the shoulder--the smooth, open face of the wave--and let the wave push you there.
The Board Room
A stick to suit every surfer
Buy This if . . . You're a Beginner
Edgecore Surf Joe Blair Speed Egg
The fins are 2 inches farther off the tail than those of the other boards here, allowing for tight but controlled turning. The extra-soft side rails and tail, meanwhile, reduce drag, making the board quick and smooth as well--a perfect combo for beginners.
Buy This if . . . You Want to Cruise
This 9 1/2-foot single-fin longboard is wide and stable, gliding like a pontoon. Surfing icon Hobie Alter added four redwood stringers for strength.
Buy This if . . . You're Chasing the Big One
So-called gun boards--one part longboard, one part carver--have narrow, spearlike shapes for catching large, powerful waves. This one is stable for handling giant chop and nimble for steering clear of trouble.
Surfing: The Turf
A great wave is a terrible thing to waste. Know where to wait
1. The Soup
Also known as "the inside," this is the spot where the waves have already broken and are moving toward the beach in a mass of roiling whitewater. Learn the pop-up here if you're just getting started
2. The Peak
This is where the wave reaches its highest point and starts to break. Sit here to catch as many waves as possible. Understand the etiquette, though: The surfer closest to the break goes first--drop in ahead of someone and you'll be asked to leave. Also, the most experienced surfers get to pick their waves. If you don't know who's the most experienced, it's not you.
3. The Impact Zone
This is no-man's-land, the spot between the soup and the peak. It's also the most dangerous place to find yourself, because it's where the waves unload the majority of their power.
4. The Shoulder
It's the unbroken part of the wave, to the left or right of the peak. It's also a great spot for beginners and intermediates--they can practice in calmer waves. Just make sure you yield to surfers who are already up and riding the wave from the peak zone.
5. The Outside
Located beyond the peak zone, it's where the big kahunas break. Patience is key--they're few and far between.
6. The Channel
This is the safest and easiest route to paddle out to the peak. Look for an area of darker-colored water. Because the water's deep, fewer waves break here.