how to paddle board in waves

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It happens to almost every paddle boarder. You paddle along expecting a calm carefree day full of sunshine and rainbows when all of a sudden a wave hits you!

It puts you off balance and BAM! Into the drink you go!

In this article, we will be going through how you can tackle different types of waves on your paddle board and how to ride it out so to speak.

Ready? Let’s ride!

For a guide on Paddle Boarding in the Ocean click here!

An Introduction to Waves

“How To Paddle Board in Waves?” Is a very broad question as it depends on what kind of waves you are facing. Typically there are 4 different types of waves.

  • Wind Waves: These are made by the friction between wind and surface water. The faster the wind is the larger the waves are in concentrated areas
  • Swell Waves: Created through sustained wind strength that builds up below the surface of the ocean which forms swells that can travel thousands of miles across the ocean
  • Tidal Waves: Generated by ocean tides by gravitational forces of the moon and sun. These waves are more predictable and can be known weeks ahead of time
  • Tsunamis: You will not be going out paddle boarding in these! Tsunamis are created by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions in the earth’s crust. They can cause havoc to seaside towns and should be avoided like the plague. 

Small Chop/ Wind Waves

These can be found on almost any body of water. In this classification, we are talking about smaller waves that you will encounter. Oftentimes you will find these by the beach, coast, or on a bigger lake. 

The best way to get through these is by practicing standing on the board while they are coming. To start:

  1. Point the nose 90 degrees towards the wave. You don’t want the wave to hit the side of your board as that will make the board more unsteady.
  2. Paddle into the wave with some momentum. If you are staying still the waves will try to influence the direction of your board. The way to break that is by using momentum. 
  3. You want to keep your knees loose and bent. This way you will be able to absorb more impact from the waves as they come

Waves Made by Boats

A sentiment made by every paddle boarder!

While these are still technically small waves they can come at you suddenly (As soon as that dang boat comes by!). While the technique is the same as above it can be off-putting. You can go from being completely relaxed in calm water conditions to suddenly having to brace for 3 to 4 waves coming from nowhere.

  1. Turn your board to face the waves
  2. Loosen your knees and have a lower center of gravity
  3. Use some paddling momentum to go into the wave. This will keep your board from being influenced by the waves that you encounter
  4. After getting through the 3 to 4 bigger waves you can start to relax and go about your paddling.

If you are feeling a bit playful sometimes you can get some paddling momentum and surf these waves by going with the waves. This can be fun and give you some more momentum to get to shore. 

Breaking Waves/ Swells

If you are by an open ocean or a bigger body of water chances are that you will eventually run into one of these. I classify them into two different types.

Entering the Surf

There are a few things to keep in mind when entering the surf zone. I attached the above video done by SUPBoarder who does an excellent job at explaining and visualizing what to do. 

  1. Attach your SUP leash, in these conditions you should have a straight leash
  2. Look for a good entry point
  3. Hold the board to the side and walk in until your fin clears the ground.
  4. Place your board into the water and guide it with one hand holding the deck flat and the other on the tail
  5. Make sure to have the blade of your paddle on the back of the board with your hand over it. If the paddle is placed forwards and outwards the waves will fling the paddle which can potentially cause injury.
  6. When walking into the swells push the back of the board as the wave hits, this helps get the nose over the waves
  7. Once you are in waist-deep water in a good gap between the waves climb on!
  8. Start paddling towards the waves like your life depends on it!

Small Break Waves/ Swells

These are a bit easier to manage for paddle boarders as they are not so difficult to go through. With these smaller break waves, you can keep your feet positioned as is.

  1. Your feet can be positioned in paddleboard stance/ hybrid stance or surf stance
  2. Your board should be pointed towards the waves at about a 90-degree angle.
  3. As the wave is coming make sure to bend your knees to brace for impact of the waves.
  4. Paddle harder so that you keep the momentum of your board. Should you stop the waves will turn your paddle board around.
  5. Keep paddling through the wave. Remember to keep your knees bent!
  6. Keep paddling and rinse and repeat till you are out of the breakwater or onto bigger break waves. 

These smaller break waves happen when there are smaller swells or in the shallower parts of the beach.

Medium Break Waves/ Swells

This is where things get a bit more tricky. For this technique starting out you can start by lying down or kneeling to get the feel of it. As you get more experienced you can try standing up. In these instructions, we will be talking about standing, but you can modify some of these techniques to match your position, whether lying down or kneeling. 

Although according to SUP Boarder its safer to eventually learn standing as you can absorb more of the impact of the waves

Starting off by jumping onto your board when there’s a lull in the waves: 

  1. Start off on your knees and get some strong strokes in to have an easier time standing on your board. It’s important to get onto your feet quickly
  2. From the straight paddling stance you want to get into a surf stance or at the very least a hybrid surf stance where your dominant foot is facing forward while the other foot is on the tail
    1. Make sure that when you switch to this stance that the paddle is on the opposite side of where the front leg is pointing
    2. Make sure that your knees are well bent and your center of gravity is lower. If you are standing straight you will get plowed over. 
    3. Paddle paddle paddle! Momentum is crucial here
  3. Place the board 90 degrees into the wave
    1. As the wave comes use the back leg on the tail of the board to lift the nose like a lever. This will allow the board to go over the wave
    2. As going into the wave do one strong stroke to push you through the wave.
    3. As you go over the wave use your front foot to place your board down over the wave
    4. Use a strong 2nd stroke coming out of the wave to continue your momentum so that you are not caught in the back wave
  4. Rinse and repeat!

What About Paddle Board Surfing?

That is an article in itself. But luckily we got you covered in our How to SUP Surf Guide. Some of the most important points from that article are

  1. Have the right gear
  2. Learn Surf Etiquette. Seriously, surfers generally hate us as we don’t follow or know this!
    1. Learn About the Lineup
    2. Enter the Lineup
    3. Don’t be a snake or drop-in
  3. Communicate with other surfers. Especially if you are new
  4. Learn how to ride the waves
  5. Get out of the way so others can go!

So How do You Learn How to Paddle Board in Waves

Here are a set of instructions to help you learn how to paddle board in waves

  1. Learn About what kind of waves you will be dealing with and where
  2. The bigger the wave the more you have to brace yourself and have more balance
  3. If the wave is bigger than 2 feet adjust your stance to a hybrid or surf stance
  4. Use your back foot to lever the paddle board over bigger waves while paddling
  5. Use your front foot to place the nose of the board board back onto the back of the wave.
  6. Rinse and repeat

If you are a beginner and want to learn how to paddle board check this guide out.

Got any other insights? Let us know!

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Hey, My name is Derek Lenze and I'm the owner of Inflatable SUP Authority. I've had over 20 years experience with watersports and over 10 years of various paddle boarding experience. My new-found passion is bringing my stand up paddle boaring knowledge in an explainable and actionable way all the while giving you my unbiased takes.

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