Unless you are Norwegian, you probably don’t live in a place that you can both ski and surf. Over the last year, I have discovered that anyone who enjoys back-country skiing is also likely to enjoy surfing because, in my opinion, they are basically the same. Therefore, I have written a guide to help skiers survive summer if they happen to find themselves in a surf spot. The guide is written as a list of similarities and differences between the two sports, explained in the context of skiing.
Below the surface, they both involve sliding over H2O at speed. Above the surface, surfers/skiers come from all socioeconomic groups from trust fund kids to old weathered beach bums. There are more children surfing than back-country skiing, including in some pretty heinous conditions. Don’t worry, those kids have better technique than the older tourists who are the real hazard. The culture of the dirt-bag is alive and thriving in both sports, albeit the surfing dirt bag smells a lot better given that they bath daily.
Both often involve long drives to ideal locations with the right conditions. Finding a spot on the east or west side of Maui to find the best (or least bad) surf is pretty similar to driving across the great divide to get the best (or least bad) snow.
Also like skiing, getting to the destination is only the start of the hard work. Once in the car park, you have to get to the top before you can have some fun. When surfing, you have to paddle through all of the waves you will want to surf back in on. If you are a good surfer and using a short board (which a skier probably shouldn’t be using), you can duck dive through the waves. If you are on a long-board or soft-top, you will have no choice but to go through the waves. The best practice for this is to jump in a washing machine and go through repeat spin cycles. Maybe you are a strong paddler and time the waves right and only get hammered a few times, maybe your timing wasn’t so great and a wave brings you most of the way back in and you get repeatedly pummeled until you’re exhausted; it is all part of the game. Just remember, once you successfully ride a wave, you will need to get back out again. If you want to look on the bright side, your sinuses will never be so clean.
Like back-country skiing, learning to paddle well is equally important as learning to skin well and is often overlooked. Steep kick turns are like passing through big waves. You will be doing it a lot, get good.
3) Scoop or be Scooped
There is apparently an etiquette for taking turns to surfing a wave. Surfers take it very seriously, to the point that cars get keyed, mid-water blows are exchanged and quite a few dirty looks occur. I have yet to see this etiquette in action (other than the dirty looks), but I’m told it exists. Sorta like skiing, the person who breaks trail (or the majority of it), should get first shot at first tracks, maybe, if they are fast and don’t stop until they hit the bottom. In the words of a wise man, “they ain’t your tracks until you’re looking back up at ’em”.
4) Weather Forecast
You will need to check the forecast. The wind strength, the wind direction, the wave height, the wave period, the tide, the water temperature, the beach bathymetry and the break orientations all have to line up to make conditions just right. Marginal conditions are fun, if you are good, but face-shots happen as frequently as perfect surf conditions.
Sastrugi is equivalent to strong on-shore winds producing chop. A closed out break that doesn’t peel producing nice, ridable corners is equivalent to a wind crust (i.e. break both your legs before slamming you face first into the ground). Getting conditions right is really important, almost as important as avoiding crowds.
Check out Magic Seaweed for idiot proof forecasts.
5) Your Stick
Unlike skiing, you just get one (at a time). Just like skiing, you will probably end up having a stick/set of sticks for every condition. Another difference, is you can get a really reasonable-performing soft-top board for $114.95 US at Costco (likely closer to $150). Both Charlie and I use 8′ and have had equal success. Soft top boards are awesome for beginners and some pretty good surfers use them. You will also be able to obtain them easily in most US destinations for the cost of a week rental. Unlike skis, you will not be able to get a board longer than 6″ 6′ on an aircraft. If you do go with this route, bring a soft top roof rack to bring up to 4 boards on a car.
6) Keep it Sliding/Sticking
Just like skin wax (or base wax for the die hards), board wax will make your day noticeably better. Wax will help you from sliding off your board, which you will find happens all too easily. Remember, you don’t have a mechanical device like a binding physically holding you to your stick. An all in one Sexwax (that is not a typo) will cost about $2 a puck, take 2 minutes to apply in whatever pattern you feel like (a cris-cross pattern works) and will greatly help you stay on your board. In terms of innuendo, surfing is just like climbing. But back to surfing, waxing gets really fancy with under-coats and over-coats, but generally degenerates into a brown gooey mess that resembles snot after a season of use.
7) Fun Ways to Die
Strong Currents & Undertow
Every heard of a rip? The thing that kills >100 beach goers a year? They are the surfers best friend. If you jump in a rip, it will take you out to exactly were you want to go (hopefully alive). Rips tend to be deeper water and have smaller waves and the current pulls you to deep water beyond where the waves are breaking, which is the place to catch waves. Just make sure you know how to get back, or you will be one of those ~100. Rips are very similar to sluffs. Sluffs indicate really fun conditions, but a big enough sluff will knock you off a cliff or grow into a avalanche making for some not so fun conditions.
Surfing reefs and shallow snow packs are synonyms. Rocks just under the surface, undetectable while riding, are just lurking to bite you wherever it hurts most. In skiing, you will likely just get a core shot or a blown out knee. Getting knocked out surfing is not an ideal situation since surfers don’t wear passive flotation devices.
Sharks? Maybe they are a hazard, but so are bears. I haven’t been eaten by either yet. I’m more scared of lower level life forms like Jelly Fish, Sea Urchins, my own board and other surfers.
Your Own Gear
Wear your leash, it is like your ski break. If you don’t have a break and your ski comes off and lands in the middle of a crevasse field and your partner has to ski belayed over a sagging crevasse until the rope runs out where he then grabs the ski and goes as fast as he can over another sagging bridge unbelayed because he ran out of rope, you too would ski with breaks. Your board is your safety, it keeps you afloat and allows you to move way faster than a swimmer, don’t lose it. Furthermore, a loose board is a real hazard for other surfers (see previous point).
8) Safety Gear
Surfing does not require any safety gear. I’v seen one surfer out of hundreds wear a helmet and I have never seen a flotation device like a PFD (too much flotation would make paddling through/under waves very difficult). Apparently, big wave surfers have started using vests very similar to avalanche air bags. Anyhow, safety gear does not improve how good you look in your bathing suit. Skiers are already marshmallows, which is probably why a few more bulky objects are not a problem.
In conclusion, both back-country skiing and surfing involves driving long distances, hours of hard work for a few minutes of fun, a good probability that the fun isn’t fun because conditions are crap, all while your environment is trying to kill you. If this sounds like your cup of tea, you’ll like surfing.