What to do if your surfboard is pearling when you try to surf a wave.
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This page is in response to a question from our Surfing FAQ Page.
The question was: "When I try to catch the wave, the nose of my surfboard is digging in and flipping me head over heals. I tried moving back on the surfboard, but then the waves are passing me without me catching them. What am I missing?"
Answer: This is one of the most common problems for people trying to learn how to surf. When the nose of the surfboard digs into the water when you are trying to surf the wave, it is called "pearling". Of course our natural instinct is to move our weight back on the surfboard to prevent the nose of the surfboard from pearling and tossing us off the surfboard.
When you shift your weight to the back of the surfboard and try to catch the wave, the nose of your surfboard is sticking up in the air and the wave simply passes you by. You have tried moving forward and you pearl, you move back and you can't catch a wave, what is wrong?
The problem is not in your body position. The problem comes down to paddling speed and also possibly not getting to your feet properly or soon enough. But at the beginning for most people learning to surf, the reason they are not catching waves is paddling speed. So let's address that first and then I'll quickly address getting up on the surfboard.
Paddling speed is one of what I consider the three keys successful surfing. The other two are the pop up and your surf stance. I have written a page specifically on how to paddle. Have a look at that as it discusses the paddling form and other paddling tips essential to great surfing. Now let's look at how paddling speed will help avoid pearling.
The reason your surfboard is pearling, isn't because you are too far forward. The problem is the surfboard is not moving fast enough when the wave meets your surfboard. The faster your surfboard is moving the more weight you can have towards the front of the surfboard. If you've ever been out in a speedboat you may understand by visualizing this. Imagine the speedboat is traveling along and then accelerates, the bow (front) of the boat rises in the water. You could now put all of the passengers (weight) up to the front and the bow would still be cruising along nice and high. Now if the driver cuts the speed, the bow is going to sink down towards the water. Well the same thing goes for your surfboard. Get that puppy moving with some good hard strokes before the wave meets the surfboard and you can get away with having a lot of weight towards the front.
You will probably already have a good feel for where your body should be to efficiently paddle the surfboard. Don't start shifting back now because you're afraid of pearling. Believe me, you've just got to paddle hard when you are paddling for the wave. Be agressive, if you are tentative 9 times out of 10 you won't get the wave. Three, four or five hard strokes just before the wave starts the surfboard into its glide. At this point, I'd like you to take a look at this video, it's short, just 56 seconds long. At the beginning of the video, you will see the surfer is too far back on the surfboard and when the wave comes it passes him by because the tail of his surfboard is under the water and the nose is sticking way up in the air. Then the instructor has surely told him move forward more. So as the next wave is approaching around the 30 second mark of the video you can see his position on the surfboard is good enough. The nose isn't already pearling or sticking way up out of the water. Now from the 30 second mark watch his paddling closely, his arms are way out at the sides. His arms should be stroking hard and deep right along the rails of the surfboard to get his surfboard speed up. Of course as the wave reaches the tail of his surfboard, he is barely moving, it causes the surfboard nose to dig in and over he goes. He's likely going to think it was bad advice by the surf instructor. It wasn't, it was just he was not paddling fast enough.
The other critique I offer on why this fella pearled his surfboard is that just as his surfboard was getting lifted at the tail he moves his hands out in front of his shoulders. (This is at the 35 second mark of the video) He had his arms in a reasonably good position to attempt the pop up, which was between his chest and his ribs, but as he felt the nose starting to pearl he instinctively put his arms out in front of him. This is the exact opposite of what you need to do, which is to get your weight back. He should have slid his arms back a bit and attempted to at least get his weight back on top of his knees and he probably would not have pearled.
This video gives a good example of the two most common problems people trying to learn how to surf encounter when trying to ride an unbroken wave. Not paddling fast enough and then when they do feel the surfboard starting to accelerate down the wave they instinctively put their arms out front which puts too much weight up front and they can't pop up in this position because their arms are way out past their shoulders.
If you want to reduce the times your pearl (I can't promise you will not pearl, it happens to all of us) you've got to paddle hard with your body positioned so that the nose is close the water and then when you feel the surfboard starting to accelerate, give two more good hard paddles and pop up to your feet and into your surf stance.