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Why is Duck Diving so Hard?

2011-08-05 6 min read Surfing marco

I am not the fastest learner when it comes to surfing. I have been slogging it up for the past 8 months, inching forward, looking admiringly at the divinities of surfdom that treat a mass of water like I would a snow-covered slope. But no, things have to be figured out piecemeal, and while every time I go I feel a little better, I feel a lot like my aunt: recovering from a stroke, she gained her mobility day by day, but while the differences were very noticeable every time I visited, she was frustrated because it was too slow.

Now, one of the things that took a while to figure out was duck diving. I was particularly surprised by that, since there are literally hundreds of online videos that explain how it works, and I was trying to follow their advice, but had no success. An incoming wave would catch me and either eat me up and chew me out; or it would just drag me back, preventing me from making any progress.

Time to think, time to act, time to reflect. Now, seven months later, I have a good feel of how it works and there is barely a wave that really hammers me anymore. I learned duck diving. And surprisingly, my thinking about it has dramatically changed over time. By now, I wouldn’t want to watch the videos anymore, because they don’t seem to teach the right thing.

Here is the most viewed video on duck diving – aptly named “how to duck dive:”

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The following video is embedded here:

Technically, it shows everything you need to do – but it completely fails to explain why you need to do it this way. Because of that, I missed the entire point of duck diving. Since I am a nice guy, I thought, “Well, Marco, why don’t you share your findings with the rest of the beginners like you out there?” So, here it goes.

1. Wave Stages

Duck diving depends a lot on the shape and size of the wave, and where it hits you in its life span.

First, the three stages of a wave: open face, impact zone, and whitewash.

Most of the wave’s life is spent as an open face wave – something that looks like a hill or a mountain, but that if suddenly sapped of energy would simply go back to flat water. This part of the wave is safe and you don’t need to duck dive it.

When the wave is ready to break, which means its crest is about to topple over, you are in the impact zone. The impact zone is the most dangerous part of the wave for anyone, even experienced surfers, and duck diving it means to make a quick decision about the edges of the impact zone, so that you can steer clear of them. If in doubt, avoid the impact zone.

The rest of the wave, after it broke (and before it reforms, depending on sea floor conditions) is the whitewash. Most of the waves you duck dive are in the whitewash or inside, the part of the sea that is foamy and where you spend most of your time as a beginner, trying to get out. (And by “you” I mean me, of course.)

2. Wave Sizes

Now we get to the size of the waves. The scientific community knows three sizes of waves: haha, wow!, and omyeffinggod. If you – as a beginner – go into the water if there is even a shred of the third type available, there is a good chance you won’t read this blog post a second time. That’s either because you are severely incapacitated, or because you have lost all interest in surfing.

Haha waves are the smaller ones – up to 3 feet (which looks like 15 feet when you sit on your board, but that’s a different story). When they whitewash, they usually have little residual energy and duck diving them is easy. Actually, it’s so easy that some don’t even dive: they just plant their hands on the board, arch up their back, and have the foam pass under

The wow! waves (3-5) can pack quite a punch. Those are the waves you have to watch out for, and those that will pull you towards land if they hit you in a bad spot. At least that’s what they did to me, until I learned to duck dive better.

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The following video is embedded here:

(This guy did it wrong.)

3. Duck Dive

Let me first get out the correct behavior when duck diving a wow! in the impact zone: paddle as fast as you can towards the wave, trying to steer towards the least steep part of it. When the wave starts pushing you up, push your board as hard as you can with your arms, trying (desperately) to keep if horizontal. You have to make sure the board doesn’t arch up with the wave (or it will carry you). When you have done that, you can push with the foot or knee on the tail (back) of the board and punch through the wave.

The main course, of course, is duck diving the wow! waves in the whitewash. They have plenty of energy even there, and their foamy approach is enough to scare the heck out of you. But do not despair.

First, you need to know a strange fact: most of the wave energy is pulling, not pushing. While it feels like it’s the whitewash that is pushing you towards shore, it’s actually the remainder of the wave after the front that pulls you behind it. How does that matter? Because it changes completely the way you look at duck diving.

Duck diving has two functions: it gets you out of the way of the foam, and (more importantly) it prevents the pull from occurring.

Technically, the (first) video above is correct: you push the nose (front) down, which gets the board under the wave action; when the wave hits you, you push the tail down lower than the nose. The wave will pass over you, shaking you quite a bit, but as soon as the foam (that reduces buoyancy) is over, your board will want to float again. Since the nose is higher than the tail (because you pushed it just so), the board will shoot out of the water nose-first, away from the beach, in the direction you are traveling. Ta-da!

The bigger the wave, by the way, the deeper you want to go. The whitewash is fairly shallow, but a big wave still has a lot of whitewash it carries.

Have fun out there!