Girl watching Surfing on the Space Coast

What is a Wave and How to Surf on Florida's Space Coast

Learning how to surf starts with understanding the wave you want to ride.

Since the 1960’s, Cocoa Beach has (unofficially) been considered the surf capital on the East Coast of the U.S. With waves that give anyone the opportunity to ride, whether you are getting on a board for the first time or can rip and shred like the pros, the Florida’s Space Coast is one of the best spots if you’re wanting to surf. And Cocoa Beach isn’t the only town that promises surf. The Space Coast boasts 72-miles of coastline with plenty of beach access points, so you are bound to find some waves and enjoy one of the few outdoor activities that have made this area world-renown.

What is a wave?

So how do you know if the waves are good to surf? First, you have to know the science of what a wave is and isn’t. The interesting fact behind a wave is that it’s not water movement but energy movement. Waves are formed by energy passing through water, commonly caused by wind, which is different than tides, which are caused by the gravitational pull from the moon and sun. The friction between the wind and the water are what gives you the ability to have the ride of your life when you catch it. But the wind and tides do affect how the waves are formed which is why no wave is ever the same. Obviously, adverse weather, like hurricanes, and natural events, like earthquakes, can cause other types of waves, which produce larger swells like storm surges and tsunamis, but those are not your everyday occurring waves.

A combination of waves created by surface wind and groundswells are what make a day of surfing epic. Groundswells are waves that have traveled long distances that eventually make it to the coast and take place regardless of whether wind is present or not. And “the more widely spaced and cleaner the waves are when they roll up on the shore, the further they have traveled.” (3) This groundswell phenomena was discovered by an ocean scientist named Walter Munk in the 1950’s and can be thanked for helping surfers from around the world catch better waves. Surface wind waves tend to be a bit choppier and less formed, but still provide ample opportunity to catch a fun ride.

waves at the Canaveral Seashore

So how do you spot a good wave now that you understand a little on how waves are formed? Any seasoned surfer will tell you that they are looking for “waves that peel or break gradually to the left or the right along the wave crest rather than closing out which is where the crest folds over and smashes to pieces all in one go.”  (3) When a wave peels, you get a smoother and longer ride, where as a wave that closes out doesn’t give you much of a ride at all. When a wave breaks largely depends on what is underneath the surface of the water. If the seabed contains large rocks or coral reefs and sandbars, one side of the wave will break before the other, which can give you the kind of wave that lets you get barreled, a difficult maneuver and considered one of the greatest moments a surfer can have.

Another part of spotting good waves is understanding whether the winds are onshore or offshore. You definitely want offshore winds as this allows them to last longer and not break so quickly. Onshore winds are not conducive to a fun and long ride, however, they may give the beginner good practice on popping up on the board for a quick little run. They are also a bit more unpredictable which make them messy, but offer great waves if you decide to take a break from surfing and decide to bodyboard instead.

How do you surf?

Now that you understand what a wave is and how it is formed, it’s now time to learn the how-tos of surfing. One of the first things you have to keep in mind is that the water must be respected no matter how much time you’ve spent in it. Keeping the proper perspective and balance of enjoying the beauty of the waves rolling towards the shoreline while understanding the power of the energy that creates them is so important. With that mentioned, let’s dive into the dynamics of how to surf before you hop on a board and really understand. 

Surfing can be one of the more challenging sports to learn as it takes coordination, balance, and a good dose of perseverance, but it’s also one of the most rewarding sports once you catch your first wave. And it is so worth all the effort. So what do experts have to say on how to prepare yourself to surf? Evan Valiere, a professional surfer and instructor, gives a few tips:

popping up on a surf board

  1. Practice laying on the board and popping up either at home or at the beach. Popping up is a fluid motion where you lay, stomach down, on the board, press your hands onto the board, under your chest, and jump to your feet in one motion, like a burst of energy. Make sure you have either your left or right foot in front and the other in the back to help with balance.
  2. Find where the waves are breaking and paddle out. If there is a group already out, you’ll want to stay in the vicinity of that lineup because they’ve already done the work for you to find where the waves are breaking.
  3. Once you spot the wave you want to ride, you’ll want to turn your board toward the shoreline, start paddling at about 40% effort, keeping in mind to make sure the nose of the board is not underwater or too high. Once you start to feel the wave lift the back of your board, increase your paddling to a good 80% effort until the last few moments before the waves break where you will go all out before popping up on the board to ride the wave in.
  4. While paddling, you’ll want to occasionally look back toward the wave to ensure you stay perpendicular, as you learned earlier that no wave is the same and they don’t always roll in parallel to the shore. This is something you will learn as you continue to gain experience, but is a crucial part of mastering the sport and enjoying it.
  5. Knowing when to pop up on your board is obviously important. One of the greatest parts of learning the skill of surfing is allowing yourself to feel every move of the water and becoming very aware of the energy of the wave. Surfing requires a great deal of patience, but when you see your wave and you make your move to try and catch it, as soon as you feel an increase of momentum and speed, that’s when you’ll want to stop paddling and prepare to pop up.
  6. Once you’ve committed to the wave, do not hesitate when it’s time to pop up. This will only cause instability and cause you to miss the wave entirely or lose your balance. When you have successfully stood up on the board, maintain your focus forward without looking down at your feet, the nose of your board, or back at the wave, while keeping your knees slightly bent with a bit of weight shifted mostly on the back foot. If you need a little extra help with your balance, put your arms out to the side to help. Enjoy the view as you ride your wave in because you just surfed your first one with hopefully many more to follow.

surfing on the space coast

Valiere also mentions other tips that can help ensure you have a great time out on the water whether you are a beginner or a seasoned surfer.

  • Never hold the board between you and the waves
  • If you are about to fall off your board, as best as possible, fall like a leaf instead of straight down to minimize the possibility of hitting something in the water
  • If and when you do fall, cover your head, especially if you’ve lost your board
  • Never hold your board by the leash or cord
  • Stretch and hydrate before and after your session. This is a sport that requires use of your entire body, so making sure you have prepped your body to eliminate the possibility of cramping or other injuries is important.
  • Stop surfing immediately if you experience any pain, especially in your neck or back.

But to ensure you get the most out of your surfing experience, it is highly recommended that you find a surf school to help you with the fundamentals of surfing and help boost your confidence for when you finally get out on the water on your own. There are plenty of surf schools on the Space Coast that can help you channel your inner “Kelly Slater” and get you out and up on a board surfing in no time.

Surfing Best Practices 

Knowing common and accepted courtesies to adhere to when taking to the waves that are considered “best practices” when sharing the water with other surfers is extremely important to make sure you and everyone else has a fun and safe surfing experience.

friends surfing

  • Start off surfing at spots that are ideal for beginner surfers if you are truly a beginner surfer. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Cocoa Beach is probably the best spot for beginners as the ocean bottom is more sandy than rocky like Melbourne Beach and Sebastian Inlet. Seasoned and more advanced surfers can take advantage of any beach access point up and down the Space Coast.
  • Watch the surf before you head out and during. This will give you the opportunity to see how and where the waves are breaking as well as the skill level of the people out there already.
  • Respect seasoned and fellow surfers. There is an unspoken respect given to those who have mastered this sport, so making sure you don’t cut someone off on their perfect wave is the polite way to share the water with others. Typically the person closest to the wave break has the right of way.
  • Do not paddle out where the waves are breaking. Instead, look for an area that is relatively flat so you don’t get in the way of others. If there isn’t a good spot that doesn’t have you paddling through the whitewater, it is your responsibility to stay out of the way.

If you’re ready to get out on the water for a proper surf session, here are some final thoughts for making sure you have the best surf experience while on the Space Coast.

  • Invest in waterproof sunblock and zinc oxide to make sure you don’t blister from getting too much sun. Remember, not only are you exposed to direct sunlight overhead, you also are getting the reflection off of the water, causing a double dose of sun exposure.
  • Wear a swimsuit that doesn’t shift or could potentially come off. You don’t want to get frustrated constantly having to adjust and readjust while out on the water.
  • Wear a rashguard. This not only helps keep you from getting too sunburned, but it will help in eliminating any chaffing that comes from laying stomach down on the board.
  • Make sure you use a leash. A leash not only protects you, but other surfers as well by ensuring you don’t have a rogue surfboard being tossed by the waves.
  • Buy surf wax. This will help you stick your landing when you pop up on the board instead of slipping off.
  • Have fun!

Happy surfing!!

  1. Why Does the Ocean Have Waves? Updated June 25, 2018. Accessed April 22, 2020.
  2. Irons, Janna. A Beginner’s Guide to Surfing. Published June 7, 2019. Accessed April 22, 2020.
  3. Woodford, Chris. The Science of Surfing. Updated February 28, 2020. Accessed April 22, 2020.


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