How to Surf Choppy Waves: 11 Must-Know Steps

Last Updated January 27, 2023

There is nothing like arriving at the beach to find the perfect conditions. Slight offshore winds with long swell periods, long clean waves rolling down the coastline, and crystal clear water.

But the reality is that these conditions don’t come around too often, and a fair amount of time the water is a choppy mess.

To surf choppy waves you will need to work like never before. You need to pop up faster, paddle harder, and constantly move around the break.

Just because the conditions aren’t perfect does not mean you need to miss out on your surf, and in fact, surfing messy waves will be more beneficial than you think.

What Are Choppy Waves?

When we surf we’re looking for long clean waves that hold up well and break from a single point. These conditions often come with flat waters, low levels of winds, and big groundswell.

Choppy waves are about as opposite from the perfect conditions that you can find.

When waves are choppy they are a mess. They break from all over, and often in multiple different directions.

In choppy conditions the ocean’s surface is bumpy due to strong winds (usually on or cross-shore), which makes paddling out, balancing on your board, and finding a good wave a challenge.

In short, choppy waves are rough, messy, disorganized, and often break in multiple directions due to strong winds.

Tips for Surfing in Choppy Waves

Surfing in choppy waves may not seem as perfect as surfing when the water is like glass, but there is still fun to be had. Just because it is more challenging, does not mean that choppy water is a reason to not surf.

The following tips will help you master surfing in choppy water, and give you a foundation in surfing in messy conditions.

1. Find a Wind-Protected Break (If Possible)

Although it is often not possible, many surfers are privileged to live around coastlines facing different directions.

If this is the case, then surfing a break that is more protected from the wind will reduce the chop in the water, as well as make paddling around the bay easier.

The less you need to fight against the wind, the less energy you will use up paddling.

If you do not live in such an area, then a break with boulders, protected by buildings, or a point may help reduce the impact of the wind.

2. Take Landmarks Before Paddling Out

It’s always a good idea to take note of where you will sit in the water and how it relates to the land.

Doing this will let you know if you are drifting too far across the bay (something easy to do when you are staring out to the open sea).

Because the waves are chaotic and the wind is blowing, surfing in choppy conditions can quickly leave you hundreds of meters down the beach without you realizing it.

Once you have found a general area that you would like to surf in, take note of how it relates to your landmarks so that you always know where you are.

3. Don’t Wait for the Perfect Wave

If you paddle out in choppy water and think you are going to just wait for the best waves to come through, then you are going to find yourself surfing very few waves.

Perfect waves just about don’t exist in choppy conditions, so don’t wait for one. Surfing in messy waves is time to catch anything and everything you think you could ride.

Whether it is a 30-second ride (unlikely) or a 10-second ride, you should try to catch them all.

You can think of it as catching loads of small short rides to make up for the fewer, big, longer rides you would catch in better conditions.

4. Never Stay Still

If you want to be a good surfer you need to get used to moving around the bay. Unless you are surfing in perfect conditions over a reef or point, the waves seldom peak at the same point.

If you sit in a single spot you will miss out on many sets as they break further out, closer in, or slightly to the side.

This rule is particularly important when surfing in choppy water. Because waves are breaking everywhere you will need to be constantly on the move.

Catch a wave, turn around, paddle, catch a wave… There will be no resting in choppy water.

You may not be able to surf for as long, but you will surely get your time’s worth.

5. Prepare to Duck Dive… a Lot

Because waves are breaking everywhere you will have a lot of opportunities to catch a ride, will need to constantly be on the move, but will also need to duck dive more than you ever have before.

As there is no clear wave period, you will need to dodge and dive under waves left, right, and center if you want to push through them.

Prepare your breath, get through the wave, paddle, and get ready for the next.

6. Stand Up Quickly

When the waves are short and break quickly you can’t take your time to get on your feet. If you do, the ride will be over before you have stood up.

Practice your pop-up, not only technique but for speed. The faster you get up, the longer your already short ride will be.

Even if you spend the entire session practicing popping up, it will be worth it.

7. Bend Your Knees

When you take off on a wave you should expect your ride to be bumpy because of the choppy water.

This, in combination with the wind, can make staying on your board a challenge.

The only way to overcome this is to bend your knees. The lower your center of gravity, the more stable you will feel.

You will always find benefits to crouching while surfing, but in choppy water, it’s a must.

8. Use the Right Board

As always with surfing, the board you choose will make a huge difference in the type of surf you will have.

There is no point in taking your shortboard into slow, rolling, 2-foot swell, just as there is no point taking a longboard into fast, chaotic, choppy water.

Taking a large board into choppy water will make your life difficult as you will not be able to duck dive, turning around will be slow, and the waves will likely be too short to enjoy.

Similarly, a board that is too small will not be buoyant enough to catch the weak, messy swell.

Before you hit the waves, think about what board will work best in the current conditions.

9. Switch up Your Style

If you are the type of surfer that likes surfing single fin longboards, making slow wide turns, and cruising down the wave, then you are going to need to switch up your style for the choppy waves.

Surfing choppy waves is much more like skateboarding. It’s fast, erratic, and done in short bursts.

Adapting to this style of surfing will not only help you catch more waves but will help you find more value in your rides.

10. Avoid Large Swells

There is a time for surfing the world’s best big waves such as Pipeline or Mavericks, but this time is not when the waters are choppy.

Surfing choppy waves is difficult enough as the sea becomes extremely unpredictable.

Doing this in large surf is asking for a problem to occur.

If you are planning to surf in choppy conditions then choose a more relaxed break. There will be other days to chase the giants.

11. Consider Your Skill Level

Before diving headfirst into choppy waters, stop and consider your skill level.

Ask yourself if you are capable of sufficiently duck diving, navigating the swell, and if you have enough endurance to make it out, surf, and make it back to shore.

Just as you shouldn’t paddle out in a crowded lineup if you have doubts about any of these, so should you consider coming back when the waters are calmer if the water is too rough.

Benefits of Surfing Choppy Waves

Although it is easy to take a look at the surf report, notice the beach will be choppy, and simply stay at home, but by doing this you will be missing out on the benefits that surfing small choppy waves can provide.

Endurance Training

If you aren’t physically fit, you will struggle to surf. Surfing is incredibly demanding, and with the level of competition that the sport brings, if you lag behind everyone else in the water you will not catch many waves.

Because choppy water leaves you needing to constantly stay paddling, duck diving, and exploding onto your feet, it functions as great endurance training.

Sure, you may only be able to surf for 20 – 40 minutes before you are completely exhausted, but in that time you would have received a good workout, and hopefully caught a few waves in the process.

Fundamentals Training

Paddling, duck diving, and popping up are the three cornerstones of surfing and something that every beginner works tirelessly to perfect.

There’s never a time when going back to the basics and training our fundamentals isn’t beneficial.

Surfing in messy waters will greatly increase the amount of duck diving you do, how fast and hard you paddle, and require you to pop up faster, and more often due to shorter rides and more waves.

The more you repeat each exercise the easier it will be to perfect your form, and ultimately, become a better surfer.

Active Surfing Practice

It is easy to become a lazy surfer, especially once you have mastered all the basics and surf in a location with small crowds and consistent waves.

When you can simply sit and wait for a wave to come to you, you forget how important it is to be an active surfer (if you want to improve or catch more waves).

It is not easy to stay still in choppy water, and surfing in such conditions will act as a reminder of how many benefits there are to constantly moving around the break.

More Waves, Fewer Crowds

One of the best parts about surfing when the conditions are bad is that there are no crowds, and when the water is choppy, there are a lot of waves (although small and short rides).

Yes, you won’t be catching bombs, but you also won’t be waiting 20 minutes between rides.

With fewer people and more waves, you will have more time to catch rides and practice your techniques.

How to Get Past Choppy Waves

Getting past a choppy break and into the backline is hard work, but as long as you push through, you will make it without a problem.

The trick to getting through messy surf is to duck dive and resurface quickly, paddle your shoulders broken as soon as you reach the surface, and never stop moving.

As long as you resurface before the next wave and paddle to make some progress, then you will eventually make it to the back.

This is true when paddling out in any swell, but doing so in choppy water will require more energy and a higher frequency of duck diving.

What Are the Best Surfboards for Choppy Waves?

The best surfboard for choppy waves will depend on factors such as the size and strength of the waves, the swell period, your surf style, and your preference.

There are many factors involved when deciding what board is best for a specific condition, but one thing remains constant: Heavier, shorter boards are best for choppy water.

Shorter boards will make maneuvering in the messy water easier, while the extra weight of fiberglass or wooden boards (as opposed to an epoxy surfboard) will cut through the chop better, and create less “bounce”.

Should I Surf When the Waves Are Choppy?

Everyone should surf in choppy, messy, and small waves, it will simply make you a better surfer.

That being said, you should still consider if the conditions are right for you. Just because you will find benefits from surfing choppy waves, does not mean you need to paddle out in the middle of a hurricane.

Choose your moments wisely and you will stay both safe and improve your surfing.


Choppy water conditions are not seen as the ideal surf situation, and for the most part, surfers will turn around and head home when the ocean is a mess.

Although surfing in choppy water can become frustrating and sometimes simply doesn’t seem worth it, you should make an effort to surf in bad conditions now and then.

You will be surprised by the wonders it will do for your surfing.