Ignore surfboard volume. Heavy surfers failing on small waves.

I’m on my way to the beach. Magicseaweed says 2 foot @ 10 seconds. I am fully aware that this could mean anything from knee high ankle slappers to head high peelers. I have two boards in my car; a 5’11 grovel board and a 6’4 hybrid shortboard.

As I come around the corner and get my first view of the beach my heart sinks. It is like a millpond. It is not over crowded, but there are surfers in the water.

I tell myself that it must be coming through in sets and pull up to watch. I see a couple of waist high sets break. People are riding the waves. Some on shortboards actually get one or two turns in before the wave gives up. After watching this for a while, I feel more and more dejected. I have an internal argument:

‘Shall I go and pick up a longboard?’
‘Is it worth it?’
‘Shall I just go in on the grovel board. I’ll get a couple of waves.’
‘You won’t get any waves, don’t bother’

I eventually give up and go home.

And why have I turned down what seem to be perfectly rideable waves?

The fact is, that at 110kg I put myself firmly in the heavy surfer category. And to be clear - I am referring to my weight. Not an inclination to ride big, thick lipped slabs. It is a fact that bigger people have much more difficulty riding smaller waves. I don’t have as much problem catching waves, but once I am up and riding I really struggle to generate and maintain speed. It gets even more frustrating when smaller surfers come flying past on toothpicks.

Poor technique! That is what you are thinking. But there are other factors to consider. Even the surfing elite have the same problem.

Look at the men’s CT for example. If the conditions are below head high, you would tend to write off the heavier surfers. I’m talking about surfers like Wade Carmichael, Jordy Smith, Willum Cardoso, Occy. You hear it in commentary all the time. Bigger surfers are not expected to perform in lesser conditions. Even at the highest level, heavier surfers do not perform as well in small waves.

Why? This is something that I have pondered for a long time.

Initially I was blaming my equipment. I spent a lot of time and money on grovel boards. I have owned a huge range of small wave weapons, from the big established brands to small local shapers. And it didn’t really make much difference when the waves got below chest high. In small conditions I still really struggled.


Then, I started experimenting with the length of my boards. I was aware that a shorter board would fit better in the pocket of a small wave. Would this help me generate and maintain speed? I went as short as 5’8 Gulf Stream Split Pea. I had some success on this board, one of the best that I have ridden for small waves. But I still wasn’t riding weak waves as well as my peers.

At his point I started to reach out to the Big Guy Boards Forum Facebook group. There were a number of excellent suggestions. A few ideas focussed on technique, implying that a bigger surfer lacks the quick responses, agility and therefore skill required to ride small waves.

I started looking at tutorials on small wave and speed generating technique. As an experienced surfer, there was nothing new to me here. I have never claimed to be a ‘good’ or ‘advanced’ surfer, but I quickly noticed that a lot of people at a similar ability to me were having a lot more success on small waves.

So, what is it? Why am I and so many other heavier surfers struggling in small waves?

Science! For some time, I had considered the fact that a heavier object would require more energy to move it. A smaller wave must have less potential energy. But I wasn’t sure how this translates in or on the water. A heavy object like a boat for example, is quite easy to move when floating on the surface of the water.

I approached some scientists.

It turns out that it all about inertia, even on water. Force = mass x acceleration. Therefore.

Acceleration = force / mass.

This means that if the wave has the same force - as you increase the mass of the surfer, the acceleration of the surfer will decrease.

Let’s look at a scenario.

Imagine a wave pool producing a consistent small wave. Each wave has a force of 400 Newtons. In this scenario we will say that a surfer needs a minimum acceleration of 4.5m/s to ride successfully along the face of a wave.

Two intermediate surfers ride the wave. An 80kg surfer and a 110kg surfer. Both surfers are on boards at their recommended volume.

Using the equation above, an 80kg surfer riding the wave with a Force of 400 Newtons will produce an acceleration of 5m/s. The 80kg surfer will therefore overcome the minimum acceleration required to ride the wave (4.5m/s).

If a 110kg surfer attempted to ride the same wave they would only produce an acceleration of 3.6m/s. Not meeting the required 4.5m/s to ride the wave successfully.

This is what I think is happening to heavier surfers in small waves. Average sized people can produce the required acceleration with the available force of a relatively small wave. A heavier surfer can’t produce enough acceleration with the force that the wave provides.

This makes real sense to me and explains my frustration when I struggle to maintain speed while lighter people are racing down the line on shortboards. Everyone has a certain point when they need to forget about volume recommendations and significantly increase the amount of foam under their feet. A competent 80kg surfer can ride a waist high wave on their recommended volume shortboard. They will produce enough acceleration with the available force of the wave. Because of the increased mass, a 110kg person will not produce enough acceleration on the same waist high wave.

My solution is foam. Lots more foam. I have now accepted the fact that I need to ditch the shortboards in waves that lighter surfers can still ride on toothpicks. My limit for weak UK waves is about stomach - chest high or below. This is the point at which I need to drastically increase my surfboard volume.

So, I guess it’s time for another new board…….

For reference I’m 110kg and generally ride shortboards at around 42 litres.