Sean Poynter’s Pro SUP Surfing Tips: Reading Conditions

SUP Surfing Tips With Professional Coach Sean Poynter: Reading Conditions

Having a good understanding of a surf spot prior to paddling out is the key component to improving your SUP skills in the surf.

What type of understanding am I talking about? The understanding of where waves are breaking, where they aren’t breaking, how to observe conditions and interpret their effect on the surf.

There’s not a lot you need to know in order to start gaining that understanding, but the more familiar you get with this knowledge, the better off you’ll be on the water. In the first installment in our monthly SUP surfing tip series with Sean Poynter, we explore a few pointers to help expand your understanding of the surf zone and in turn, make you a better paddle surfer.

Former ISA World SUP Surfing Champion Sean Poynter knows a thing or two about observing the ocean. Heed his advice. Photo: SUP ‘n’ Surf Retreat

Stop and Observe

Anytime you’re planning to paddle out for a surf it’s important to spend some time watching the waves beforehand. Doing so will increase your understanding of what’s happening in the lineup and your odds of a successful session.

Important factors to observe:

-Wave Peaks

Wave Peaks

Knowing the location of each wave peak in a lineup helps you understand the varying wave locations on offer in any given break. In any lineup, waves break more frequently in some areas than others. These waves can also break with different qualities. Analyze the break and pick apart the qualities of each peak. Are the waves fast and hollow? Gradual and forgiving? Knowing the characteristics of a given peak can help you hone in on the right wave for your skill level.

As SUP ‘N’ Surf Retreat coach Ian Cairns would suggest, define three waves in a lineup (if at the very least two). Of these waves, label them peak 1, 2 and 3. Assign them their number based on best to worst, 1 being best, 3 being worst. You define and assign according to what looks best to you. These are your waves and these are the waves you choreograph your movements between. As a side note, the process of determining where the waves are breaking should also tell you where the waves aren’t breaking. Where they aren’t breaking (or least aggressively breaking) is likely the best zone for paddling out.

Reading conditions leads to getting better waves leads to getting better at SUP surfing. Case in point. Photo: Starboard


Conditions are made up of a combination of swell, tides, winds and currents. Each one of these ocean affecting components needs to be addressed and considered before paddling out, as they combine to dictate which waves are going to be best and when.

Swell direction

Waves form when high winds from offshore storms create swells that travel across the open ocean and eventually run into land, where they break over reef or sandy shallows. The direction a swell is traveling from relative to the direction a surf spot faces can determine the size and quality of a given session’s surf. For instance, a south swell on a west-facing beach will tend to create longer, more open left-handers. A north swell on a west-facing beach may have the opposite effect. Sometimes there are combo swells that make waves in a break light up differently. To score the best possible waves in your session, analyze the swell size and direction relative to your surrounding beaches and make your decision on where to surf accordingly.


Tide can decide how many rideable waves are available to you. Many breaks are tide sensitive, so understanding what waves are doing during a specific tide is an important part of curating your desired session. A high-tide wave that doesn’t break frequently isn’t going to match with your plan to surf aggressively and catch an abundance of waves. A laid-back surf style may not match well with the same break at a lower tide when the waves are faster, more frequent and crowded. If you didn’t map the tides out before getting to the beach, ask someone there for the current tide info and add that information to your understanding of the session.

Wind and current

Wind and current can dictate where it’s best to paddle out and where to be in the lineup. These elements can greatly influence your game plan, forcing you to use different tactics when out in the water. For example, you may sit more frequently in windy, choppy conditions in order to preserve energy. Or you may paddle consistently in a certain direction to offset moving current.

Understanding all the above factors and their combined effect will vastly improve your surf experience.


Hazards such as shallow reef, heavy currents and overcrowded lineups can be annoying and even frightening, but pointing out hazards before paddling out can help you create a strategy for working around them. As part of your pre-surf conditions assessment, learn to recognize potential hazards before paddling out.

To avoid breaking your fins and your feet in the rocky shallows, try flipping your board and leaning over it while wading out. Photo: SUP ‘n’ Surf Retreat

Getting out and in through shallows

For instance, recently, I was surfing a wave called Dogpatch in San Onofre, California at low tide with rocks on the inside. Time and time again I watched paddle surfers come into the shallow rocky areas and bang their fins up while painfully damaging their feet as they proceeded to walk on top of the submerged rocks. There’s a tip that can prevent this damage entirely or considerably limit it. That is, flipping your board over so the fin is facing upward as you wade through the shallows. Doing this action in the shallows takes away the prospect of damaging your fins and can also help you protect your feet by allowing you to put your weight atop your board and gingerly float or walk across the rocks. When your board is in position, you drastically reduce the depth at which your board submerges (even with all your weight on the board), leaving you to float or walk into just inches of water, saving both your fins and feet!


Crowds are usually a tell tail sign of where the best waves are in a lineup. Typically, the best breaks are the most crowded, but there are advantages to surfing the less coveted spots. A small crowd or no crowd at all allows you freedom to catch more waves and avoid the social anxiety of a stoic lineup. If I want free reign of waves without frustrating other surfers, I go to a less crowded spot. If I want more quality waves, I’ll venture into the crowded zone and be careful to exercise etiquette and patience. Strategize these different zones in a break and use the crowd presence to your advantage when selecting a surf spot. -Sean Poynter

This installment of SUP surfing tips with Sean Poynter is part of a monthly series brought to you by SUP ‘N’ Surf Retreat.

About SUP ‘n’ Surf Retreat

Led by two-time ISA SUP Surfing Gold Medalist (USA) Sean Poynter, the SUP ‘n’ Surf Retreat provides an exclusive paddle surfing and wave coaching experience in beautiful Punta Mita, Mexico. Retreat highlights include coaching by several world-class athletes, private cove with uncrowded waves, panga trips, all-inclusive luxury resort accommodations and more. Rated the best paddle surf learning experience. Adult (18+) paddlers of all skill levels are welcome.

The next set of retreats are taking place October 10-14 and 17-21, 2017.
To learn more or to book a retreat, visit the SUP ‘n’ Surf Retreat website.

See also: SUP Surf Trip Tips with Sean Poynter

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The article was originally published on Standup Paddling

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