What Lies Beneath

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What Lies Beneath


When heard for the first time, this statement always gets the same reaction from any beginner/intermediate surfer. Their usually happy-go-lucky, up-for-anything, calm faces flash a look of sheer panic when the word "reef" is mentioned.


What is a reef break?

A reef break is a wave that breaks over anything that is not sand. It can be coral, boulders, bedrock, shipwrecks or even artificially created reefs using sand bags.  Some reefs can be jagged and nasty while others can be flat and covered with moss.

"Is it safe?"

The simple answer, very often, is "Yes".  Reefs get a bad press because there are many perceived dangers associated with reefs that, in some cases, can be fully justified.  Waves like Pipe in Hawaii and Teahupoo in Tahiti are incredibly powerful breaks with shallow, sharp reefs underneath them and are extremely dangerous (not an ideal place for your first lesson!).  However, for every super heavy reef break there will be a mellow, cruisy reef around the corner that will have perfect waves, even for complete beginners.  Calm reef breaks have many advantages and, as long as you are aware of the potential dangers, surfing a reef can be very safe and, in most cases, easier than a beach break.

"Will I hit the bottom?"

Sure, you might, but when was the last time you hit the bottom at a beach break?  If you are surfing "out the back" there should be very few times you have actually hit the bottom hard.  If you are hitting the bottom often when surfing, it might be time to reconsider your whole technique - aiming for the bottom is not exactly the goal when surfing!

When surfing a reef, there are a few wipeout techniques needed that you might not have considered when surfing a soft, sandy beach break. Obviously, diving head first into the water is not going to end well (and, really, you shouldn't do this at a beach break either!). When wiping out, fall backwards (off the back of the board) and onto your back so you don't penetrate the water, covering your face and head with your hands.

You're also likely to hit the bottom if you ride the wave straight and into the shallow part of the reef. The goal will be to trim across the wave into a nice, deep channel or to pull off the wave before it gets too shallow. When riding a reef, you never want to "ride the wave all the way to the beach" like you do when surfing whitewater at beach breaks because the "beach" will be shallow and often sharp, rock or coral. Bad for your board and fins...and bad for your poor little toes! You should not have to put your feet down very often on a reef (it's not good for the coral or marine-life anyway), but if you do, you'll find that wearing reef booties will save your feet from any nicks and scrapes from the bottom.

So, as long as you don't paddle yourself out at Pipe on an NSP during your second surf session, there is every chance you will survive surfing a reef break.

See, there's nothing to worry about! And the advantages to surfing a reef break greatly outnumber any of your concerns.


Reefs have a fixed peak.

The real advantage to a reef is that the bottom is fixed.  This means that the wave will always peak up in a similar place, unlike a beach break where the sand is constantly moving. A fixed bottom reef makes it much easier to be in the right place when the waves roll in.

"Swimming Pools" Fiji

Reefs have a fixed direction.

At a good quality reef you will either be spending your session going left or trimming right. It will always peel in the same direction, at the same spot. This takes out a lot of the variables and can help you progress quickly, unlike a beach break where the waves break at different spots and will peel in all directions.

Reefs have channels.

This is the real beauty of surfing a reef.  Channels are areas of deep water next to a reef where, no matter how big the waves are on the reef, the water is always calm.  This means no more fighting your way out the back through mountains of whitewater after each wave! Hallelujah!  At a good reef break you will be able to paddle around the waves (in the channel) to get yourself back into position. Sweet! Having a channel also gives you a place to relax in safety in between sets if it all becomes a bit overwhelming.

Reefs are predictable.

One of the most over quoted lines in surfing is "no two waves are ever the same".  This is true,  but you can get waves that are pretty damn close to the same on a perfect reef break!  With the waves breaking at the same spot (more or less), you're going to catch more waves. You won't have to "hunt your waves down" like you do at a beach break. If you can catch a lot of similar waves in a session, then it's easier to experiment and try new techniques which will increase your rate of improvement. Sounds good to me!

You can surf from a boat.

Sick of paddling, duck dives and turtle rolls? Get dropped off at the peak, surf your brains out on predictable, quality waves, and then paddle back to the boat without having to do the "reef dance" (balancing, leaping, falling while climbing over dry reef to the shore).  And nothing is better than a cool beverage on deck after a few short paddle strokes.

A large percentage of the best breaks in the world are over reef, so don't let such a little word scare you. Next time you hear the word "reef" get excited, not scared! Just make sure you surf reef breaks that are suitable for your level.

Here is a quick list of super mellow reef breaks that are suitable for all levels (even complete 1st timers).  Don't let the fear of surfing over a reef put you off.

Swimming Pools, Fiji
Tortugas, Costa Rica (Close to our base in Nosara!)
Farms, Secret Atoll, Maldives
Wakiki, Oahu, Hawaii
Shark Bay, Fuerteventura, Canary Islands
Medewi, Bali, Indonesia
Nonyas, South Male Atoll, Maldives
Boneyards, Fuerteventura, Canary Islands
Inside Puena Point, Oahu, Hawaii

Cruising at "Nonya's" AKA "Bushi Corner" in the Maldives

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