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Monday, November 3, 2014

Tips for Set Waves | Where to Sit in the Lineup to Catch Waves, not Wipeouts

By Rick Bickerstaff 
Have you ever been sitting in the lineup and waiting for a set when, out of nowhere, a giant bulge of water comes at you like a miniature tsunami? You're in line for a normal set, but this is something different, breaking farther out and bigger; and so you have to make a split-second decision to either paddle and beat the wave, or sit and duck dive six feet of white water, a real life choose-your-own-adventure.

set wave surfing
Standout approaching! (photo: @jinheejoung)
You choose Option 1: Paddle, as fast as you can! The wave is growing, becoming dark, ready to double over. You're close, just a few more strokes away! The wave crests and you thrust your board down just in time to avoid taking it on the head. When you come up on the other side of a miracle, you look back and watch boards and heads pop up in a massive pool of sea foam and whitewater, gasping for air and hoping there isn't another one on the way...but there usually is. This is the story of a standout set, my friends, and knowing how to handle these are key for a successful surf session on a big day.

Handling standout sets is all about decision out deep and wait for the standout, or go back and catch a few, hoping the standout doesn't come. I've been on both sides and I'll tell you the results:
  • THE GOOD THING ABOUT WAITING DEEP is that you'll be safe from rogue waves that clear the lineup, and you might even catch one if you're bold enough to ride a monster. You also may be able to take advantage of the aftermath and have some waves to yourself if the next set allows.
  • THE BAD PART is that you may end up waiting forever for these standouts, and miss a lot of great "regular" set waves in the process.
  • THE GOOD THING ABOUT STAYING SHALLOW is that you'll catch the regular set along with everyone else.
  • THE BAD PART is that you probably won't be in position to beat the standout and will be cleared out along with everyone else.
big wave surf set wave
Taken at El Porto, a spot notorious for standout sets (photo: 
  The last time I was in this situation was during the Hurricane Marie swell at Leo Carillo. The standouts were rolling in at 8-10 feet and with a lot of rocks hidden by the lineup, I did not want to miss a duck-dive and go over the falls on one of these. And so what I did was camp out between the regular lineup and standout set. I'd see a standout and paddle out, beating it, and then paddle back to just past the lineup to catch some of those. The problem with this strategy is that you miss a lot of waves because you're just past the regular break, and you're also living in constant fear that a standout is imminent. It's kind of like a person who builds an underground shelter in fear of a zombie apocalypse, spending a considerable amount of time there, but also tries to live a normal life above ground -- this person will live a halfway-life on both sides. And so I learned an important lesson that day: DON'T FEAR THE STANDOUT.

big wave surf
The risk, the reward (photo: @jinheejoung)
 I was so stressed paddling back and forth from the lineup to the standouts that I never caught a wave and didn't enjoy any of the epic swell I was receiving. In hindsight, I would have joined the lineup and caught some waves, and should a standout come...held my breath and tried to dive deep (some tips for duck diving here)!

 It is a silly thing to live in fear between the lineups. It's best to take what waves you're given and hold on when the big one comes. Either that, or wait for the standout and get a few massively epic rides rather than several mildly epic rides...your choice. There's a life lesson in there somewhere too, which is often the case with surfing. I'll let you decide what it is...but whatever you learn, hopefully this post will help guide your decisions when that monster approaches!