When it comes to forehand vs backhand surfing most of us prefer to face the wave, you can see down the length of the wave, predict oncoming sections and lay down meaty down carves like you’re pretending to be John John Florence.
Then you’ve got pro surfers who’ve built their whole careers on vicious backhand snaps and pig-dogging gigantic tubes. So why do some people love backhand surfing while other perfectly good surfers flounder around flailing their arms?
A recent poll of 35 surfers found that a whopping 74% prefer to surf on their forehand.
First, let’s look at what forehand and backhand (sometimes referred to as frontside and backside) surfing are and some of the differences between them.
What is forehand surfing?
When you’re surfing on your forehand you’ll be facing the wave with your toes and chest.
Goofies (right foot forward) will surf on their forehand when the wave is breaking left and regular footed surfers when the wave is breaking right.
When you surf on your forehand you’ll be putting most of your weight on the front of your foot and your toes.
What is backhand surfing?
When you surf on your backhand you’ll have your back facing the wave.
Goofies (right foot forward) will surf on their forehand when the wave is breaking right and regular footed surfers when the wave is breaking left.
Surfing on your backhand you’ll be pushing off your heels as you surf across the wave.
Why do some surfers dislike surfing on their backhand?
Some surfers, myself included have a weak backhand. It’s not that I don’t enjoy surfing backhand, but if I’m ever out with a load of regular footers at a right-hander I always feel a little out of my element.
For news surfers, the idea of having your back to a wave seems quite daunting and rightly so.
I’ve listed some of the reasons surfers aren’t too comfy with that lip breaking behind them as they surf down the wave.
Where you surf
Surfing and growing up on the West Coast of Bali as a regular footer means you’ll be surfing on your backhand nearly every day. The west coast of the island is a treasure trove of pumping lefts grinding across mechanical reefs in crystal-clear water.
Whereas a grom growing up in Torquay Australia will be well-honed on the right-hand points that populate the coastline. There are a few beach breaks here and there but the rights handers of Bells Beach and Winkipop are the real king and queen of the coast.
Where you grow up, learn to surf and decide to hone your surfing skills, will play a major part in how evenly (or not) your forehand and backhand surfing progresses.
New to surfing
Quite often new surfers will tend to favour waves that break in a particular direction (with the white water breaking either left to right or right to left). Because backhand surfing means you’ll have your back facing the wave, many beginners avoid surfing backhand.
It’s important to note that as a new surfer you’ll be surfing straight towards the beach initially. As you progress to surfing across the face of the wave you’ll start to experience the difference between forehand and backhand surfing.
You cant see the breaking wave
With your back facing the wave you need to look over your shoulder to see what the wave is doing. While this works in theory, you run the chance of the wave breaking behind you and sweeping your feet away without realising it.
As your surfing and most importantly your ability to read waves improve this will become less of an issue, but initially surfing on your backhand can be hard to figure out.
Performing manoeuvres like floaters and snaps on your backhand requires just as much feel as it does vision.
Often you’ll eye an appropriate section for a turn and by the time you come close to the approaching lip, you’ll be rotating downwards to complete the turn, never actually seeing the impact, relying entirely on skills and instinct.
For amateur surfers starting to attempt backhand manoeuvres, this can be quite daunting, often leading to surfers falling off the back of the wave due to not rotating back to the trough of the wave early enough.
Trying aerials is harder
I’ll argue this one till I’m blue in the face. Doing airs on a surfboard is 100% harder on your backhand. Eyeing your takeoff, launching, and landing are all made harder with your back to the wave.
You can’t beat a classic straight air on your forehand but try to do the same on your backhand and the difficulty level gets ramped up, no pun intended.
Finding barrels as an amateur surfer is easier on your forehand
Getting barreled on your forehand can be easier for a few reasons:
- You can quickly tuck your head under the lip due to better vision on your forehand
- Backhand barrel riding can feel unnatural
- If you fall in the barrel it’s harder to kick your board away
Surfing backhand can play havoc on your hips
Now, this isn’t coming from a salty old sea dog that has bad hips but from a place of experience since a young age. If you surf on your backhand consistently, performing a range of manoeuvres, it can start to put a strain on your hips.
Why do some surfers love surfing on their backhand?
Surfers like Adrian Buchan, Mark Ochilupo and Andy Irons were all expert backhand barrel riders in their day. Pro surfers will often say that their backhand is their weapon of choice in lots of scenarios.
As your backhand surfing progresses the benefits of having your back to the wave present themselves in a few ways. These are the reasons some surfers prefer surfing on their backhand.
Going vertical is easier
Going vertical or 12oclock on a backhand snap is one of the greatest feelings in surfing. When everything comes together your board will literally point to the sky before the rotation of your hips brings the nose back down the wave.
Bachand snaps and floaters allow you to engage your hamstrings, quads and glutes when performing a bottom turn to hit the lip. The explosive power of all these muscles is accentuated due to the lever action of your knees which can only be fully utilised while surfing on your backhand.
Think Occy’s turns in the early 90s for inspiration on how hard an unsuspecting lip can be whacked.
You can pigdog
You can pigdog which is also known as pig dogging. This is a technique used in backhand barrel riding championed by the late and great Andy Irons. Pig dogging allows you to use your whole body to slow yourself down in the wave.
This new technique gave barrel riders the ability to slow down and speed up on demand inside the tube. Because pig dogging involves kneeling on the board you can knife your take off’s effectively kneeling down as opposed to standing giving you a very stable centre of gravity.
Rotations are easier
Learning to rotate your board 180 or 360 while surfing on a wave is quite an advanced manoeuvre. It relies on your ability to shift your weight from the front to the rear of your surfboard very quickly.
Transferring your weight from one foot to another is generally easier on your backhand. Backhand surfing requires a more front foot heavy approach which can feel unnatural on your forehand where your surfing tends to be based primarily on your back foot.
Air higher (strictly advanced surfers)
Very good surfers will often say that you can get more air (go higher) than on your forehand. Some of the most iconic airs in surfing history are giant backhand rotators launched way above the lip of the wave.
Surfers like Albee Layer and Matt Meola are well known for their backhand aerials on the wavy peaks of Maui. Their charge to complete a 720 in surfing relies solely on using their backhand aerial attack to try and rotate twice before landing back in the trough of the wave.
How to balance out your forehand and backhand surfing skills
Most surfers will have a preference when it comes to forehand vs backhand surfing but you shouldn’t neglect your less favoured stance.
If you find yourself avoiding surfing in a certain direction it’s really easy to avoid it altogether. I know many surfers that will forgo quality waves to surf in a particular direction, which seems crazy.
As with all things, practice makes perfect. Try to force yourself to work on your weaker side, go to point breaks and reefs that will only allow you to surf in one direction.
Book a surf trip specifically to work on your backhand for instance. I’m goofie (right foot forward) and a trip to the right-hand points of Morroco is a great way to hone my backhand surfing.
It’s easy to focus on your forehand and neglect your backhand surfing altogether. To maximise your opportunity of surfing great left or right-handers try to develop your skills equally.
Ask friends and fellow surfers for tips and don’t be disheartened with slower progress than your preferred stance. Most importantly, try new things, be respectful and have fun in the water.