How to surf reef break waves

Reef breaks can be a scary stepping stone when you’re used to sand-bottomed beachies, but the lure of mechanical waves and perfect tubes breaking across shallow coral is unavoidable.

Rather than let you jump off the rocks into the unknown we’ve created a detailed guide to help you navigate reef break waves including tips on positioning, technique and safety.

What is a reef break?

Reef breaks are some of the most sought-after waves for surfers worldwide, it’s a wave that forms when swell breaks over shallow coral or rock. The static nature of the sea floor means that waves break in a predictable manner making them easier to surf.

As a general rule the shallower the reef break the more powerful it becomes. It’s important to note that some reef break waves are just perfect cruisy longboard waves with a rock or coral bottom, they’re not all ride-or-die death pits like we see in surfing clips.

Coral reefs are living organisms that grow in warm water near the surface of the ocean. These reefs protect nearby waters from storms and provide habitats for thousands of different sea creatures, alongside pumping out some all-time waves.

The Banzai Pipeline is one of if not the most famous reef break in the world, playing host to the Billabong Pipe Masters every year. Check out the video below to see some of the world’s best surfers take on this epic wave.

What’s the difference between a reef break and a point break?

While some point breaks can be reef breaks they’re characterised by waves that break along the coastline rather than straight towards it.

Slide over to our guide on how to surf point break waves to learn more about point breaks and get some great tips to improve your surfing and your wave count.

How to surf a reef break

First time heading out to a reef break? Don’t worry you’re in the right place, let’s take a look through all of the skills and potential scenarios you need to be aware of when you’re surfing reef break waves.

Perfect your positioning in the lineup

Unlike beach breaks, reef breaks can be studied in the finest detail with some surfers making it their lifelong goal to master a specific reef. The most iconic example of this would be the Pipeline experts who make it their lifelong trade to charge the world-class barrels that hit this beach every winter.

Try to learn from other surfers around you, particularly better ones. Take note of how they position themselves and how they react to incoming sets.

If the reef you’re surfing has a barreling section your positioning will be absolutely key. For any chance of getting spat out, you’ll need to take off in the right spot at the right time and the only way to learn is by observing other surfers navigate their take-off and trying it for yourself.

All of these tiny cues will help you develop a way of navigating the lineup as efficiently as possible, upping your wave count and reducing unwanted waves detonating on your head.

Learn where and when to paddle out

Reef breaks add a whole new set of challenges when it comes to entering and exiting the water. Depending on where you’re surfing it could be as simple as paddling out from the beach.

For others, it may mean a mile-long walk along razor-sharp coral before they even think about catching a wave.

If it’s you’re first time visiting and surfing a reef break try to hold back till you can watch a local navigate the entry into the water.

As a rule of thumb, you’re going to want to try and avoid entering the water with waves crashing across the rocks, it’s easy to lose your footing and ding yourself or your board.

Fall so you (and your board) don’t hit the bottom

Taking a pencil dive onto a sharp coral reef isn’t going to do wonders for you, your surfboard or your surfing.

Keeping in mind your surfing across rock or coral is key to not injuring yourself while surfing a reef. Don’t dive head first, avoid straightening out as you bail and protect your head if you are rolling around in the white water.

Get good at treating reef rash

Reef rash is an unfortunate side effect of surfing reef break waves. Not to be confused with surf rash caused by excessive chafing, come off mid-wave and hit the reef with some force, you’ll get a first-hand encounter of reef rash.

If you’re surfing a rock reef then treating reef rash is much like treating any other graze or wound, keep it clean and give it time to heal and you should be absolutely fine.

Reef rash from living coral is a whole different story. Coral is made up of tiny organisms called polyps that feed on plankton and other microscopic organisms.

Living coral poses the greatest danger because it’s covered in stinging cells called nematocysts. These cells contain small harpoon-like structures that inject venom into anything that touches them.

They’re meant to protect the coral from predators, but they can also cause severe pain if you happen to be on the receiving end after a poorly timed take-off and trip over the falls.

Stay on the right side of surf etiquette

The take-off zone at a reef is normally much smaller than a beach break, this means everyone’s tightly packed and surfing safely is essential.

Always wait your turn, if there’s another surfer that’s been in the lineup longer than you make sure to offer them the first choice of waves when the next set comes in.

Drop-ins are a massive no at any surf spot but the risks at reef breaks make it an even worse offence. If you cause another surfer to hit the bottom and damage themselves or their board by dropping in, you can expect an unfriendly but warranted response.

Don’t paddle out at a reef break beyond your ability

Understanding your own skill level and ability may be humbling but it’s better than paddling out at a maxing reef with no idea what you’re doing.

Reef break waves require respect and you should only paddle out if you’re completely confident in your ability to surf the spot and get yourself out of trouble if you lose your surfboard for any reason.

The wrap

Surfing a reef break doesn’t need to be a scary ordeal, follow these simple steps and you’ll be riding across rocks and coral in no time.

I’ve summed it up below for an easy-to-remember version:

  • Get your positioning right on the reef and in the lineup
  • Find out where and when to paddle out safely
  • Spread out when you bail to avoid hitting the reef
  • Learn how to treat reef rash
  • Always respect other surfers
  • Don’t paddle out in waves beyond your ability

Check out some of our other surf guides below to improve your surfing knowledge with advice from real surfers.