Surfing in Okinawa: The Beginner’s Guide


Okinawa has a thriving surf culture; it’s friendly and welcoming to all surfers, regardless of skill level. Given Okinawa is an island, if there aren’t any waves on one side of the island, it’s likely there’s something on the other side. For the experienced surfer, who is traveling to Okinawa for consistently good sized surf, in the 3′ to 6′ range, Okinawa is likely to disappoint.

Okinawa gets world-class when it’s on, but it’s too inconsistent to become a surf destination for the experienced surfer. For the beginner surfer, this is all good news! This means fewer crowds and a more welcoming vibe. For all these reasons, Okinawa is a great place to learn how to surf.

Best Beginner Surf spots

Sunabe Seawall

All local surfers know Sunabe’s Seawall well. The seawall stretches approximately 1 mile from Minato, Chatan to Sunabe, near Baba Park and there are wave peaks all along the wall, giving you plenty of space to spread out when it’s busy. It also gives you an opportunity to surf a variety of different wave types.

Sunabe’s Seawall has a walkway stretching the entire length of the wall. This gives you a number of different options to enter the water and some comfort knowing there’s always someone near for safety.

Sunabe’s Seawall is also easily accessible. There’s plenty of parking and restaurants everywhere. And there are two surf shops you can easily rent a board from and walk to water: Source Surf and Island Break.

Hazards to be aware of:

  • Slippery steps – No matter where you’re entering the water, the steps are slippery! Walk very slowly where the waterline meets the concrete steps. And if the concrete is wet, it’s likely to be slippery.
  • The wall itself – If the surf is in the 3’+ range, you need to be careful with the seawall. When the surf is big, it’s not uncommon for experienced surfers to get knocked against the wall by waves. Or, get trapped between the wall and oncoming waves, which means you’re ducking under wave after wave. A very dangerous situation to find yourself in!

Other Important Things to Know

Coral Reef

Most of Okinawa’s surf spots are reef bottom, and in Okinawa, it can get razor-sharp. This can mean getting cut if you don’t take the proper precautions.

It’s a good idea to wear booties when first starting out (or even after you’ve become an incredible surfer) in Okinawa. It gives you a lot more freedom to walk or push off the bottom if you need to. Even though you may see many surfers without booties, it’s smart to protect yourself until you learn all the unique quirks to surfing in Okinawa.

Even more important than minor reef cuts is falling on the reef. When you’re beginning to surf, you want small waves. And small waves hang out in shallow waters. Though most of the time the water will slow you down enough before hitting the reef, you always want to be aware that the reef is under you. It’s important to be aware of how you fall:

  • Fall flat – When you do you fall, it’s best to spread your body out flat. This increases the amount of surface area, slowing your body down even faster when you hit the water.
  • Avoid falling headfirst – Mom always said not to dive in shallow water. Mom taught you well.
  • Fetal position & protect your head – If you do fall hard and it feels like you’re going to hit the reef, protect your head and core by covering your head with your hands and curling into the fetal position.

Tides

Because most of Okinawa’s surf spots are coral reef bottom, and because of the shape of Okinawa’s ocean floor (i.e., steep drop-offs or shelves opposed to gradual and consistent slopes), most surf spots can only be surfed during medium to high tide. For this reason, knowing what the tide is doing is CRITICAL here in Okinawa. 

When the tide is right for a particular surf spot the wave breaks in water levels that are safe. If the tide is too low, the wave breaks onto extremely shallow and or DRY REEF! Ouch! This can be very dangerous.

Regarding the tide, it’s crucial to know three things before entering the water:

  1. What the level is at when you enter the water
  2. Which way the tide is moving (i.e., is the tide going up or is it going down?)
  3. How big the tide swing is

Especially be careful when you enter the water and the tide is dropping. You can get yourself injured very easily by the reef. The depth might be fine when you paddle out, but as the tide drops, things can get shallow very quickly.

Currents

The ocean water is always moving. While in the ocean, it can be helpful to think of yourself as always sitting in some sort of current. The water is either going to be pushing your towards or away from shore, and up or down the shore. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of your position in water.

When you paddle out, start asking yourself these questions:

  • Which direction am I floating?
  • How fast am I drifting?
  • Where is the nearest exit from the water?
  • Where is a backup exit, both up and down shore?

Using landmarks can be very helpful when asking yourself these questions. Find a building or a tree (anything that is not moving or not floating in the ocean) as a reference point. And always know your position relative to this landmark; it’s you’re new best friend.

If you’re sitting near experienced surfers, you’ll usually seem them occasionally paddle, while they are waiting for a wave. What they are doing is getting back into the correct position to catch the wave. If they constantly have to paddle up-shore, it means the current is moving down-shore (or vice versa). If they’re constantly paddling towards shore, it means the current is moving out to sea (or vice versa).

If you find yourself drifting out to sea at a quick rate, you’re in a rip current. The first thing to remember is to stay calm. The second thing to remember is to NOT swim directly back to shore. If you try to swim straight back to shore, you’re going to be paddling against the current and it’s likely the current will win. You’ll use all your energy and not be able to return.

Instead, paddle parallel to shore until you’re out of the current. And then swim towards shore.

Surf Lessons

The cost of surfing lessons is money well spent. Reading articles and watching YouTube videos are helpful, but will never replace the real-time feedback provided by someone who’s been surfing for years.

Half of surfing is knowing when to go where, your positioning in the water, and timing of the wave. This takes a long time to learn when going it alone. A local surfing instructor in Okinawa will know the best place to go for that day, and will probably teach you why he/she selected that certain spot (e.g., the wind direction and wave direction).

If nothing else, paying for surfing lessons will keep you safe and help build your confidence in the water much quicker than trying to go it alone.
The best way to get the most out of your lesson is to come prepared with questions. Read up about the fundamentals of surfing before you go. This will help you have an idea of what to expect and prevent information overload before you get in the water. Leaving you plenty of mental room to ask questions and soak in as much information as possible.

Here are some options for surf lessons in Okinawa:

Happy Surfing Okinawa
happysurfingokinawa.com
$100 – $150

Renting a Surfboard

Surfboards aren’t cheap. If you’re just wanting to get your feet wet one time, there’s no need to purchase a surfboard.

Here are some places to rent a surfboard in Okinawa:

Source Surf

Island Break

Purchasing a Surfboard in Okinawa

Surfboard size

In general, the bigger your board is, the more stable and slower it will be. The smaller your board is, the quicker and more maneuverable it will be. Shorter boards are more technical and take more experience. Big, slow, and stable is the way to go when learning to surf.

Typical sizes of surfboards:

  • Shortboards: generally, 5’ – 7’
  • Funboards: generally, 7’ – 9’
  • Longboards: generally, 8’ – 11’

As a beginner, it’s best to stick with funboards or longboards. As you develop your surfing skills, you can go shorter and shorter.

Surfboard material

Traditional surfboards are made of fiberglass with a foam core. And most surfers prefer this material setup due to the feel and performance when riding. The downside to fiberglass, however, is that it dings and breaks easily. Especially with Okinawa’s reef. In Okinawa, it’s not a matter of if your board is going to get dinged, but a matter of when. And if you’re a beginner, it’s very easy for your board to get damaged by the reef, seawall, the inside of your car ride, or at home.

For this reason, as a beginner surfer, I recommend buying something used. Okinawabook.com is a great place to start. Most surf shops in Okinawa have used surfboards, though more expensive than buying it from a private party. Especially in Okinawa with the amount of servicemen and women coming and going, you can find amazing deals on there.

Used surfboards in Okinawa can cost you between $100 – $400. Compared to a new board that can range from $400 to $1,000+.

Another great option to traditional glass boards are “soft top surfboards” or “foam boards” 8’ to 10’ foam boards. They are light, they are cheap, and you don’t have to worry about getting them dinged on the reef.

 

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