We have talked previously about the pursuit of barrel riding and how certain waves will help you become more adept in the tube. But if you don’t have the right technique, it doesn’t matter how many epic reef passes you travel to, you are still going to end up getting smoked more often than not.
To truly become proficient in the barrel, there are a number of techniques that need to be mastered. Here are some of the basics.
Reading the wave
Nothing plays a bigger role in messing up potential barrel rides than being in the wrong place on the wrong wave. Invest some time into understanding how waves break, the pace that they run at, and how different sections connect. If you take off too deep, you are going to get eaten. Not deep enough, and you will be struggling to slow down for the tube. Choose the wrong wave, and you’ll either end up with a close-out or a burger—neither of which is ideal if you are hoping to make tubes.
Once you get a sense for how a wave breaks and where to sit, you will find that your make rate goes way up.
Acing critical drops
More often than not, if a wave barrels, it also has a pretty critical entry. This becomes even more important if the wave also has fast, freight-training sections that require you to pull in immediately after takeoff. Practice taking off late at mellower spots so that you can become comfortable with critical drops (and even air drops), and eventually work your way up to knifing the board on rail as you drop in. This technique is pretty much mandatory at all but the most almondy of barrels with soft roll-ins (which are pretty rare).
Finding your line
This might seem like the easiest and simplest thing, but it is also one of the most crucial aspects of barrel riding. Because you are behind the lip, riding on a convex face in a small, tight space, where your board sits in the face of the wave is very important. Too low, and the lip will get you. Too high, and you will get sucked up and over. The only way to really dial this in is through trial and error, so spend time pulling in and experimenting with your line. Eventually, you will find the sweet spot and it will start to feel second nature.
Bending from the knees
This might be the most fundamental technique in barrel riding, if not all of surfing. Bend from the knees, not from the waist, and you will find that you fit in the barrel better, have greater control over your board, and are able to pump and adjust your line better. Plus, you won’t look like a gargoyle.
Learning to stall
The best barrels are the ones where you are pumping from super deep and surprise yourself by making it, but stalling into sections feels great too, and is actually necessary on more waves than you might think. Experiment with dragging one (or both) hands in the face while surfing frontside barrels, and dragging your butt, knee, and even shoulder while on your backhand.
Check turns and even stomping on the tail can slow you down too—but it’s important to note that just about every stalling technique also tends to draw you up the face and put you in a more critical position in the barrel. The trick is to work with micro-adjustments.
Perfecting your pig dog
Grabbing rail is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to stabilize yourself in backside barrels. It gets you low and small, so you can avoid the lip, and helps supplement your rail control (which is much harder to perfect on your heels than it is on your toes). But it’s one thing to grab rail and another thing entirely to have a truly efficient pig dog—and the differences can be quite subtle.
Watch the best backhand barrel riders in the world (guys like John John Florence, Jack Robinson, and Kelly Slater), and you will note that their back knee is often lying completely on their board, rather than sticking out the side of the rail. They accomplish this by turning their hips toward the nose of the board, which allows them to open their chests to the exit of the barrels they are riding. This gives them more control, both of their boards and their speed and ability to pump.
Once you have everything else dialed, it’s time to start experimenting. Layback barrels were a classic backhand maneuver in the 1970s and 1980s and are still as stylish and timeless as ever. The lay forward is even rare, but guys like Mason Ho are keeping it alive. Neil Purchase, Jr. was renowned for doing crazy things on this backhand, such as dragging his back foot in the face of the wave to slow down, and the latest generation of barrel riders in Tahiti has been getting creative with this technique as well. Meanwhile, Torren Martyn has completely revolutionized the approach to barrel riding, doing Derek Hynd-esque laybacks in frontside barrels and adopting a nearly parallel stance pig dog technique up near the nose of his twin fins.
It just goes to show that once you get comfortable enough in the barrel, you can sort of do whatever you want.