Tips to Avoid Breaking Leashes when SUP Surfing

Erik Antonson
Erik Antonson
June 17, 2016

Yesterday’s post on the Advantages of SUP Surfing in Bigger Surf sparked a few email questions regarding leashes.  And I didn’t touch on it in that journal but definitely think it should be included, so here you go.

Breaking a leash is no fun.  Especially when it’s bigger and you know you’re dealing with a long swim in heavier conditions.  I use the terms big and heavy loosely because that barometer is different for each one of us.  If you grew up on Maui your scale is going to be a bit different than if you grew up on the West Coast of Florida.  Either way, the chemical cocktail of being out of your comfort zone in the ocean makes everything more difficult.

Here’s some tips to help you avoid that situation –

Let’s start with the actual leash.  I have found that Ocean and Earth Premium leashes are the strongest.  While on Tavarua a few years ago, and after breaking 2 leashes at cloudbreak, an Aussie who worked with Ocean and Earth gave me the premium leash.  He said they had been testing it and it was a few times stronger than anything else.  I had that leash for over a year.  It is a molded construction, so there’s no joined plastic.  They stretch, I’ll use a six foot leash until it’s nine feet, but I’ve only broken them on fins.  Sometimes you’ll jump off and the leash will wrap a fin and cut.  Nothing you can do there.  Oh, and they come with a leash string to attach to the board, sewn in to the leash, so it takes away the leash string fail point.

Now that you’re suited up with a strong leash and paddling out in some big surf, what can you do when a big set is coming your way.

Depending on where the wave is breaking, the best option is to get to the shoulder and over the wave.  If you can’t get to the shoulder try to paddle towards where the waves will be weakest.  You should try to avoid the impact zone, where the brunt of force will be.

If you can get to a spot where the wave has dissipated enough to have less than 3 feet of foam, your best option will be shooting your board over the foam.  I’ve blogged about this before, it’s a simple technique of stepping back to your tail, leaning back as you stroke hard and shooting your board up and over the lip.  If it all goes well you’ll pop up with your board in front of you, hop up and continue paddling.  (if the white water is small enough you can use the white water climb that I broke down here)

Those are best options – Now let’s talk worst cases.

If you’re in the worst spot and the wave is going to detonate right in front of you then your first priority is your safety and those around you.  You need to make sure nobody is behind you.  If someone is behind you, it’s your responsibility to get your board away from them.  If I see a set coming I’ll direct traffic – telling surfers near me which way to go so I can get them to a clearing before I shoot my board in the opposite direction.  Don’t worry, they’ll be happy your looking out for them.

If you’re all clear then getting deep is the best option.  I find that diving off the board allows me to get deep quickly and cover more forward ground to get under the wave.  I will paddle hard directly at the section I want to dive under and right before the wave gets to me, maybe 2 or 3 meters I dive towards the wave and deep.  I try to ping my leash which is normally 8 feet (I buy 6 ft leashes, but they stretch).  My goal is to get under the wave on the back side before I feel the pull.  You can tell because if you keep your eyes open you’ll see the whitewater pass over you.

To avoid breaking leashes I’ve developed a technique.  I’m sure other folks use the same thing or have a better option, but I haven’t talked to many folks about it.  I swim until my leash is tight and then right when I feel the wave start to pull I pencil my legs and stroke backwards towards the beach underwater.  You almost bodysurf behind the wave.  If you were able to cover enough ground on your dive you shouldn’t get caught in the wave unless it’s really big.  But I used this technique yesterday in 10-12 foot face waves and never got thrown back over.  I also didn’t break a leash.

Once the initial pull is over you can start swimming forward again.  It’s that sudden yank that will break the leash, and most folks swim against the pull of the board which increases chances of a break.

The one caveat here is that diving off your board increases your chances of the leash getting caught on a fin.  It’s not a bad idea to check to see where your leash is and then diving off on that side so it doesn’t wrap on the tail.  Easier said than done in bigger surf.

Some side notes:

Never surf in conditions you wouldn’t feel comfortable swimming in.  I like to swim on big days just to feel the ocean that way.  With the kids surfing now, I’m spending a lot of time swimming out the back  and it raises your comfort level being in the ocean that way.

Smaller SUPs have much less pull in bigger surf.  If you’re tied to a 10 ft. 150L board you’ll be going for a ride underwater.

Paddles float.  If you break a leash and you’re getting pushed down and spun around you can tell which direction is up by using your paddle.

You can bodysurf with your paddle.  I use the blade as a hand plane to body surf.

I’d love to hear your techniques in the comments below.

If you’re interested in coming down to Costa Rica to surf and train with me contact me using the form below.  All the best!  Erik


Progression Journal


  • SWP Hawaii

    Thanks for the leash recommendation. I’ve been using the Bully leash here and it’s been working well for me. But I’m definitely going to try the O&E leash to see how it works. Snapping a leash when you’re far out in the ocean is no joke!

    • Erik -- PaddleWoo

      I haven’t tried Bully leashes. Let me know how they compare.

  • Denton

    Great stuff.

    I surf nearly exclusively at Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay everything from 3 to 30 feet. “Big waves” start at 12 ft+ faces and for these conditions I will surf 10 to 12 ft SUP guns. These are big boards but necessary to get in to the faster moving long period swell. It gives an unfair advantage vs. the prone surfers.

    The big boards also require a strategy. At Mavericks for example the local SUP guys are using double leashes attached to the WAIST. Getting dragged by a huge wave with a big board by your ankle is insane. The waist leash will pull you backwards, FACE UP, to the surface. I have been pulled fast enough to plane on my back, breathing and almost giggling at the absurdity.

    I agree you don’t want to fight the leash. Let the wave pull you out of harms way. Longer leashes also help (we go with 20ft+). The extra time it takes to stretch the longer leash allows for the wave to dissipate energy reducing the probability it will break. The next recommendation is to wear FLOAT. But that’s another topic.

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