Norman Kelly


Cloud Nine, Siargao Island, Philippines

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This is not a spot for beginners. Rather, it’s daredevils who are looking for largest, most powerful, most breathtaking reef breaks that flock to this famous surfing spot. One false move and you’re going to pay the price in the form of gashes created by the razor-sharp coral formations in the area. The skill level is only one factor in sizing up the danger of reef surfing in this area. The ideal surfing season runs from November to April in which the ocean waves have more swell and raise the ocean level a few more inches above the coral reef. Especially during these times, thick surfing lanes make for more reasonable, if still dramatic, conditions. It’s one thing to be something of an adrenaline junkie, but don’t underestimate the potential for one bad decision and one bad fall to ruin your trip.

As famous a surfing destination as Cloud 9 is, it’s not easy to get to. You have to really want it. There are no direct flights to Siargao. Increasingly, many of the most beautiful and pristine places are hard to get to. Otherwise, they would be negatively impacted by tourism and development by now. Which isn’t to say, there’s nobody around. Plenty of people still make the sea voyage to this island. More than just the waves themselves, the backdrop and consistently warm and sun-swept climate make it a truly idyllic paradise.

Siargao Cup Week

At the end of September and beginning of October, 128 participants from the around the globe descend upon the island for the Siargao Cloud 9 Surfing Cup, a renowned surfing competition. These surfers make reef surfing look easy, so be careful how much direct inspiration you take from what you see if you happen to be visiting. This year, Skip McCullough won the 24 annual event against local legends and international surfing stars alike.



Teahupo’o—The Reef Surfer’s Mecca

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Teahupo’o is a village on the south-east coast of Tahiti in French Polynesia in the southern Pacific Ocean. Known for its stunning sunsets and pristine beaches, this tiny village attracts a big reef surfing crowd. The area is known for the surf break and heavy, glassy waves offshore. These waves can often reach 10 feet and, at times, swell up to 23 feet. It is the site of the annual Billabong Pro Tahiti surf competition and used to be a stop in the World Tour of the International Bodyboarding Association. It is also, incidentally, one of the most dangerous places to reef surf in the world.

Teahupo’o has the most dangerous break in the world. The waves have a unique combination of size, power, and speed, made more dangerous by the fact that they break over an incredibly sharp coral reef lying only a few feet below the surface. Less scary are the sharks, capsized boats, and the rip tide. The world’s best surfers head here to cut thier teeth, but amateur surfers should keep to a separate part of the island.

So, how insane is Teahupo’o? To start, it’s faster than a motorcycle. That’s right. A pro surfer recently tried to outrun a wave on a motorcycle and found that the wave was much, much faster. This speed can also rip your clothes off, which will result in a possibly deadly combination of embarrassment and a loss of balance. You’re also more likely to cut yourself on the reef without this small protection.

Here’s where Teahupo’o gets crazy—it’s not even safe in the channel. During the several competitions that take place here each year, a contest boat is sent out to carry marshals and judges. Several years ago, this boat capsized after a wave rolled it into the lagoon. In a separate incident, a photographer famously bailed from the boat, and another photographer suffered three broken vertebrae when she was forced airborne by a wave.

So, what is the purpose of all this? We want you to visit and surf Teahupo’o–really. We just want you to understand the skill necessary to do so and the risks associated. To that end, if you have any experiences surfing Teahupo’o, we’d love to hear them. Drop us a line to tell us all about it.



Tips for Surfing Reef Breaks

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As we’ve mentioned, reef surfing is not a beginner’s sport. Before attempting these rides, you should have extensive experience with “regular” surfing. However, even those with this experience can find it difficult to break into this niche surfing style. If you’re planning to surf over the reef for the first time, you’ll likely feel a mixture of nerves and excitement. Here are a few tips for surfing when on a reef break.


Don’t drop in on anyone. Dropping in on its own is dangerous around reefs, but dropping in on a fellow surfer can result in serious injury. Simply wait your turn and go for the next wave. Similarly, if you see someone else on a wave, pull off as soon as you notice.


Surf with someone who knows the wave. It’s always good to surf with someone who knows the lineup. Look for locals who can tell you the best places to paddle in and out. This can also be very comforting when out in the surf, as it’s bound to get a bit rocky—no pun intended.


Try reef boots. If you plan to surf the reef frequently, it may make sense to invest in a pair of reef boots. These are specially designed for warm water and reef breaks. Even if you don’t wear them, it can be a good idea to have them on-hand, just in case.


Buy some extra lycra. Even if it’s warm outside, a mini surf suit or rash top will protect you from some falls.


Fall as flat as possible. If you lose your balance, try your best to fall like a starfish. Spread your weight as you call and try to stay as flat as possible. When you’re ready to come up, gradually move your hands and feet to feel where you are and swim to the top.


Never fall feet-first. Avoid going feet-first and simply jumping off your board if you need to bail. Similarly, don’t kick around too much; if the reef is directly below, you’re likely to sustain some seriously painful cuts.


Reef Surf School

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Reef surfing isn’t like, beach or point break surfing, the other two major types of surfing. With a reef, rocks and coral and other reef elements dictate the breaking waves, creating more predictable surf but also creating landmine-like penalties when you wipe out. Reef breaks also tend to produce steeper, more powerful waves.

Despite the more predictable surf, reef surfing is not for beginners. The seemingly predictable waves breed overconfidence. And more predictable isn’t the same thing as predictable. The tide and swell direction will still influence reef surf, and if you’re surfing when this changeover occurs, you’ll instantly be reminded that the ocean is an inherently unpredictable phenomenon.

Naturally, there are always a couple buffoons out there who will try reef surfing, the first time out or just too soon. This never turns out well, even when the person is able to avoid major injury. It’s true that even conscientious surfers trying to take their passion to the next level can get seriously hurt. It’s also true that skilled, experienced surfers who were taking nothing more than a calculated risk can end up getting badly injured.

Now, this is a general characterization of reef surfing. Certain reef surf spots are famous as being “good for beginners,” and this is definitely an advantage for those with local access or the means and opportunity to travel. Visiting this small handful of spots around the globe isn’t the only way to do it. Even then, you still have to make the transition to other kinds of reef surfing.

The Reef Surf School is dedicated to that next level of surfing education and lessons. We’re not elitists or anything like that. In fact, we’ll gladly help beginners find surfing lessons and instructors. Rather, it’s just that our primary focus is on reef surfing and exploring better learning strategies to introduce intermediate and experienced surfer to this type of surf.