What is a Cutback?

As a beginner surfer, you’re probably wondering what the point of doing maneuvers is. Sure, they look cool, but what’s their purpose and how do you judge the different degrees of difficulty? The ultimate question is, “How the hell do I do that when I can barely even turn the board?”

Well, initially the point of doing certain maneuvers is to avoid losing the wave. It’s easy to lose ourselves down a rabbit hole of explanation here, but let’s just say that the wave has a mind of its own and if you don’t ride the wave according to its constant change, you will unfortunately not be able to enjoy the fruits of your labour. The wave will inevitably speed up and slow down in front of you, demanding a response. It takes two to tango. 

The maneuver know as a “cutback” is generally done in the part of a wave that slows down. This slowing down of the wave can be identified by the high point and low point – generally when these two points of the wave are close together the wave may break in a relatively slow manner from left to right or right to left. Once you see this point in the wave and you feel as though you are going too far away from the power source of the wave, it is time to turn back towards the white water, or in the opposite direction you have been surfing the wave. 

Once you reach the white water, you need to turn back to the open face of the wave, or back to the same direction you had originally been surfing.  This is known as a cutback, because you are cutting back to the whitewater.

Where you look is where you are going to go.

How do you do a Cutback?

The most important principal when it comes to any maneuver in surfing is: where you look is where you are going to go.  Rotating your head back to the white water and looking in that direction will help you turn and give you a greater sense of awareness of how the wave is moving.

The next movement to focus on is arm and shoulder rotation. Arms give you direction and momentum. It’s important to combine this movement with the head and shoulders to keep the body centered on the surfboard. As we are moving head to toe, it’s important to always keep each hand over each rail, this allows you to offset your weight without falling over. 

Ever heard of the “follow through”? This is a term used in most ball sports and is used to describe the principal that when hitting the ball, you don’t stop the movement of the racket or bat when there is connection because otherwise you won’t get the optimal connection. The same can be said when doing a cutback, it’s important to follow through with your arms, not only to create momentum and direction but also to keep balance on the board.

Try and touch the water as well with this movement – this will ensure maximum rail engagement, ensure that you are getting low enough on the surfboard, to keep a low center of gravity, and will create a pivot point. Additionally, make sure to keep your knee inverted to help square up your hips. Finally, be sure to put pressure on the rail; this should automatically happen when you try to touch the water because of the offset of weight.

My last tip with all of this is, in order to do any sort of turn or rail engagement, you need to manage your speed. Going too fast and you will slide out, going to slow and you will just fall over.

A cutback should be done when a wave has a soft shoulder.

When do you do a Cutback?

Knowing when to do a maneuver can be difficult and take a lot of time to master. A cutback is kind of an in-between maneuver and should be done when the wave has a soft shoulder and you don’t really have much option to do anything else. 

A good time to do a cutback is when the wave is breaking really slowly from left to right or right to left. A cutback needs a lot of time and space because you are making big directional changes. If the wave is running too fast ahead of you, a cutback will leave you with no speed in the white water.

It can be difficult to identify if a wave is fast or slow ahead of you. One of the best ways to tell is to pay attention to the lip line. If the high point (breaking part of the wave) and the shoulder (not breaking part of the wave) have a steep gradient from each other then it is a good time to do a cut back. However, if the high point and the shoulder are almost the same height then it’s not a good time to do a cutback.

As you are initiating the cutback it’s important to take a shallow bottom turn and project far out towards the shoulder of the wave to give yourself room to pivot back to the white water. Too far out towards the shoulder and you will either lose to much speed or you will go off the back of the wave. Once you get there it’s time to go back towards the white water. Remember to leave yourself enough room to do the maneuver. 



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  1. Thank you for this article! It helped a great deal, can’t wait to use this advice and improve what I’m already attempting 🙂

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