For the final installment of Intermediate Paddleboard Lessons, we will be exploring a topic that you might find useful the next time you are out and the water isn’t flat: paddling through chop and waves. Beginners should stick to calm water, of course, but now that you’ve levelled up to intermediate status with our series, you’re ready for trickier conditions.

Knowing how to safely and efficiently SUP through chop and waves will open up your paddling possibilities. You’ll be able to cross busy channels, paddle in open water, and go out when the conditions aren’t perfectly glassy. Think you’re up for the challenge? Read on for our top tips! 

SUP instructor standing on a Thurso Surf stand up paddleboard on choppy water

SUP instructor Robin on our Waterwalker 120, surveying the textured surface of the water

Paddling Through Chop, Wake, Swell, and Waves

When the winds pick up, when distant storms produce swell, or when there is more boat traffic, you can encounter water that has more texture and movement. This is when you’ll dig into your SUP toolbox, using smart strategy and calling upon your various skills to navigate these conditions. Yes, it will be less relaxing than a typical flat water paddle, but it can also be lots of fun! With the right information and a bit of practice, you’ve got this in the bag. 

First, let’s define a few terms. What are chop, wake, swell and waves? Knowing the characteristics and differences between each will help us figure out how to handle each one. 

  • Wake is water disturbance created by passing boats. Wake is most powerful closest to the source but can travel for a bit, getting weaker as it fans out. The larger and faster the boat, the bigger the wake. You can encounter wake in any kind of conditions, even on flat days. 
  • Chop is generated by local winds. Chop looks very rough, with many small waves that sometimes come from different angles, and can create an effect that feels like a washing machine. The stronger the winds, the rougher the chop. 
  • Swell are waves that have not broken. Swell is generated by winds and storms far away from your location. Because swell travels from far, it has had time to organize into a smooth and uniform pattern, with gaps in between, almost like rolling hills of water. Technically, a swell is a wave, but for our purposes, we are going to distinguish between the two terms.  
  • Waves are what surfers love to seek and ride. This is actually called a breaking wave, as it will crest up and then tumble down, producing a large amount of energy that propels a surf or SUP board forward.
Woman on a stand up paddleboard paddling through choppy water

Paddling through chop can be fun!


When encountering water that has a lot of movement from either wake, chop, swell, or waves, it becomes more challenging to stand on our boards as we are no longer on a flat surface. The movement might rock our board from side-to-side or back-to-front, throwing us off balance as we try to remain upright. Luckily, there are some strategies you can employ in these situations. 

First, take a few moments to observe the water. Is there any wake, chop, swells, or waves? How big are they? Are these conditions ok to go out in, or should you sit this one out? Knowing your limitations is so important. A bit of wake is easier to navigate versus waist high breaking waves. 

If you do decide to go for a paddle, what will you do to ensure your safety? This could include following the shoreline in case you need to exit the water,  going out with a paddle pal (safety in numbers), and sharing a float plan for longer outings. We strongly recommend wearing a lifejacket or personal floatation device (PFD), which offers immediate buoyancy, and not a belt PFD which needs to be deployed and put on to be effective. And of course, always wear your leash so your board stays with you. You’d be surprised how fast your board can get away in these conditions. 

When you’re on the water, always be aware of what is happening and adjust accordingly. Take any wake, swell, or waves head on or at an angle. Avoid being hit broadside, as this is sure to knock you over. This gets trickier in chop, as it can hit  from different angles. Chop is the washing machine of SUP conditions! Take a deep breath and think of your legs as shock absorbers by getting a soft bend in your knees. As surfers say, ride the waves, not the board. Being constantly aware of the water and working with it, not against it, will make it easier to navigate any condition. Go with the flow! And if it becomes overwhelming, assume a kneeling position, which is much more stable. 

Woman paddling a stand up paddleboard away from the shoreline

Don’t be afraid! Take the wind and the waves head on for the best experience


Our Intermediate SUP Lesson series has covered some of the skills needed in the wake, chop, swells, and waves. Let’s review these key skills and how they can apply.

Efficient Paddle Stroke

Having a good, strong paddle stroke will help you navigate turbulent water. Because the energy of the water is intense, you want to match that intensity so it doesn’t overpower you. This means engaging your core (as opposed to paddling with just your arms), getting that blade in the water, and taking efficient strokes. If your strokes are too long, waves can easily knock you off or push your back. Keep your paddle strokes short, strong, and quick, especially when approaching a breaking wave.


It’s time to change up your stance! Although you might be comfortable in the neutral stance, moving your feet will create a more stable base. Take a step back in either the staggered or hybrid stance for more stability side-to-side and back-to-front. A hybrid stance will also allow you to bring up the nose of your board, so it can more easily travel up and over a wave or swell. 


Feeling unstable? Keep that paddle in the water! Bracing will give you the support you need in unstable conditions. Even just doing a forward stroke is a form of bracing. Brace while switching your stance to make it easier. If you feel yourself falling, slap the surface of the water with your blade to catch yourself. 

Forward Sweep and Crossbow Turns

Chop, wake, swell, and waves might try to turn your board in a different direction. Employing the forward sweep can keep you on track. For instance, if the chop and wind keep pushing you to your right, do some forward sweeps on your right side to counteract that effect while still moving forward. If you need a sharper turn, the crossbow will help get the board in the correct direction.

Woman demonstrating the hybrid stance on a Thurso Surf stand up paddleboard

Take a step back into a hybrid stance to pop the nose of your board over waves


Although non-flat conditions can be intimidating at first, with a bit of practice and planning, you can conquer your fear of paddling in chop and waves. Take on the challenge and see where it leads you! 

This also brings us to the end of our Intermediate Paddleboard Lessons. Thanks for joining us; we hope you enjoyed the series! Subscribe to our newsletter so you never miss any of our great blog content, with all the SUP tips, tricks, and news you need. Happy paddling!




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