The cutback is one of surfing's most important and difficult maneuvers. Although some may argue the trick has been pushed to the wayside, most stylish and progressive surfers are known for their ability to read waves and do cutbacks in the most important sections. Surfers Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, Michael Peterson, Peter Townsend, Mark Occhilupo, Tom Curren and Kelly Slater do cutbacks with impeccable timing and precision. Tricks come and go, but the cutback is timeless.
When To Do Cutbacks
This is one of the key things to learn. Like a thumbprint, every wave is different and each requires a different approach. Once you have learned how to stand up and follow the face of a wave, the next step is to find a "section" in which to do a cutback. In the photo above, the wave is sectioned and has a "shoulder" or area where the wave is not crashing. To use the wave to your advantage in controlling your speed, find such sections and perform your cutbacks there. If you haven't fully made it through the section of the wave that is still crashing you'll lose speed and potentially get hit by the wave and fall. Before you set your rail, make sure you're in the right spot.
Setting Your Rail
This is possibly the most crucial part of the cutback. It's here you'll catch your edge and fall or get into a successful turn. The most important thing to do when setting your rail is to lean hard on your back foot. If you are too far forward on the front of your board, you won't catch enough water to turn backward and you most likely will slide out and fall. Make sure your feet are planted securely and your shoulders are squared up with your legs. Once you begin digging into the water with your back foot, you will begin to feel the board starting to go in the direction you want to take it. That is where you most effectively control your speed.
Riding it Out
Once you have set your rail and begun the cutback, keep your weight on your back foot and guide the turn with your shoulders. In photo of the surfer above, he is using his weight to shift the turn backward into a "roundhouse" cutback, in which he will do a full U-turn and hit the backwash, giving him more speed for the rest of the wave. This is a more advanced maneuver, but if you simply want to slow yourself down or turn in a section that will give you speed, shift your weight off your foot and get the surfboard flat on the surface of the wave. This will put you in the "down-the-line" position in which you started. Again, the key to this maneuver is learning to shift your weight and use your upper body to direct the cutback. You may find that setting up or controlling how much spray you want to throw is based on the weight you apply.