1. A bit of research goes a long way. Get marine charts of the area you are interested in. The British admiralty pilot for the area will also have lots of interesting historical data on wind direction, frequency, and strength, as well as cyclone tracks, when they occur. Remember cyclones and hurricanes push swell ahead of themselves generally not so much in their wake. Look for areas where the wind is frequently offshore and coastline features like points and river mouths. Look at the water depth and the seabed gradient near these features. If the water is really deep right up to the coast and there are cliffs or a curb-like drop-off, there will be nowhere for the swell to feel the bottom and stand up before breaking. Look for reef passes on areas where there are coral reefs. Work out the probability of good swell and winds during your exploration. Waste some hours on Google Earth!
2. Stay in contact. Is there cell phone coverage where you're going? If not, an iridium portable satellite phone could be a lifesaver, and you can get fold-up solar chargers to keep it juiced up. Carry a hand held GPS—there is no point calling for help if you can't tell people where you are. Tell someone where you're going and make a time to report in. "If you haven't heard from me by a certain day/time, assume I am in trouble and come looking for me."
3. Have patience. Most breaks need the magic combo of swell direction, size, and wind to fire. I've been driving up and down the Mentawai chain for over 20 years, and there are breaks that we wrote off only to find that on the right day they are unbelievable…and there are probably more we haven't figured out yet! Keep an open mind. Just because it's crap on the day you checked it doesn't mean it won't have its day.
4. Don't take others' word for what's out there! Surfers are like sheep. In a lot of places, everyone will just go to the known breaks, assuming that there is nothing else. In 1981, the surfers in Nias told me Lagundri was the only decent break in the whole of Sumatra! A better break could be just around the corner, and until the known break gets too crowded, very few will bother looking. During The Crossing, we found world-class breaks right under people's noses all over the world. Some were even in plain sight of well-known breaks, but no one had ever paddled out!
5. If you are exploring with others, make sure you're prepared to spend difficult times with them. Nothing's worse than getting stuck with a major dickhead in the middle of nowhere or on a small boat where you can't get away from them. You need to surround yourself with people who are optimistic, patient, and resilient. Avoid whiners and particularly people who have to do drugs to function. I've watched heavy pot smokers turn into paranoid basket cases after just a few days without weed.
6. Learn some first-aid. Carry a good medical kit equipped with malaria medicine, antibiotics, antifungal cream, painkillers, dressings, disposable syringes, allergy medicine, and more. A key is to have someone teach you how to suture an open wound. Deal with cuts and abrasions immediately. Many explorations have been cut short by infected cuts, galloping crotch rot, toothaches, and ear infections.
7. If you find something, keep your mouth shut. Just because there's no one there on the day doesn't mean you're the first one to find a break. There could be a whole local crew that keep it a closely guarded secret. Think of the damage you can do by posting photos online with specific location info. Even better, don't take photos! Be responsible, you could destroy other surfers' dreams—guys that live there and have based their whole lives around surfing the area.
8. Be aware of local customs. Watch the locals—if their girls are covered up, so should your girl. If all the guys are wearing long pants, do the same. Ask them what's not cool, and listen to what they tell you. Be a good representative of your country—don't jam your opinions and ideals down others' throats, and you just might even learn something really useful. Avoid political and religious discussions unless you really know someone. Respect is absolutely essential. If there are other surfers in the water, paddle up and introduce yourself, make eye contact, and smile! Leave your city hassling skills at home, and before you know it, they'll be calling you into waves.
9. Don't carry narcotics of any kind. Don't buy dope from the locals—it could be a setup and cost you your freedom or worse. I've seen folks ruin their lives over this issue…good mates included. And remember, if your travelling companion gets busted and you're in the room, you're going down too.
10. Get a boat. Real exploration happens when you are charting your own course.