The surfing etiquette is the most important thing to learn before paddling out. It is not so much about rules but more a code of moral conduct for everybody to stay safe and have fun in the water. The basic rules of surfing are not the same, they are more “common sense” and the surf etiquette is designed for safety measures. Surfers who don’t repeatedly follow the etiquette are often given the stink-eye, yelled at, or to the extreme beat up.
The surfing etiquette is about the right of way, not dropping in, know where to paddle, not ditching your board, not snaking somebody, being respectful to others and the beaches, not being a wave hog, knowing what to do if you mess up and when if you are a beginner knowing to not paddle in a crowded lineup.
Don’t worry if you accidentally drop in on somebody, apologize so they know it was not on purpose. If they still yell at you do not mind them as you will still find some egomaniacs that THINK they own a surf spot but do NOT own the ocean or that specific beach at all. These are rules just like driving rules and it is the real world. Now if you are always dropping in on somebody and being disrespectful, you will get a run in. So be aware of everyone around you at all times.
With the sport of surfing growing in popularity, there are more and more people in the way and the surf etiquette use is declining due to lack of etiquette education. Remember the ocean can be a very dangerous place, and without proper thought for safely, it can be deadly.
Beginners should definitely remember the surf etiquette before going out, and veterans should take a refresher course now and then. There is no such thing as seniority when surfing so all young, old, beginner, intermediate, and advanced surfers should know these rules.
What does it mean to have priority in surfing?
The right of way is the priority of the surfer closest to be breaking wave. This means that the person closes to the peak has priority. As you are paddling for a right handed wave and there is a person on your left, you have to yield for them and let them go.
There are a couple variations to this rule that will help you understand the right of way a little bit better:
If someone is already surfing and standing on a wave, don’t try to get on the wave between them and the white water (right behind them). This reason is because if they are trying to do a cutback to the white water, they will run into you and possibly injure you or themselves. This is called back paddling and it is perceived as bad as dropping in.
Just because the whitewater caught on to the surfer on the wave, doesn’t mean you can go ahead of them. Most surfers with some experience will be able to get speed and go past that section to the open face of the wave. This means that if there is already someone on the wave, do not get on it.
Split peak wave
A split wave is a wave that is breaking in half and offers a right and a left face to surf at the same time. In that situation, two surfers can take off on the wave, each going a different direction. If two surfers are at the peak and paddling for a wave, they should communicate and tell each other which way they would like to go and possibly go opposite ways.
If a surfer is on a wave and the wave closed out or the surfer wiped out, the next surfer down the line can go ahead and catch that same wave. As a beginner, I won’t recommend doing this right away, and wait for you to gain a little more experience to do it.
If a wave is breaking all at the same time and it is not giving you an option to go left or right (close out) and there is two surfers on each side of the wave, it is recommended to kick off early to avoid a collision.
What does it mean to drop in surfing?
This is closely related to the wave priority rule of the surf etiquette…the most important rule to follow when surfing. This means that if a person is already riding on a wave or is at the peak, they have priority so don’t go and take off in front of them. This will block them down the line, and is extremely annoying as well as dangerous.
If you have priority, and the person in front of you is trying to take off on your wave, I would recommend yelling “I got it” or “yep yep” and they will understand to not go if they had not seen you. If you are tempted to drop in on someone remember; no matter how good the wave is, you will ruin their wave, they will be extremely pissed off and nobody will get the wave.
How do you know where to paddle out?
This might seem like common sense but it is a very big part of the surfing etiquette. You should never paddle straight into the lineup where others are surfing. Paddle through the channel where the waves and not breaking and people are not surfing. It might be hard to find that area sometimes, especially in crowded beach surf spots. In that case go where there is less of a crowd to paddle through.
When paddling back out, do NOT paddle in front of somebody on a wave unless you are well ahead of them. Paddle behind them if they are up and riding the wave, take the whitewater hit or duck dive. You’ll understand and appreciate more when it is you on the wave.
Sometimes you’ll just end up being in a bad spot, and won’t be able to go behind them. It is your responsibility to speed paddle to get out of his or her way. If you don’t do this you might get run over.
In the worst case scenario, where you can’t get behind them or the speed paddle didn’t work, stop and wait for them to go before moving. It will be their job to not run you over. But try your best to get out of their way so they are not mad at you for stopping and less chances of you getting hurt.
Don’t ditch your surfboard
This is very important and even more important when it is crowded in the water. Try to control and stay in contact with your board at all times. Surfboards are heavy, long, and hard, so if you let go of it, you might eventually hit somebody causing them serious harm.
This means that if you are paddling out and a big wall of whitewater it’s coming towards you, don’t let go of your board and throw it to the side and dive under the wave. DO NOT DO THAT! If you do, and there is somebody paddling behind you, this will destroy that surfer if the board hits them anywhere in their body! And you do not want that to happen.
This is a hard rule to follow when first starting out, but if you manage to get into that habit early you will become a much better surfer in the long run.
If you are a little bit more advanced, before the whitewater comes up to you, you can look back check if anybody is behind you. If nobody is behind you them go ahead and ditch your board if you feel it will be safer for you then performing a duck dive. Always keep in mind that this is not acceptable when there are other surfers behind you.
What is snaking a wave?
Snaking is when a surfer paddles around another (by making a big S) in order to get in the right position to get priority on the wave. Even though it is not specifically dangerous, it is very annoying and disrespectful. Wait for your turn in the lineup, and you will get respect. If you keep snaking people, you will not get respect and people will start to yell at you. Also being a local does not give you the permission to snake others if they are being polite, if they aren’t then you make the call about being “that guy/gal”.
Think about being at the grocery store with many people in front of you. You have been waiting in the line for a while now, and as you come up to the cashier to scan your groceries and make your payment, someone cuts you off and places all their supplies in front of yours so they can get served first. How would you feel? Exactly!
For beginners only: don’t paddle out in the middle of the lineup
This kind of seems obvious but it still has to be mentioned. If you are a beginner surfer, do not paddle out to a crowded lineup of veterans surfers. Try to go to an uncrowned spot with surfers your level. And if you don’t know, you will find out really fast because you will most likely be given the stink-eye, blocked and not be allowed to catch many waves.
Don’t be a wave hog
If you can catch all the waves, that does not necessarily mean you should. This typically applies to longboarders, kayakers, or stand up paddlers. Since it is easier to catch a wave on these boards, it is tempting to catch them all. Catch a wave, give a wave. If you follow that motto, you should be good all around the world.
Respect all beaches
Do not litter on the beach, respect it like it is your home. Pick up your trash, and pick up some trash that isn’t yours on your way out as well. It will be appreciated by locals and Mother Nature. Real surfers do not pollute ANY beach they go to.
What if you mess up during your surf session?
Nobody really mentions this part in the surfing etiquette, but knowing it is great. If you do mess up by dropping in on somebody or ditching your board; an apology will be greatly appreciated and will reduce the tension in a crowded surf spot. You don’t have to bow to them and keep apologizing unless it’s really bad and you hurt someone. But if you drop in on somebody it will be really selfish not to apologize and probably cause a rivalry for the rest of your day.
As we have explained the surfing etiquette, this might seem like a lot to remember before going out but most of it will become second nature and is mainly common sense. Just remember that being respectful will go a long way. So now go and have fun out there! See you in the lineup.