Surfing Etiquette

Surfing is a great feeling. The joy of a stoke-filled session - unfettered by work, family and societal pressures - makes surfing appealing and, at times, addictive. But the thirst for great waves needs to be balanced with respect for your fellow surfers.

To put it in perspective, think about how excited you were as a 10-year-old on Christmas morning. Now imagine having to give the majority of your presents away to siblings and even strangers. Just as you don’t always get the biggest or best present under the tree, you don’t always get to ride the best wave of the set –and you definitely have to share.

Surfing etiquette demands that we divide the waves up as equitably as possible. Imagine the chaos if we didn’t! All it takes is patience, charity, and willingness to follow some basic guidelines. Following the surf rules below will help you to avoid accidents and potential confrontations with other waveriders.

The 8 Basic Surf Rules

So…in the spirit of keeping everyone’s surf experience fun and trouble-free, let’s cover the basics of surf protocol.

Rule #1. Have Fun and Be Patient.

This rule provides the foundation for all the others. You’re surfing to have fun. And the best way to enjoy a killer session is to catch lots of waves and surf them any way you want, right? Well, luckily, there are plenty of waves to go around, so take a deep breath and wait your turn. It takes patience and wisdom to know that the wave you are presently looking at is not always the “wave of the day.”

Sounds easy, but sometimes it’s not. At times it takes a conscious effort not to be a wave hog. Let a friend or stranger have the next wave, I promise you the karmic wheel will reward you with plenty of nice swells in return.

Another solid tip is to show tolerance for those who break the rules. Unless yelling and fighting is your goal, let it go. Maintaining your cool goes a long way in preserving a good session. Focus on having a good time and not on the number of waves you catch. I promise you’ll not only catch more waves, but better quality ones as well.

Rule #2: Who Gets the Next Wave?

The person closest to the curl (breaking part of the wave) has the “right of way.” If the wave is breaking right, the surfer to the outside (furthest left), or closest to the curl, is in position to catch the wave. The reverse is true of a left-breaking wave.

Communication is key when catching waves. If it is not easy to tell which way a surfer is going, or which way the wave is breaking, tell the other surfer you are “going left” or “going right.” Stating you are going left signals to the other surfer he is free to proceed right if the wave is breaking both ways. Often a wave will break in both directions; in this case it is good form to split the wave. At point and reef breaks, where small, defined take-off spots are the norm, queuing up is standard protocol.

Three terms to be familiar with are drop-in, cut-off, and snake. You don’t want to do, or be, any of them. A drop-in or cut-off occurs when one surfer drops in to a wave in front of the surfer who is in position. This may occur at the point of take-off or when the positioned surfer is already up and riding. A drop-in usually spoils a surfer’s ride, and can cause bad feelings. A snake occurs when a surfer purposely drops in on your wave, or when the “snake” paddles into position at the last moment before the wave breaks. Snakes are usually aggressive surfers with some skill and are to be avoided whenever possible.

However, it is important to note that most cut-offs are accidental. Our average offender is usually so focused on “their” wave that they are not aware of their surroundings. To avoid cutting someone off, keep your eyes and ears peeled for surfers already in position or “coming down the line” (already up and riding). If a surfer hoots or whistles at you, don’t take offense. They are just letting you know they are on the wave or preparing to take off in your direction.

Rule #3: Choose the Right Spot for Your Skill Level.

Simply put, surf with people close to your skill level and at surf spots that suit your ability. A beginner should not paddle out at a barreling reef spot. Likewise, it is best to find a niche in the lineup that fits your ability. Paddling right to the peak, which is usually occupied by the best surfers, will reduce your wave count and potentially cause friction. Again, the goal is to have fun, and bouncing along a razor-sharp reef after a hyper-competitive battle is not fun.

Rule #4: Respect the Locals.

You want to keep it light and fun, and hassles with locals will certainly sour your session. Some spots are known for intense localism, while others are mellow. The best way to approach the lineup is to hang on the edge of the crowd, with your ears and eyes open, to gauge the crowd’s mood. Once this is established, a good approach is to err on the side of goodwill, and let the locals have contested waves regardless of wave priority. Whether they accept the wave with thanks or entitlement, you are doing the right thing and will put yourself in a better position for the next wave.

Be mindful, locals come in all shapes and sizes, and ride all manner of watercraft. Just because someone is on a boogie board doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect. All spots have locals, so feel out the situation and adjust accordingly.

Rule #5: Get Out of the Way!

This one is easy to understand and hard to practice. If you are paddling out and a surfer is up and riding, it is your responsibility to avoid a collision. Instead of paddling up the face of the wave and into the path of the oncoming surfer, you should either remain in place, or paddle in the opposite direction to avoid the wave rider. Often this means paddling into the foam ball (white water) and taking the wave directly on your head. In other words, the correct move is to sacrifice yourself for your fellow surfer’s ride. In doing this you avoid the surfer, and you don’t disturb the integrity of the wave face in front of the rider. Your natural inclination will not be to paddle into the exploding part of the wave, but this is where you will most likely make a friend and be safest.

Rule #6: Paddle Around the Take-Off Zone.

Paddle around a defined peak or take-off spot to avoid oncoming surfers. A surfer dropping in to a wave has little room to maneuver around you. At your average beach break, there are often many peaks, so minimize your exposure to other riders by paddling straight out when entering the line-up. Avoid taking a diagonal path out, since it exposes you to more surfers riding waves.

Rule #7: Hold on to Your Equipment.

Surf leashes enable you to spend more time surfing than swimming. However, the leash is best used as a tool of last resort, and not as a means to power through breaking waves. When confronted by a breaking wave, you should try your best to hold on to your board and not let it fly off behind you. You endanger surfers within the length of your leash and risk breaking your leash –putting even more people at risk.

A surfboard has many sharp points, and should be kept under control. If it is difficult for you to control your surfboard, you should choose a less crowded spot until you have mastered the duck dive, or other wave-avoiding techniques.

Rule #8: Share the Wealth.

Finally, relax in the knowledge that there are usually more waves than people. The gift of a good wave to your fellow surfer will pay dividends in establishing and preserving everyone’s stoke. See Rule #1.

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