Introduction to Surf Etiquette
What is Surf Etiquette?
There is nothing more important in surfing than following good surf etiquette. It keeps all levels of surfers safe while enjoying the sport that we love in a respectful and organized environment. Knowing this set of universal guidelines, based on sharing and respect, ensures everyone catches waves and no one gets hurt.
As responsible stewards of our sport, it’s our job to instill in newcomers the proper knowledge of what to do and where to go when interacting with other surfers. It is the difference between being welcomed in the water and being called a “kook.” For those fortunate enough to grow up at the beach in a surfing community, these guidelines get spelled out while you’re watching and surfing alongside the elders. So how are new surfers supposed to know if what they’re doing is acceptable or not? Keep reading...
The very first thing that novice surfers should know is that the old salts and true watermen, the guys that have been surfing for a long time, are very serious about taking care of the ocean and being stewards of such an amazing gift. This results in a very intense subculture of highly sensitive brothers and sisters who work hard to maintain a clean beach and a clean lineup. Something as small as picking up a piece of trash lying on the beach or passing a wave off to a fellow surfer keeps this environment intact. Surfing is synonymous with peace, serenity, harmony, and healing.
Some of the most memorable and cherished experiences we have are set to a backdrop of glassy head high waves with our best friends. We are blessed. We know it. And we’ll do whatever it takes to protect this gift, share it with others, and pass on the knowledge of how to foster and care for it. Sometimes as the waves grow bigger and more intense, surfers themselves can become more aggressive and intense. Due to the dangerous nature and rarity of bigger waves, surfers cherish them more and have to become more aggressive to catch them and protect them. Following the laws of surfing etiquette will ensure that everyone remains friends and stays safe.
The lineup is a unique environment. It can be potentially dangerous with more experienced surfers jockeying for positioning for the next wave. It can also be a friendly place, where surfers meet, catch up with each other, and chat. The lineup is the area past where the waves are breaking and surfers sit and wait for the perfect set. In an ideal situation, the lineup will look like a single file line, running parallel to the beach, waiting for their waves at the peak (where the wave first breaks). As the surfer closest to the peak takes a wave, the rest of the lineup moves so that the second person in line is now first. Not all lineups will be as organized as this but it is extremely important to follow the rules even if others are not.
Typically there will be a mix of intermediate and advanced surfers sitting in close proximity to each other. As a beginner, you should not be surfing in a line up with advanced surfers. It is best for a beginner to start surfing away from a crowded wave for several reasons:
- Most importantly, beginners need to stay safe. If you are surfing away from others, there is a much smaller chance of colliding with another surfer or being injured by another surfer.
- As beginner surfers, people are more self conscious about their surfing. Surfing alone or away from a group will allow surfers to feel much more comfortable in the water resulting in faster progression and more fun. No one wants to feel nervous in the surf.
- In most cases the crowd determines the peak. What this means is that the break with the most surfers on it is usually the best spot on the beach. A beginner surfer is working on the fundamentals of surfing and therefore is more concerned with quantity of waves rather than the quality of the waves.
- Last but not least is the simple fact that by surfing away from other surfers, you can catch many more waves. In a crowded spot there is a pecking order, rules to follow and you’ll have to share waves with other surfers. When you surf alone, you are free to pick whichever wave you like.
If you find yourself surfing in a crowd, be sure to sit far outside so as not to be in the way of oncoming surfers. Never sit directly in front of another surfer while in the line up. Should a surfer turn around and start paddling for a wave, they may end up colliding with you. Effective communication is crucial in surfing. Asking “Left or right?” is always a safe bet.
Priority in the Lineup
Wave Priority refers to the surfer that has the “right of way” while surfing on a wave.
- Priority on a wave is determined by the proximity of a surfer to the “peak.”
- The peak is the part of the wave that will break first and peel either right or left.
- The surfer closest to the peak has Priority to catch the next wave of his/her choice.
- Once he/she catches a wave then the next surfer in line has Priority.
If surfer A is closer to the peak on a left hander, surfers B and C should all be looking to their right to wait and see if surfer A is going to catch the wave. Surfer A knows he has priority and is only concerned with communicating to B and C that he is going left on the wave so they don’t “Drop In” on him.
Conversely, if the wave is a right and the surfers are in the same lineup order, surfer C now has priority and all surfers are looking to their left to see if surfer C is going to catch the wave. If surfer C does not go on the wave, surfer B now has priority and will have the honors. If a surfer is unsure who has priority on a particular wave, they should not be paddling for the wave.
There should only ever be one surfer on a wave. After the surfer with priority catches a wave, the line up will shift to be one surfer closer to the peak. Surfers in the lineup should never paddle from the end of the line to the peak after another surfer gets a wave (paddling around the pack is not a good way to make friends or earn respect).
- Priority rules should always be followed when surfing.
This will keep everyone safe and ensure your session is a positive one.
Dropping in on another surfer means that you’ve decided to take off on a wave that another surfer is already riding. Drop ins are the most common mistake beginner and intermediate surfers tend to make because they are not informed about etiquette. Knowing which surfers have priority on a wave is critical. Having said that, drop ins are one of the easiest problems to avoid.
- When paddling into a wave, a surfer should always look left, right (just like crossing the road), and straight ahead (like skiing down a mountain) to make sure they are not going to jump out in front of a fast moving object (like a car or a surfer) or accelerate into a stationary object (like a tree or someone paddling out).
- If you see another surfer already up and riding on a wave, you should not be paddling for the wave.
- If you see someone paddling out directly in front of you, even if it seems far enough away, back out of the wave.
- By looking both ways and being aware of your surroundings, you can avoid getting injured, injuring someone else, or getting scolded by another surfer.
Paddling Back to the Lineup
Paddling Back Out
Do not paddle out directly in front of other surfers. Not only is it dangerous for you but it could also be dangerous for the other surfers. Paddling out at least one hundred yards away from other surfers will show them that you are following good etiquette and will go a long way.
Do Not Paddle out near jetties, piers or other fixed structures
Do Not Paddle out where there is a crowd of surfers
Do Not Paddle out directly behind another surfer
Do Not Catch a wave and rest on the inside
Do Spread out from other surfers
Do Paddle out with a smile
Do Watch more experienced surfers and learn
Do After wiping out safely, immediately get back on your board and paddle out of the way and to the outside
If you happen to paddle out and a surfer catches a wave in front of you, another important aspect of etiquette requires that you paddle out of their way. You do not want to hinder their ride, so you must paddle towards the oncoming white water to avoid a collision.
After you have paddled back out to safety from the breaking waves it is important to wait and let other surfers have a wave. This will give you the chance to catch your breath while other surfers enjoy a few waves. Surfers that paddle back out then paddle straight into another wave are not observing good surf etiquette. If you see someone catch a good wave while you’re paddling back out, give them a “hoot” to let them know that you saw their wave.
Beginner and Advanced Surfers
Being Honest About Our Abilities
Knowing where your abilities are in the surfing heirarchy is crucial to good decision making.
If a surfer is having doubts about whether or not they should be paddling out because of big crowds, big surf, or an unfamiliar spot, that surfer should not be going out. Surfers have a saying, “When in doubt, don’t go out.” This saying is designed to keep surfers from putting themselves in bad or dangerous situations. Please be honest with yourselves and stay safe.
Where to Surf As a Beginner
Beginner surfers should not be surfing in the same area as advanced surfers
It is unsafe and you will catch more waves away from seasoned vets. As a beginner, a surfer should be more concerned with the quantity of waves, not the quality. A beginner will always catch more waves and have more fun away from a crowd. Always ask a lifeguard what the laws and regulations are at that specific beach because all beaches have different laws regarding surfing. These laws may change depending on the time of year.
Showing Up To a New Spot
Never show up to a surf spot with 10 of your closest friends.
Locals and other advanced surfers are not receptive to a large crowd of surfers showing up to take their waves. When surfing, try to keep your group size to a minimum. Surfing with friends is fun, but remember the fewer surfers in the water, the more waves for you!
Always ask the locals and/or lifeguards about local rules.
In some places, such as here at Wrightsville beach, there are several laws that surfers must abide by. The first is wearing your leash at all times for everyone’s safety. Staying 300 yards away from piers and jetties is for your own safety, but if you get caught, you’ll get your surfboard confiscated. Surfing in front of the lifeguard stands is the other big faux pas. Surfers are required to surf only in designated areas where there are not swimmers under the watch of local lifeguards.
Showing Respect to Locals
All surfers should observe good surf etiquette and show respect when in the water. They say you get what you give and nowhere is this more true than in surfing.
- When paddling out, say hello to the surfers already out there, especially if it’s somewhere new.
- If you make a mistake, apologize immediately. Veteran surfers are rarely going to be mad at you if they know you are aware of a mistake and try to correct it.
- Showing respect and following etiquette could mean the difference between having the session of your life and being extremely frustrated.
Respect the Beach
Anything left on or washed up on the beach that normally wouldn’t be there is considered pollution. From cigarette butts to watermelon rinds, plastic bottles to billions of little broken down pieces of plastic, we, as surfers, are obligated to take care of this one and only resource that provides us with the medium to do what we love. Beach sweeps are an everyday part of our existence. Keeping the ocean free of plastic bags, deflated balloons and toxic runoff isn’t just reserved for Earth Day. Whether you are just picking up trash or becoming a member of the Surfrider Foundation, respecting the beach is a vital part of etiquette that will earn you way more respect in the eyes of everyone than being the world champion.
Your everyday decisions in what you buy, what you wear, what you drive, what you eat, and in everything you do translates back to the health of the ocean which is the driving life force on our planet. Give careful consideration in how you respect yourself and those around you to improve the quality of life for everyone and find even greater enjoyment in surfing and sharing the ocean, its marine inhabitants and other surfers.
By following this code of conduct and rules of etiquette, you will stay safe, catch more waves, make new friends, and turn your surfing into a life changing experience.
…and always remember:
- When in doubt don’t go out
- Ask a lifeguard or local about conditions and local laws
- Never turn your back to the ocean
- And last but not least, Be Respectful, and Have Fun!