Understanding Surf Etiquette to Keep You and Your Surfboard Safe
What are the unspoken rules of surfing?
Whether you’re new to surfing or not, surfers who don't follow the basic tenets of surfing end up causing dinged and damaged surfboards, injuries, and generally piss everyone off.
Generally the rules are the same most places, which we have outlined below. However, always be mindful of local rules that may be impacted by the location, country or the people surfing that wave. Before paddling out, make sure to observe more than just the wave. Watch where surfers are paddling out, where they are paddling in, whether there is a pecking order and take note of any other unique behaviors you don’t normally see at your home break. Understanding the guidelines around surfing will help you to enjoy your time in the water but more importantly, it will ensure that everyone else will enjoy their time in the water.
1. Right of way
The most contentious issues arise from right of way and dropping in (or burning) someone. The easiest way to remember who has right of way is to remember, the surfer closest to the peak has the priority.
So… if you're paddling for a righthand wave, and a there’s a surfer over your left shoulder, the wave is theirs.
2. Dropping in
Whether its County Line, 3rd Point Malibu or 56th Street Newport you’re likely to get burned on at least one of your waves per session, hopefully not more. Dropping in on someone is dangerous but happens often. Although it’s not always on purpose. If you happen to be the one dropping in on someone else, quickly but safely pull off the wave and apologize when you see the person you burned back in the line up. The rule is one wave, one surfer. In most cases, you can't have more than one surfer on a wave unless its a “party wave,” usually designated by friends.
Snaking happens at every spot and while most people know the rule, many of us routinely break it. The video above displays a good example of what not to. Some exceptions to the rule are when surfing a beginner wave where everyone clumps together or when there is lots of opposing current and everyone is trying to stay with the peak.
4. Don’t get in the way
Paddle wide of the peak, giving riding surfers an open line on the wave as you paddle back out. If you are faced with the decision of which way to paddle when a sufer is coming down the line, almost always paddle to the inside, towards the breaking wave. No one likes taking a wave on the head, but surfers like it even less when you paddle into the line of their wave and they have to straighten out and lose their “wave of the day.”
5. Sit on the shoulder
This usually applies to lesser crowded spots, point and reef breaks. If you are new to a wave, you should not paddle directly up to the peak and start grabbing waves. Sit on the shoulder, let the guys/gals who are already there, catch a few waves. Let them see you hanging on the shoulder. They will see this as a sign of respect and will likely be more open to having you join the line-up after some time has passed.
6. Get in the rotation
If we were all so lucky… a rotation or literal line-up usually only applies at point breaks and lesser known spots that don’t have much crowd. If you find your self new to an area like this, don’t just assume the wave is yours to take as there may be a rotation of surfers waiting their turn for the next wave. If you’re surfing a beach break, especially a crowded one, this is not something you need to be concerned with.
7. Wait to get in the water
Again, this only applies to a local or uncrowded break. Take your time to get suited up and wait for one surfer to exit the water before paddling out yourself. This ensures that the wave never gets too crowded and everyone gets their waves.
8. Don’t ditch your board
In some cases, ditching your board is warranted. Usually this happens in bigger surf with less surfers in the water and the concern is not large in terms of hitting anyone else. If you are just learning to surf, your first priority should be learning how to duck dive (see the video below). Not feeling comfortable with getting under waves is what normally causes less experienced surfers to ditch their boards. Ditching your boards could result in hitting someone or someone else’s board at a more crowded surf spot.
9. Don’t bring sand to the beach
If you’re heading to a beach break and you’re meeting 10 of your friends on the sand for a group hang session, that’s understandable. However, if you are showing up somewhere new or heading to a generally uncrowded peak, leave your 10 friends at home. Consider paddling out by yourself (you gain more respect that way) or max with one other, sit on the shoulder and slowly work your way into the rotation.
I't’s okay to speak to each other in the water. For some reason there is a ‘too cool’ vibe that permeates a lot of line ups. Talking to other surfers in the water is okay and lightens the mood. Juts don’t be one of those ‘won’t shut up guys.’ When you’re at a crowded spot, let the others around you know if you’re going ‘left’ or going ‘right’ and don’t be afraid to ask them which way they are headed. This will give you options and keep everyone happy and safe in the long run. If you’re headed down the line and someone drops in on you, give them a verbal cue that you’re coming and give them the benefit of doubt that the sun or offshore winds blinded their view. All-in-all, we benefit from more communication in and out of the water.
A simple apology when a mistake is made can turn a quick enemy into a new friend and in the worst case it will ease any tension in the air after a screw up. Ignoring the situation or trying to pretend like it didn’t happen will just exacerbate the situation.
12. Show Respect
Follow the suggestions above and you won’t have to do much else to earn the respect of other surfers. If the spot you’re surfing is new to you or is a ‘local’ spot be that you’ll likely be noticed as not being from there. On the flip-side, if someone new visits your home break, give them a chance to earn some waves before you heckle them out of the water.
13. Take 3 for the sea
Mother Nature was kind enough to provide us with the escape of surfing. We should all do our part to keep the ocean and beaches clean. It’s easy enough to pick up three pieces of trash on your walk back to your car from the water. I promise, it will make you and the planet have a better with just a little extra effort.