Surfing may seem unorganized from the beach, but in the water there’s an unspoken set of rules which serve to equalize wave time and keep surfers safe. Unfortunately, many novice surfers (read: kooks) dash into the water and paddle into the lineup without adhering to surfing etiquette. Nobody likes rules, especially surfers, but as more people learn to surf, popular surf spots are becoming crowded with surfers who aren’t familiar with the guidelines of surfing, creating a dangerous environment for those who do.
Amateur surfers who’ve entered crowded water before, will probably report numerous raised middle fingers and stink eyes directed their way. It isn’t the end of the world if you don’t know surfing etiquette, but without being fully informed you are at risk of being seriously injured - either by another surfer’s board or, in some spots, by that surfer’s fist. In a perfect world, surf spots wouldn’t be as crowded as they are today, and surfing etiquette would be but a sad idea devised by sad people. In the real world, though, an empty surf spot is commensurate to a miracle, as almost every worthwhile break is littered with surfers who all have the same goal: to catch the next wave.
In this surfing etiquette handbook, I’ll lay out five rules every surfer should adhere to in the water. As we all know, rules are meant for breaking, so take this advice with a grain of salt and remember that your judgement usually knows best. Below are five surfing etiquette rules to take into the water next time you paddle out:
Right Of Way
Right of way dictates that the surfer closest to the peak of the wave has priority over all other surfers. This means that if you’re about to take off on a wave, be sure to make sure that there is nobody behind you who’s also trying to take off on that wave. If you both take off successfully, you will be in front of the other surfer where you will be expected to immediately turn out of the wave. What more often happens, though, is that you will land directly on the surfer who took off behind you. Be aware and make sure nobody is taking off behind you on a wave, because that person always has right of way.
If the wave is an A-frame or split peak, allowing surfers to ride the way in either direction, then it is okay to take of on the same wave. You must take off the opposite direction though, otherwise you are still violating the rule of right of way, putting other surfers - and yourself - in danger.
Don’t Drop In On Another Surfer
By following the rule of right of way, you should never find yourself violating this surfing etiquette rule. Still, it is important to highlight the dangers of dropping in on another surfer. If a surfer is riding a wave or is about to drop in, NEVER drop in in front of him or her. You may think you are able to ride the wave tandem with another surfer, but there’s a high chance you’ll simply collide and bail into a tangled ball of limbs and leashes. Dropping in on a surfer is one of the most dangerous acts that can be committed while surfing, as your board will almost always line up directly with the surfer’s head who has already caught the wave. Be patient, get in position, and wait for your own wave.
Paddler Yields To Surfer
When paddling out toward the line up, make sure to stay out of the way of surfers who are riding toward you. Unless you want to be jabbed in the ribs by a sharp or heavy surfboard, make sure to paddle behind and past a surfer instead of trying to race him and cutting in front. Although it may seem like you can get over the wave before the riding surfer reaches you, there’s a good chance you’ll end up smack dab in his tracks unless you take the safe option and paddle behind him. Use your head.
Don’t Let Go Of Your Board
When things get hectic in the water, many beginners have an inherent reaction to ditch their board and swim underwater to avoid being obliterated. For the sake of everyone around you, NEVER let go of your surfboard. Often times a powerful set sweeps through the line up, relocating every surfer who calmly sat in the water only moments before. When this happens, remember to paddle towards the oncoming waves with all your might, and duck dive under them when they reach you. Your duck dive may be unsuccessful, but if you hold onto your board you’ll ensure the safety of others around you - surfboards aren’t bad flotation devices either.
This rule is looser than the rest. It should be adhered to, but if you feel that you have the skill and ability to make this move and execute, your fellow surfers will turn a blind eye. The reason you shouldn’t snake, is because it is essentially cutting in line. Snaking is when a surfer paddles around the surfer closest to the peak - who has right of way - in order to give himself right of way, maneuvering himself into the optimal position. As you can imagine, this is not the most courteous way to go about catching waves, and directly violates one of the main rules of surfing etiquette. Despite this, though, many surfers snake to catch waves - including nearly all professional surfers - and if adhering to surfing etiquette is hindering your ability to catch a wave, throw out the rules and succeed. I’m not saying that nice guys finish last, but they do catch less waves.
By following these five rules, you will behave as if you’re an experienced surfer whether or not you actually are. Surfing is a dangerous sport, with heavy boards, sharp fins, and tons of other surfers adding to the potential hazards. By following these five rules, the risks of being injured in the water are greatly reduced. Surfers are a laid back bunch on dry land, but in the water they expect respect, wit, and order. Because of the increasing difficulty to find surfing spots that aren’t heavily surfed, rules like these have been developed to ensure fairness and fun for all. These rules are not meant to intimidate beginners, and aren’t strictly enforced until someone makes a dumb decision and puts other people in danger. Avoid a run in with an angry surfer, and practice surfing etiquette to make the water a safer and more enjoyable place for all.