You probably already know that there are important rules in the lineup. But, in case you are fuzzy on surf etiquette because you are a new surf addict or you haven’t been in the lineup for a while, hopefully this article serves as a helpful reference.
If you get confused, just remember there’s actually only one rule = don’t be a dick.
Surf etiquette rules exist because waves are scarce resources and surfing can be dangerous. And in surfing -- as in life -- if you waste precious resources or put other people at risk, you’re being a dick.
Here are the specific ways surfers can be dicks, and a breakdown of basic etiquette:
#1: “The Drop In.”
When somebody with priority is up and surfing, but you paddle into their wave and take off in front of them, you’re being a dick. Making eye contact with someone who has priority, watching them take off, and then still dropping in on them makes you a dick who is 100% eligible for a lecture (or, usually, in my case, passive-aggressive death stares).
Etiquette: When stroking into the wave, look over your shoulder towards the peak (where the wave is going to break first) to see what the wave is doing and if anybody closer to the peak has taken off and gotten to their feet. In the latter case, that person has “priority” --> don’t go.
If the surfer with priority wipes out and you’re now the surfer paddling for the wave who’s closest to the peak (a.k.a. the surfer with priority), you can go.
If all you see is an explosion of whitewater, but you think you saw a surfer take off beforehand, use your judgment. If you know that surfer rips and always makes it around that section, don’t go. Or, if you’re not sure and there’s space, go, but check back. Exit gracefully if in fact there is someone behind you who has made the section. “Exit gracefully” means: angle towards the shoulder and surf off the back of the wave. That way you avoid a collision, leashes getting tangled up, and/or going over the falls with your head in the other surfer’s crotch, both of you getting gouged by boards, fins and coral heads while you brace yourself for the confrontation that is inevitable upon sputtering up for air.
If the peak is split-able and you’re closest to one side of the peak, communicate “LEFT” or “RIGHT” with the surfer on the other side of the peak, then go.
If somebody with priority is up and has outrun the curl a bit, leaving a little space between themselves and the whitewash, do not try to take off between them and the whitewash. This is rude and dangerous. The surfer with priority may be creating space for a cutback, in which case they would run right into you. The only exception MIGHT BE (this is where you need to utilize that judgment thing again) if you know the surfer up and riding is a beginner, cannot do a cutback, is about to ride off the back of the wave, and you have the space and skill to avoid a collision.
Similarly, the only exception to the No-Drop-In rule MIGHT BE if the person with priority is someone you 100% know is a 100% beginner who is 100% only going straight towards the beach.
#2: “The Interferer.”
If a surfer with priority is up and surfing a wave that is coming towards you (whether you are paddling back to the peak or sitting on the inside), and you do not do everything you can to avoid getting in their way and messing up their wave, you’re being a dick.
Etiquette: If you know you have the space and paddle speed, feel free to paddle towards and over the shoulder. If it’s kinda close but you’re pretty sure you can make it over the shoulder without interfering, make your trajectory very obvious to the surfer on the wave so they can avoid you, and paddle your little heart out on a wide angle towards the shoulder. If it’s close and there’s a chance you won’t make it, again, make your trajectory very obvious to the surfer on the wave, and head for the white water to duck dive or turtle roll.
Yes, this last scenario is less fun than just paddling over the unbroken part of the wave or practicing your best sitting duck impression. But it’s really good “golden rule” practice, a.k.a. doing unto other surfers what you would have done unto you. Waiting for a wave and then, upon catching one, having to slalom around dozens of other surfers who can’t be bothered to move is frustrating and doesn’t allow the surfer to surf the wave as they would like for fear of hurting someone. When in doubt, get out of the way. It’s ultimately safer and more fun for everyone.
This can get tricky at a busy break. You are trying to get out of the way but there are legs and boards and leashes everywhere in your way. Or there are a bunch of people paddling for a wave, and you don’t know who is going to catch it and therefore whose way you should get out of. Just do the best you can to keep everyone safe. And see number #5.
#3: “The Wave Hog.”
When you repeatedly catch a wave, paddle straight back to the peak and take off on the very next decent wave, you’re being a dick.
Etiquette: Share. Same principle you were taught in kindergarten.
This doesn’t mean you have to wait for everybody in a crowded lineup to get another wave before you can take off again. Give it a few waves. In a smaller crowd, there’s usually a rotation… so communicate, take turns, and make friends!
#4: “The Straight-up Hazard.”
When you paddle out in surf well beyond your abilities and need rescuing, you are a straight-up hazard. When you let go of your board and there are people within a mile radius of you, you are a straight-up hazard. And you probably don’t mean to be because you’re probably just starting out, but… you’re also being a dick.
Etiquette: Don’t do it.
#5: “The Unapologetic Dick.”
When you know you’ve done something dickish and don’t acknowledge & apologize for it.
Etiquette: Though I’m being glib and facetious in compiling categories of surf faux pas, I’ve made all of the above mistakes. Everybody messes up. Especially when you’re just starting to surf, there is so much going on in your head. Panic + excitement + deafening waves + things to remember + your body/board just not obeying your brain + fear of messing up and looking stupid. It’s totally understandable if you don’t realize you’ve messed up until it’s too late.
Just apologize sincerely to whomever you’ve inadvertently been a dick to. It goes a LONG way. The other party has messed up before too. They will know you didn’t intend to get in their way, and will appreciate that you’re aware of the mistake and will try not to do it again.
That’s it! Be safe! And most importantly, have fun out there!
P.S. Women can be dicks too. Ladies, please, please, please do not set all of us back by using your boobs/ass/the fact that you’re probably not going to get beat up as an excuse to not follow the rules of surf etiquette.
A version of this piece was originally published in November 2018, by LuEx Magazine: https://www.luex.com/surf/article/manners-make-the-surfer.html.
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