Are you just starting out on your surfing journey?
A packed beach can seem like a daunting prospect if you don’t properly understand the rules of the sport.
That’s why we’ve created the definitive guide to surf etiquette filled with the fundamental rules every surfer should know before they paddle out.
Let’s dive in to see exactly what you need to do to stay safe and respectful when you’re out in the ocean.
Understanding Priority & The Right Of Way
If you take just one thing away from this guide it should be a good understanding of what priority is and who has the right of way when you’re out catching and riding waves.
Surfboards can be dangerous weapons when they come hurtling towards you or the path of other surfers.
So let’s look at the golden rules every surfer should know when they’re navigating crowded lineups:
- The closest surfer to the breaking wave has priority and first refusal of that wave.
- Once up and riding no one should try to catch that wave unless they are surfing away in the opposite direction (this situation is called a split peak).
- Once a surfer has caught a wave they should (in theory) wait until all the other surfers in the lineup have caught a wave.
These important unwritten rules of surfing do a relatively good job of policing surf breaks all over the world.
Anyone who’s spent time surfing will know that these rules work great with a few of you on your best behaviour but they only serve as a set of guidelines at most surf spots.
Advanced surfers can paddle faster and are much better at identifying the best position for incoming set waves which normally leads to them catching more waves.
Large numbers of waves will have dedicated locals that surf them every time they break and as such they’ll normally help themselves to some extra waves by pulling the ‘local card’.
But despite some being of these rules they still provide a general rule of thumb for nearly any break on this planet.
Expert tip – When you’re a beginner quantity is often better than quality, so don’t be afraid to skip the busy spots for quieter mellower waves.
Never Drop In On Another Surfer
Now you understand exactly who has the right of way on a wave you have absolutely no reason to commit surfing’s cardinal sin, the drop-in.
Dropping in involves taking off on the shoulder of a wave when another surfer is already up and riding closer to the peak of the wave.
It can lead to collisions, leashes getting tangled and damage to you and your surfboard. Severe injuries aren’t uncommon in surfing and dropping in is a rude, unnecessary risk.
Additional reading – Don’t miss our guide on some of the most common surfing injuries.
At some surf spots, a drop-in can lead to aggression and violence from other surfers. This can spill over into localism and territorial attitudes towards surf spots.
Head over to our complete guide on localism in surfing to find out more about this fascinating but worrying trend in surfing.
Don’t Snake & Back Paddle
Snaking or backpaddling is a rather naughty activity that the utmost lack of respect for your fellow surfer.
It involves intentionally paddling around someone waiting to position yourself closer to the peak of the wave.
When the next set wave arrives the priority rules technically favour the surfer closest to the breaking wave but that only applies if the surfer actually has priority.
In the case of snaking and backpaddling the surfer who was patiently waiting is actually the one with priority and is well within their right to drop in.
The bottom line is you should never paddle wide or inside to purposefully jump the queue.
Head over to our definitive guide to surfing and back paddling to get the full lowdown on how it happens and why.
Don’t Ditch Your Board
Ditching or bailing your board is the practice of climbing off your surfboard to swim under white water and reach the unbroken waves.
While this might seem like a great shortcut to getting out the back it creates a massive danger for other surfers and ocean users around you.
At a minimum, your surfboard leash will be 6ft long and it could be as long as 10ft.
This means anyone behind you is at a serious risk of getting brained by your surfboard and even worse, you won’t even know.
If you can’t paddle out properly you need to learn to duck dive or turtle roll before you can head out the back and surf unbroken waves.
Surf Waves That Match Your Ability
Beginner surfers are often guilty of overestimating their ability and paddling out at surf spots that are way beyond their current skill level.
Aim to surf spots where the ocean floor is exclusively sand when you’re a beginner and use common sense when you’re assessing waves.
If you’re not sure about what the waves are going to be like at your home break you can always take advantage of surf reporting apps like Surfline.
Respect Other Ocean Users
We as surfers aren’t the only humans out trying to enjoy the ocean. Chances are you could be sharing the waves with bodyboards, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and even body surfers.
It’s not uncommon to experience close-to-tribal behaviour amongst some groups of surfers.
I personally watched a kayaker get shouted out of the water at one of Portugal’s more popular beach breaks.
My personal view is we’re all out here trying to enjoy mother nature and making the effort to create some form of harmony helps us all have a better time.
Try to give everyone a smile no matter what they’re riding and you’ll be surprised how friendly other ocean dwellers can be.
Always Wear A Leash
While it might seem like a great way of reducing drag, surfing without a leash is just downright dumb.
I think of it kind of like driving without a seatbelt, but in reality, you’re more likely to ruin another surfer’s day rather than your own.
This nasty trend is common in places like Byron Bay, so much so that the local government has just imposed considerable fines for anyone found to be surfing without a leash.
Check out the full article over at Beach Grit here.
Leave The Beach Cleaner Than You Left It
This one is not necessarily etiquette out in the water but I think it’s still a really important part of protecting the ocean we all love.
Picking up any discarded or washed-up rubbish on the walk back from your session is a perfect way to do your bit to protect the place you love.
I keep a plastic crate in the back of the car that either comes with me or gets filled back at the car depending on how far away the spot is.
You don’t need to come back with a whole bins worth but very little helps and if enough surfers start joining suit we could go a long way to help clean our coastlines.
Learn To Fall Safely
Falling safely is important for you and any other surfers around you at the time.
As a rule, you want to fall away from the nose of your board to either side or off the back.
Avoiding your board and particularly the surfboard’s nose is critical here.
Equally, you want to avoid kicking your board away like a fibreglass cruise missile because it can be a serious risk if you bail in front of other surfers paddling out.
Important tip – When recovering your surfboard after a fall, avoid pulling too sharply on your leash. Your board can shoot back towards your face at lightning speed.
Don’t Be A Wave Hog
This one sits firmly in the realm of just being a good person and not being greedy. Taking more waves than you’re entitled to is a massive red flag in the surfing world.
If you happen to be having a great session where ever wave pops up exactly where you are then do exactly as follows.
As you see the wave approach turn to look behind or on either side of you to find another surfer who’s going to be next in position to catch the wave.
With a simple nod or ‘your wave’ you can quickly signal them to get ready and gain respect from fellow surfers, trust me, this small act of kindness won’t go unnoticed.
Now you’ve carefully digested the basic commandments of surfing you’re all set to head out and start shredding those peaks with nothing but mutual respect and good manners.
Let’s face it, surfing is getting more popular every year and if we can’t learn to actively get along safely with each other then we really shouldn’t be in the ocean.
If you’ve enjoyed learning all about surf etiquette then make sure you don’t miss our other great reads below packed with fascinating looks into the world of surfing.