If you’ve seen a surf movie, you’ve more than likely noticed a consistent theme that seems to pop up—conflict in the water. Fights in the parking lot between locals, surf gangs that run the local crime scene, and a generally fantastical world of surfing dominates the mainstream surf media—the reality is that it’s far from the truth. Most of the time, the surf community is a welcoming and safe place—but it’s important to know how to navigate it. To do so, you must learn the surf etiquette that starts when you choose where you surf, and should follow you along the way as you make decisions during your session–no matter your level of expertise.
Choose Your Spot Wisely
The etiquette starts before you paddle out–it starts with where you choose to surf. If you’re a beginner, ask around for tips on spots that are beginner friendly. You’ll likely be pointed towards smaller, softer waves, and people who are of similar ability to you. That means any small mistakes you might make won’t be as consequential to yourself, or to others around you.
If you choose to paddle out at an expert level spot, be prepared to know how to safely navigate the lineup and manage the hazards—some surf breaks can be dangerous, even for the most expert surfers.
The Paddle Out
Once you step foot in the water and start paddling out, it’s your responsibility to avoid other surfers and keep yourself (and your board) safe. Paddle around where most of the waves are breaking, and if you are coming face to face with a surfer, always paddle towards the whitewater. This gives the surfer the ability to maneuver on the face of the wave. While it might be your instinct to make things easier to paddle over the face, it’s not fair to the surfer who worked hard to catch the wave to interrupt his ride for your convenience.
Don’t Let Go
If you’re faced with breaking waves, never let go of your board. This is a cardinal sin of surfing that can be easily avoided, but anyone who has seen 9 feet of epoxy flying towards their head know’s all too well that it still happens—sometimes on accident—but more often on purpose, to make life a bit easier for themselves. Instead of letting go and diving under the wave, learn to turtle roll with your board if you’re on a longboard, or duck dive if you’re on a shortboard. Surfboards might be light, but they can cause a lot of damage if they hit someone in the head.
Closest To The Peak Get’s To Go
Once you’re out in the lineup, you’re ready to catch some waves–but typically there’s only room on each wave for one person, so it’s important to wait your turn. The general rule of thumb is that the person closest to the ‘peak’ of the wave, or where the wave is breaking, gets to surf that wave. Another way to think about it is that the surfer with the potential for the longest ride is the one who gets to surf the wave.
Dropping in on someone can be dangerous, and it’s also a good way to upset other surfers. When you’re paddling for a wave always look towards the whitewater to make sure someone isn’t deeper than you. In some cases, if there is absolutely no way the surfer will make it past the whitewater section, it can be OK to drop in–but you need to be totally sure they won’t get past the whitewater.
Paddle With Purpose
If you’re going for a wave, and you’ve determined you’ve got priority, go for it—try not to let good waves pass by. If there’s some else deeper than you, don’t paddle aggressively to try to scratch your way into the wave—it can affect the shape of the wave, and worsen the ride for the other surfer. Let the other surfer have it, and wait for the next wave—it’ll make the experience better for everyone.
Wait Your Turn
When you’re out surfing, don’t battle for every single wave that comes your way. Take time to rest between waves, share the space with others. Cherish every wave you get to surf, and don’t forget—respect gets respect.
Respect The Space
Speaking of respect, it’s the final point in this guide to surf etiquette, and the most important. When you get to a new spot, watch the locals surf and learn how to co-exist with those who have a deep connection with a specific break. This goes from everything from all the points we’ve gone through to the little things. It’s a privilege to connect with the ocean through surfing, and we are all responsible for keeping these spaces clean and safe. If you drive, park in a way that isn’t dangerous. If you see trash, pick it up when you can. Leave the spot better than you found it.
Most importantly, remember—surfing is fun. Don’t forget to smile!
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