Surfing Etiquette

Surfing Etiquette

Surfing is governed by an unspoken code of conduct which serves a purpose far more critical than in other activities. In surfing, there are no written rules or guides to follow, no signs telling you where you can go and where you shouldn’t. There is just you, the ocean, and everyone else in the lineup. Add to that the fact that there are more and more people joining that very lineup each year making surfing etiquette all the more important.

Unfortunately, few bother to observe these unwritten rules and fewer still pay attention to their surf instructors who may, to their own blame, mention it only in passing without truly subjecting their students to drills or practical situations where such etiquette must be observed.

The result is growing hostility in the water as more surfers take to the sport ignorant of or, worse, indifferent to the unspoken code. The best thing any surfer can do is to take etiquette to heart and practice them in the water – much of which are driven entirely by common sense.


Right of Way

No doubt, the most often ignored etiquette is the right of way. In general, the surfer closer to the peak of the wave has the right of way. The surfer further away from the peak must yield to the other. Dropping in or “snaking” another surfer’s wave is truly the cardinal sin of surfing. The common sense driver here is that you never want to interfere with someone else’s wave.

surfing-etiquette-1As with any rule, there are caveats and special circumstances. The surfer closer to the peak may be too far outside or for whatever reason, backs off on the wave. In this situation, the other surfer now has the opportunity to take the wave. The surfer further away from the peak may find he is already too deep and can’t pull away from the wave. The next best option would be to kick out of the wave as soon as he stands up.

There are also some grey areas that are left to debate. What if you are closer to the peak on your shortboard but a longboarder further away from the peak has already managed to catch the wave long before you have even had a chance to start paddling for it? What if a surfer further away from the peak quickly paddles past you to get the inside position closer to the peak? These are cases which are not as cut and dry and in such situations, your best course of action is to simply let the other surfer have that wave. There will be more.


Situational Awareness

More than half of right of way violations could be avoided if surfers just maintained a sense of situational awareness. All it takes is a fraction of a second to look up before taking off on a wave. Make it second nature to quickly glance up to check if anybody is already on the wave before you begin your popup maneuver.

Even while you are just sitting between waves, make it a point to look around you and assess other surfers in the lineup. If you already know someone is situated to your right, you’ll be aware of a potential conflict when a left-ward peak rolls in even before you’ve turned your board around to paddle for the wave. Take note of others’ skill levels. If that surfer to your right is clearly a beginner, the likelihood of them catching the wave might be slim or even if they caught the wave, they’ll likely go straight. No point in wasting a perfectly good left. Take note of particularly skilled or aggressive surfers. They may make sections you’d think impossible.


Bailing Your Board

Second only to snaking a wave, bailing your board is another major transgression. In particular, after ending your ride, you invariably find yourself inside or in the impact zone in the way of incoming surfers. The worst thing you can do in these situations is to wait around. By doing so you can endanger incoming surfers, those paddling out behind you, as well as yourself. Basically three situations can occur when you are caught inside off your board and a wave starts coming at you:

  • You are now an obstacle to surfers that may be riding that incoming wave. Without your board, you are not able to maneuver as quickly and you sure do not have any control over where your board is.
  • If you leave your board behind you, the wave could catch it and send it hurtling towards anyone behind you. Leashes have also been known to tangle and sprain ankles, feet, and fingers this way.
  • If you leave your board in front of you, the wave could catch it and throw it back at you. Too often, people take a board or fin to the head in these situations.

The best thing to do when you are caught inside is to get on your board as quickly as possible and begin paddling back out.


Paddling Out

surfing-etiquette-2Often times, the best way between two points is not a straight line. You never want to paddle out into the path of someone’s wave. Use your judgment to determine which direction to paddle based on minimizing the chance of getting in someone’s way – not based on which is an easier paddle out.



Sometimes you just can’t depend on other surfers to have complete situational awareness. You’ll have to make your presence known. There is nothing rude with calling out to another surfer that you are already on the wave. Or calling out the direction you intend to go while paddling for a wave. This is particularly critical when two surfers are at a peak which appears to be breaking in both directions. By calling out “left,” the surfer to the right will not have to back out of the wave and can proceed right.

If you are caught inside directly in the line of an incoming surfer, yell out to make your presence known. It’s best to risk offending than to risk serious bodily injury. In any event, you can always follow up with a genuine “thank you” after the danger has past.


The Ocean is for Everyone

No matter what some people might think, nobody has any divine right to the ocean. It’s for everyone. Given that, we need to respect each other while we are out there. I don’t think of it so much as rules – after all, the whole allure of surfing is freedom and living in the “now.” Rather, I think of it as common sense for the sake of safety as much as courtesy for the sake of respect to others just trying to enjoy the same sense of freedom.

In short, be good to other surfers in the lineup and etiquette just falls into place.


  1. Reply

    Man, this is KEY learning right here. I feel like everyone needs to learn this before they learn to paddle out into the lineup. This would cut down on so many unnecessary injuries and really increase the fun-factor out there. Great info. Must read.

  2. Reply

    The first “grey area” under THE RIGHT OF WAY, is my main bone of contention. I stick to the closest to the peak rule, although I will usually yield the first couple of times, there are a few wave hogs that have an unfair advantage with a long board they will always be standing first. If they beat me to the peak, I have no problem.

    Anyway those are mostly isolated incidents, yet I’m sure most of us have similar experiences trying to get or share of the fun.

  3. Reply

    Such valuable info for the kook

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