Ah, etiquette. It’s something we’re all obligated to learn, whether we’re at the dinner table, behind the wheel, or navigating a crowded surf lineup. We learn many forms of etiquette at a ripe, young age. It’s second nature (for most of us) to place our napkins on our laps at restaurant and sweetly open doors for elderly folks.
But when it comes to surfing, etiquette is often learned the hard way. Because all surfers begin their ocean cavorting at different ages and stages of life, there’s no classroom opportunity to learn gently.
Fortunately for those of you perusing this blog, I’ve done all the physical research and squished surfing etiquette into five rules to follow in the lineup. Keep in mind, just because you’re a seasoned surfer doesn’t mean you understand these rules. I’m sure we’ve all been disgusted by that 40-year-old dude who chews sloppily with his mouth open (like ew, man, didn’t your mother teach you manners!?). That example holds for the 40-year-old dude snaking waves from other surfers out of pure ignorance.
So without further ado, I encourage you, beginner or expert, to read, master, and live these rules.
1. Don’t Drop in on Another Surfer
This is the ultimate, golden rule! I see this happen all of the time, especially during a good swell in North Florida. Everyone is starving for that perfect peak, and they’ll do anything to catch it, even at the expense of other surfers.
“Dropping in” simply explained means surfing in front of another person. Not only is this rude, it’s obtrusive and potentially dangerous. Always respect right of way!
For example, if you are paddling for a wave breaking to the right, and your buddy “Bob” is on your left paddling for it, you need to yield and let Bob shred the gnar. Similarly, if you’re plugging into a wave breaking left, and your girl “Sally” is paddling to the right of you, yield and let her drop in uninterrupted.
Look both ways before you drop in on a wave, and if you accidentally find yourself dropping in on someone else, pull out and let them go. Chances are, there will be other waves, and you’ll avoid getting yelled at. Or punched.
2. The Surfer Closest to the Peak has Right-Of-Way
Piggybacking off the first rule is rule number two. The “peak” is the part of the wave that breaks first, and the surfer closest to it has right-of-way.
This rule is a tad controversial, since everyone surfs on different boards. Longboards, due to size and buoyancy, tend to catch waves sooner than shortboards. Because of this unfair advantage, peak proximity determines right-of-way, which levels the playing field between surfers cruising on logs and surfers shredding on shorties.
A shortboarder (at the peak) and a longboarder (at the shoulder) can still surf the same wave, as long as the longboarder references Rule #1 and moves out of the shortboarder’s path if necessary.
There are a few smaller rules to this one. If surfers split a peak, they both have right-of-way because they will be going opposite directions. If two surfers find they are surfing towards each other, they should both either straighten their boards, or kick out. Overall, Rule #2 can be summarized as learning to be nice and give another surfer the opportunity to get the most out of their ride.
3. Paddling Surfer Yields to Surfer Riding Wave
Even if you’re ridiculously excited to jump into the water at a fun break, you should never paddle straight out towards the lineup. Instead, paddle on the outside of the lineup and then once you’re out, you can paddle parallel to find your spot at the break. If you follow this rule, you won’t be in the way of someone paddling into or surfing a wave. You won’t end up being a speedbump for a set of fiberglass fins either, which is always a plus.
In Florida, we deal with a lot of sandbar breaks, and because sandbars tend to shift over time, you’ll inevitably be in someone’s way at some point. If this happens, make sure you paddle BEHIND the surfer, that way you don’t mess up his/her opportunity to ride the wave.
4. Don’t Ditch Your Board
Hey, we all get intimidated sometimes by heavy, angry set waves. But that does not mean you can chuck your board away. You’re not the only one out in the water and it’s important you remember that. Leashes aren’t always reliable either, so don’t depend on one to keep your surfboard in check.
If you’re new to surfing, you’ll need to learn how to duck-dive (pushing your shortboard under the wave) or turtle roll (flipping your longboard upside down as the wave breaks). But until you learn how to control your board, avoid lineups where other surfers can get injured if you lose control.
And being a seasoned surfer doesn’t mean you’re in total control, either. Sometimes you’ll be victim of a less-experienced surfer, and you're still just as likely to tumble in a rough set. Avoid paddling in-front or behind anyone, and give yourself a comfortable amount of distance in case anything goes wrong.
A little advice: Sometimes you can time wave sets, so watch the break a little bit before you paddle out. Hopefully your timing will be perfect, and you won’t have to bother with rough conditions. But this is Florida, not Hawaii, so learn to handle your board anyway.
5. Don’t be a Snake
Snakes are gross. Snakes are unwanted. Snakes are...okay, you get it. I don’t just mean the reptile, either. I’m talking about the guys and gals in the lineup that knowingly get in your way and steal a wave in total disregard of the rules. Snakes are usually experienced surfers who think they’ve earned the right to mark their territory and claim whatever pretty little peak comes their way.
You can’t teach snakes to be nice, but you can avoid becoming one. Don’t steal someone’s wave just because they did it to you. And don’t terrorize beginner surfers. Surfing is a learning experience, and it’s also an enlightening one. There will always be someone a little better than you, so don’t get a big head, because that kind of attitude will come back to bite you.
In conclusion, knowing and respecting these rules will enhance your experience in the lineup. Not only will you avoid injury (self-induced or otherwise), you will display respect and etiquette out in the water. You’ll make more friends, less enemies, and chances are, you’ll learn a lot more.