Surfing Etiquette: Top 10 Rules Every Surfer Should Know

Surfing is a tribal sport, and observing the rules and regulations is extremely important. That is to say, otherwise, you will not be able to survive in the surfers' community. Surfing etiquette must be correctly observed; otherwise, there is a high risk of getting injured.

It is rather intriguing how such a liberating sport is engulfed with so many restrictions and do’s and don’ts. However, practicing them is truly for the better on most occasions.

The only complicated bit here is the unwritten rules. These are only known by true surfers, and you learn them once you break them. But breaking the rules in the surfer community results in exile. 

Therefore, keep yourself out of trouble as much as you can so you do not end up on the wrong side of the board.

Surfing Etiquette: The Right of Way

Before all else, observing the right of way is probably the most essential surfing etiquette everyone should know. Here’s a simple breakdown of how to observe the right of way:

  1. Furthest out: When a surfer is waiting for the longest, they are called the “furthest out.”
  2. Furthest inside: When a surfer is riding a breaking wave near the peak, they are called furthest inside.
  3. First to feet: The surfer who jumps before everyone else onto the wave is first to feet.
  4. Communication: When a wave is dual-peaking, surfers communicate using surfer slang or callouts.

The right-of-way surfing etiquette is mentioned prior to all the rules because it is of the utmost importance and accounts for most violations and rules in surfing. Learning about the right of way shows other surfers that you are a considerate surfer willing to learn.

Having a positive impression in the surf community is incredibly helpful as it makes sure you are seen as someone likable. This saves you from a lot of frustrated surfers, and you can even make some new friends while you’re at it.

Learn the Unwritten Rules

When you enter the world of surfing sports, the experiences can be rather intimidating, unlike anything else. There are no fixed teams, yet you must exhibit great team play. However, this becomes difficult in surfing because you will always have different surfers around who have varying skills.

It’s the unwritten rules and etiquettes of surfing that scare beginners, and it is common to hear things such as “I’m too scared to end up in someone else’s way” and even things like “I don’t want to end up accidentally taking someone’s wave.”

There are a lot more panic phrases. This is mainly due to localism and tribalism in surfing. For a sport that demands compliance and consideration, the surfing community is ruthless and will immediately make you regret even taking the sport on for the slightest mistakes.

10 Surfing Rules to Always Practice

There are about ten major surfing rules you need to know before venturing off to the endless ocean waves. Without further ado, here are ten things you must always observe:

1. Choose a Compatible Location

Surfing is indeed a sport filled with excitement and is an experience that lasts a lifetime. Nevertheless, surfing means you’re out in the ocean with only your board as land and vehicle. Therefore, it can easily become quite dangerous if you are surfing against unfavorable conditions.

This is exactly why it is recommended that you choose the spot carefully and check the weather and environmental status before diving in. 

Suppose you are still unsure how to go about this. You can take an experienced friend or a surf coach with you to ensure your safety. A small piece of advice would be to aim for soft and small waves if you are a beginner.

2. Never Drop In Under Any Circumstances

Suppose you do not want an angry surfer trying to dunk you and running for your life. Do not drop in, no matter what. As aforementioned, this falls under the right of way etiquette. The surfer who is surfing closest to the peak has the right of way.

Wherever you go surfing, there are probably others who are competing for the same waves as you. Therefore, as a beginner, ensure that you do not drop in on anyone. Just know which waves you can go for and which ones you can’t.

Generally, the surfer with the longest wave ride is given priority for the wave. In other words, he has the right of way.

Here’s an example: consider a scenario where you are paddling your way and want to take a left. There is another surfer to your right side, and you are going for the same wave. You are only allowed to take the wave if he does not catch the wave or trips from his board.

3. Never Snake - An Offensive Crime 

You know how bad dropping in is, right? Well, snaking is considered far, much worse, and offensive. The reason behind this is that snaking is greedy and hypocritical. Moreover, this technique is only pulled by competent surfers who are aware of what they are doing.

Therefore, there’s a rare chance you will end up snaking by mistake. If you are a beginner, you have nothing to worry about, but it will come in handy once you start getting firm with your board.

So, what is snaking? Snaking is when a surfer has been waiting for his turn and starts to paddle for a wave that’s about to arrive. You wait for him to paddle and while he is focused, you paddle closer to the peak and claim the wave. As soon as the wave arrives, you put the surfer in a position where he is considered the “drop-in.”

On the contrary, he had the right of way, and you manipulated the situation. It is common to think you can get away with this. But bear in mind most surfers know who the snake is, and if you get caught, it’s a serious crime.

Surfers tend to be aggressive as well. Therefore, by committing such crimes, you’re likely to put yourself in danger. Apart from this, keep yourself updated with local spots because localism leads to this mentality where the surfers believe they have the right of way to every single way.

4. Wide Paddling and Avoiding Lines of Other Surfers

Yet again, this is another right-of-way surfing etiquette. It is rather simple while paddling out -ensure you do not end up getting in another surfer's way as they ride their tides.

The first note to take here is - never paddle directly in the impact zone. The impact zone is the area where the waves crash the most and is normally clustered with surfers. Instead of this, go a wider angle through the channel where waves don’t break.

This will be quite difficult in some situations because waves break almost everywhere. In such a scenario, aim for a place where there are fewer surfers.

The second note is to avoid ending up in a surfer’s line. In the event that you see a surfer approaching you, start paddling towards whitewater or further away to avoid ruining the wave for the surfer.

Experienced surfers will do everything to avoid you, but it is also your responsibility not to ruin their fun.

5. Wait Your Turn 

Surfing is and is not a solo sport, even if you bring your board. You need to share the waves, and doing it the right way dictates your future as a surfer and your spot in the community.

There are certain spots with consistent takeoff zones. For instance, reef breaks and point breaks. These spots have the possibility that every surfer can take a turn.

Now, taking turns refers to waiting in line until the other surfers take off one by one. Based on right-of-way, the surfer who waited the longest will get the next chance, and there will be no arguments about it.

As for the surfer who has taken their turn, they will respectfully come back to the end of the line.

6. Communication is Key

Surfer communication or “comms” means asking and coordinating with other surfers. An example would be to always check with your fellow surfers and ask them whether they are headed left or right.

In addition, you can also let them know your intentions. That is to say, communication in turn helps mitigate risks of collision or any sort of feud over waves. 

If you are afraid of accidentally dropping in or snaking. Remember, communication will protect you from violating many rules.

7. Show Respect: Localism is Dangerous

Being local doesn’t mean you permanently settled in on the spot or have moved in. In surfer terminologies, localism means you are a local surfer if you have a long track record of surfing on a specific spot for years.

Localism is quite common. Therefore, if you are surfing a known spot or somewhere different, be sure to learn about what rules apply there and how locals perceive things. Chances are if you commit the slightest mistake, you’ll be told off from the waves.

There’s nothing to worry about; just take your time and get the specifics down at first. Rest will come with experience.

8. Don’t Let Go of Your Board 

The surfboard is a strong piece of equipment; tossing it around recklessly can cause you injury or put others at risk in a crowded spot.

It is normal to feel tempted to dive under a wave and toss the board away. However, there might be others paddling behind you, and by throwing your board back, you can inflict damage on an unmanned board.

This rule is especially important for beginners. That is to say, you’re likely to start with a large and heavy board until you can get a good grip. Your piece of equipment can lead to fatal injuries if you are not careful.

9. Apologies Where Necessary 

You will probably not find this in the surf etiquette, but it is an unwritten rule. There is a high chance you’ll come across experienced surfers who will point out what you did wrong on purpose.

This includes snaking and dropping in, mostly. Therefore, if you are caught messing up, do not argue or try to apologize properly. In addition, ensure that you do not repeat the offense because if you do - you will have some frustrated surfers swearing at you.

On the other hand, most experienced surfers will let you off with a “No worries, bro.” But then again, if you repeat the offense, you are just testing their patience at this point.

10. Be Likeable

This rule applies to everything in life. Having a positive attitude gets you a long way. Even if the surfing community can be scary, just being a fun, patient, and considerate person will earn you your spot.

So long as you are polite and respectful, you will learn faster because experienced surfers would be willing to offer help. Remember, the wave waits for no one, so if you see surfers rushing out of a conversation. Don’t take it to heart; just know this sport is as intense as it is enjoyable.

Final Thoughts

Surf etiquette plays a crucial role when it comes to joining the sport. Regardless of whether you are a beginner or already have experience, knowing unwritten rules is important. This is mainly due to these rules varying from location to location.

Nevertheless, the sport is about freedom, and you must earn it by going through harsh trials and being accepted into the community.

Even though the rules may vary from location to location, observing the right of way is the most important etiquette you must memorize by heart and never neglect. This is mainly due to the fact that surfers become mercilessly angry with you if you get in someone’s way or steal a wave.

James Davis

Written by James Davis

I'm a true California local, and I've spent my life riding the waves along our stunning coastline. Surfing has always been my greatest love, and in my writing, I try to capture its genuine essence. My words aim to transport you into the heart of the surf culture, where the ocean and surfers come together in perfect harmony.

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