Surfing Etiquette For Beginners

Just like almost anything else in life, there are basic rules of etiquette in surfing that keep people safe and allow everyone to enjoy the waves. However, if you don’t know these rules before your first session, you could be in for a big surprise when you paddle out.

This tutorial will give you everything you need to know about surfing etiquette.

Understand Right of Way in Surfing

Just like with driving a car, there is also a right of way in surfing. Here are the common situations where you need to know about right of way.

Most Inside

The most frequent scenario that you will run into is when two people are in the same area and start paddling for the same wave. In this case the person who is closer the the “inside” of the wave has the right of way.

“Inside” refers to the position closest to where the wave is breaking.

outside vs inside in surfing

First to Feet

There is an exception to the most inside rule and that is the first surfer to stand up usually has the right of way. This usually applies to when one surfer catches a wave that is further away from shore than another surfer.

The surfer who is closer to shore might have the inside position, but the surfer that is further from shore was the first to stand up and therefore has the right of way.

If you are both sitting at a similar distance from shore, then the inside rule applies.

Furthest Out

Some surfers will sit further from shore to catch the biggest waves of the day. They are willing to sacrifice quantity for quality.

If you see someone waiting for a big set and it comes, they have the right of way.

Call of Direction

When someone says that they are going to go left and they have the best position, then let them go. If you have an opportunity to go right, communicate this and both of you can get the wave.

Otherwise, there could be confusion and you could both miss the wave.

Longest Wait

It’s cool to let the person who has been waiting the longest have the next wave. This isn’t always possible, especially on crowded days.

But do your best.

Be aware that there are some people who will just sit there and not paddle for any waves. So don’t wait on them.

Don’t Drop In on Other Surfers

When another surfer has the right of way and you catch the same wave as them, this is called “dropping in” on that surfer. Here’s a picture to illustrate an example.

Right of way in surfing

This can be dangerous and at the very least is considered rude. You are basically messing up another surfer’s ride.

It’s like someone cutting you off on the freeway. 

Luckily, this is easy to avoid with a little awareness. Before you start paddling for a wave, look around you to see if a surfer with better position is going for the same wave.

In the heat of paddling for a wave, or if you are at a crowded spot, this might not always be possible. So also listen for someone calling you off the wave.

They might yell something like “hey” or “yeah.”

Don’t take this personally.

It’s a simple communication to let you know that they are there. They don’t want to ram you with their board.

Getting speared by the tip of a shortboard, hammered by a longboard or getting cut by a fin isn’t fun. So stay awake and always be aware of your surroundings.   

If you do drop in on someone accidently, don’t worry, it happens. Just get off the wave as soon as possible and say sorry.

Don’t Snake Waves

“Snaking” a wave means that you purposely paddle into a better position just before a wave breaks, to get the right of way on a wave. You may do that accidently on a couple of waves and that’s fine.

But nobody likes surfing with someone who does that on every wave.

…and if you do that, some surfers will tell you about it no uncertain terms.

You should put yourself into the best position to catch waves. But don’t be aggressive about it.

Commit Fully to Waves

Nobody likes some who paddles for every wave, then pulls out at the last minute. When you do that, you are basically wasting waves.

Obviously, you will have to pull out of some closeout waves.

But pulling out of every wave is not cool.

If you are doing this, then you are in over your head. Find a smaller break to practice.

Paddling Surfer Yields to Up and Riding

If some is already riding a wave and you are paddling out, it’s your job to get out of the way.

When a surfer is coming towards you, do your best to get behind the path of the surfer. This way, you won’t block the other surfer’s ride and you won’t get rammed by their board.

Share the Waves

If you just got a good wave, give someone else a turn. It’s basic human decency.

This isn’t always possible at crowded breaks, but do your best.

…and sometimes sharing waves means catching a wave with a couple dozen of your closest friends.

Can you say party wave?! 😂 It’s a good thing most of them are riding soft top boards.

Be Cool

Getting waves at a crowded break may seem like a surfing competition.

But it isn’t.

You are all there to have fun, so treat everyone with respect.

Say thanks, sorry, or whatever you would normally say in a friendly environment.

Find the Best Way to Paddle Out

Always paddle out in a way that will not interfere with other surfers. This might not always be possible, but do your best.

If you have never seen this done before, paddle out at a point that is furthest from where the waves break. Then paddle towards the area where the waves are breaking.

Respect the Ocean

Keep your trash to yourself. When you pollute, everyone has to swim in it, including you.

So clean up your litter and pick up litter you find on the beach. A little awareness goes a long way.

What Happens if 2 Surfers are Going to Collide Head-On?

In this situation, there’s no right of way.

Both surfers have the right of way on their respective peaks. The best thing to do here is to communicate what you intend to do with hand signals.

If you aren’t sure of what to do next, or if things are happening too quickly, then kick out of the wave as soon as possible.

When it’s obvious that one surfer has a better chance at a good ride, then the other rider should kick out.

In all my years of surfing, I’ve never seen a head-on collision. But I’m sure its pretty ugly.

So better safe than sorry.

Be Aware of Localism

There are certain breaks where outsiders are aggressively discouraged from surfing there. This may range from nasty comments to actually being physically attacked.

Don’t worry too much about this because this isn’t the case at most breaks. But be aware that this behavior exists. 

While it may seem unfair, it’s usually best to avoid that beach altogether. There are plenty of good breaks around and it’s not worth the stress from a few individuals who have a poverty mindset.

Surfing is supposed to be fun. 

Even if there seem to be a lot of locals at a spot, if you treat everyone with respect and follow the guidelines in this tutorial, I’ve found that most locals will leave you alone.

…and if you surf there enough, you might become a local too. Everyone was an outsider at one point. 

Surfing Terms You Should Know

What is a Kook in Surfing?

A kook is a person who just started surfing and doesn’t know what they are doing. On top of that, they think they know better than other surfers or act like a seasoned surfer, based on what they read on the internet. They have no regard for surfing etiquette and can be a danger to themselves and others.

What is a Section in Surfing?

A section is a rideable part of a wave. This is the part with an open face or a rideable barrel. Surfers will often say that they “made a section,” meaning that they were able to get through a challenging part of a wave.

Final Thoughts on Surfing Etiquette

So that’s the basics of surfing etiquette. That might seem like a lot of you are just getting started.

But if you just keep the golden rule in mind, then you will be just fine.

It helps to put yourself in the trunks (or bikini) of the other surfer and see your actions from their point of view. Would you get angry at what you did?

Then don’t do that.

Hugh Kimura

I grew up in Hawaii and I've been surfing since I was 9 years old. Since then, I've learned to ride all types of boards from bodyboards to standup paddle boards. I started Stoketopia to share the stoke of being in the water.

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