Surfing is a fun and adventurous ocean sport enjoyed by people at destinations around the world. If you’re ready to start hitting the waves yourself, it’s important to understand the rules of the sport. To avoid chaos while catching waves at worldwide hotspots, you’ll want to learn the proper surfing etiquette before hitting the beach.
To help you navigate the rules of the water, we’ve collected this guide to keep you and others safe and unharmed on the water. From the best way to communicate with other surfers, to how to respect right of way, to familiarizing yourself with marine hazards, we’ve got you covered!
What Does Surf Etiquette Mean?
Learning to surf means far more than simply starting a new sport and mastering the skills necessary to hold your own on the waves. It’s about learning the surfing culture, participating in the wave breaking lifestyle, and creating epic memories on the water that’ll last a lifetime.
However, this ocean sport can be intimidating to novice surfers, and it can be dangerous if it's approached carelessly. To help maximize the fun throughout your day surfing, and to minimize the risk to yourself and others, it’s important to learn the basic surfing manners before ever hitting the water paddling.
Proper etiquette for this fun ocean sport is designed to keep surfers living together in harmony on the water. These rules allow for everyone to have a safe and fun time, and prevent potential chaos that could otherwise ensue on the lineup.
Why is Etiquette While Surfing Important?
Although surfing is a fun and enjoyable ocean sport, it does pose the risk of injury or fatality if riders are careless. As with any other water sport, surfing should be prepared for properly- which includes understanding why following good manners on the water is so important.
Here are a few reasons why surf etiquette is so important:
- You could unintentionally injure yourself, or another surfer
- If you lose your board, you are responsible for it
- If you risk your own safety, you’re also risking others safety who may have to rescue you
- Disrespect for locals or the beach may result in your removal from that location
Surf Etiquette Basics
Creating a definitive surfing code of conduct is easier said than done, and there are no shortages of exceptions in destinations around the world. Good manners while hitting the waves are essential to keep yourself and other surfers safe, confident and comfortable at hotspots and surfing beaches. It’s important to understand that other surfers have equal right to the water as you do, and you should follow proper etiquette to prevent injury or offense.
Here we’ve broken down basic surfing rules to help you navigate the best way to join a surf lineup. Whether you’re diving into the water with locals, or exploring a tourist surf spot with friends, these etiquette tips will keep everyone around happy with your surf style.
Here are 15 etiquette tips for surfing:
Observe Right of Way
Always check out the lineup before paddling out into the surf, and learn who has the right of way on the wave. The fundamental rule for surfing is that the surfer who is closest to the peak of the wave gets priority. Wave priority is about ensuring tranquility and safety on the water, which means understanding when it’s your turn to catch a wave.
Here’s a simplified version of wave priority for surfers:
- The surfer who is furthest out or that has been waiting the longest
- The surfer who is closest to the peak of a breaking wave
- The surfer who is first to their feet on the wave
- The first surfer to communicate which direction they’re taking the wave
Observing the right of way not only keeps peace with other surfers on the water, but it also keeps everyone safe from preventable accidents.
Don’t Drop In
A generally understood and respected rule of surfing is: one person per wave. Although some waves with dual peaks offer an opportunity for two riders to split the wave in different directions, this isn’t the often the case, and most waves only allow for one surfer.
When you drop in on someone else’s wave, you’re disrespecting the unspoken rule. This can quickly ruin someone’s ride, and may even result in severe injuries and damage to surfboards. Treat other surfers on the water how you would want to be treated yourself, and practice these three skills before choosing which wave is right for you:
- Take a deep breath
- Wait your turn...there will always be another wave
Share the Waves
There will always be another great wave, and another perfect opportunity to catch an unforgettable break. Take your time on the water, and share the waves with other surfers around you. Avoid the temptation to snake waves from others, and only attempt to catch waves that suit your skill level.
Novice surfers are often best to keep off to the side of the surfing crowd to observe. Watch the order in which the surfers are grabbing waves, and only attempt to catch waves that pass through unridden by others. Waiting your turn will earn you respect on the water from other surfers, and prevent injury from carelessness.
Snaking is a common behavior in surfing, and a very disrespectful one at that. It’s often seen in crowded lineups when surfers are anxious to beat others to the next epic wave. This behavior involves paddling around one or more surfers to get closer to the wave peak in order to gain priority- and it’s not proper etiquette.
Choose a spot in the line-up, and wait your turn for a wave that belongs to you. Be patient, and do not paddle around other surfers to get to the best spot in the line-up. Surf manners exist for a reason, and for everyone’s safety it’s important that you follow them.
Learn the Right Way to Paddle
When navigating a surf lineup, it’s important to understand the best way to paddle out into the crowd. Your position in the lineup is important, especially when you’re just learning which waves are the most surf-able for your skill level. As your surf experience increases, you’ll learn the best position on the water and it’ll become easier to find your place in the crowd.
It’s easier to paddle through unbroken water than to haul yourself and your board through walls of waves. To prevent this added hassle, observe where you’ll need to be in the lineup and then determine the easiest way to get there- by avoiding waves.
Additional things to consider when paddling out to a surf lineup:
- What are the water and weather conditions today?
- Can you use the rip current to help pull you out?
- Which route to your desired location will not put you in the path of other surfers?
- In case of emergency, what is the quickest and safest way back to shore?
Don’t Get in the Way
It is your responsibility while paddling out to a surf lineup that you avoid the path of other riders. Not only to prevent hassle to others who are trying to enjoy the sport, but also to prevent injury. This means you take the proper precautions to keep your body, and your board, out of the way of others who are also enjoying the water.
Be Cautious of Your Gear
Most surf injuries are not caused by marine life or the sea floor, but by surfboards. This equipment is made of solid materials, and features sharp fins- making it a dangerous object in the water if someone doesn’t have control over it.
To prevent injury to yourself or others, always paddle wide, not through the peak of the wave, and wear a leash to prevent ditching your board. When you wipe out, fall or kick out, it’s important that you are prepared to control your board- even when you go down. These boards can actually do fatal damage if they strike a critical region of the body hard enough, which is why it’s so important to have control of yours at all times during surf.
Unless the threat of injury is likely, never ditch your board while surfing. If you lose your board, you’re responsible for any damage or injury that may result from it. Wear a leash, and practice the proper training before ever hitting the break.
Choose Surf Spots That Support Your Ability
An ideal surf destination is one that supports your ability on the water, with other surfers of similar skill level. Choosing a spot where the conditions are right for your talent on the water is the best way to ensure a great day catching waves and to improve upon your skills.
Avoid diving into a surf spot that is beyond your ability on the water. This is a quick way to upset other surfers by getting in their path, or becoming a potential hazard. If you surf a destination more advanced than your ability, not only can you create an obstacle and risk injury to yourself, but you will risk injury to others as well.
Understand the weather and water conditions before ever paddling out, and practice beach and ocean safety during every trip to the sea. Aside from speaking to local lifeguards and observing the conditions, you’ll want to look for beach warning flags- most use colored flags to indicate a potential hazard.
Help Other Surfers
It’s important to always safely aid another surfer in need- but this doesn’t mean diving in at the first sign of trouble. Surfing can be dangerous, even fatal, so it’s important to look out for one another, warn each other of potential hazards, and understand surfing emergency procedures.
Always be aware of others around you on the water, and take surf training to learn proper protocol for accidents on the surf.
Respect the Beach
The only things you should ever leave behind at the seaside are footprints. The surf spot you visit should look the same, or better, than when you arrived.
Practice responsible ocean use to help preserve our marine ecosystems, and maintain top surf destinations around the world for generations to come. If you’re wondering why protecting our oceans and beaches is so important, check out this article about ocean conservancy.
Here is a quick overview of how to respect the beach you surf at:
- All waste should be collected and disposed of in proper areas
- Don’t vandalize, graffiti or otherwise impact the environment
- Collect waste left by others and dispose of in proper areas
- Leave the local animals wild- don’t feed or touch them
- Join a beach cleanup crew, or organize one of your own
- Reduce your carbon footprint by living consciously at home everyday
Respect the Locals
Whether you’re visiting a top surf destination like the seaside of Sydney, Australia, or looking for the best places for surfers to live, like the North Shore of Hawaii- it’s important to respect the locals. Take the time to understand local culture and traditions on the water to ensure civilized interactions with other surfers.
Learning good surf manners while visiting a spot you don’t know means taking the time to observe and learn from those who’ve used the waters for decades. Likewise, when a foreigner visits the surf you call home, treat them with the same respect you would expect.
Communicate with Other Surfers
Always choose to surf with a buddy or when other people are on the water to ensure ultimate safety in the ocean. Never surf alone to prevent drowning after injury or accident, and to increase your visibility in the water for local boaters.
When the waves are ideal, and a crowd gathers, it suddenly becomes more important than ever that you communicate with others around. Although communication is key during every surf, when a large number of surfers gather in one area, the risks quickly increase.
Take your time to find the right place in the waves, and learn the flow of the other surfers. If you communicate well with others around, everyone will have the best time possible and avoid injury on the surf.
Understand Surfing Threats
Familiarize yourself with threats while surfing to prepare for ultimate safety on the water- for both you and others. Many potential dangers exist in this ocean sport, from marine life, to watercrafts, and it’s not worth jumping in unprepared.
Potential dangers while surfing include:
1. Marine life
Although this threat is less likely than others on this list, Jellyfish, snakes, sharks, urchins, stingrays and more can be life-threatening to ocean sport enthusiasts. Familiarize yourself with local marine life, and check for warnings or speak to lifeguards before entering the water.
2. Rip currents
Waves may look beautiful from the beach, but rip currents underneath the surface pose a real threat to surfers and other ocean lovers. Always check for beach warning flags, or speak to a lifeguard, and prepare yourself with how to handle rip currents in case of emergency.
To prevent drowning, water safety should always be taken seriously. Never surf alone, practice water safety before ever heading to the surf, and familiarize yourself with the area before diving in.
4. The Seabed
The seabed can be a risk to surfers when they fall off of their board, especially in an area with a coral floor. Practice dismounting your board before ever hitting the waves, and know what is below you at all times.
5. Boats and Other Vessels
High visibility in the water is crucial to your safety while surfing, and should always be given much thought and preparation. Aside from never surfing alone, there are ways to stay highly visible in the water for areas that may also allow small vessels. Ideally, you’ll avoid highly trafficked areas all together- and always make sure you’re surfing in a surf-approved location.
When a surfer loses control of their surfboard, it quickly turns into a dangerous piece of equipment. Not only can you get injured from your own board, but you can harm others, too. To avoid this all together, keep a safe distance between you and others at all times, and take your turn hitting waves. Practice your dismount before ever hitting the surf, and wear a surfboard leash at all times to prevent losing control of the board.
We all make mistakes, especially as novice surfers- and that’s ok. If you drop in on someone, snake a wave on accident, or breach the rules in any way, simply apologize. This one comes down to good manners, and is as simple as saying ‘sorry’ to smooth things over.
Likewise, if a beginner accidentally steals a wave from you, give them an opportunity to apologize. Accidents happen, and through clear communication with other surfers in the sea, we create a tranquil environment that’ll leave everyone with a smile at the end of the day.
Surfing is a fun adventure sport, and can be enjoyed when everyone around is respecting proper etiquette. Ensure you have a good time through the following techniques:
- Respect other surfers and the environment
- Explain firmly and kindly when a novice surfer breaks etiquette
- Share waves with others
- Take waves when it’s your turn
- Help other surfers in trouble
Navigating your way on the water is best done with patience, respect and an effortlessly good time!
1. If you would like to further your surfing manners on the water, we recommend hiring a surfing instructor, or to take a surfing class. There’s no amount of online research that can compare to the one-on-one advice and training that you can get from an expert first-hand. Because surfing comes with it’s fair share of risks and dangers, it’s important that you take the time to learn the basics before ever hitting the waves.
2. Smile, and enjoy your time surfing! There’s no quicker way to ruin someone’s surf than to bring bad vibes into the water. Positive people create positive space for others to enjoy their time, the waves and the company of other like-minded individuals. It’s ok to have a bad day, but don’t let it affect the way others feel on the water.
3. Always have an exit plan. This becomes especially important when temperatures drop below freezing. If you notice that you body is starting to lose it’s capacity to generate heat, you need to exit the water immediately and find an area to warm up. Ideally, you’ll have an area prepared in case of an accident. For example, you can set up the back of your car with gear laid out to warm up safely and quickly. You’ll want to pack mittens, dry clothes, a dry robe, a hat, socks and boots.
Surfing is more than just a fun ocean sport, it becomes a part of us the moment we catch our first wave. Make the most of your time on the water, by understanding the best way to handle yourself while you’re out there. From emergency procedures, to surfing manners, to having the right equipment and more- this sport requires a certain amount of preparation before ever getting to the action.
However, if you take the time to practice, invest in quality gear, and to learn the rules of the surfing world, you’ll set yourself up for ultimate success on the water!
Are you ready to grab your surfboard and ride the break? Or has this article helped you better prepare for your next adventure in the sea? We invite you to tell us about it in the comment section below- we love to hear from our readers, and hope to hear from you!
Additionally, check out some of our best gear guides for surfing like the best skateboard for surfing training, the best wetsuit for cold water surfing, and the best surfboard travel bags.
Megan Jones leads the editorial staff of Seaside Planet. They are a multidisciplinary team of outdoor adventurers, water sports lovers, and passionate beach goers. You can learn more about Meg and the rest of the editorial team here.