Surfing Tips | A Beginner Surfer’s Guide to Surf Etiquette

Learning to surf? It's essential you understand about surf etiquette

Whether you think of wave-riding as merely a humble sport, or hold it rather to be a profoundly spiritual undertaking that facilitates communion with nature and shit, surfing has neither stern referee nor supreme apostolic authority to settle disputes and pass judgement. What it does have, though, is a set of unofficial but generally agreed-upon rules, and those surfers who disobey them will assuredly go to hell. They are all that stand between the ever-growing wave-ravenous masses and utter chaos, so it is very important that you learn them; in fact, if you’re learning to surf, surf etiquette is the single most important thing you should know before venturing forth into the salty tumult. Fail to obey these simple rules and you will incur the wrath of your fellow surfers – and rightly so.

Surf somewhere suited to your ability

Knowing where to surf is an often overlooked part of surf etiquette. In the early stages of your surfing career, unless the surf’s extremely small, you should stick to the shallows and practise standing up on waves that have already broken. Joining the more experienced surfers in the “line-up”, where the waves start to break, will be irritating for them and of little benefit to you; you’ll catch far fewer waves and be more likely to fall on the few you do catch. When you do progress beyond the white-water, to begin with keep away from the main pack where the better surfers are sitting. Be honest with yourself about your ability, and don’t paddle out if it’s big and barrelling and you’re not ready for it. At many beaches there’s a peak where the waves are gentler and clearly better suited to beginners; head for this one. If in doubt, consult lifeguards or other surfers.

These beginners learning to surf are better off in the shallows, catching the white water, than out beyond the breaking waves in the “line-up” where the more experienced surfers are sat. Photo: iStock

If you’re a beginner, surfing at an intensely crowded beach will be dangerous for all concerned and simply add to the prevailing misery.

Keep hold of your surfboard

At all times. The instinctive reaction of most beginners when a large wave is bearing down on them is to discard their surfboard and dive under the wave, but this is extremely dangerous and a terrible habit to get into. Particularly at more crowded beaches, it’s hard to be certain exactly where other people are behind you in relation to your surfboard’s “range”, which when you add the length of your board to the length of your leash to the length of your body, and take into the account the distance you’re liable to be dragged by the wave, is much greater than you might have counted on.

It will take a while to learn how to negotiate oncoming waves effectively, and sometimes you will simply have to grit your teeth, hold on as tightly as you can, and accept a hiding with stoicism and grace. If the waves are so big and heavy that it becomes impossible to keep hold of your surfboard, you probably shouldn’t be surfing there in the first place.

Observe the priority rule

Right of way or “priority” belongs to the surfer closest to the peak, the peak in this case referring simply to the point at which a given wave starts to break or “peel” laterally. If a wave peels from north to south, the surfer closest to the peak will thus be the surfer furthest north of all those surfers in a position to catch the wave; all those to his south are said to be on his “outside”.

The surfer nearest the peak has the right of first refusal, as it were, on any wave that comes his way. If he chooses not to go, preferring to wait for a better wave, he retains priority, and the wave passes to the surfer next nearest the peak, who can likewise take it or leave it. If he chooses to use his priority and take the wave, then the wave is his and his alone until he falls off or is outpaced by the wave; having used his priority, he must then join the back of queue. This idea of a queue is not entirely literal — there are no numbered tickets, alas, nor is there a bouncer to ensure nobody pushes in — but it’s the guiding principle behind the priority system.

Don’t drop in

Here the surfer on the right has dropped in on the surfer on the left, who is closest to the peak and thus has priority. The surfer on the right should get off the wave as soon as possible. Phot: iStock

“Dropping in” is a cardinal sin, and means catching a wave when a surfer nearer the peak has already caught or is about to catch it. Not only does it ruin the wave for the surfer with priority, it can often result in a damaged board or damaged body.

ALWAYS LOOK to see if there is somebody on your inside before paddling for a wave. If a surfer appears to fall off a wave or the wave looks to have “closed out” on him, the next surfer in line must be absolutely sure that that surfer’s done with the wave before paddling for it himself. Skilled surfers will often come from a surprisingly long way behind the white-water, so if in any doubt, don’t go. If you do accidentally drop in on somebody, angle your surfboard towards the “shoulder” or unbroken part of the wave, and “kick out” as soon as possible. Then hang your head in shame, then apologise profusely.

Here the surfer on the left either hasn’t seen or is simply ignoring the surfer on the right with priority. Either way, he is probably going to hell. Photo: iStock.

If you’re riding a wave and see somebody about to drop in on you (as in the case above), call him off the wave with a polite “yeeeww” or “yep” so he knows you’re there.

This video illustrates perfectly the need for surf etiquette, and the danger that follows in its absence; it shows a typical instance of a beginner dropping in on a surfer with priority who’s already riding the wave.

And this video shows a very good surfer (2014 world champion Gabriel Medina) dropping in on another very good surfer (South African powerhouse Jordy Smith) during a warm-up session before the 2016 Fiji Pro. The former is clearly in the wrong, although the latter’s response is probably not advisable.

But these are only the very basics of surf etiquette, the barest essentials for the beginner surfer; there are various other surfing etiquette rules you ought to know about too, whatever your ability level.

And if in doubt, read up this list of surfing’s 7 deadly sins – and be sure to avoid them!

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