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From: The Surfing Handbook

Surfing Etiquette is the most important thing to learn before you set foot in the surf. These rules are not so much “rules” as they are a proper code of conduct designed to keep everyone in the water safe and happy. People who repeatedly break these rules jeopordize everyone's safety and happiness and should not be in the surf.

Don’t worry, if you accidentally drop in on someone they aren’t going to beat you up. However, it is very important to make sure you know the rules and at the least apologize when you accidentally break them. See below for a full break-down of the rules:

 

Rule #1: Right of Way

  • The Surfer Closest To The Peak Has The Right Of Way.
  • This means if you’re paddling for a right, and a surfer on your left is also paddling for it, you must yield to him or her. There are a couple variations to this rule:
  • If someone is up riding a wave, don’t attempt a late takeoff between the curl/whitewater and the surfer. If the surfer who’s riding the wave wants to make a cutback she’ll run right into you.
  • Just because the whitewater catches up to a surfer riding a wave doesn’t give you permission to take off down the line. Many talented surfers can outrun the section and get back to the face of the wave.
  • The Surfer Closest To The Peak Has The Right Of Way. A-Frames or Split Peaks: If two surfers are on either side of the peak, they each have the right of way to take off on their respective sides. It’s not generally accepted to take off behind the peak unless there’s nobody on the other side. These surfers should split the peak and go opposite ways.
  • If a surfer riding a wave gets closed out with an impossible section or wipes out, the next surfer down the line can take off. If you’re a very new beginner I’d hold off on doing this anyway until you have a bit more experience.
  • If a wave is breaking towards itself (a closeout) and two surfers are taking off at each other, yes both have the right of way but this is a perilous situation and it’s advisable to kick out early to avoid a collision.
  • The Surfer Closest To The Peak Has The Right Of Way.

Rule #2: Don’t Drop In

  • This is related to Rule #1.
  • This is probably the most important part of surfing etiquette.
  • Dropping in means that someone with the right of way is either about to take off on a wave or is already riding a wave, and you also take off on the same wave in front of him or her. This blocks his ride down the line, and is extremely annoying, not to mention dangerous. If you are tempted to drop in remember this: no matter how good the wave is, if you drop in on someone you’ll feel like crap, the other surfer will be pissed, and the wave will be ruined for everyone. There is no such thing as a party wave unless you are with your friends in the lineup alone.

Rule #3: Paddling Rules

  • Some common sense surfing etiquette rules that people don’t seem to realize are important.
  • LOOK AROUND AS YOU PADDLE INTO A WAVE! That is the only way you can see if someone else is paddling for it, on it, about to drop in or in your way paddling back out. Keeping your head down looking at your board as you paddle is no good. 
  • Don’t paddle straight through the heart of the lineup where people are surfing. Paddle out through the channel where the waves aren’t breaking and people aren’t surfing. Sometimes at spread out beach breaks this is hard, but usually there is a less crowded area to paddle through.
  • When paddling back out, do NOT paddle in front of someone riding a wave unless you’re well, well in front of him. You must paddle behind those who are up and riding and take the whitewater hit or duckdive. You’ll appreciate this the next time you’re up on a wave.
  • Sometimes you’ll just end up in a bad spot and won’t be able to paddle behind a surfer. It’s your responsibility to speed paddle to get over the wave and out of his or her way. If you don’t do this, he or she might just run you over!

Rule #4: Don’t Ditch Your Board

  • This is important, especially when it gets crowded.
  • Always try to maintain control and contact with your board. Surfboards are large, heavy, and hard. If you let your board go flying around, it is going to eventually clock someone in the head. This means if you’re paddling out and a wall of whitewater is coming, you don’t have permission to just throw your board away and dive under. If you throw your board and there is someone paddling out behind you, there is going to be carnage.
  • This is a hard rule for beginners, but if you manage to avoid picking up the habit of throwing your board you will be a MUCH better surfer.

Rule #5: Don’t Snake

  • “Snaking” is when a surfer paddles around another surfer in order position himself to get the right of way for a wave. He is effectively making a big “S” around a fellow surfer.
  • While not immediately hazardous to your health, this is incredibly annoying. You can’t cut the lineup. Patiently wait your turn. Wave hogs don’t get respect in the water.
  • Also, being a local doesn’t give you permission to ruthlessly snake visitors who are being polite. If they’re not being polite, well…

Rule #6: Beginners: don’t paddle out to the middle of a packed lineup.

  • This is kind of open to interpretation, but it still stands: if you’re a beginner you should try to avoid paddling out into the middle of a pack of experienced veterans.
  • Try to go out to a less crowded beginner break. You’ll know you’re in the wrong spot if you get the stink-eye!

Rule #7: Don’t be a wave hog.

  • Just because you can catch all the waves doesn’t mean you should.
  • This generally applies to longboarders, kayakers, or stand up paddlers. Since it’s easier to catch waves on these watercraft, it becomes tempting to catch them all, leaving nothing for shortboarders on the inside.
  • Give a wave, get a wave.

Rule #8: Respect the beach

  • Don’t litter. Simple as that. Pick up your trash, and try to pick up a few pieces of trash before you leave even if it’s not yours.

Rule # 9: Respect the locals

  • The locals at any given break have been living and surfing there for their entire lives. This commands a certain amount of respect.
  • Remember: you are in their backyard. They are the ones who have to deal with tourists crowding their home-break. So, be polite, follow the surf etiquette codes and make a friend or two out there who just might show you a thing or two about surfing their local spot!

Rule #10: Drive responsibly

  • The locals who live in the residential areas near the beach deserve your respect. Don’t speed or drive recklessly.

Rule #11: If you mess up

  • Nobody really mentions this in surfing etiquette lists, but if you mess up and accidentally drop in or mess up someone’s wave, a quick apology is appreciated, and goes a long way to reducing tension in crowded lineups.
  • You don’t have to grovel at their feet (well, unless you did something horrible). Honestly, if you drop in on someone and then ignore them, it’s pretty stupid.
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This might seem like a lot of stuff to remember, but in time it will become second nature. Most surfing etiquette rules are common sense anyway.