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Surfing Etiquette

Surfing Etiquette

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 are often given the stink-eye, a stern talking to, yelled at with obscenities, or just flat out beat up.

Don’t worry, if you accidentally drop in on someone they aren’t going to beat you up. However, there are rules of the road out there and this is the real world. If you’re constantly stealing waves or not being respectful, you’re going to have a run in.

With the growing popularity of surfing, the number of people in the water is on the rise and unfortunately surfing etiquette is gradually eroding away. The ocean is a dangerous place, and without proper thought to safety it can become deadly.

New surfers should memorize these rules, and even veterans should take a refresher course now and then.

Rule #1: Right of Way

The Surfer Closest To The Peak Has The Right Of Way.

The surfer closest to the peak of the wave 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.  Doing that is also called backpaddling, and it’s just as bad as dropping in.

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

The Surfer Closest To The Peak Has The Right Of Way.

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.

Rule #3: Paddling Rules:

Some common sense surfing etiquette rules that people don’t seem to realize are important. 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.

The Surfer Closest To The Peak Has The Right Of Way.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: Drive responsibly

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

Rule #10: 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.
* * *

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.

Have fun in the water!


  1. It seems that the Costco Wave Storm has changed surfing forever, and is the #1 cause of the decline in surf etiquette. Simply they are not taught the most common surf etiquette; pure ignorance.

    Have you seen 25+ people enter the water for the first time on the North side of Huntington Beach pier, struggling to carry a Costco Wave Storm into the water? They are literally flooding the water and making conflict and confusion. Blame the instructor in these cases. The instructor should not only take them down three or five towers from the pier, they should instruct them on the rules in this post.

    In other circumstances the people just learning to surf for the first time simply do not know etiquette even exists.

    It is only going to get worse. Not being negative, just the truth. 2 to 4 people on a single wave, everyone cutting off everyone. Far from soul surfing.

  2. there is a rather large healthy man who surfs a 10′ yellow longboard at cottons just about everyday. talk about no etiquette, his rule is simple, paddle out past everyone, even after you just caught a wave and catch every wave possible, don’t turn too much and let the other 100 people watch you. he lives in Cyprus shores and to those lucky few it means, we own this break. everyone is his buddy, he is in phenominal shape and he smiles a lot as well. who could blame him, he catches everything and everyone wants him on their side. the only hope you have as a short boarder is for multiple waves in a set and you get lucky working harder than the other 98 guys. This is how it is nowadays. I guess the other option is, bring out my longboard and let the games begin.

    1. The ocean regulates itself. If you don’t like surfing with the longboarder, wait for a day that’s so big he won’t make it out. Everyone complains when the waves are small about how crowded this , stupid longboarder that, dumb short boarder this…once it’s firing and scary though people start giving waves away. It’s all about perspective. Surf a small day, at 9:00 with everyone jockeying and whining; you get exactly that. However, try paddle out at dark thirty when only the sharks are out. They don’t drop in….or you can always go sit on the beach and watch instead ;p

      1. Don’t know when you made that post, but it could’nt be more wrong.

        Nowadays, in packed line-ups, youngsters are starting on longboards and have no idea what a different situation it is to surf a shortboard. So do 20-somethings and 30-somethings who can’t surf well, because the bigger board allows them to compete for waves and position with surfers whose skill level is much greater than theirs. If you think it being “big” means the longboard is out, you’re just making things up to yourself off the top of your head.

        “Good waves” are 4ft and above, even 3 feet if you consider Kelly Slater’s wave pool a good wave (it is). Longboarders have been riding all sizes of waves going back to the days of Greg Noll, etc., first riding Waimea. Nowadays, even skilled surfers will ride LBs in situations where they’re rather shortboard, just because it negates the torture of having to deal with less skilled surfers on LBs hogging waves and otherwise misbehaving.

        If you’ve only ever ridden a longboard, you would do yourself and everybody else a favor to ride a shortboard for just 20 or 30 sessions, so you can gain an appreciation of what it’s like to ride a shortboard in a line-up also filled with longboarders. If you haven’t done that, you don’t know what you’re talking about, except via your own untruthful and self-indulgent non-rationale.

        The same shortboarder that you ride an LB to be able to compete with for waves could shut you completely down if he or she came out on a board with as much float and paddle and yours. They don’t do that because they’re trying to surf in the style they want to surf in, and that is more important to them than wave count. If you can’t figure out how to share, it’s because you are either thoughtless of others or unskilled, or both.

  3. Living in hawaii has the absolute worst and i mean absolute worst hot heads in America. for example, i been living on oahu in waikiki for 4 years now. Even married a local girl. I had one guy on a short board on the inside wait until i got the wave, then he got behind me and got up after i did and got pissed at me for taking his wave supposidly. I was deeper and on it first. Im no expert ,but i can catch waves and ride on the intermideate level. These people get so mad it seems when there is someone who catches more waves than them. I have and give respect and etiquite. They definetly bend the rules. they treat it like its their last wave. Its waikiki beach. Get over yourself right.

    1. Most people are friendly and nice but there are some real assholes here. Came across a white 45 year old guy today to told me to fuck off and pushed my board. Followed all rules, the only thing I can think of was that I sat in his “favourite spit” before he arrived.

  4. I drop in on almost everybody. I am a 4th degree black belt in BJJ so if you want to go there be my guest. I get more waves because of BJJ. If you get snappy with me you might find yourself in an arm bar or ankle pick on the beach or rocks. Bad ass martial artists rule the lineups and “etiquette” doesn’t apply if WE don’t want it to.

    1. A true marshall artist dosen’t kick peoples heads in on the street, don’t know what dojo you train in but marshall art is about self defence and discipline not being a tough cunt. you should pull your head in!

      1. It’s a joke post, at best bagging on Joel Tudor, at worst on someone else that he’s intimidated by at his local.

        He’s not a martial artist.

  5. Rules of Etiquette ….. were lost, in the shortboard revolution.
    “Cracks & scoldings” were lost to whiners & lawyers
    Busy Parents, trying to make a living, and supporting their whining kids ….
    Demanding kids, with their needy palms out, saying, “gimme, I WANT”
    A Lack, of communication, the Inter-net
    Cheap Kooks, buying Chinese Pop-out Products from Costco
    Greedy Hipsters, jumping on the SUP wagon, with NO understanding of…
    Surf Etiquette or History, of surfing …..
    And certainly a lack of teaching, of mentoring our kids with the pleasantries
    of being a human being, the respect that should be allowed every person and the understanding, that surfing is a privilege, and not a right, as an individual.


  6. I have lived and surfed Wrightsville since I was 10 years old (27) now. Wrightsville has a bunch of prima donna locals that are hot heads. Just stay clear of them and move down the beach and have fun.

  7. This is great…alot of it was common sence and im still a grom and i was raised on respect those above you and you get respect back and really its great i usually go surfing with my dad so he can help me but some days when he works i end up by myself but the older dudes out there especially were i am in LBI nj they are great i respect them and they respect me…they give me tips and set me up with waves…and pretty much bring me into their surfing group…now on the other hand we get alot of tourists were i am and im not saying that because i am local im better because im not…but they really need to read stuff like this because especially as a begginer when you see a dude shredding and your just getting up from wipeing out its great to sit and watch…and then i see im in the worst spot and im obviously moving away this dude got mad because i got in his way, and at the time i didnt realise it actually i found out cus i saw the dude paddeling over to me and i started to paddle towards him so he didnt waste energy and i was excited to talk to the dude he was good and i started to compliment him and stuff and he had a look on his face tho like i killed his puppy, then he said i messed up his run and stuff, but he was kinda rude bout it but i knew i was a begginer and stuff so i appologiesed and then istarted to ask for advice…long story short people get angry over stupid stuff just you have to be smart….p.s sorry if i went on and babbled alot im writing this at 4 am 😀

  8. Rule #11: There’s no such thing as surf report here, just a description of how Tony B’s session was.

  9. I’m a beginner, and I’ll try to stay out of the way of people surfing from farther out, but that’s about it.I’d like to see some c-lover try to intimidate me.

    1. Hi Mike –

      You really don’t want to invite intimidation in the line-up or from other surfers. You might be surprised at what intimidation can be. If you are a beginner, just be respectful and know your limits. Then work your way up. Intimidation does not meant just getting yelled at.

      As a sponger (body boarder), I can tell you that intimidation comes in many forms. It can be the evil ‘eye’, but it can also mean yelling ‘shark in the water’ and or getting your leash pulled when you go for a wave, or if you run into a real jerk, they will not have any problem dropping in on you, or bearing down on you and forcing you to ‘duck dive’ or get hit.

      This used to be pretty common in So Cal and a few other places. Respect goes a long way.

      As a long boarder now, you still need to respect the rules, be kind and you can even ask folks if they want a wave that is coming up. That usually goes a long way. If you do run into a load of jerks (and I have on a few occasions) just move down the line on a beach break and go some place less crowded – away from the line-up.

      There are always waves to catch and who needs a nice day ruined….

  10. Good tips for everybody out there. Here in Waikiki, there are brand new surfers everywhere and it is very crowded. Things might go a lot smoother if people headed these unspoken rules.

  11. I’m a 13-14 year old girl,I’m not a surfer myself but I enjoyed reading all the rules:) its also nice and simple(and quite funny too) on rule#2 made me laugh- like when if you drop in on someone, you’ll feel like crap and the other surfer will be pissed.. of course they would be!xD I’m thinking of trying out surfing.. maybe:)So this has helped me out a bit, and has given me a good heads up for learning to surf:D xox

  12. I read some of the comments and the beginners have to understand the etiquette rules listed in most websites and books are just the beginning. so hear is a beginning one most people miss. You get a wave and after paddle back and try to go on the very next wave, you deserve to get doped in on on till you get the point that its not cool to do. One reason most don’t tell this rule is because a beginner ocean judgement isn’t good enough to enforce this rule nor would anyone respect the beginner for trying to do so. which means you would just end up getting your ass kicked.

    The point that I’m trying to make is that your right when you say that many expert surfers don’t fallow the “Rules”. But There are a lot more rules then you know, or would recognize.

    If some calls you on something find out what it is there calling you on. Let them teach you and later you will know if what there saying is true or not.

  13. Say whatever you like about the rules, the locals will bend the rules, try to intimidate you if you catch your share of the good waves. If you can ignore their indiscretions and death stares, not attract too much attention by following the above rules, you might enjoy yourself. But don’t expect the locals to follow the same rules as you, some will and some will really push the limits.

  14. Andy – the guy was a dick, brush it off.

    BUT do not say you surf. One month does not a surfer make. He was probably frustrated that you were in the impact zone futzing around. Beginners make it an annoying habit to be right where the waves are breaking to fix their leash or get back on the board. If you can not successfully ride from the line-up to the shore without stopping, MOVE DOWN THE BEACH to where no one is and practice there. A surfer should be able to ride through the impact zone without worrying to much about flotsam & jetsam.

  15. Awesome!!! I have been really wondering a lot about this as I have been lately teaching myself to surf in Hawaii. Much Mahalos for the tip and I am sure that my next experience in the water will be far more enjoyable! Thanks again (:

  16. Chill out a little on the beginners. As a beginner I it is difficult to learn because the experienced surfers are always in the good areas. A few weeks ago I was in a great spot and finially catching some waves. Many experienced surfers then came over and broke many of your so called etiqutte rules. If you don’t like beginners surfing with you find a new sport. The ocean belongs to everyone. Throw your stink eye my way because I am a beginner and your stink eye will be a black stink eye.

  17. Chill out a little on the beginners. As a beginner I it is difficult to learn because the experiences surfers are always in the good areas. A few weeks ago I was in a great spot and finially catching some waves. Many experienced surfers then came over and broke many of your so called etiqutte rules. If you don’t like beginners surfing with you find a new sport. The ocean belongs to everyone. Throw your stink eye my way because I am a beginner and your stink eye will be a black stink eye.

    1. Like the other guy above you, too, are wrong. You just don’t like getting corrections when you’re wrong. That in itself is another wrong.

      “Regulating” (giving corrections) is a necessary part of surfing because it’s the way people who don’t care to learn what the rules of etiquette are learn them.

      There are more and less friendly ways of doing that, but it is absolutely necessary for skilled surfers to give corrections to unskilled ones. This post is sort of a medium one, because you’re “the ocean belongs to every one” type of comment is one universally thrown around by ignorant, self-centered people in response to criticism when they’re making others miserable — i.e. when they themselves have already done something wrong, and want to rationalize their ignorance to themselves and others. You don’t know that that’s a universally thrown about kook-ism, because you haven’t been surfing long enough (at the time you made the above post) to know it yet.

      The ocean doesn’t “belong” to anybody, but the line-up is a community, like the roads. It is dangerous like roads, too. People get seriously injured in the water, whether you’ve seen it yourself or not, and usually the reason is poor conduct (though sometimes by the victim her/himself). Unfortunately there are no cops, and you don’t get ticketed or suffer any real consequences other than being yelled at, unless you get beaten up. It is necessary for others to correct you when you’re wrong, especially when you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to hear it. Others may smile at you, or even massage your ego, but if you’re making a line-up miserable for others, though they smile at you, they’re all grateful to the person who yelled at you for speaking up (unless they’re afraid they could easily be in your shoes, which skilled and courteous surfers are not going to be).

  18. I’ve been surfing for about 4 weeks now and I’m getting it I can legibly say I can surf, well anyway I was at the beach today and i was paddling back out and a surfer was riding a wave and I was at a position were I was just getting back on my board to start paddling and I couldn’t get out of his way at all and so I went under. And this guy was a total jerk he yelled at me to start paddling that way until I couldn’t see him then said your a f*cking kook. And I’m like 17 and he looked to be in his late 30’s. And i was like whatever dude and I started paddling down. And all the surfers had a look on their face like wow.. But I didn’t even feel like surfing anymore so I left

    1. You were wrong, and are wrong. If you’ve been surfing 4 weeks, you’re a beginner. A year from then, you’ll still be a beginner. If you think you’re not, you’re deluding yourself. Every other surfer in the water that day that surfs well knew you were a beginner. Only you did not.

      What it means, that you are a beginner: you don’t yet surf well enough to know when you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing, because to know how your actions affect others who do surf well you have to have some idea of what they’re trying to do, and why they themselves negotiate the line-up the way they do.

      Example: if you’re able to catch waves and stand-up, as a beginner you probably think the next project for you is to sit deeper, so that you, in your mind, have right of way, since if you sit in spots where you have a higher chance of successfully riding the wave in the open face (as opposed to straight toward shore) you will almost never have right of way, because you can’t successfully “make” (ride the open face from the beginning of the breaking wave to the end of the wave itself) the wave from deeper spots than more skilled surfers. All you do, as a beginner, trying to sit deeper than your ability would dictate if you were sitting in the water alone, is make life miserable for the other surfers who surf better than you. By doing so you create chaos and misery. As a beginner, you don’t recognize this. Everybody else in the water does, even at the moment that you merely go over to sit “on top” (meaning deeper than other people in the line-up). This is because they already know you’re a beginner. Only you do not.

      It’s very unlikely that the person that yelled at you and called you a kook was only reacting to your being in his way. He already knew you were a kook from other actions of yours, even if it was just the way you paddle, or where you felt it was appropriate for you to sit. The reaction was severe because the person was already dreading what unpleasant effect you were going to have, eventually, on his own session. Keep in mind, in thinking about that, that a skilled surfer is probably never going to be in YOUR way, unless you are already doing something wrong, like taking off from a point in the wave where you can’t make it, effectively turning a safe paddle out point into an unsafe one.

      It’s important to not kid yourself about your own ability level. If you do lie to yourself about this, you will inevitably practice poor etiquette, without even meaning to do that. If you’re honest with yourself about your ability level, you’ll likely try harder to figure out what kinds of actions are and aren’t appropriate for you, which is what will enable you to surf cooperatively with others, instead of selfishly and ignorantly, thinking your own feelings or desires are more important than courteous and correct line-up choices. There are a lot of unwritten rules about surf etiquette, but everybody that is skilled can tell the difference between someone who is trying to be considerate and mindful, versus one who is clueless and doesn’t even know what it means to try. You may still run into a jerk, but if you’re dishonest with yourself about your ability level you’ll never make the correct choices as far as what proper line-up courtesy is, and you might never even learn what it is, even after years.

      1. I recently learned to surf again after a 20 year hiatus. Luckily, there have been some really great guys helping me out, seasoned guys. But I have also run into some jerks. When ever I run into them, I am reminded of the movie North Shore, brilliant acting and all.

      2. That was the truest post I’ve seen, and it’s frustrating that most beginners don’t bother to read up on etiquette/rules before getting so happy-go-lucky into the water, thinking they’re a G/D surfer.

        It takes me back to when I was a beginner in the 90’s, pissing everyone off, getting in the way, thrashing around in 6-foot waves when I had no business being in there. I had no excuse then, and people have even LESS excuse now, with SO MANY resources on the internet. And I look back, realizing in retrospect, that I didn’t really ‘get’ it until a few years after I started surfing.

        Even though it’s been many years since the OP, I’m glad you posted, hoping it’ll remind every beginner that they’re not the only person in the water.

  19. Learning these rules here in Southeastern NC will be of great benefit for those of you who plan to travel. I have surfed all over the world and this is one of the more mellow surf environments. As you head out west the terms “aggro” and “local” take on a whole new meaning. As the waves get bigger and the risk factor increases the chances of doing harm to yourself or someone else becomes very real. Just remember to show respect and know your limits.

    1. Everyone is or has been a Kook/Barney at some point. I’ve made blatantly bad moves I can count on two hands in twenty years.
      Ditching my board, Hasty takes, blind lack of awareness (adrenaline filled), selfish security (in the face of taking a bomb on the head) rather than letting the rider have the entire bowl, not observing a new breaks long enough from shore; has gotten me in trouble a few times…
      I’d encourage new surfers to ask a local about the break. Takes courage and remember To take criticism with a grain of salt (unless you’re surfing fresh water *then the weather would most likely be colder than the vibes) ;-). Express gratitude of how you get be in the presence of such an awesome surf break.
      UNSPOKEN RULES: in my opinion

      -Everyone has to learn and mistakes will be made; be willing to learn, push yourself, learn limits the hard way, and know that fun is one layer of the process
      -keep surf spots anonymous (especially off the internet; anything that could give away a location/it’s name/whereabouts)
      -Keep surf spots
      anonymous -ish; ok share with a buddy that you trust will not breach the above (much gratification comes from sharing) *there are surf spots that respectively I don’t bring anybody… it’s a code of conduct that could range a spectrum of values including; preservation, novelty, safety, desire to be accepted, trust, and probably more…
      -observe surf break to see if there are enough waves to go around, And if spot and conditions are within your ability to handle
      -take what you want, and PAY for it regardless of what the law says
      -SUP can catch further out than longboards, Longboards can catch earlier than shortboards, shortboards can catch earlier than boogie boards,… look who’s inside; have they been waiting longer?- share
      To me a quality surf session is 5-10 minutes to watch surf, 40+ minutes in the water, 2-3 decent rides. If there are more people than waves before the sun goes down, could a capacity vs. (wave consistency count) be posted at certain surf spots. Nobody wants to live in a brave new world but I think a little more education/science in peoples face may clear up some confusion. And I guarantee evolution is happening fast while we sleep, so what could we all agree on? Blessed are the days when joy and fortune happens randomly and organically as it we are not entitled to them.

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