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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. OH WOW. Rule #1 right on. Although in my beginner years (just last year lol)I just tried to avoid all the other advanced surfers and surf the inner breaks which are rougher but less crowded but my boyfriend thought it would be great for us to surf a wave together, cute. We both caught a good wave and I can’t rememeber which direction we were headed but eventually we were headed into each other, I fell off and he fell off at the same time to avoid colliding into me but he was too late and his board flew at me, gave me a minor concussion and a cauliflower ear. So under NO circumstances, even if it’s innocent fun, should anyone surf the same wave because even cute fun and unintentional drop ins can result in a major catastrophe.

  2. I grew up on an island on the east coast where you worked your way up to a certain block on the island to surf otherwise you were just not welcomed and you knew it. I have been around the world surfing and currently call Hawai’i my home and I have come to realize the easiest way to make friends or enemies is respect/not respect the locals. It doesn’t matter where I have been or what kind of surfer you are respect is what it comes down to, apologize for something you did wrong even though they don’t smile back…get over it you apologized and maybe that doesn’t mean a punch in the face. i have to come to enjoy the wolf pack here in Hawai’i.

  3. somedays I wish people knew that there were basic rules….the times are being lost on many and all of us have on more then one session forgot and faulted…..seems that everyone wants there own, wants to show the slick dog moves on as many waves as they can take…there are always many in the crowd…the sense is if you don’t “agress” you don’t ride…on days like that I have just walked away. Thanks for the articles on this site….if you ride take some time….the waves will be there long after we are all gone..

  4. Couldn’t agree more Patty. It’s the attitude of many ‘veteran’ or local surfers that puts many people off. While we may say that this is a good thing as spots are less crowded it sure doesn’t help the sport long term. Anyway thanks for the article great info…think I’ll make a few photocopies and put them up at my local spot…if you don’t mind?

  5. Your welcome! It is weird to be angry – it goes against the whole culture. I went camping to San Elijo the last few days. It was such a good vibe. It was small at Pipes so I decided to paddle over to a point I saw breaking. It turned out to be Swamis, I have heard of it never surfed there though. The locals were very nice, and everyone seemed to know etiquette. Then I heard someone ream a guy out and I was like chill! Then I swam over to the lady was yelling and said hi my name is Patty and she said my name is don’t bother me. Lol….too bad I would have liked to have gotten to know her, she was a very good surfer. The locals called her the Intimadator.

  6. Thanks for the comment Patty! Sorry the loser dinged your board. I don’t know why some people surf in such a rage all the time.

  7. I love this handbook. I’ve being surfing 15+ years, and feel like everyone needs a refresher course. It is easy to be a wavehog sometimes, especially when you are more experienced than some others. But the big thing to remember is the stoke you get from surfing, not just your rides, but watching someone else get good rides too! I try to tell someone new they are doing good, and love to see the smile! Yesterday a local deliberatly dinged my board, I asked what the hell did you do that for, he said I snaked him. Technically , I didn’t but I looked it up to make sure. But he sure took the pleasure out of the day with his attitude! Everyone should remember shy they surf in the first place.

  8. broke rule #4 yesterday and caught hell from a local. It was crowded and after reading these rules I get it but most locals are dicks to anyone outside there group. Chill out!

  9. I think these ‘rules’ are, overall, excellent. I do have one reservation though with rule 4. Of course I agree we shouldn’t just throw our boards, but that might suggest to a beginner to never ditch at all. There are times, espec for beginners, like going over the falls on a powerful wave or getting caught in closeout, where holding onto your board can seriously injure you and you need to put some distance between you and your board. So, I could add – sure, don’t throw your board – but don’t try to hold on to it at all costs in dangerous situations either.

  10. yea this article couldnt be much more correct. these are ALL important rules. If you do say sorry and you get verbal abuse, a dirty look, or no reply, don’t be too suprised. Dont worry though, if you accidentally break one of these rules don’t sweat, just dont do it again. Because thats when your’e in trouble. ENJOY SURFING!!

  11. Thanks for the info. I surf in Hawaii where the localism is very heavy on certain beaches. The thing that irritates me the most is the locals who think they own the beach and feel the need to have EVERY wave… Then if you take one, they get all mad. (like they haven’t had a wave all day)

  12. wow great info, and even greater illustration. i hope you guys don’t mind if I repost this on my blog and absolutely credit and link back to your site. thanks!

  13. i sit on the way outside waiting for my peak which i sniffed out from the horizon letting all others go by. i know i am watched by the line up of shortboarders who naturally are more experienced at maneuvering and cutting and shredding and whatnot so what! my point is these intimidaters park themselves RIGHT in my path of execution like clockwork AND IF i get hit by a cleanup GUESS who i am going to get washed into…??? THIS happens more than i want to say. MY inexperience is none of everyone’s concern when i have gone to lengths to ensure i am out of everyone’s way in the very beginning . just because you(WHOMEVER YOU ARE!) can surf better does not automatically make you A GOD and the lesser surfer the dirty rascal . RESPECT IS A 2way STREET.
    if i give it and i do not get in return …there will be a mishap and whatever happens out there will be on YOU not my inexperience. i fight to find my own spot and if i am followed and crowed by intimidation practices alot of you have acquired over the course of your short life there WILL be a mishap. and truly i have as much right as you to be there REGARDLESS of my level when i have gone to great lengths to give everyone their own space.
    The line-up has a misplaced TUDE and i will never sit in one BASICALLY because there is not one thing gracious and human about it.THIS IS NOT OVER!

  14. i was surfing my local breack (the same one i have done for about 3 years )and some holiday maker comes out on a minimal thinking he knows surf etiquette so hes about 10 meters to the left of me and the wave broke between us and we could have gone for a split by then i had already took of to run to the right down the face he was still paddleing and looked like he was about to fall of the back of the wave (wich he did) if he paddled a bit more he could of easly run a left down the clean peeling face. as i was paddleing back out he starts shouting and cursing saying how i need to go and study surf etiquette because he said i droped in on him !when it was him the failed to even get on the wave

  15. Glad I’ve read this, recently got in to surfing and i’m off to Morocco next week. Although familar with most do’s and dont’s i’m a lot more clear after reading this.


  16. really enjoy your blog. I recently moved to SoCal and have been surfing a lot. This etiquette page is great for any new surfer. I tried to go by common sense and had some run ins with people (quick apology usually sufficed), but in general i learned the rules quickly by just being out there. I have met a lot of nice people out in the water, BUT, what i have learned, is that there will always be a couple of real DOUCHEBAGS at every break that think they run things. I try to move away from those people, because their attitude ruins my session, but given the type of break you may not be able to get too far.

    Everyone just wants to go out and have fun, if everyone is being safe, there is no reason for people to be a dick. There will be more waves rolling right in behind the one you are arguing about.

  17. Great rules. I’d add an important one: even if somebody breaks the rules, which they will, probably everytime you go out now, try not to be a dick. Inform them of what they did wrong, but don’t vibe them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen guys give attitude to some newbie, then turn around and break a rule themselves. surfing could do without the righteousness!

  18. I broke rule 1 once, and got a board in the face, follow these rules, they could save your life, I’m ok BTW

  19. Heya, especially jrw. I first surfed N. Carolina, then worked ski patrol everywhere from Banff to Whistler. Surfing’s MUCH harder, way more dynamic. Adjusting to downliners on the slopes is a snap…in a crowded lineup it’s not even comparable. Keeping track of your environs IS true of surfing…I have several scars from idiot newbs who DIDN’Y know the difference between the black diamonds and bunny slopes, and years of days ruined by longboarders intent on getting everyone else’s waves. I’m pondering starting a version of Curtis Slewa’s Guardian Angels in surf lineups…calling them ‘Surf Patrol’.

  20. I go surfing maybe five times a year, and I’m pretty old, so I’m never going to be good. I think these rules are stacked against beginners, so that veteran riders won’t have to share the limited resource of good waves.

    I’m lucky if I can catch one in five waves that I go for. When I also have to constantly worry about keeping clear of the veterans who catch most waves they go for, then I simply never get a ride.

    I’m an expert skier. I stick to the black diamond slopes, and let the beginners have the green circle runs to themselves. But if I do go on to a beginner slope, I believe it’s my responsibility to keep clear of beginners, because I’m the one with the skills to do so. If a beginner cuts me off or whatever, I don’t get mad. I recognize that when someone is struggling to learn a new sport, it’s really hard to also keep track of everybody else around you. I don’t see why the same isn’t true of surfing.

    If the waves are big, then I won’t be out there, and the veterans can have their fun and police themselves. But if the waves are small, and good for newbies, then the veterans should back off and be nice. They could even try being helpful. And if someone ever had the nerve to punch me, then he should expect a visit from the police.

  21. The only agro in 15 years!

    I’ve been surfing for 15 years and had a really annoying situation the other day. I was surfing at a local beach and an on duty lifeguard who was catching loads of waves on his paddle board in a crowded line-up paddled for the same wave as me. It was the best set wave of the day and I was on the peak, about 20ft down the line the lifeguard was paddling for the same wave. He had already called me off one wave earlier which he ended up going strait on anyway, so as I caught up with him further down the line, I cheekily sprayed him and said “I wish I was getting paid to drop in”. When he paddled back out he told me to “watch were I surf and stay out of my (his) area” I retaliated and told him not to drop in on surfers and so on. The other surfers around me who had seen what happened backed me up and insisted that he dropped in on me. He insisted that he was up and riding the wave before me (which is quite possible considering he was paddling for the wave on his knees and riding the wave on his knees) and told all the surfers in the line up to read the book on surfing etiquette. I have a lot of admiration for lifeguards and the job they do but on this occasion feel very disrespected and let down by them. To further exacerbate the problem, the off duty head lifeguard came up to me and verbally threatened me with physical violence in front of holidaying families.

    Basically I think you should amend the section in Rule #1 to say “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. Unless they are an on duty lifeguard taking of at the same time 20ft down the line on a 14ft rescue board and are already hogging all the waves”.

    Happy surfing!!

  22. Great site and great info – I’m a newbie too (second time around – did some surfing back in the early 80’s down on the French Atlantic Coast) but now decided to get back into it in my 30’s.

    Us newbs don’t go out of our way to purposely piss off the experienced surfers, but even the experienced surfers need to remember they used to be newbs once…. 😉

  23. You may want to amend Rule #5 Don’t Snake to include taking off in the white water behind a surfer up and riding already. These are usually either beginners or just mal contents who then accuse you of dropping in. Either way, it makes me seriously want to disregard Rule #4 when the are in the immediate vicinity 😉

  24. much appreciated. Ive been a bodyboarder for quite some time and a few years back just picked up surfing. Nothing worse then watching another surfer wipeout on your screw-up. very informative. Thanks!

  25. I just wish the more expereinced surfer will listen to rule #7; Don’t be a wave hog.
    Sometimes, even if there is only like 4 people out, if they are good, you have no chance of catching anything that is not so small that you end up on the rocks…

  26. Good words on etiquette, also I thought your readers might be interested in a book titled “The Basics of Surfboard Design” check my website

  27. I find myself in the situation where I’m paddling in a group around a bigger wave that is breaking too far out for me to catch it(and the others in the group too) and someone a little in front decides to go straight at me without looking, when they could easily avoid me. It happened twice yesterday. Am I in the wrong place or what? Is there etiquette for looking before you try to take off?

  28. Good job explaining.

    I especially like that you included:
    Rule #7: Don’t be a wave hog.

    Many longboarders like to ignore this one.

  29. haha,i would stay away as well. but i havnt even got to surf yet, but i will try it for sure this summer, i will try to use a foam, fishboard with a fish tail. wish me luck!:)

  30. Cheers for that. I’m a newbie surfer who broke most of those rules yesterday. I was aware of a few but was just too inexperienced to avoid them. Think i’ll surf away from the serious surfers for a while…quite an intimidating place to be.

  31. cool stuff. a friend of mine is teaching me to surf and is getting into all of this, but it is great to have it all in one place

  32. Thanks for the tips. New to surfing and learned a lot from your commentary. I will be in the know the next time out. Definitely don’t want the “stink-eye”.

  33. I committed Sin #3 just yesterday. Paddling out, someone jumped up and came straight at me, I couldn’t tell which way to go, one of those awful slow motion moments when everything goes wrong. We didn’t collide, and I did apologize to that guy, who replied with cold silence. But worse, another guy who I see out there alot and who I respect gave me a sideways look about it and I felt like an idiot (I’m not but I sure looked like one).

  34. Good stuff! think you should email your ‘Surfing Etiquette’ to a few of the blow-ins which crowd Snapper Rocks every summer…

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