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Surf Tips

Surf Tip: How NOT To Be A Donkey

Surf Tip: How NOT To Be A Donkey 1

donkey n. a kook, someone who blatantly disregards surfing etiquette

Ok, I hate to be a negative nellie and all that, but this post has been inspired by the throngs of beginners flocking to the waves at one of my usual spots back home here in New York.  (oh, and uh, there’s no surf in New York, but that’s a subject for another post at another time)  I have no problem with beginners – everyone has to learn sometime.  I remember being a beginner flailing around in the whitewash just a few short years ago.  However, there were a few key things that I tried quite hard not to do when I was just starting out.  It’s about respect, safety, and keeping order in a changing and often dangerous environment.

With the influx of beginners these past few years has also come a sense of entitlement and general rudeness out there in the water.  Case in point; at a local benefit/memorial surf contest a few weeks ago a stand up paddler decided to paddle right into the contest zone.  Upon being told multiple times to please vacate the contest area and move down the beach, he promptly replied with a nasty, “Grow up.”  Really?  Really? I know this is New York, but gimme a break.

Think of this post as more of a public service announcement to ease tensions in crowded lineups, or “how to be a beginner that everyone respects.”  This is also in addition to the basic rules of etiquette that I’ve posted here.  Read it.  Learn it.

So let’s get down to business, shall we?

1.) Don’t Paddle Out To The Main Peak

The main peak in most lineups is where the primo waves are breaking.  Sure, nobody owns the ocean, but it’s the unwritten rule that beginners should not paddle out to the main peak.  Think of it this way: would you waltz onto a street basketball court in the middle of a game and start trying to practice freethrows?  Beginners often don’t have control over their equipment, and this can lead to dangerous situations with boards flying everywhere and fiberglass crunching and blood and carnage, etc.  If you’re just starting out you don’t need the best breaking wave as you probably can’t take full advantage of them anyway.  Paddle out and surf down the beach out of the way; you’ll get more waves and you will have all the room you want to lose your board or get caught inside.

2.) Don’t Sit Like A Buoy On The Inside

I’ve had several waves ruined by folks who were sitting directly in my line, staring at me and not moving.  Key word: sitting.  OK, Sometimes poop happens and you happen to get in someones way while paddling back out.  Sometimes I get caught in the Bermuda triangle and I can’t get behind them and can’t get over the wave in front of them.  But I try very hard not to let that happen.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  What I’m talking about is folks who just sit there.  If someone is either paddling right at you to get a wave or is surfing down the line at you, you really should be doing your best to get out of their way.

3a.) Don’t Throw Your Board

This one is self explanatory.  Just don’t do it!  Learn to turtle roll or duckdive.  At least try to have some semblance of holding on before you let go.  Too many folks out there think they can just chuck their board and swim under the wave.  I was almost nailed by someone who did this a few weeks ago.  That’s not what your leash is for!

3b.) Don’t Kick Your Board Out

There’s something to be said for wiping out or getting knocked by the wave.  Sometimes you can’t help it.  But don’t intentionally just kick your board out and jump off when you’re done with the wave.  I see lots of folks ride a wave, and then just hop off and let their board rocket towards the beach at 90 miles an hour as they take a relaxing dip in the whitewater.  This is quite dangerous for those paddling back out.  Remember, if you’re on a longboard and your leash is 8 or 9 feet long, that’s a potential 18 foot radius of destruction.  I know several people, including myself, that have had very close calls or have been hit in the head by someone who kicked their board out.  Try to hold onto your board.  Reach out and catch the rail when the wave is over.  Stomp hard on the tail and the whitewater will pass over you.  Surf like you don’t have a leash.  This is just good surfing practice, not to mention it looks way better and more professional. You might think it’s hard at first, but you don’t know what you can do until you try.

4.) Don’t Be A Lemming

If you see someone out enjoying some waves all by their lonesome and you want in on the action, it’s pretty rude to paddle right up to them and plant yourself 5 feet away.  I’ve gotta say, for most surfers this is akin to just blatantly cutting in front at the supermarket line.  This happened to a friend and I the other day.  We were trading waves on an empty sandbar, and out paddles a dude who sits right on top of us and proceeds to drop in on us.  This is a major faux pas, dear readers.  It’s probably one of the rudest things you can do in surfing.  There are most likely some other peaks around, so try for that.  If it’s the only peak in the area then paddle out, sit off to the side a bit, and wait your turn.

5.) Spread Out In The Lineup

Ok, some lineups are just a big chaotic mosh pit.  However, most of the time at beachbreaks you can spread yourselves out.  If someone’s sitting and waiting for a wave, don’t paddle and sit directly in front of or behind them.  Sit off to the side a bit.

6.) Know How To Swim

This is self explanatory.  But everyone should know how to swim in the ocean.  It makes me a little nervous when friends tell me they can’t really swim too well, but it’s OK because they have a leash or they’re “attached to a lifesaving device.”  No!!  This is not the case.  I say this all the time but leashes can break, so you really can’t rely on it.  Ensure you can swim back if you need to.

7.) Don’t Wear Booties And Springsuits

And put your fins in the right way.

Surf Tip: How NOT To Be A Donkey 2


So now that you know how not to be a donkey, go out there and have fun.  Surfing is great, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving it a go.  It’s going to take you some time to get good, but the rewards are absolutely worth it!  You’ll make lifelong friends and lead a happier, healthier life.  Now get out there!

Hayley Gordon

Hayley Gordon has been surfing for over 20 years. Riding both shortboards and longboards, she's traveled the world to surf but mainly sticks to her two home locations of San Diego and Long Island.

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12 years ago

Are there rare times when it is best to ditch your board?

I’m not very experienced, but I’ve been learning for a few years on and off now. Most of the time I certainly stay with my board. I certainly stay with it all the time if there is anyone between me and the beach. But if no one is back there, and if that random, fat, “rogue” lip is about to land right on top of me in heavy surf, I’ve found it best to just get away from the board. I used to hang on at those rare times until I got absolutely hammered and sliced by my board in the aftermath once.

13 years ago

Nice set of rules…..I turn 54 this year and continue to learn every chance I get. I stumbled across this website while looking up Robert August. What I do know is times have really changed….the number of people in the water have increased. This increases the danger factor. I continue to search for those times when the numbers are few, the waves are free and the sun is shining. This article really speaks well that all of us should show good form…beginner or advanced…most importantly is make sure you are a strong swimmer….I first rode without a leash….if you lost the board it meant swimming.

two things I do know is show respect for the water and share the waves

13 years ago

Good article! I’ve been surfing for two and a half years now and I can definitely sign up to 5b. I’ve been on both ends of that situation, and it’s definitely very scary to think just how fast a board can potentially be travelling straight for a person’s noggin. Never doing that again!

The last one made me laugh 😀

13 years ago

Great article Hayley, I think of myself as always being a beginner. Due to the fact that as a passionate surfer, you tend to always want to learn something new and exciting! I have been surfing since I was a teenager. Now, @ 30, and being in the U.S. Military, I have traveled around the world and have seen many things that different cultures have taught me to be aware of when it comes to etiquette. We as surfers who have already have the understanding of surfing, should also keep in mind that we must be patient as well, but safety is very important and should always be first!! Second, in japan they like to huddle up and watch you the alien do something before they try it out themselves, in Italy they like to paddle out and “what I like to call bobbers” people who just sit in the lineup and bob up and down and don’t try anything but just stay in that one spot and don’t move. We as the better one should try and give them a hand in understanding the wave, learn how to read a wave and then explain how to catch the wave properly and safely!! I am a waterman, been in the water ever since I came screaming out my mother..haha. But, as a waterman you must learn to respect your environment and the forces behind it. Know what you going to do before you do it!! Have a visual and idea of what you think it will go before you go for it, and when you go for it..which in my opinion is the most important,..commit to it and don’t bail!!! Staying committed to something,.especially wave selection is very important. Cause you could be messing someone’s session and a chance to score a really good wave. But, Hayley, just wanted to say great job on your website.. have been using it as a reference to people who come to me asking for advice and were they could go for help. Keep up the good work!! Happy surfing and aloha. Timothy

13 years ago

Hi Hayley,
Great info, I had to chuckle at some of your comments. I live in Orange County CA. I am sure you have heard of the program ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’. Well, there is a break I have been frequenting for years. It is good for beginners and experienced, depending on the day. Sometimes it gets too big for the beginners, so there is another break a few yards down where they should go. Two weeks ago the waves were pumping and I caught a wave and was paddling back. A wave breaks and I notice 2 ‘housewives’ in front of me. Mind you brand new boards, gloves on with the fingers cut out (WTF!) spring suits and booties. They looked like warriors. Well sure enough as the wave breaks this one throws her board and it comes flying at me. I duck, and say you really need to hold on to your board. She answers “I didn’t want to break my nails”.
I am a woman and like to look good, but if you are a SURFER nails come off, no need for make-up and what happened to safety? So before you paddle out read some rules, think about those around you, and forget about the mani/pedi!

13 years ago

you are right.

Sand Sock Girl
13 years ago

Thank you for make me aware of this very important information about surf etiquette. This is a big help for novice surfer like me.

13 years ago

OK, where’d you get the last photo?

Elizabeth Wasserman
Elizabeth Wasserman
13 years ago

I AM a beginner…only been out three days in a row now. Thank you for these very informative tips. I’ll do my best to be safe and considerate out there.

Hayley Gordon
Hayley Gordon
13 years ago

So true Dave! Everyone has to start somewhere, and experienced surfers have no problems with beginners that try to observe the established etiquette.

There’s also an influx of folks giving surf lessons without teaching their students the proper etiquette, and that’s also a problem.

And yeah…once saw a car that shoved their boards fins down UNDER the racks. It looked horrid, I should have taken a picture. Poor boards…

Dave Christensen
Dave Christensen
13 years ago

Great article Hayley! I too remember being a beginner and not knowing what to do in certain situations. I assumed the locals would hate me for just being in the water, but the truth is that they really don’t care as long as you are not in the way of their surf session.

I have to add one more Donkey move that I observed this summer. Make sure you put your surfboard fins up when you strap it to the top of your car (Unless you just want to melt off the wax, but then you have a waxy car).

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