Etiquette on the Waves–Preserving the Vibe

Leaving plenty of room on a wave at C Street in Ventura.

by Amy Brown

Years ago in the Bay Area I remember just learning to surf, paddling back out to the lineup with an ice cream headache and what little strength I had left after yet another humiliating wipeout, when a surfer rode a wave straight towards me. I didn’t know what to do to get out of the way, so I froze. I had a vague plan that combined hoping that the oncoming surfer would steer around me, with some ambiguous idea that if I remained motionless, maybe they wouldn’t be able to see me being so stupid, like in Jurassic Park. I was wrong. It is the responsibility of the paddler to get out of the way, and in doing so, avoid going right in front of someone riding towards you—you go behind them, or speed up and get out of the way to avoid being run over.

Surfing is an incredible way to experience the ocean—gliding down the face of a wave, feeling the combined peace and power of the ocean propelling you—it’s no wonder that surfers have a reputation for being laid back. However, the fastest way to see just the opposite from the lineup is to paddle out without knowing and following surfing etiquette. This code of conduct is for everyone’s safety and enjoyment, and if you are out there without adhering to it, you are in danger of hurting someone, or at the very least drawing the ire of the entire group.

All surfers started out as beginners, so there is some tolerance for the learning curve, but it is the beginner’s responsibility to learn the basic tenets and avoid being a kook—a pejorative term for someone who is either disrespectful or seriously (and often dangerously) ignorant. So whether that’s waxing the underside of your board or having fins the wrong direction, or—infinitely worse—taking off on waves that aren’t yours, learn how to avoid this label and you’ll have a better time, and so will everyone else. Check out Kook of The Day on Instagram for some cautionary tales. Thankfully Instagram didn’t yet exist while I was trying to teach myself to surf, otherwise I could have been featured on that site with shocking regularity.

Right of way and wave priority are the touchstones of surfing etiquette rules. The surfer with the closest proximity to the wave peak has the right of way. If they pass on the wave, or miss it, the right of way goes to the next in line. And speaking of priority—don’t snake, or cut the lineup by paddling around someone waiting to position yourself in a priority position. And for the love of all things holy, don’t drop in—if someone has the right of way or is already riding a wave, do not take off in front of them. This is incredibly dangerous and incredibly rude.

Another safety mandate: don’t ditch your board. You risk cutting off a surfer riding towards you, or hitting others paddling out and causing injuries. You are responsible for having your board under your control. Now, this doesn’t mean if you catch a wave and wipeout that you have to grab your board midair—ditching refers primarily to abandoning it when paddling. So, if you see a giant wave breaking as you’re sitting on your board or paddling—resist the urge to ditch your board and dive down to escape the impact zone—grab the rails as tight as you can and roll over (turtle) or duck dive if you are using a shortboard.

Acknowledging a mistake will go a long way towards restoring the vibe after you make the wrong call, and if you’re new, that’s bound to happen. Take a lesson, there’s plenty of local pros to help you learn. And don’t forget to respect others, and respect the ocean and beach that provides all this amazing surfing—and leave it cleaner than when you arrived.

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