Surf Etiquette 101

The Secret Rules Of Surfing

Surf etiquette is the only thing that keeps order in the water. Without it, your local break would be a wild zoo full of disgruntled surfers falling over one another and breaking surfboards.

If you’re learning to surf, it’s important to learn and respect the rule of surf etiquette as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re going to get yourself into trouble and possibly even hurt someone else in the water with your surfboard. Keep in mind that these rules are designed to make sure the surfer who’s in the best spot to ride a particular wave gets it. Surfing is all about fun and these rules are designed to make sure we all have as much fun as possible. Once you’ve read the surf report, throw on your bathing suit, hit the waves, and make sure you keep these pointers in mind before. Here are the not-so-secret do’s and don’ts of surfing.

The Right Of Way

Knowing when you can paddle for a wave in the perfect swell is probably the most important rule in surf etiquette. Have you ever wondered how surfers decide who is going to get which wave in a crowded lineup? It’s actually pretty easy if you pay attention to who has the right of way. When learning to surf, you’re expected to follow these golden rules in the order they are listed to the best of your ability.

  1. The surfer who is furthest out has the first chance to catch a wave, which means it’s their wave to catch.
  2. The surfer on the inside (closest to the peak of the wave) has the best chance to get a long ride, so it’s their wave to catch. Please note that paddling around a surfer to get yourself into the inside position does not give you the right of way, that only works in contest settings.
  3. The surfer who is able to get to their feet first has the right of way because they’re already up and surfing it.
Surf Etiquette don't ditch

Never Ditch Your Board

It’s your sole responsibility to keep your board away from other surfers. When you’re paddling out and a big wave is moving your way, you may think about ditching your board and diving under the impending whitewash. After all, you’re wearing a leash so what could go wrong?

isle longboards

Ditching your board is very dangerous for everyone around you, as you and your board will be sent flying back to the shore. If there’s anyone behind you when you lose your board, they could very easily get hit with it in the face and suffer a serious injury. Of course, learning a proper duck dive or turtle roll is the best solution. This is an essential trick you must master when learning to surf. But if you know you won’t be able to hold your board in front of a breaking wave, grab the velcro portion of your leash (near the tail of your surfboard) to keep your board as close to you as possible.

Surf Etiquette surf at the right spot

Surf At The Right Spot

Just like skiing on a mountain, there are beaches and surf breaks that are better for different skill levels. But without posted signs or pistes like you’d find at the top of a ski lift, it’s up to you to do your research before paddling out into a new spot. While everyone in the water was a beginner surfer at some point, that doesn’t mean they all paddled out into a crowded lineup at a popular surf spot. If you’re having trouble finding the appropriate beach for your skill level, just call your closest surf shop and ask for some friendly advice. You will have more fun if you’re surfing next to locals of a similar skill level.

Surf Etiquette paddle all the way out

Paddle All The Way Out

Once you’ve graduated from riding ankle-high whitewash, you must paddle all the way out to sit with the more experienced surfers in the lineup. One of the most dangerous mistakes beginners make — that’s also very frustrating for everyone else in the water — is sitting halfway between the shore and the breaking waves. If you’re only halfway out, you’re directly in the path of surfers paddling for a wave, which means many surfers won’t be able to stand up and ride down the line safely without running into you. Eventually, you’re going to get hit by another surfer’s board if you’re sitting in the wrong spot.

Surf Etiquette wave hog

Don’t Be A Wave Hog

The rule of thumb here is “take one, give two.” Set waves in a swell can roll in about every 15 minutes on an average day, which means that a skilled surfer with no respect for surf etiquette could get themselves into the right position to catch the best wave in every set. Just because you can catch a ton of waves doesn’t mean you should. If you notice that you’ve ridden three waves while the surfer next to you hasn’t been able to catch one, give them a little nod to let them have their turn.

surf etiquette drop-in

Don’t Drop-In

Only surfer person per wave. If you see a surfer riding a wave, you can’t decide you want to catch it as well and “drop-in” on them (reference the “Right Of Way” at the top of an article). The only exception to this rule comes when you’re surfing with a bunch of friends and one of you calls for a “party wave” that nobody else is riding.

Surf Etiquette respect the locals

Respect The Locals

Surfing is more than a sport, it’s a lifestyle for some folks. So keep in mind that local surfers have probably shaped their lives and careers around their ability to surf their favorite breaks every day. If you’re surfing a new beach for the first time, it’s especially important to be friendly and respectful of the folks who surf there every day. That means paddling to the edge of the lineup and earning some respect by riding a few waves before inserting yourself into the mix.

Surf Etiquette beach trash

Be A Beach Steward

Leave the beach in better condition than how you found it. Leaving trash of any kind on the beach is absolutely inexcusable. If you’re walking back to your car and you find a piece of trash, do the right thing and throw it in the bin before you get to the car. Taking the mindset of being a steward of our beaches and oceans will help you get in tune with the waves, which will lead to a better time in the water in the long run.

Wrapping Up

As a general rule, a smile and an apology can go a long way to diffuse an awkward situation with a fellow surfer. Even if you believe you’re not at fault, it’s always a good idea to make sure the other person involved in any incident is safe. And if you do something in the water that results in damage to another person’s board, it’s always a good idea to offer to exchange info out of the water and pay for their repair.

While many of these surf etiquette rules paint a potentially intimidating picture, the reality is that injuries and anger in the water are extremely rare. Surfers are famously some of the most laid back people in the world; we don’t want to ruffle our feathers in the water — that’s not why we surf! In fact, many of us surf to escape a world that can be full of toxic attitudes. If you’re polite and respectful, just as you would be out in any public space, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Ready to catch some waves? Check out our line of SUP paddle boards, soft top surfboards and longboards to get started today.

surfing a foam board

Posted in Surf News
Jeff Hale - Jeff is the Content Manager at ISLE Surf and SUP. He's been an avid surfer and paddler for over 20 years, and he's always looking for an excuse to spend more time in the water. Jeff grew up in Southern California where he earned his Bachelor's in English at UC Irvine and his MBA at Chapman University. You can find him in the water after work and on weekends in San Diego.