Surf Etiquette For Beginners

Without a referee in the water, it’s not uncommon for surfers to violate the unspoken rules of surf etiquette.

Locals typically take matters into their own hands and enforce the rules of conduct by telling rule-breakers to beat it. 

Since there is no handbook, many of these offenders don’t even realize what they’re doing is not only disrespectful, but also dangerous. 

To avoid creating an unsafe situation for everyone in the water, remembering the rules of surf etiquette is essential.

Not only will these guidelines keep you safe, but it will teach you how to read and understand the ocean.

#1: Know Before You Go

Before you even enter the lineup, make sure that your abilities are adequate to handle the surf. To avoid putting other surfers, not to mention yourself, in danger, you should never paddle into conditions that you aren’t comfortable with. Even if the waves don’t seem very big, other factors (wind, rain, rip currents, etc.) should be taken into account. The ocean is a strong and unpredictable force, so be careful not to put yourself in a dangerous situation. This shows respect for the ocean, your fellow surfers, and yourself.

“If you don’t understand the wave, you can’t respect it. And if you don’t have respect, it’s only a matter of time before the ocean teaches you to get some.” - Laird Hamilton

#2: Find a Beginners Break

Do some research and find a surf spot that is suitable for beginners. Typically, this will be the inside of a point break. A point break will have one main point where the waves are the biggest, and smaller inside breaks. These inside peaks tend to be less crowded, smaller, and slower, which is suitable for learning. Plus, you’ll get to watch the experienced surfers at the top of the point and learn from their technique.

#3: Paddle Around

Watch other surfers to see where to paddle out. In many lineups, there is a way to paddle out without going directly through the surf. Instead, you can paddle through a channel, ride a rip, or at least paddle through the whitewash. Whatever you do, don’t paddle through the face of the wave and get in the way of another surfers ride. If you find yourself in a pickle, remember to paddle away from the way that the wave is breaking. In other words, if the surfer is moving to your right, paddle left, and vice versa.

#4: Wait Your Turn

Don’t paddle out and go for the first wave that comes your way. Instead, watch where others surfers are taking off and wait until a wave peaks right behind you. Not only will this help you catch a better wave, it will help you earn the respect of nearby surfers and appreciate the waves that you do catch.

#5: Priority      

The surfer that is the farthest out and the closest to the peak has the right of way. If you don’t know the term “dropping in”, locals will quickly teach it to you. Dropping in is probably the worst, and the most commonly broken, rule of surf etiquette. By catching a wave that someone is already riding, you’re dropping in. This puts both surfers in a sticky situation, and breaks most of the other rules all at once.

#6: Back-Paddling

That being said, paddling closer to the peak and promptly going for a wave is called back-paddling. In a lineup, you’re supposed to wait for the surfer closest to the peak to catch waves, while you slowly drift your way closer until it’s your turn. Don’t paddle around other surfers and then catch waves before they have a chance to catch one. Be patient in between waves - there’s plenty to appreciate in the meantime.

#7: Control Your Board

If a big set comes and you get stuck inside, don’t jump off of your board. Try to duck dive or turtle roll your board. This will ensure that your board doesn’t hit anyone, hit you, or get swept into shore. This is a really important skill to practice to maintain a safe lineup. It’ll also prepare you for the inevitable day when you learn to surf without a leash.

The best way to make sure you have total control of your board is to get the right board for your skill level. We recommend checking out our CFSR beginner surfboard guide for more info!

#8: Communicate

If you’re surfing a wave with a split peak, also known as an A-frame, you should call out “right” or “left”. This way, you can share the wave with another surfer who will go in the opposite direction. Whether you want to go right or left usually depends on whether you’re regular or goofy footed; but, it’s good to practice both to become a well-rounded surfer.

#9: Be Friendly

There’s nothing worse than a lineup full of grumpy, aggravated surfers. Surfing is inherently about mutual respect for the ocean and for each other. You can see that all of these “rules” are based on sharing the waves with those around you. Being friendly and polite to other surfers creates a much happier lineup, and may even result in some great friendships.

Friends surfing
Surf with friends

#10: Have Fun!

The best surfer is the one having the most fun. Like most things, learning to surf won’t happen overnight; but, unlike most things, the way that you surf can never be right or wrong.

Enjoy the learning process and don’t worry about perfection - as long as you’re respectful and you follow these rules, you might as well be the best surfer out there!

Sophia Cancelmo

written by

Contributing Author