The world is home to about 372,000 miles of coastline and endless surf breaks along these coasts. With this much exposure to the ocean, you would think that surfers would not necessarily need to abide by rules—wrong! Due to accessibility issues and limited areas where rideable waves break in a desirable fashion, surfers end up congregating in packs; and where there are groups of surfers there must be some sort of informal rules to avoid chaos in the water.
To help remind some and inform others, we’ve put together a short list of a few of the most important surfing rules. This is by no means a comprehensive list of all unwritten surfing rules, but abiding by even just these few simple rules will help us all stay safe in the water and have the best time possible enjoying the sport we love. So, whether you are preparing to take out your 8-foot Wavestorm from Costco for the first time or you are currently surfing on the World Tour, we urge you to pay attention and follow the rules below.
1. Don’t Interfere on a Wave Being Ridden by Another Surfer
At most surf breaks where there is a group of surfers, it will be customary for only one or two surfers to catch each wave. When two surfers catch the same wave, they will most likely be riding the wave in opposite directions to avoid running into each other. It would be considered rude and disrespectful for another surfer to attempt to catch or interfere on a wave that someone else is already riding. In fact, this is the highest form of disrespect in surfing.
Do not attempt to paddle into a wave that another person is already riding. Not only is this highly frowned upon, but it can result in serious injuries to both you and the other surfer. This action of catching a wave that is already being ridden by another surfer is commonly referred to as taking-off or dropping-in on someone, burning, cutting-off, or snaking.
In pretty much every circumstance, the person who caught and is riding the wave first has the right of way. This means they can travel whichever direction they wish, and even allow others to join them in riding the wave if they so communicate. Eventually every surfer will encounter a situation in which they are paddling into a wave at the same time as another surfer. The person who arises to their feet first gains the right of way at that moment. If both surfers rise to their feet at the same time, the person closest to the portion of the wave that is crumbling or peeling has the right of way, and the other surfer should immediately steer off the wave as a sign of respect, being careful not to hit the other person with their board.
Most surfing accidents, both intentional and unintentional, are a result of surfers breaching this rule. Even if you believe someone deserves it, never break this rule to avoid unnecessary confrontations.
2. Avoid Paddling in the Path of a Wave Being Ridden
This rule is an extension of the rule we just discussed. As you paddle out from the shore you will notice that the easiest route is the one where you avoid running into the whitewash of a wave that has already broken. It is nearly impossible to travel over the top of the whitewash, so surfers will opt to duck-dive or turtle-roll beneath the whitewash and let it pass over them. Duck-diving uses up a significant amount of energy, especially when the waves are large and unruly. This will instinctually cause surfers to want to paddle toward the area of the wave that is smooth and unbroken, so they can easily float over the top and continue toward the outside, beyond where the waves are breaking.
Paddling toward that unbroken part of the wave is perfectly acceptable, unless someone is riding or paddling into the wave. Surfers attempting to paddle to the lineup should be aware if someone is riding the waves they are trying to get around. If someone is riding an incoming wave, and it appears the surfer paddling out may end up in their path, they should paddle toward the whitewash to avoid interfering or colliding with them. This can be inconvenient to the surfer paddling out, but it is a sign of respect and can potentially save them from serious injuries caused by being hit by another surfer. Learning to properly duck-dive or turtle-roll will make paddling out significantly easier, especially in these circumstances.
3. Always Keep Your Board with You
Often, beginner surfers will think it is easier to ditch their surfboard and swim underneath the whitewash instead of performing a proper duck-dive or turtle-roll. This may be true in extreme circumstances, like if you are caught inside at Teahupo’o or the Wedge, but in all other cases this should be avoided. Ditching your board in the path of an oncoming wave will put a tremendous amount of force on your leash and may cause it to break. Not only will this be dangerous to other surfers paddling out behind you or riding the wave you are avoiding, but you will lose the ultimate water flotation device that may save you from drowning.
Everyone loses their board accidentally on occasion, whether from a leash breaking after falling on a wave or having the board torn from their hands while duck-diving, but this should be avoided at all costs to prevent unnecessary injuries.
4. Be Respectful
One of the most prevalent ideas behind the surfing world is the idea that surfers should have respect for the ocean and for other surfers. This is one-hundred percent true.
The ocean is powerful and humbles even the most experienced watermen daily. The human element of surfing can be a safe one if we follow the unwritten surfing rules, but the unpredictability and volatility of the water can lead to serious injuries and even death. It is not uncommon for a handful of surfers to die every year around the world due to drowning or impact with the bottom. We should always respect the ocean and know our limits with regards to wave and weather conditions. Don’t put yourself in danger by surfing waves far above your experience level, and don’t surf in conditions that are unruly and visibly dangerous.
Respect the water and your fellow surfers and have fun.
5. Keep it Fun
Rule number one in surfing is to always have fun. Isn’t that why we are all out in the water? Sometimes surfers can get caught up in the artificial drama created by a seemingly limited resource (the waves) and an increasing number of surfers. As mentioned earlier there are hundreds of thousands of miles of coastline in the world. Most of this is not even utilized by surfers, and new waves are constantly being discovered. This is plenty for us all to share, and there will always be more waves in the future at our local breaks even if the swell doesn’t always last as long as we would like.
It is important to remember that we are all out in the water to have a good time and enjoy the power of the waves. There are no rules for how you should or shouldn’t surf on a wave. As long as you aren’t running into anyone, no one can tell you how to surf. Be yourself and ride whatever you want. The feeling of freedom while riding a wave is indescribable and can’t be recreated elsewhere. Have a fun attitude and be respectful to other surfers, and we will all enjoy the waves together.
In case you didn’t notice, there is an overarching theme behind this list of rules. Respect the water and your fellow surfers and have fun. The ocean is home to incredible forces that are almost completely unpredictable. This is what draws many of us back to the ocean time and time again in an attempt to conquer the waves and soak in the energy they deliver. Respecting the power of the ocean and looking out for our friends in the water will ensure we all have a good time and get the most out of our surf sessions. Let’s remember these rules so we all stay safe and most importantly, have fun!