So, why do we need rules for surfing? It's a sport that's all about having a free spirit and enjoying the ocean, right? Well, that's very true if you're lucky enough to be surfing on your own or just with some good mates (these are always the sessions you remember). However, surfing is growing more and more popular by the day and as a result there are more people in the line up than ever before, especially on the weekends. Crowds are more and more becoming a fact of life at a lot beaches, but it should not mean the end of having fun in the surf.
There are some simple, unofficial rules of surfing which help to keep the lineup properly managed when there is a crowd. These rules were first popularized in the 60's during the first surfing boom and a lot of them still ring true today. All of these rules are designed to keep people safe and also rewards the surfer who takes off in the best position on a wave.
The following rules are really important and you should be aware of them if you are planning on surfing for the first time, especially in a busy lineup. These rules are recognized world-wide and you will get yourself a lot less potential grief in the surf if you know them.
Here is a comprehensive look on the rules of surfing with a few added tips to make your next experience in the surf a better one.
THE SURFER CLOSEST TO THE PEAK HAS THE RIGHT OF WAY
When a wave rolls in and several surfers start paddling for the same wave, it’s the surfer who’s closest to the peak that has priority. So, when you’re paddling, be aware of who’s around you and who has the right of way. If you’re closest to the peak, take it! If you’re not, let the other surfer go and get in a better position for the next wave.
Some surfers wrongly think that, even when there’s already another surfer up and riding the wave, they can take off closer to the peak and have priority. Taking priority by being closest to the peak only works if the wave isn’t already claimed. The first surfer up and riding has the right of way and dropping into a wave behind someone and claiming the wave as your own isn’t cool. And you’ll probably get hit if the surfer in front decides to do a cutback!
FIRST ON THE WAVE HAS PRIORITY
The first surfer up and riding has the right of way. Just like crossing a road, always look both ways before paddling into a wave – if there’s another surfer on the wave, stop paddling and let them go.
When you’re paddling for a wave, don’t forget to look over your shoulders! It’s possible that a surfer behind you will be up and riding that wave before it even reaches you so stay out of their way - the surfer already up and riding has priority.
DON’T DROP IN
If you continue paddling for a wave when another surfer is already on the wave and drop into the wave in front of them, not only will you ruin their wave, but there’s a high likelihood that they’ll end up hitting you - and a fin to the face is not a good look. Make sure you look both ways before you take the plunge!
If you’re thinking about dropping in on someone that has a large section in their way (essentially ending their ride), make sure they’re not able to get around that section before you take the wave. Most experienced surfers are able to get past big sections so don’t drop in on them – the wave is still theirs.
SPLIT THE PEAK
If the peak is splitting both left and right, make sure you communicate to the surfer nearest to you which direction you intend to surf so you don’t end up smacking into each other before the wave even begins. Yell “LEFT!” or “RIGHT!” as you’re paddling for the peak.
Essentially the “line up” is where you wait your turn to ride the wave. This works very well for a point break or reef break where the peak is consistent – everyone waits their turn and everyone gets a ride. But organising a line up for a beach break is more difficult since the peaks are constantly changing. Do your best to take turns and don’t paddle around someone (“snaking”) to get the better position.
Snaking a wave is when you paddle around the surfer that’s closest to the peak and steal their wave by obtaining priority. When you’re surfing point and reef breaks where the peak is consistent and a “line up” forms - wait your turn and don’t “snake” someone’s wave.
STAY OUT OF THE WAY OF SURFERS ALREADY RIDING
Always paddle out around the break so that you don’t get in anyone’s way. If you must paddle out in the middle of the break (like when you’re surfing a shifty beach break) and there’s a surfer on the wave that’s just in front of you, you MUST paddle behind them into the whitewash and take the wave on the head – DON’T paddle into their path and ruin their wave.
The only time it’s OK to paddle in front of a surfer that’s up and riding is when you have plenty of room to cross their path without any worry that you might get in their way – don’t try this unless you’re an experienced surfer.
After you wipe out, quickly familiarize yourself with where others are around you and paddle back out safely without getting in anyone’s way. Don’t waste time fixing your hair, grab your board and get back out there!
NEVER LET GO OF YOUR BOARD
When a big set comes, it might be tempting to just ditch your board and swim, but with your board on the loose, it could (and most likely will) end up hitting someone. Remember that your leash allows your board travel a long distance so be kind to others around you and keep your board where it belongs. And after wiping out, quickly locate your board and keep control of it.
AND A FEW SUGGESTIONS…
SHARE THE WEALTH
There’s no need to be a wave hog. If you’re catching loads of waves, why not let someone else catch the next one? Some surfers, especially those on bigger boards, are able to get into waves really early before the wave even reaches other surfers. If you’re one of the lucky ones that can catch anything that moves, let some waves go so others can enjoy the surf as well. Surf karma goes a long way!
When you make a mistake, own up to it! If you accidentally drop-in on someone or paddle into their path, apologise. Everyone makes mistakes and most surfers are very understanding.
ONLY SURF BREAKS THAT MATCH YOUR ABILITY
If you’re a beginner and your only experience has been white-water waves on a beach break, then it’s a very bad idea to paddle out into a heavy reef break. The same can be said for more experienced surfers when the waves are bigger and more powerful. If you’re not confident that you can maintain control of your board, then stay on the beach. Be smart and don’t push your limits without the help of a qualified coach.
NEVER PADDLE OUT DIRECTLY BEHIND ANOTHER SURFER
Just like when you’re driving, following someone too closely could end in a collision. If the person directly in front of you loses control of their board while duck-diving or turtle-rolling their board may fly up and smack you right on the head! Give yourself some space when you’re paddling out and try to pick a path that won’t get in anyone’s way.
BRING A BUDDY
Not that we want to add to the crowds, but when you’re surfing, take a friend with you. Surfing can be a dangerous sport so surf with someone (preferably a surf instructor/lifeguard friend!) that will not only keep you company, but who can also help you if you need it.
Learn everything you can about the spot you will be surfing. What’s the bottom like? Are there sharp rocks or reef? What’s the tide doing? Is the wave steep/hollow/fast? Are there any dangerous currents? Before you enter the water, make sure you understand your surf spot. If you’re new to a surf spot, ask a local. If you feel you don’t really understand how it all works, a qualified surf coach can teach you everything you need to know about the ocean.
Boards, fins, reef, and various sea creatures can harm you. Be aware of the dangers that surround you and take precautions. Cover your head every time you wipeout and maintain control of your board so you don’t end up hurting someone. Also it’s a good idea to make sure you know where the nearest doctor or first-aider is (just in case).
BE KIND TO BEGINNERS
We all started out as beginners so when a newbie makes a mistake remember that it takes time to learn to surf and to become confident with the ocean. Even beginners that know the rules may have trouble following them at first so be understanding. Remember the tunnel vision you had when you caught your first wave? Or the blind panic you felt when you accidentally paddled into the path of a surfer riding a wave? Be patient. And if you want to feel extra warm and fuzzy, be helpful.
HELP OTHERS IN TROUBLE
We’ve all been there, so when you see a surfer in need, help them out. A little kindness is all it takes.
RESPECT THE BEACH
It might seem obvious, but don’t litter. We’ve all paddled out past floating plastic bottles and flip-flops left by careless beach goers…don’t be that disrespectful person.
RESPECT THE LOCALS
Surfers love to travel so even if you’re surfing your local spot today, you most likely will be surfing someone else’s local spot tomorrow. So when you’re visiting, be respectful of the locals and follow the rules (and don’t turn up with 8 of your friends and crowd the water). And when you’re hosting, be welcoming and let your guests have a few waves.
One final note on the rules…
Every once in a while someone will make a mistake or it will be hard to tell who was in the right and who was wrong. Don’t worry about it. The rules are designed to keep you safe, not to police everyone. Have fun and enjoy the waves!
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