Surfing tends to be a free-form self-regulated sport, but there are a number of universally accepted rules and points of etiquette that apply to all surfing and all surfers.  The rules have been well established over decades, and bring a level of order to what otherwise could be chaos These rules are mostly based on safety and common sense, but are also the basis for competitive surfing.  They are intended to identify the surfer who has the right of way on a wave, and thereby to prevent accidents and situations that might result in aggressive behaviour. 

The rules apply to all surfers in the line-up; ie:  long boarders, stand-up paddle boarders, short boarders, body boarders, surf skiers and kayakers. 

1. Fun and Enjoyment

Never forget that the whole purpose of surfing, including competitive surfing, is to have fun and to enjoy your time in the surf.  Nobody owns a location or the waves, and there are usually enough waves for everyone to share without the need to be greedy possessive or aggressive.  Wait your turn for the next wave.  Look around you as you paddle out, and note all the surfers waiting in the line-up.  Give them the opportunity to catch a wave before you paddle for your next wave.  This applies particularly to longboard and stand-up paddle board riders who can pick up waves further out than shortboard riders.  However, be aware that there are greedy and aggressive surfers (who are generally unhappy or angry people) at most locations these days, and don’t let their behaviour spoil your enjoyment. 

2. Right of Way

In simple terms, the surfer deemed to have the inside position has the right-of-way on a wave for the entire duration of their ride. The inside position is defined as the point closest to the breaking part of the wave, or where the wave will first break.  Therefore, when two adjacent surfers are paddling for a wave that will reach both of them at approximately the same time, right of way IS NOT established by the person who first stands up, but is always retained by the surfer with the inside position, regardless of how slowly they might get to their feet. 

However, right-of-way over another surfer positioned further inside may be gained if a surfer is already standing and riding a wave before that wave, broken or unbroken, reaches the inside surfer. That is, the surfer standing and riding will have caught the wave from a position further from the shore (further out the back) than the inside positioned surfer.  

3. Dropping-in

Before you commit yourself to a wave ALWAYS look inside (toward the peak of the wave or towards where it will first start to break) to see if someone is already on the wave, or is about to take off.  This person has the right-of-way on the wave.  If you don’t look inside, and take off when there is a person already on the wave or about to take off, you will be committing the first cardinal sin of surfing, which is DROPPING-IN.  You could also be putting yourself and the other rider in a potentially dangerous situation because your action may cause a collision.  At the least it will spoil the ride and the enjoyment of the other surfer.

Sometimes in bigger surf it is difficult to see a surfer already on a wave inside you due to the curl of the wave or the breaking shoulder, so try to keep an eye on all surfers sitting further out or further inside than you to see whether anyone is paddling for the wave before it reaches you.  The same situation can apply in early-morning or late-afternoon light conditions.  If you are sitting wide, don’t take-off on the assumption that the wave will shut down ahead of the inside surfer before it gets to you. 

If you do unintentionally drop-in on another surfer, get off the wave as soon as you can, and make a point of apologising to that person as soon as you can.  Most surfers will accept the apology, and the apology removes any potential source of animosity.  However, remember that there is no excuse for intentionally dropping-in on another surfer. 

If you do happen to inadvertently drop-in, and your action results in a collision that causes injury to the other surfer, or damage to his board, you should acknowledge your action and immediately offer whatever assistance you can.  You should also offer to contribute to the repair of any damage that results. 

Every surfer will experience being dropped-in on at some time.  In crowded breaks it will probably occur frequently, and will often be partially if not totally intentional.  These days you must accept it as a part of surfing.  You may not be happy about it, particularly if your board is damaged, however, whether unintentional or deliberate, there is no excuse for resorting to violence.  Getting angry in the surf destroys the whole reason for being there. 

4. Snaking

A surfer who deliberately or otherwise takes-off inside a surfer who has established right-of-way commits the second cardinal sin of surfing known as SNAKING. 

SNAKING is also used to describe the action of a surfer who deliberately paddles for a wave behind (mostly) or in front of another surfer to position himself closer to the peak and thereby gain right of way over that surfer who was initially better positioned in the line-up zone.   

In more relaxed breaks, the first person paddling for the wave may be given priority even though not closest to the peak when he starts paddling.  However, until you have established the rules at a new location, and particularly in crowded conditions, do not expect this to apply. 

5. Paddling Out 

When paddling out, you must give a surfer on a wave the right-of-way.  Unfortunately, for ease of paddling, many surfers will try to paddle for the shoulder of an oncoming wave occupied by a rider in preference to pushing through the breaking or broken part of the wave.  Unless you can cross the shoulder or unbroken wave at least two board lengths clear of the wave rider to allow him enough room to avoid having to manoeuvre around you, you should paddle behind him, on the white water side of the wave.  You will have to suffer the possibility of getting knocked around by the breaking or broken wave for the sake of the wave rider’s enjoyment.  Take comfort in the hope that they would do the same for you.  Make your decision early so that the wave rider can see what your intentions are, otherwise a collision is the likely outcome.  Remember also that a longboard is not as manoeuvrable as a short board, and might not be able to change direction at the last moment if you suddenly change your mind. 

A surfer riding a wave must take action to avoid surfers sitting in the line-up zone. In some crowded locations this can be a bit like an obstacle avoidance course for the wave rider, so if you are sitting in the line-up and see a rider on a wave coming towards you, stay where you are unless a collision seems otherwise unavoidable. 

6. Sharing

When you get out to the line-up zone, recognise that others already out there were waiting for a wave before you, so wait your turn even if you position yourself further inside or further out the back than these other surfers. This point of etiquette applies particularly to longboard and SUP riders who are better able to catch waves further out than short board and boogie board riders, but would not be relevant if you were the only surfer in position to catch a wave that might break before reaching other surfers. Always remember that being greedy is not the way to have a friendly and enjoyable surf. 

7. Attitude

Try to be friendly in the surf and say “G’day” to other surfers waiting in the line-up.  This often reduces any tensions that might exist.  If you see a great ride by another surfer, let them know when they paddle out again.  However, if for whatever reason you are having a bad day, then take your “bad attitude” somewhere else, preferably to the shore. No one really wins in altercations in the surf, and the end result is that two or more people will have their day’s surfing spoiled.  Surfing is supposed to be fun and exhilarating, not an unpleasant experience. 

If you really feel it necessary, you are entitled to make your point and voice your opinion in a non-aggressive manner about the poor attitude or etiquette of another surfer. For some people the hard thing to do is to leave it at that. If you are one of those sorts of person or the other person is, then you or they have entirely the wrong attitude and shouldn’t be surfing; therefore, it’s always much better to say and do nothing that might aggravate a situation. 

If the vibe in the line-up is aggressive, then for your personal well-being it will often be better to paddle in or to another spot rather than get caught up in the aggression.  Surfers with attitude are surfing for entirely the wrong reasons, and usually have anger management problems and often a grossly inflated opinion of their surfing ability compared to everyone else’s. Not that individual ability should ever be a consideration in the application of these rules; they apply to everyone, and for very good reasons. 

8. Contest Etiquette

The rules and etiquette above also apply in contests. As in free-surfing, don’t be greedy, and ensure that you take your turn for the next wave; in professional contests it is mandatory! Unless it is a professional contest there are no fortunes or reputations riding on the result of a heat or the contest; just personal accomplishment! Some days you will always seem to be sitting where the waves aren’t, or other surfers will seem to be getting favoured by the better quality waves.  That’s life! 

A few other contest rules are as follows: 

  • When paddling out before your heat starts, keep clear of the potential track of riders in the current heat; in other words, stay wide of the contest area. In many contests failure to do so can result in an interference penalty to your heat result. Likewise keep clear of all potential take-off spots until your heat starts.
  • At the end of your heat make sure that you keep clear of the contest area when returning to the shore.  Any conflict with a surfer riding a wave in the next heat can also result in an interference penalty. You have no right of way after your heat is over.
  • After your heat has finished you must return to shore as soon as you are able, even if this means paddling in. This is to minimise potential conflict or interference with surfers in the next heat.
  • Contest etiquette requires surfers to remain prone if they catch a wave in after their heat finishes. This ensures that the judges will not score a wave in the next heat for the colour you are wearing. Simply removing your contest vest is not sufficient reason to stand up on a wave in after your heat has finished. Again, in many contests failure to observe this rule will result in an interference penalty.