Photo: Swilly

Without at least some version of a rulebook, crowded lineups like Snapper would grow even more chaotic. Photo: Swilly
Perhaps one of the greatest things about the pursuit of surfing is the lack of regimentation. No need to reserve court time, buy a lift ticket, or wait for the ref to show up—just grab your stick and go. Even the act itself is usually pretty loose—no governing body monitoring you and no authority figures telling you what to do. We surf by an informal collection of unspoken/unwritten “rules” that wave riders learn about over time.

The problem with unwritten rules is that they’re much harder to learn and far easier to break. As lineups get more crowded and the potential for conflicts rises, it might be a good idea to at least begin to put something in writing.

In some areas, surfers have already taken matters into their own hands and posted a list of rules at their local breaks. In California, for example, you might have noticed unofficial signs fronting several reef and point breaks along the coast. Most of these mini-billboards were posted by locals in the wake of the ‘90s beginner boom, when unknowing novices began to breach the unwritten rules of the lineup.

On a larger scale, surfer/illustrator Peter Spacek went so far as crafting an informative, humor-infused handbook called “Wetiquette”, which, in my mind, should be required reading for every surf school student.

But creating a definitive code of conduct is easier said than done. There are many gray areas in surfing, and, like English grammar, there’s no shortage of exceptions, caveats, and contingencies. Take one of the basic assumptions, for example: First surfer up, closest the curl, has the right of way. Seems straightforward enough, right? In practice, however, there are at least two possible exceptions: the notorious back-paddler who surfs out of turn and insidiously drops-in behind you, and the older local who uses seniority to claim wave rights.

Below you will find an amalgamation of rules to surf by, boiled down to a list of guidelines for safely navigating crowded lineups. It’s by no means the definitive guide to surf etiquette, but it’s a jumping off point. Leave your own tips to improve this list in the comments below.

1) Always study the lineup before you paddle out. If the conditions are beyond your abilities, go somewhere else or surf another day.
2) Whenever possible, paddle around the lineup, not through it.
3) Beginners/novices should stay off-to-the-side of the crowd, observe, and only attempt to catch waves that pass through unridden.
4) If a collision between a paddler and a rider looks imminent, paddlers should “keep their line” and let the rider be the one to take evasive action.
5) Try your best not to be a wave hog – wait your turn, and avoid the temptation to back paddle (‘cutting in line’ by paddling around a surfer and dropping in behind).
6) Unless the threat of injury is a distinct possibility, never ditch (abandon) your board.
7) Unless previously agreed to, it’s one surfer per wave, or two surfers per two-way peak.
8) In general, first surfer up, closest to the curl, has the right of way.
9) If you inadvertently drop-in on someone, immediately and safely exit the wave.
10) If you lose your board, you are responsible for it. This includes any surfboard damage or injury that may result.
11) Don’t be a dick. Apologize if you drop-in on someone. Explain firmly yet kindly when an unknowing novice breaches etiquette. Do your best to share. Help other surfers in trouble. Always pick up your trash.

Original artwork by Peter Spacek for Wetiquette, available here.