surfing etiquette
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Surfing etiquette explained and finding more waves without being a d*ck

Etiquette in surfing doesn't have to be vague and it doesn't have to stop you from catching waves. There are multiple ways you can bend the rules to make sure you still get waves.

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The Full Guide

Understanding etiquette, what’s right and wrong and who has right of way can be the difference between getting a lot of waves or not getting many, and feeling good or bad for the waves you caught.

To be honest, it’s simple but it’s also so very vague in that it’s each person's opinion or point of view of who had right of way and what’s ok and what’s not ok.

So, here is my personal point of view on the whole etiquette debacle, but not just the usual list of items, I’m going to include what to do when paddling back out and what to do when you are that person getting all the waves.

This is going to link into next week's podcast which will be going into how to navigate those crowded lineups.

The general list of etiquette

  1. The closest to the peak has right of way
  2. Don’t drop in on someone
  3. Don’t snake people
  4. Don’t let go of your board or let it get in the way of someone surfing
  5. Don’t surf waves well out your skill level
  6. Paddle back out so you don’t get in the way

Right, we’ve heard all that before, most of it’s straightforward.

Dropping in

Dropping in, obviously, someone else is already surfing the wave and another surfer takes off in front of them, blocking them.

Simple fix, just always look to your inside of the way you are planning on surfing the wave. Also great for reading the wave and seeing what it’s doing, take’s 1 second, not many excuses for not seeing someone.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with paddling for a wave next to someone on your inside and seeing if they get it, if they don’t you can take the wave. It’s that easy, nothing wrong with having a look at the menu. Just wait to commit and see what happens. You’ll be surprised how many waves you get that someone else on your inside fails to get. If you’re not having a look every so often at those waves, you will never get them.

Just observe the person, if they constantly fail, go for it, if they always get the waves, let them be.

Surf your skill level

I encourage you to push the limits or challenge yourself, just don’t take it to the extremes and go and surf double overhead when shoulder high is the upper limit. At that point, you may just put yourself or others in dangerous spots but this is one of those things that are vague and it’s up to you to call it when the surf is out of your league for the time being.

Paddling back out

Growing up surfing the Gold Coast, this is the most annoying thing other than excessive dropping in. 

If you are paddling back out, go wide of the break, don’t paddle up along the pocket, get out of the way and give the other surfer space to do what they want.

If you are paddling back out and see someone surfing and think I could be in the way, you should paddle towards them… and by that, I mean where they will not be by the time they get closer. Paddle to where they have just surfed and go behind them. Take the whitewash on the head every time. 

It might suck, it might not be fun, but when someone else does it for you, you’ll be thanking them for taking that path rather than stress paddling into an annoying position.

Closest to the peak and Snaking

Right, this is where it gets vague and where people get angry.

Closest to the peak is simply that, whoever is taking off closest to where the wave is breaking has right of way.

Snaking is paddling past someone to place yourself closer to that peak. That’s a big no and quick way to get dropped in on and leave someone annoyed.

So how do we play this game then? Yep, it’s a game whether you signed up for it or not.

Playing the positioning game

There are a few ways around this and it all comes down to reading the ocean and positioning better than the other people.

If they are out of position, not your fault, go paddle into position, so long as that is a good 10-20 metres on their inside. Again this is up to the person you paddle past but understanding most surfers won’t paddle sideways more than a few metres to better position, this is a safe bet 95% of the time.

Again, it is not your fault if they are sitting wide of the peak and seeking the safety of the shoulder, go sit where the wave is breaking.

If you can’t position better than that person, go paddle up next to them, crack a smile, say something, let them get a wave and as soon as they go, paddle straight into their spot. Take it, it’s yours.

Schoolyard rules apply here. On your feet, lose your seat.

There is also absolutely nothing wrong with paddling right back to where you were before you caught the last wave, so long as you aren’t obviously snaking someone. Nothing wrong with just paddling back to the perfect take-off spot. Although, always get a feel for who you are surfing with, even though you probably have no clue who they are.

What to do if you’re getting all the waves or someone else is

Just go chat with them, it’s that simple. Don't make a dumb comment like oh you don’t cut into the line at the supermarket and hog all the groceries. Heard that one before, but it didn’t have the effect the person was expecting.

Just be friendly, make a comment that’s positive or something like nice wave before. Just break the ice, once that walls down, most people will eventually let you take a wave or chat back.

If you are that person getting every wave or you see someone who is not comfortable or you've seen stuff up on most waves, just ask, “you going?, do you want this wave?” etc. It’s so much easier and people respond well to it, just ask, give them a bit of respect and they will give it back and either step up or say you can take it.

If you are that person always getting the waves, do not feel bad if everyone else has no clue or is way out of position. Again not your fault, take it and enjoy it. If you want to share go for it. But I will say, it goes a long way to call someone else into a wave and will drop the aura of being that person, suddenly you’re seen completely different and it’s a game-changer.

The furthest out

This last one is vague and I personally hate it. Longboarders club, old boys club, whatever you call it, you know the crew that do this. 

They sit so far out and then paddle madly for every single wave.

I personally don’t know what’s right or wrong here, but my opinion is that if you have to paddle 20-40 metres in towards the beach to get the wave, you are out of position and if I am now closer to the peak, that trumps your mad effort of paddling.

Closer to the peak trumps I was paddling for it first. Kind of like rock beats scissors. 

Calling someone off a wave

Oh and don’t be afraid to call someone off the wave. If they are paddling for it while you are riding, any noise will do, just make loud noises at them and they get the gist. I tend to just repeat yeah about 5 times but go with what you want.

If you are both paddling for it and they are on your outside, aka about to drop in on you, when you are getting to your feet, call them off, and let them know. Or call what way you are going or ask them what way they are going. Either way, it’s just communication.

If that person is you who drops in or gets called at, don’t feel bad, just wave and say sorry or one of those two.

Dropping in on someone you know won’t make it

Ah, the oldest excuse, “I thought you wouldn't make it” or “you were so deep”. This is super situational but I am not against it at all, but only with strict situations. If the person on your inside can’t go across the wave face and you know or have seen this, fine, but hang back and watch to make sure they only go straight.

If the wave is massively racing ahead and this person is guaranteed to be caught behind and not getting barrelled sure. If it might barrel, hell no. If the surfer is pretty decent, hell no. Never rule out the chance they might make it.

Again this just comes down to reading the wave and having observed the person beforehand.

Don’t kook shame

Above all, don’t kook shame, there is no prize for making others feel bad or saying anything to make yourself feel better.

If you make a mistake, just apologise, so much of this just comes down to communicating. The same thing can be said for pretty much everything in life and surfing isn’t different. There is no need to feel bad or anything similar, everyone starts somewhere and has made mistakes.


As I said, etiquette is up to the person, unfortunately, the rules are bent by a lot of surfers and it’s not commonly explained what’s ok. In those cases just ask. In the cases of localism, maybe just apply my view of etiquette a bit more, give more space, ask more questions, pay respect and be aware of how many waves you get, and call someone else into a wave.

Written by
Luke Hardacre
surf coaching