surf localism
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What Is Surf Localism?

Surf localism is one of the profound problems surfers may encounter anywhere on Earth. See what causes it, how it’s manifested, and how you can deal with it.

Whenever we talk about being a surfer, we refer to how chill it actually is and how surf etiquette teaches you to respect everyone around you. Many surf coaches, including our own Clayton Nienaber, will tell you about the importance of feeling one with the energy of the wave, respecting it, and just being in the moment. In most surf camps worldwide, you'll encounter daily yoga and meditation sessions, indicating a focus on spirituality.

Well, now it's time to forget all that because not all the surf breaks in the world are full of spiritual and respectful surfers. Yes, many local surf communities are welcoming today, even though they weren't in the past. However, in some surf spots, you'll encounter local surfers who are quite aggressive and territorial.

No matter how much we believe in surf culture and etiquette, such aggressive behavior continues to exist. See, we love surfing—we want to surf all day, every day. We travel around the world searching for good waves, and sometimes, when we reach the surf spot of our dreams, we see a sign that says: "Locals Only."

Of course, there are questions. Why is there a sign to begin with? What happens if I don't abide by it? How do I ensure that I don't have to deal with surf localism during my peaceful surf vacation and just enjoy surfing? Read on as we'll explain it all.

What's the Reason for Surf Localism?

When talking about localism and territorialism, the main reason that comes to mind is racism. However, racism is often a lazy answer. It's also dangerous because it generally conceals the underlying causes or delays their uncovering.

In the case of surf localism, the answer to the why question is two-sided. On the one hand, there’s racism on the part of local surfers. On the other hand, there’s the lack of surf etiquette on the part of visiting surfers.

There’s also the other side of the coin. We know that there’s a limited number of places with perfect waves on the planet, and some among us want to keep them a secret. Why? Because they don’t want to deal with sudden surges in tourists and see their peaceful beaches get crowded by beginners from all around the world and their Wavestorm Classics as if they own the ocean.

On the other hand, even though most surfers are decent human beings, some don't know how to respect the locals, their culture, the wave lineups, or people and nature in general. As a result, the locals in certain surf spots develop a strong reaction to such behavior and see all the non-local folks as a threat to their communal peace.

How Does Surf Localism Manifest?

surfers physical violence

So, you're on a surf holiday far from your home break, and you're riding waves on a beach where everyone's surfing. There are no blatant signs that the spot is reserved for the locals only.

Well, let us say that it won't take an anthropologist to recognize surf localism. It'll start as any other process of harassment does. First, you'll draw a couple of unpleasant and threatening stares. If you prick up your ears, you might hear local surfers saying distasteful things about you to each other. If you don't pack and go, you'll probably hear verbal abuse thrown your way, too. Needless to say, they'll surf quite aggressively so that you don't enjoy their waves.

In some cases, the stuff you leave on the beach might get stolen or vandalized. If you drove a car to the particular surf break, your car might get vandalized, too. When you walk to your car at the end of the day, you might see funny or crude shapes drawn on the windows, hateful and racist remarks written on the hood, or, more straightforwardly, your tires slashed.

You might think that these are not all that bad, but it might just get worse, especially if you aren't particularly respectful towards the locals or their culture. The extreme cases might include you lacking surf etiquette and cutting in front of locals in a crowded wave lineup or (hopefully) unwittingly disrespecting a well-established cultural or communal pillar like the most legendary surfer in the area. In such cases, the aggressive behavior may even escalate to physical violence.

How to Deal With Surf Localism?

travel with friends

Some online surf guides warn their readers not to go to certain places because the locals are known for surf localism. However, pointing fingers like that doesn't really work in anyone's favor, and it's something that may happen anywhere—even in San Diego or Lunada Bay, Southern California.

There are better ways to deal with surf localism than just avoiding certain surf spots. Let's see what those are.

Be Respectful

The most important aspect of dealing with surf localism is simply being respectful. Respect the lineups, the culture, and the surfers admired by the locals, and do not try to compete with them. To avoid making mistakes, you'll need to do your research, be a part of the local surf community, and consult with other surfers who’ve visited the break before.

With better knowledge, you'll be able to navigate easily, and you won't stand out even though you're clearly an outsider. At the end of your trip, the locals might even realize that their surf spot has enough waves for everyone and that not all tourists are douchebags after all.

Travel With Friends

Whenever possible, choose to travel with friends, but not because they’ll be useful when a fight breaks out and surfboards start flying low like charter planes. If you travel with a friend or a little group of friends, it'll be easier for you to socialize, make local friends, and settle. 

However, make sure that your traveling party is not too big either, especially if you’re visiting a break where the locals are explicitly territorial. A large crowd might come across as threatening, and that's definitely something we don't want.


A good surfer is an observant one. Whether you want to increase your wave count or assess the waves on the break you're visiting, you need to spend some time observing the ocean and the surfers frequenting its shores.

That way, you'll not only be familiar with the general vibe the place has, where the waves break, and who to stay away from, but also what you need to do to not stand out. For example, if a majority of the locals are surfing longboards, you'll know that's exactly what you should do as well.

Be Chill, Friendly, and Calm

This is probably a general rule when you're on holiday, regardless of whether you're a surfer or not, but it's worth repeating. Overall, you need to be chill and friendly, and when faced with danger or a potential case of localism, you need to stay calm and know when to respectfully withdraw.

Of course, you might ask why you shouldn't just go home if you won’t try to catch more waves and be the one who has to carry the responsibility of being chill. Well, such adverse communal behavior rarely gets better unless someone claims responsibility and tries to make things better.

Wrapping Up...

Ultimately, surf localism can be a problem, but its occurrence isn’t to blame on any single factor. There’s no bipartisanship in the surfing community. At least, there shouldn’t be. When we get embroiled in issues like this, even politics can come into play, which is not something we want.

What’s indisputable, though, is that there's a very important truth we tend to forget: surfing is, after all, an immense joy, and joy is multiplied when shared with others. We may not agree on the (non-)property status of many things in life and on earth, but surely, not many can disagree with the idea that all humans should have equal access to joy.

Written by
Nico Palacios
surf coaching