surfing etiquette dropping in
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Why You Shouldn’t Drop In: Surfing Etiquette 101

Novice surfers tend to anger experienced ones with their lack of surf etiquette. Start your surf etiquette education by learning why you shouldn’t drop in

surfers riding a wave

Surfing may seem like a chill sport, but it’s not devoid of its sins. Some of these sins are quite obvious, even if you’re only a beginner. For example, everybody knows that you shouldn’t hit strangers on the beach with your surfboard as it gives you a fair bit of advantage over your opponent. However, some of them might not be that obvious.

The drop in rule is one of those sins that might be subtle for the novices. Yet, it’s what’s going to aggravate the experienced surfers the most. When you don't follow this rule, you might get stared down to social death by a hunkering local surfer, you might face a high level of surfing aggression that would cause your session to turn into an abysmal one, and you might even get your surfboard stolen from underneath you.

However, it’s not a solitary rule. Rather, it’s part of a set of some basic rules known as surf etiquette. Therefore, before telling you all about what’s the unforgivable sin of drop in or in what cases it can be forgiven, let’s look at what surf etiquette means, what it entails, and why it’s important.

Surf Etiquette

Surfing etiquette is not necessarily about surfing. In a sense, you can even tell that it’s a way to become a decent social being. Although surfing is not exactly a team sport, the much-applauded and sought-after surf culture revolves around surfing communities. If you want to feel like you’re a part of these communities, showing that you’re worthy enough and being worthy enough to be accepted is important.

Although what it entails may vary from one surf location to the next, it can still be divided up into three main categories: whether you care about this planet of ours, how you relate to locals and non-surfers, and how you relate to other surfers you come across in your journey as a surfer.

Now, let’s go into a bit more detail.

Environmental Consciousness

ocean with trash

It’s no secret that we’re witnessing a drastic change in the climate regime. Just take a look at the increase in temperatures in Earth’s poles recorded this year, and you’ll have every reason to worry. If the ice formations in the poles start melting at an unprecedented pace, it’ll also mean that the waves will become more unpredictable, more unattainable, and even unsurfable sooner rather than later.

It is surely an alarming prospect that justifies the responsibility Kelly Slater obliges every surfer to have: "I think when a surfer becomes a surfer, it's almost like an obligation to be an environmentalist at the same time."

Regardless of becoming a surfer in the eyes of the GOAT and regardless of the direct effect the climate crisis has on surfing, we surfers still need to approach our precious planet with the utmost care. It’s true that we’re mostly traveling to places where the ocean water is as clean as the mirror of the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, but it doesn’t at all mean that the ocean, in general, is clean. On the contrary, it’s filled with industrial waste, spilled oil, and plastic bottles from those who don’t want to leave a beautiful planet to the next generations.

Considering that we owe much of our joy, sustenance, and love of life to the ocean, caring about it and doing our best to preserve its beauty and well-being is simply a must. To that end, we can even be careful when purchasing surfboard wax as, nowadays, there are more and more wax options that don’t include petrochemical ingredients. Moreover, we can opt for surfboard brands that emphasize ethical and sustainable production.

Of course, what we can do is quite limited, and it’s unlikely that we, the surfers, can miraculously prevent the calamitous effects of the climate crisis. Still, being an environmentally-conscious and sustainable surfer has never been easier, and if it’s the best we can do, we should obviously do it.

Respecting the Locals and Non-Surfers

surf break

Some surfers don’t really need to go anywhere to learn to surf. In a sense, they are born into a certain beach break, and they become part of the landscape there. That’s why when they start traveling to other surf spots around the world in search of better waves and bigger challenges, they sometimes overlook the specifics of the local culture there and keep on as if they’re still in their own local surf spot.

However, that attitude may lead to certain problems there. You might unwittingly insult the beliefs of the locals, show disrespect to revered social figures there, engage in activities that might be frowned upon, and draw unwanted attention to yourself. Especially when the surf spot you decide to visit is one where surf localism reigns, you might even return to shore without having ridden a single wave because local surfers will respond to your “trespassing” with aggressive behavior.

The awareness concerning the non-surfing environment shouldn’t just pertain to places you’re visiting either. Even in your home break where you’re a familiar figure, there’ll be times the beach will be full of people who just want to have a good, blissful time. In those times, you need to be conscious that you’re carrying a big surfboard that can hit beach-goers if carried carelessly, and remember, the ocean doesn’t belong to you alone.

Respecting Other Surfers

man lifting a surfboard

The consciousness you need to bear about the planet is actually related to your overall behavior as a human being. Whether your journey to a surf spot is a respectful one is also related to your humane qualities. So, as long as you know that you’re living on a planet that’s on the brink of a catastrophe and among human beings who have lives, thoughts, and feelings just like you, those fronts should already be covered.

On the ocean, on the other hand, sometimes consciousness may slip away, and you can totally be immersed in the moment. That’s why we love surfing so much anyway. Yet, letting consciousness go as such may lead to problems as you’re still in close proximity with others trying to catch waves, and sometimes, even trying to catch the same wave as you.

It’s understandable that you want to catch more and more waves, but you should never forget that your desires may hinder the progress of others and pose a threat to their well-being. For example, a surfer riding without a leash may perform better, but if they fall over, their surfboard is likely to hit the surfer closest to them and cause injuries.

More importantly, though, if you don’t want to meet the wrath of the most experienced surfers, you should never cut in front of anyone in a wave lineup, and you should be careful with your drop ins.

Not cutting in front of anyone is quite straightforward, but the drop in rule might be a bit more complicated, especially for beginners. So, let’s delve into it.

The Drop In Rule

At first look, the drop in rule might sound as if it was conceived to protect the experienced surfers’ right to green waves, but that’s not the case. Its aim is to actually protect the novice who’s about to catch their first green wave.

How? If you’re new to catching green waves and if you’re in a crowded wave lineup, you might be too concerned about whether to drop in on the wave or not. This rule ensures that you go when it’s your turn. Moreover, if a beginner’s too oblivious to what’s going on around them and drops in on somebody else’s wave, they’re probably going to get scolded (verbally or, maybe, physically). In that sense, it’s a must if you want to keep on surfing.

Who Can Go First

man surfing

At OMBE, we’re putting a lot of emphasis on wave knowledge, or as we like to call it, Ocean IQ. To that end, we’re offering programs on improving our pupils’ relationship with the ocean, such as Waterman and Surf Science. In addition, we have a couple of guides that inform you on how waves are formed, how they break, and where their power zones are.

When the time for you to drop in on an unbroken green wave comes, all the knowledge you have about the ocean will be quite handy, as knowing what different parts a wave has is imperative for you to understand your and others’ whereabouts. 

That being said, we can go on and share the first principle of an ethical drop in: in a wave lineup, the surfer closest to the peak has the priority.

If you’re that person, you need to go without hesitating. Otherwise, you’ll risk getting washed over, and when you’re in the wave busy getting washed over, the ones lined up behind you will surely let out a few gruntled reactions. If you’re not the surfer closest to the peak, on the other hand, you need to wait until the surfer there takes off.

There might also be cases when you find yourself in a certain spot in a wave lineup, but you’re too afraid to ride the oncoming wave as it poses a challenge that you cannot undertake. When that happens, the importance of mastering your duck dive is made clear. With a masterful duck dive, you can dive and try your chances on the next wave.

The Drop In Rule According to the Type of Break

beach break surfing

There are three main break types: beach break, point break, and reef break. Although the categorization of these types is mostly geographical, the way the waves break on these breaks also varies.

A beach break is more peaceful and able to provide space for more than one surfer. Moreover, they’re also the hub for white waves, where beginners learn the fundamentals of surfing. Such waves are devoid of the power zones we know from green waves, and they don’t have a peak to speak of. Therefore, the drop in rule doesn’t really matter when you’re on a beach break.

A point break might also be peaceful at times, but there’s a reason why it’s referred to as a “point”: waves break at a certain point, which means that only one surfer can take off from its power zone and have a good ride. So, following the drop in rule is imperative when you’re on a point break. Even if there are only two surfers on that point break at that moment, the other surfer needs to wait for their turn no matter what.

Reef breaks may have the characteristics of either a beach break or a point break, but the fact that you’re surfing directly above dangerous reefs means that you should be careful and heed any rules there are. That way, you’ll minimize the risk of injury both to yourself and to others.

What Happens If You Accidentally Drop In?

surfboard leaning on a man's head

After all, you’re only a human being, and like any human being, you’re prone to errors, lapses, and lack of judgment. So, you might end up accidentally dropping in on somebody else’s wave and then quickly realize the mistake you made. What should you do then? Should you quit surfing altogether, start up a band that’s parodically a U2 rip-off, and tour the world wailing like Bono?

Of course not! You don’t need to go to hell yet because as long as you realize it in time, it’s hardly an irredeemable (let alone unforgivable) mistake (unlike being Bono). You just need to kick out from the wave and apologize from the top of your lungs when surfing over the back of the wave. That way, you’ll be allowing the surfer you just disrespected big time to claim the wave and maybe, just maybe, forgive you. Needless to say, you have more of a chance of being forgiven if their ride goes well.

Wrapping Up…

No matter how skilled, ambitious, or non-conforming a surfer you are, you’re still a human being, and although you’re alone when you’re riding a wave, like any other sporting activity, surfing is as social and even community-based as it gets. And part of its joy depends on being able to talk about it with others who can understand you, like Ricky Bassnett, an ex-pro surfer, or Raz, one of our friends, did.

However, that communal feeling isn’t a given, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Instead, it’s something you build through your journey with your decency and humane qualities. Caring about Earth and showing respect to everyone you come across in your journey are non-surfing aspects of that feeling, and internalizing the drop in rule is the aspect you need to heed when you’re on the water.

Cover all these areas, and even if you don’t end up being a legendary surfer, you’ll at least be a legendary human being.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching