Surf Etiquette and Handling Surf Snakers

It's the big season here in the South Bay of Los Angeles, and with more surfers than miles of beach, it can get a little crowded out there. My last couple of sessions were riddled with drop-ins and ignored lineups, and so I thought I'd write a little refresher course on surf etiquette and handling those who don't comply.
Not an unusual crowd at Manhattan Beach.
  1. Respect the lineup: There is a finely crafted, unspoken system for properly sharing waves, particularly at a point break where there is only one or two spots where the wave even breaks. It is called the lineup. Essentially, when you paddle out to the break, sit in the back of the line. As sets roll through, the surfers at the top of the lineup will catch the waves, and then the line moves forward. After a few sets, you'll be at the top. Catch your wave and it all starts again. Paddling to the top of the lineup right away is disrespectful and can sometimes put you in bad standing with your fellow surfers.
  2. The inside man gets the wave: If two surfers are going for the same wave, whoever is closer to the peak (where the wave is breaking) gets the wave. If you're not on the inside, you better pull out! TIP: When you are paddling into a wave, ALWAYS look both ways before dropping in. A lot of times guys sneak up out of nowhere that have the right of way.
  3. Be friendly: I often encounter surfers who feel the need to be stoic out there on the water (these tend to be the wave hogs too, by the way), and keep to themselves. I totally understand the solitude of surfing, but in a crowd, it's way more fun to chat it up with your fellow riders. This also eases tension that may arise at a crowded lineup.
Great illustration by
Without fail, there's always some hot shot who calls waves and drops in on his fellow surfers. Snakers gonna snake, snake, snake, snake, snake. (Yeah, that's a Taylor Swift reference; what are you gonna do about it?)
So what if people don't follow the rules of surf etiquette?
  • Snap their leash (just kidding, but this can be a symptom of localism should you get in the way of the wrong person)
  • Don't stoop to their low: If you are getting up in arms about surfing, you are missing the point. Waves come and go, and that "perfect wave that would have changed your life forever that that punk snaked and now you want to punch his face in" -- it probably wasn't what you thought it was. Enjoy the ride and make some friends along the way. It's not worth it to fight over something that isn't yours in the first place.
  • It's okay to give a gentle reprimand to a guy who dropped in on you. A little, "Hey man, look before you drop in," can go a long way, and won't be ill regarded. A lot of times, guys who consistently break the unspoken rules of surfing will lose the respect of the other surfers at the lineup, so you have support.
  • Know when to be aggressive: Sometimes fighting your way into a wave is okay when everyone is on the same page about how to handle a crowded spot. Plus, it can garner respect, and respect leads to more waves. There is a fine balance here, but if you can learn to feel it out, you'll be set.

At that particular trouble spot, my friend found that, though he lost waves at the top of the lineup, the other surfers would recognize if you were consistently going for it, and eventually let you have one or two. This discovery, along with a little luck in position, led to a great day for him.
If you want to dive deeper, here's a great post on what not to do while surfing, with a little more detail on surf etiquette.
Basically, have fun and do your best to make sure others are having fun too. In two words: love and respect.
[Originally published on the blog]