How To Practice Surfing Etiquette
Before paddling out the back into the line up to catch unbroken (or green) waves where there are other surfers, it is very important to understand surfing etiquette (or the surfers' code). Displaying good manners in the surf reduces the risks of accidents and frustration amongst surfers, and will increase the likelihood of other surfers sharing waves with you and genuinely being stoked for you when you catch a good wave, especially if its obvious that you are new to surfing.
Here are the main points of surfing etiquette to know and practice:
Start out catching whitewater waves
When starting out with surfing stick to catching whitewater waves. Keep practicing in the whitewater each time you surf until you have confidently mastered catching waves, standing up and surfing and turning all the way to the beach.
Know your surfing limits
Don't paddle out into the line up to catch green waves in big or dangerous surf conditions that are beyond your level of surfing - you will improve your surfing more quickly and you will be safer (and so will other surfers) by practising in small wave conditions.
When you are ready to catch your first unbroken (or green) waves, small, slow spilling waves that break in deep water are best, so go to a spot with a broad, low gradient sandbar during a small wave day with a mid to high tide. Catching steep waves that dump quickly on shallow sandbars at low tide will lead to plenty of nose dives and could also cause injuries.
There are so many surf spots in Australia that are suitable for beginners, so check the surf reports and find a spot that is right for you. If the surf is too challenging, wait until conditions improve.
Find a spot to surf away from other surfers
One of the most challenging aspects of learning to catch green waves in crowded line ups is trying to avoid getting in the way of other surfers. So where ever possible, find a spot with fewer crowds so you can actually focus on catching waves and not what the other surfers are doing around you. Even head away for a day or weekend surf trip up or down the coast to an empty surf spot - you will be able to paddle for more waves without worrying about other surfers and therefore improve your success rate at catching green waves which means more surfing fun for you.
If the surf is crowded where you are, once you've paddled out beyond the wave breaking zone, to the line up, sit in a gap away from other surfers. In peaky beach break conditions it is amazing how many waves you can catch by sitting in the gaps away from other surfers.
Paddle out to the line up in the channels or away from other surfers
Paddle beyond the surf zone out to the line up by using the deep water channels where there are less waves breaking, or where there are no surfers catching waves. If you paddle out where surfers are catching waves you might get run over or, you may cause frustration from a surfer riding a wave who has to turn around you, only to lose their rhythm while surfing the wave face. After catching each wave, remember to paddle back around into the channel, then back out past the surf zone into the line up.
If when paddling out a surfer is turning along the wave face towards you, to avoid spoiling their ride, paddle towards the whitewater behind the surfer. Although you will get caught in the whitewater, this is a safer option than attempting to paddle in front of the surfer only to get run over.
Don't bail your surfboard
Bailing is when you throw your surfboard away from you (with the leash attached to your ankle) and dive under an approaching wave. You can imagine the accidents that would occur if everyone bailed their boards with other surfers right behind them. Practice eskimo rolls (also called turtle rolls) or duck dives (if riding a smaller board) in order to negotiate bigger waves. On bigger surf days, if you can't paddle out to the line up and negotiate waves without letting go of your board, then you're not quite ready to catch green waves on those bigger wave days - either stick to the whitewater or find some smaller green waves elsewhere.
Wait for your turn
During those crowded surf sessions when there are no areas in the line up free from other surfers, don't paddle straight out to where all the other surfers are sitting waiting for waves and start paddling for the first wave that comes through. Wait for the other surfers to catch waves first, then go for a wave when it's your turn. Keep doing this during your surf session and you'll gain a lot more respect and goodwill from other surfers who have also waited their turn.
Don't drop in!
If when you are paddling for a wave, another surfer paddling for the same wave is closer to the peak or is already up and turning across a wave towards you, and you then take off and drop down in front of them, you are dropping in. This is not only dangerous for you and the other surfer, but is the surest way to turn even the mellowest surfer into an abusive perpetrator of surf rage! Put simply, the surfer who is paddling and catches the wave closest to the peak (the breaking part of the wave) has right of way.
If you are new to catching green waves in a crowded line up it may be tricky for you to work out where waves are going to break first and who has right of way, so if you're unsure don't catch the wave. If you're paddling for a wave at the same time as another surfer who is right on the peak, ask them which way they are going - left or right, this will help you to know if you should keep paddling or not.
Don't snake other surfers
Snaking is when surfers paddle on the inside of another surfer (who has been waiting longer for a wave) with the aim of claiming the inside position and therefore right of way priority to catch the next wave. Snaking in the surf is not warmly welcomed in Australia and it does lead to plenty of drop ins.
At reef break, point break and really defined sandbar beach break locations waves often break in the same spot and surfers turn along the wave face in the same direction. When surfing these locations, paddle out to the line up for the first time and after each wave and wait your turn at the end of the queue. As the surfers on the inside of you catch waves one by one, maintain your position in the waiting line up until you eventually find yourself on the inside of the other surfers where it will be your turn to catch a wave.
Try your best to catch your wave, or its back to the end of the queue!
Once you commit to paddling for a wave, try your best to successfully catch and ride it, as you will be back to the end of the queue regardless of whether you caught the wave or not!
Don't paddle and take off on a wave when you know you're too deep behind the peak or section to successfully surf across the wave face - unless your happy to take off and surf straight to the beach!. Call the surfer beside you into the wave if they are in the perfect spot to catch and ride the wave face when you are out of position - you'll improve your surf karma and just may have the goodwill returned to you by others.
If your riding a bigger board, don't take advantage of your increased paddle power
Surfers who ride higher volume surfboards have the advantage of catching waves further out and standing up well before other surfers with smaller boards. This advantage is at times abused especially in crowded line ups. So if you're riding a bigger board, share the love with other surfers or if you are absolutely frothing, paddle away and surf somewhere where there are no other surfers.
Try not to create an instant crowd by surfing in large groups
Surfing with just one or two friends is more respectful for the other surfers already in the line up. Paddling out into the line up with a large group creates an instant crowd and a bad vibe amongst the other surfers.
Respect the elders
Each time you go for a surf, there will normally be a few long time local surfers (we are talking 30 years plus of local surfing experience) who are really in tune to the rhythm of the surf zone and seem to always catch the best waves. Observe and learn from how these elders flow with the ocean's energy and give them some space as they could subtly choose to dominate the line up if hassled, leaving less good waves for you and others.
Respect the natural environment and local residents, especially when travelling
Australia is blessed with pristine environments, both on land and beyond the shoreline in the water where surfers have the good fortune of connecting with nature in a unique way that only surfing provides. For many surfers, along with those who don't surf yet have chosen to reside in these wonderful natural environments, the desire to maintain the beauty and tranquility of these environments is strong.
So, wherever you travel, park your car or camp, do so responsibly. Observe signs, don’t disturb or feed the native fauna, respect the local residents and other visitors, don’t tramp through the bush or sand dunes (locate and use toilet facilities provided), and take your rubbish with you. Remember, that when we go to the beach or travel away from home, we are guests, sharing a public space and we have a duty to leave it as we found it. Better yet, pick up and dispose of any rubbish you do find so that the environment is left better than how you found it - do this and you will be warmly welcomed by locals all around Australia.
Apologise if you accidentally breach the rules of surfing etiquette
If you do unintentionally get in the way of another surfer, have an accident or break one of the surfers' rules of etiquette, make sure the other surfer is OK, apologise and learn from your mistake. You will be amazed at how quickly the other surfer can change from being upset to even providing you with some friendly tips after you apologise, especially if it's obvious that you are an absolute beginner.
Like on land, smile and display a happy vibe in the water and you will mostly receive a happy vibe from others. On small, mellow surf days, most experienced surfers are stoked to see a beginner surfer freaking out with excitement whilst riding the wave of their life. Enjoy the journey of learning to surf and pass on the positive energy to others in the line up.
If you're planning on learning to surf in Australia either in a surf lesson or by yourself you'll have more fun and be much safer if you practice sound surfing etiquette. Like other parts of the world, there have been incidents of serious accidents and surf rage throughout Australia, all of which could have been avoided if surfing etiquette was observed.