Saturday, 25 March 2006 14:49

Proper Surf Etiquette

Adapted from Surf Ski Quarterly vol. 2 no. 4
Original article by Robert Saunders
Reprinted with kind permission from Adventure Sports Unlimited.

Right of Way

Even experienced surfers have differing beliefs about dropping-in.

Newcomers to surfing rely on friends to explain the rule. There is no readily available document nor is there frequent publicity to ensure one has a common understanding.

Fortunately common sense prevails by and large. Most surfers do develop a similar concept of dropping-in. However the greater variety of surf craft sharing our beaches nowadays is causing some conflict. This is mostly a result of frustration on the part of those on slower paddling boards. The problem is magnified by vague right of way rules. It would benefit all surfers for a logical and easy to understand rule or set of rules was developed and publicized.

Following are proposed right of way rules for surfers. They are put forward as a starting point for further consideration and discussion. The rules were developed with free surfing in mind. Obviously specialized rules may be required in competitions.

It would be ideal if a set of rules could be endorsed by the majority of international amateur and professional surfing associations. Most surfers would comply if such rules were well publicized.

Self regulation should work quite well as long as everyone knows and understands that the same rules apply to everybody. Primary considerations must be safety and a sense of fair play. The following guidelines account for all types of waves: peak, point, close-outs, sectioning, reformed waves and white water. They are designed to apply to craft that ride waves mainly due to the action of gravity.

A Surfer Who First Catches or Rides onto an Unbroken Section or Wave Has Right of Way on That Unbroken Section

  • A wave that is partially broken or just starting to break should he considered to be unbroken for the purpose of these rules.
  • Usually when more than one surfer attempts to catch a wave at the same time, the one closest to the point where the wave first breaks (the critical point) will catch it first and have right of way.
  • Once a surfer has caught a wave, another surfer may not paddle inside and take-off in a more critical section.
  • The point when a surfer can be considered to have caught a wave is when he/she stops paddling, kicking or stroking and continues to move down or along the wave under the force of gravity.

A Surfer Has No Right of Way If Taking-off in a Completely Broken Wave Section.

  • The surfer can ride from a completely broken section to a unbroken section that is not already being ridden, they will then be entitled to right of way.
A Surfer Riding a Completely Broken Wave Section Such That Progress Toward the Shoulder Has Ceased, Has No Entitlement to Any Unbroken Part of the Wave.

  • A surfer can gain right of way by riding out of the white water onto a unoccupied, unbroken wave section.
A Surfer Taking-off on One Side of a Peak Has No Right of Way over a Surfer Who Has Already Caught or Is Riding the Other Shoulder.

  • This means a surfer cannot cross under the peak to the opposite shoulder if is already occupied.
A Wave Rider must Avoid All Other Swimmers or Surfers Who Are Either Stationary or Paddling out.


Surfer in Red never has Right-Of-Way. Go Green and have fun.

Surfing Right of Way

1. Paddler closest to the breaking wave has possession.

2. Green is surfing, Red may not drop in.

3. Green is already surfing, so Red has a late take-off and may not surf.

4. Again Red is inside Green, but Green is already surfing so Red is out of luck.

5. Red is attempting a soup take-off but Green has caught the wave on the face and has right of way.

6. Green is coming back to the wave face and is not caught in the soup. Red may not surf.

7. red has lost forward momentum and is caught in the soup. Green may take possession.

8. When Red wipes out Green may surf.

9. Both boats may surf from one peak if they go in opposite directions and their paths don't cross.

10. Red is attempting to take off behind the peak. Green may go if Red can't make the section. Careful judgment is needed, Red might be good enough to make the wave.

11. Green has sole possession and may take off behind the peak.

12. Neither surfer has right of way in a collision situation.

13. Green has right of way but may not hit Red. Under contest rules Red may be called for interference if he impedes Green's progress.

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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