Hawaiian surfers Buzzy Trent, Woody Brown and George Downing sharing a wave back in 1953.
Hawaiian surfers Buzzy Trent, Woody Brown and George Downing sharing a wave back in 1953.

Not to scare anyone who tried to escape the confinements of traditional competitive sports by becoming a surfer, but there are rules in Surfing. Well, they’re not really rules, it’s more like an unspoken law; a hierarchy and respect that exists between surfers (which could be also known as localism) that has been ingrained into surfing for decades that new surfers and the most experienced should adhere to.

Here are at RideWithLocal we encourage riders to be more informed about technique, history and etiquette to improve the overall experience, so we brought in our spiritual leader, Tim Jones, to place the surf silverware. Sure, some might say, “I remember that guy Jonesey, he me snaked back me ‘82!

How is he going to teach me manners?” but even old mate had to learn to leave his ego on the beach, hold the metaphorical door open for others and see the surfing experience from all perspectives. There is an approach that will keep everyone safe and smiling. It is something that comes with experience.


So where did these surf rules first get etched? In the leash-less wooden boards of ancient Hawaiian times where it was part of the social structure. The Royal family members enjoyed the rolling cruiser waves to hang out and glide on their Olo surfboards. There’s even spots named where these royals once reigned like Queens, Waikiki. So the rulers got their pick of waves, the commoners knew their place and were not allowed to surf the dignified waves. You had to ride the leftovers, innovate and gather experience, but these “lesser” waves were often the ones a modern surfer would choose to surf now.

Despite this caste system existing for so long, it doesn’t mean we condone heavy localism where people end up with bloody noses and broken boards because they unknowingly paddled out to the wrong wave full of territorial locals. But, there are lessons that need to be taught to each new wave of beginners to keep everyone happy in the lineup.


In the 60’s, people shared waves a lot more, but it got dangerous at times. In modern times, as performance surfing has increased, a surfer typically performs far more manoeuvres on far more of the wave face, and sharing waves often just doesn’t work.

Locals will not stand for people stealing their fun, especially intentionally.

You could take the pacifist approach of Duke Kahanamoku and tell yourself that there are plenty of waves and we are out here to have fun, but the truth of the matter is, waves are a finite resource and catching those waves is the source of everyone’s fun. Locals will not stand for peoplestealing their fun, especially intentionally.

Duke Kahanamoku
Duke Kahanamoku


For the most part, surfers are people that have sacrificed making loads of money to live a simpler life and avoid the Monday morning rat race. They have earned their right to be in a territorial position, but conversation, good manners and respect are the currency that can bridge the gap between a visitor and a local.

Go find a lesser wave until it’s your time.

Salutations are a good idea, but don’t expect open arms from the locals. Remain respectful, and follow these guidelines: never sit on the peak straight away; leave the set waves for the locals, but still find a way to catch your waves. Stay out of the pack and never shadow (paddling for another surfer’s wave in the hope they don’t catch it). Finally, by rolling up to spots that are above their skill level, beginners and intermediates create a danger to themselves and others. If you think your surfing is not at the level of the spot, listen to your doubt and get out, even if the wave is on your bucket list. Go find a lesser wave until it’s your time.

You are not the only one on the waves so we must all work together to maintain order.
You are not the only one on the waves so we must all work together to maintain order.


So let’s review some pointers of good surfing manners you should practice:

  1. Practice proper etiquette right from the start. Even in the white water you must be careful of other riders. Many injuries happen there, so be aware.
  2. Always hold onto your board or else it could be unsafe for others around you.
  3. Only surf a spot when you’re a) sure it matches your ability, and b) you have the right kind of board for the waves.
  4. Avoid waves that have a reputation for localism.
  5. Never drop in intentionally on someone else’s wave, and always check your inside to make sure you don’t drop in unintentionally, either..
  6. Don’t paddle straight out to the take off point. Get to the back of the line, and respectfully wait your turn.
  7. If you wipe out, don’t paddle back to the peak, and don’t get in the way of other surfers on your way back to the lineup.
  8. Get in line at the line up, and stay in line.
  9. Stick to the rulebook: the surfer on the inside (closest to the breaking part of the wave) always has priority.
  10. Avoid shadowing other surfers in the water; it’s annoying.
  11. Don’t be a snake! Snaking is when you paddle around another surfer just before a wave arrives, to steal their priority.
  12. Check to see if others are taking a wave. If not sure, ask them “you going?”
  13. Share the waves. Don’t be greedy: if you are a good surfer, give others the chance to catch a few waves.
  14. Stay in control. If you are out control, get out, you are in over your head. Literally.
  15. Talk to other surfers in the lineup. Be friendly and break the ice, but don’t overdo it.
  16. Converse with others to create a community spirit on the wave. Spreading good vibes makes people less selfish, so everybody has a better session.
  17. Mistakes happen. If you do get in the way of someone’s ride or drop in on them — smile and apologise.
  18. Avoid acting like an instant-local at spots than aren’t even yours..
  19. If you want an even more thorough review to the rules of surfing check out Tim’s video here:

And remember, the best way to stay informed about the localism in an area and to maintain general safety when surfing is to find a local surf guide or coach to accompany you.

Find one at ridewithlocal.com

Photo : Sam Wheeler