When signing up for a surf lesson, most instructors are equipped with the latest tunnel vision sunglasses, laser focused on having you standing up and riding a wave successfully. Some schools even offer a money back guarantee in this regard. Sadly, many road rules of surfing are left behind, exposing you to a whole heap of danger, when you decide to hit the ocean without your trusty instructor.
Remember what happened after your very first surf lesson? You were at the local surf shop the very next morning, throwing your money down for a brand new board, before flocking to the nearest herd of surfers in excitement.
You couldn’t even get within a whisker of the lineup, without heavily colliding into a hardened local. You’re now cartwheeling underwater, entangled in his legrope, getting elbows to your cranium, with blood seeping into the water around you. Your dreams of being a great soul surfer are quickly shattered through a barrage of colorful language from that other guy. So exactly where did it all go wrong?
When it comes to etiquette in the water, it was really up to your instructor to give you a brief rundown. But since he glanced over those, let’s say, terms and conditions of being a surfer, I’m here to save you.
Never paddle out on top of a lone surfer
Ever had one of those days where anything and everything seemed to go wrong? Well, you’ve come to the right place. As if by magic, surfing can sometimes have the power to wash all your problems away. At least temporarily. It can also have the complete opposite effect if you piss someone off in the water.
See that surfer way down the beach, gazing out towards the horizon? The one that’s blissfully bobbing around in the ocean in his own company? For all you know, he may have just lost his job, got in a fight with his wife, and just found out his brother has cancer, and you’re about to make his day a whole lot worse by paddling out right on top of him.
I can whole heartedly guarantee you, that he didn’t just post an ad on meet.com seeking a play date with you. There’s no logical reason that I can think of, for you to strut your stuff down the beach, drop your board in the sand directly in line with his water position, before strapping on your leash and getting all up in his comfort zone. Sadly, I see it time and time again.
I would have to say I’m a pretty Zen kind of human, but this one move is still enough for something to boil deep inside of me. Seriously, give the guy some space. Go sniff out your own peak, or if you watched Jaws a few too many times as a kid, go join the herd of sheep up the beach.
Awareness is the key
You see it at almost every crowded break. A bunch of newbies bee-lining straight for a group of seasoned surfers, boards flailing in every which direction, and bodies rising from walls of turbulent whitewash like a scene out of zombie apocalypse. It still makes me cringe. You see, when surfers are inexperienced in controlling their boards, they are like loaded weapons. Especially at high speed. You my friend, fit this bill.
Whatever you do, don’t take on your surf instructor’s tunnel vision. I know you’re freaking out about rips, and walls of whitewash, and that big wave coming straight for your noggin. Completely justified. But just don’t forget to also focus on those around you.
Practice 360° visuals, where you’re continually looking behind you, to the left and right, and of course straight ahead for other surfers. Contrary to popular belief, the biggest dangers in surfing don’t come from sharks, but from your own, and other’s surfboards.
If a guy’s riding a wave in front of you, quickly turn your board towards the whitewash of that wave and get out of his way. Don’t take the easy option of paddling over that nice green wall that he’s about to fly along, you gotta make a sacrifice here.
If a guy’s paddling out behind you and you want to throw your board, because you don’t yet know how to duck dive, cling onto it as though your life depends on it. Which brings me to the next topic…
Avoid groups of surfers until you can duck dive
When learning to surf, your board is going to be ripped out of your arms countless times, by powerful walls of whitewash. Just imagine being hit at full speed by an underwater bus. It’s kinda the same sensation. Scare tactics aside, it’s just far safer for you, and everyone else around you, to find your own peaceful spot in the ocean, until you can duck dive effectively.
I know what it’s like as a newbie. That feeling of not wanting to be judged when flapping around in the whitewash. Swallow your pride. You can’t just upgrade to the big boy waves, without first taking your baby steps. Who cares what you look like, everyone else around you are too worried about how they look, without giving two hoots about you.
Duck diving is hard. It takes a huge amount of practice and dedication, but it’s an absolute must. Don’t worry, it becomes second nature when you get the technique down pat. So, drown your eyeballs with YouTube videos on how to do it the right way. Dedicate a whole session to just duck diving, without even worrying about trying to stand up on a wave.
Surfboards are just plain dangerous if you can’t control them. Those fiberglass fins are like sharpened kitchen knives, patiently waiting to sink into some human flesh. Hell, even the pros fall victim to their own set of knives, just ask Joel Parkinson about this pleasant experience. Until you master duck diving, it’s to the whitewash for you.
Know the road rules of surfing
Just as you only drive in one direction around a roundabout, there’s times when you should only drive your surfboard in a particular direction. Hopefully your instructor at least brushed upon this topic, though I’m not overly confident that he did.
The surfer that’s closest to the peak (where the wave is just about to break) has right of way. No exception. That means you can’t just turn around and start paddling for the wave and drop directly onto his path. Also, the guy furthest out at sea (towards the horizon) has right of way. If he’s been paddling for his life for a wave, you don’t just spin around in the shore break, and in two brushstrokes snatch it from under his nose.
In my mind, a drop in can be classified into three categories, with a few variations of each:
#1 The clueless drop in: Sorry but this is likely the category that you currently fall under (still beats category #3). You were never taught the rules, so you don’t know any different. Your primary goal is to paddle for a wave and stand up regardless of anyone around you. Again tunnel vision at play.
#2 The accidental drop in: Yes, there can be guys out there who genuinely didn’t mean to drop in. Sometimes waves can bend in crazy directions, completely blinding you from seeing a surfer already up and riding. Very common at point breaks. Waves can also crumble at certain sections, looking like the coast is clear, before a guy comes flying past you (or into your ribcage) at full speed.
#3 The don’t give a sh%# drop in: You will encounter particular specimens in the water, who really won’t care about anyone else getting any waves. It’s all about them. Everyone else in the water simply become invisible. I’m confident karma will get them back. Like when they face a 7ft surly Hawaiian local who just got released from 20 years in maximum security.
So before you list your board on eBay, due to all the hostility you’ve been getting in the water, stash the above tips away somewhere in the back of your mind. As you’re probably learning, it’s not all rainbows and lollipops in the lineup. Remember, surfing brings together multiple personalities in often confined spaces, where respect is not always offered. You can avoid most of the trouble, when you abide by the rules, making it safer for everyone around you. Most importantly, these tips will help you really enjoy your surfing and celebrate the progress you’re making along the way.
SHANNON DAVIDSON is a passionate surfer from Byron Bay, Australia with an obsession of all things beach life. Inspired by the perfection and mystery contained within the ocean, Shannon loves to share with the world, through her writing, all that she finds along the way. Follow her adventures on surfchickareta.com.