All In The Family – A History Of The Sacred Rules Of Surfing And Surf Etiquette & How To Apply Them

The rules were originally simple and went like this.

o Don’t drop in on another surfer’s wave

o Don’t be greedy

o Respect the older surfers.

That was about it, and for a long time, it was all that was needed. But as time progressed, as it has a tendency to do the simple art of surfing got a little more complicated. The rules had to develop to keep up with the changing behaviour and size of the crowds.

As we stand today, all experienced surfers know the basic rules, and most apply them to one degree or another. But the rules are not set fast, they are not written down on stone tablets for all to see and follow. They are actually more like collective wisdom as to what is acceptable behaviour in the water and what is not, that is passed down the generations of surfers – very similar to other forms of tribal wisdom. The problem with this is like all tribal lore, as the tribe expands, the lore gets distorted and lost.

As you go through this chapter try to remember that the rules are not law, they are intended more as a guide. As these suggestions have grown from the collective conscience and experience of millions of surfers you rip yourself off if you ignore them.

o Have fun, but not at the expense of the other people in the water.
This one’s pretty simple, it means don’t take your surfing too seriously, but do be aware that what you do will affect others in the water. You can apply this rule by simply learning the following rules.

o Don’t drop in, (this means don’t catch a wave that someone else is already riding. The surfer on the inside, closest to the breaking part of the wave, has right of way).
The simplest and best way to apply this rule is ‘one wave, one surfer’, and for the beginner that’s the only way to look at it.

*It’s interesting to note that in the world of competitive surfing, there are no grey areas with the drop in rule either. It’s used in its simplest form, one wave, one surfer, and there are heavy penalties for breaking this rule.

Outside of competitive surfing there are grey areas with this rule, but they have a tendency to be confusing and usually only apply to the more difficult surfing conditions. By default this is also the realm of the more experienced surfer.

The drop in rule is one of the longest standing rules in surfing and it stems from basic common sense.
If you drop in on another surfer’s wave, you’re not only stealing something that someone else has worked really hard for, but you’re also putting yourself and the other surfer in danger.

This is also the most consistently broken rule of all, and the one which, when broken will cause the most friction in the line-up. Drop in on the wrong person, and you could find yourself in a pretty spooky situation, some people get radically upset when this rule gets broken.

Why does this rule get broken so much?
Well there are many excuses, but they all can be put into two major categories – greed and frustration.

Greed: The greedy surfer just decides that, this wave is mine regardless of whether it is or isn’t. There will be many rationalisations for this; e.g. local’s rights or ‘I’m a better surfer than you and wont waste the wave’, or some such self-righteous rubbish. Sometimes it’s sheer intimidation, in an attempt to force other surfer’s to leave the water, but if you’re honest about it, it’s all about greed.

Frustration: The justifications may be different here, but the behaviour is not. It’s still about, ‘I’m not getting what I want, so I’ll take yours instead’.

It’s interesting to note that those who are greedy usually drive those who drop in out of frustration, to this behaviour, thus it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. There is also the crowd factor. When locals at any given break feel hard done by, they will usually start to drop in on the tourists in the water and although this frustration is understandable, it’s not acceptable.

Then there is also the learner, or hire board factor. This is where there are people in the crowds, who not only don’t know that ‘dropping in’ is considered the most heinous of crimes, but who think that it looks like really good fun to jump in on someone else’s wave. This all triggers frustration.

The Grey Areas

Except for the final grey area mentioned here, for the beginner it’s better to just see the ‘drop in rule’ in black and white, i.e. ‘one wave, one surfer’. The grey areas are tricky to say the least, and they are best left to the more experienced surfers to judge.

1st comes into play when the surf is crowded.

You see a surfer paddle into a wave, the wave sections in front, you think that he/she is not going to make it. What do you do?

Well, if you’re experienced enough you’ll be able to tell if the surfer on the inside is going to make it, or not. If not, it would be considered OK to take off on the same wave but you had better be 100% sure about it, because if the surfer does make it, or would have made it had you not taken off, then you’ve just dropped in.

2nd is when someone ‘snakes’ you.

If it’s really obvious that someone has snaked you, then this is a time to be assertive and keep going.

3rd applies to those who choose to share waves. These people have made an agreement to do this – it’s not an open invitation to do the same with people they don’t know.

o Don’t be a snake, a snake is a surfer who constantly paddles to the inside, or turns inside someone after they have started to paddle into a wave, and then invokes the drop in rule. In other words try not to be greedy.

This is pretty self-explanatory, but to understand why it’s so important we could take a look at where this rule came from.

It is one of the newer rules in surfing, i.e. it has come into use over the last 15-20 years due to the increasing crowds.

It’s an easy rule to apply and will gain you respect from the more experienced surfers, yet it’s often broken, even though snaking is considered to be really bad form.

How Did Snaking Come About?

Over the years as surfing became more popular the crowds started to increase, and as this happened suddenly there weren’t enough waves for everyone to just take what they wanted. It became necessary to ‘jockey for position’ as the term once was. This meant putting yourself into a position where you were the surfer closest to the inside of the wave, and therefore had the right of way.

As the crowds continued to increase, this jockeying became more intense; it soon got a new name, hassling. Surfers became more aggressive and tried to be the best at hassling to get the most waves. This was an already uncomfortable situation. When someone had the idea of quickly paddling inside while another surfer was taking off they would then turn and jump to their feet. The result was that the surfer who had actually earned the wave, would take off convinced that the wave was theirs, only to hear someone behind yelling ‘Oi’.

The surfer who had done the snaking would then loudly invoke the, ‘don’t drop in rule’ to shift the blame over to the victim. Nice behaviour huh?

This tactic soon came into common use at the more crowded surf breaks around the world. The people who used it quickly became known as “f***ing snakes”. Hence the name ‘snaking’ was born, and we had a whole new style of hassling.

For many this was just the last straw. The consensus among the surfing world was, ‘this has gone too far’. The, don’t be a snake rule was born.

This rule is not just a bunch of sour grapes from the old surfers that can’t keep up with the kids. It is a rule that, like the drop in rule, is strictly enforced at all levels of competitive surfing, from weekend club rounds, all the way up the ladder to the professional world tour.

However, not being a snake is easier said than done.

There will come a time when you’ll find yourself in a crowded situation and it will appear that if you don’t drop in, then the only way to get a wave is to snake someone.

Being a snake may make you feel powerful, and for a short period of time, you may even get more waves. But it won’t take long before the other surfers start to resent you, at the very least they will start to deliberately drop in, and you’ll be made to feel very uncomfortable in the line-up.

o Don’t paddle through the line-up. This means don’t paddle out where the other surfers are riding, it’s very dangerous for all involved.
OK we’ve dealt with this one thoroughly in chapter six but a little background knowledge of where this came from will go a long way towards understanding its relevance today.

In the ’60s and early ’70s, before legropes were common, this was not so much a rule as it was a survival tactic. If someone fell off, then his/her board would come flying in towards the beach. If you paddled out anywhere in the area of the line-up or white-water you were in serious danger of being knocked unconscious. Also, the older styles of boards were really heavy and very hard to turn, that paddling through the line-up would also mean getting run over. People simply didn’t do it; it was way too dangerous.

As surfing progressed, and people started riding lighter boards with legropes, the need to hassle for waves became a dominant factor in the crowd’s behaviour.

Sometimes to get a wave, it became necessary, while paddling out, to quickly sprint into the line-up to grab a wave that was ’empty’ or that someone had just fallen off. This was because the increasing crowds had made everyone’s wave count lower, and no-one could afford to waste a wave.
To put this into perspective, we need to realise that at this stage in surfing the beginners were still keeping to the tradition of learning away from the more experienced surfers – they were using the inside bank or kiddies corner.

Then in the late ’80s two things happened at almost the same time, the explosive popularity of surfing in the mainstream populous plus the sudden resurgence of longboarding.

Over the next ten years the crowds doubled and the whole thing fell apart, people were getting run over and hurt, the old wisdom of not paddling through the line-up became an important survival strategy once again. But the newcomers had seen otherwise, and it’s hard to teach someone a new strategy when they have seen you employ another, re-education is not easy, just ask any dictator.

The ‘don’t paddle through the line-up’ rule was re-born from necessity, it became very important for both the surfers paddling out and for those riding the waves.

Applying this rule is very simple, just paddle wide, around the break, in the deeper water (see chapter 6).

o Do show some courtesy and respect to both the more experienced surfers and the locals.

OK this one is the oldest and possibly most important of all the rules. Sadly, it is often ignored or fobbed off as not important on a regular basis, by both the newcomers to surfing and the more experienced younger surfers.

In the past surfers showed great respect for those who had been surfing for a long time. This was the surfing world’s version of tribal wisdom – of respecting your elders. It’s important to remember that these people have put in the time, and they have earned their spot in the line-up. These surfers also have a wealth of acquired knowledge that most can benefit from, if they bother to ask.

It’s important to distinguish the difference between the more experienced surfer, and the older newcomer. It’s not unusual to see older people learning to surf these days. Very small minorities of these people try to impose themselves upon others as some kind of authority figure just because they are older. There is wisdom in respecting your elders, but in the line-up it works a little differently. The elders are those who have done the time in the water.

Whichever way you look at it, the more experienced surfers have done their time, they have learned the rules and they have persisted with their passion for surfing. They have earned a little respect. The simplest way to give it to them is to learn the rules yourself, and then apply them.
The local’s part of this rule is based on simple common sense. As I’ve said before, when you’re surfing away from your home, you’re surfing in someone else’s home. Treat the locals the way that you would like to be treated yourself.

If you’re headed for a popular tourist destination, it’s really smart to remember that the locals there are probably under constant pressure from the crowds. This kind of pressure would make anyone hypersensitive to bad behaviour in the water.

o The surfer on the wave has right of way, if paddling out, try to stay out of the way.

This one is really simple, and is just an extension of the ‘don’t paddle through the lineup’ rule.

Where the two rules are different, is that this one is aimed at the fact that no matter how hard you try, there will be times when you get caught in the line-up, and you have to make a decision about what to do.

This is all about taking the hit. The wisdom of taking the hit from the white-water is obvious, you may get knocked back a short distance, but you won’t ruin someone else’s hard earned wave, or put yourself in danger of being run over. You will also quickly earn respect for doing this.

o Use common sense where crowds are an issue, if you turn up to a break that is already heavily crowded, then consider surfing somewhere else. Adding to an already frustrated and aggressive crowd won’t help you, or them.

This one also came about as a result of the growing crowds; but it is more an optional suggestion than a hard and fast rule.

Some people are happy to surf in the crowds, in fact some even thrive on the aggression, weird but true. If you don’t feel comfortable in an aggressive crowd, then don’t paddle out into one; it really is that simple.

This is not just about you; it’s also about consideration for others. You really do need to ask yourself, how important is it for me to surf here? In most cases you’ll realise that what’s more important is that you get wet, not where you get wet.

o Wear a legrope, occasionally you’ll see a surfer in the water that is not using a legrope, they are usually very experienced and rarely loose control, they are the only exception to this rule.
This is a controversial rule.

The legrope has been around for about thirty years now, and there are two schools of thought regarding its use – those who are for, and those who are against.

Those who are for, appear to be the majority. They see legropes as a necessary piece of safety equipment for today’s crowded surf.
Those who are against will often argue that legropes are responsible for many of the problems that we have with today’s crowds.

Author’s note* I have included this rule because like all the others, it is what the majority believe to be correct. However honesty dictates a confession that I am one of the minority who is against the use of legropes in most conditions, and I won’t pretend I’m not biased about this topic.

The two arguments:

Those who are for, believe that the legrope is an essential piece of safety equipment. It means that your board is always close by after a wipe-out, and that there are no boards flying in to the beach, thus making it safer for all concerned. There is also the added bonus of increased confidence leading to a more rapid increase in skill, when learning. There is real merit in this side of the argument.

Those who are against believe that legropes encourage surfers to not play by the rules; they make people lazy and therefore careless, and they are responsible for many injuries and some drownings.
If you don’t have to worry about losing your board it becomes much easier to break all the other rules.
There is also a concern that legropes encourage those who cannot swim well to feel a false sense of security when surfing. The belief is that legropes should be a tool for the more experienced surfer, in larger waves as a safety measure only.
This all translates as, if you take away people’s legropes in smaller surf and when learning then those who break the rules are rewarded with a long swim to the beach. People then have a tendency become much better surfers, swimmers, and take more notice of those around them in the water. Told you I was biased.

Whichever side of the argument you’re on, it’s really about taking responsibility not only for your own safety but for the safety of those around you, which leads us into the next rule.

o Always hold on to your board when a wave hits you. Throwing your board away and allowing your legrope to do the job for you is very dangerous to the other surfers in the water.
This one really is self-explanatory.

This rule is also one of the newer rules that has become necessary with the growing crowds and the common use of legropes in all surfing conditions.

Originally a surfer simply wouldn’t consider letting go of the board when a wave hit, in any conditions other than huge surf when it would be way too dangerous to hang on to it. This was simply because if you didn’t use a legrope then you’d have to go for a swim back in. If you were using a legrope, then there was always a good chance that you’d wear your board in the face if you let it go.

In the present day however, many surfers both beginner and experienced have developed the lazy habit of just allowing their legrope to do the job for them. This is a major No No.

o Never use your board as a weapon or as a means of protection from a possible collision. Many beginners will throw their boards in front of another surfer when afraid of a possible collision. This is incredibly dangerous.

This one came about as a direct result of the recent explosion in the popularity of the ‘learn to surf’ and ‘hire board’ industries. This is not to say that these industries are responsible for this rule becoming necessary. It is just that there are now a much higher percentage of inexperienced surfers in the water, who, apart from perhaps a two-week surf school course, have never actually surfed before. This can result in a large number of surfers in the water, who really don’t have the experience to know what to do in a situation when a fast response is needed.