Now, it’s about time that I wrote a piece about surf etiquette. I am writing this because a few people who have purchased boards recently have asked me how surf etiquette works, which is great, as it shows me that they understand that there are rules in the surf zone that need to be followed. Secondly, as I am the guy who sells SUP’s, I feel it is my duty to try and explain this as my way of attempting to help make the surf zone a safe and happy place. Please be aware that this piece covers the very basics of etiquette and to understand surf etiquette totally takes many years of observing how it works and listening and learning from surf veterans.
So, what is surf etiquette and why should I be concerned about it? Well as the Oxford dictionary states, etiquette is the rules of correct behaviour in society or among the members of a profession. In this case, in the surf. Now, when I am selling boards I am regularly hearing this, "I want a SUP for a bit of family fun and when I get a bit of time I hope to slip out and get a few small waves". This is all good and can be pretty exciting, but my main concern is that some of these people have spent very little time in the surf environment let alone on a board and even more to the point, on a very big board such as an all-rounder SUP for example. So, I guess I am writing this to start the educating process and to help to develop the awareness of the dangers involved in SUP surfing.
I am aware that most first timers when they hit the surf, find it very hard and tend to pick a spot with very small waves spending most of their time falling off the board and getting smashed by the white water or even the board. I am also aware that a hell of a lot of these first timers leave it at that and never enter the surf zone again as it is all just too hard. But there is a group of determined people that don’t give up and stick at it until they improve and once the penny drops they get horribly addicted. This is fantastic as there’s nothing like the buzz of riding along the face of a wave and it’s incredible to think that I can help people find this buzz which can be a very powerful life changing experience. So, to me, trying to teach a bit of surf etiquette is very important in assisting to keep our local breaks happy and enjoyable places moving into the future.
The thing to be remembered about SUP’s, is that they are so damn big. You a riding a seriously dangerous weapon out there when you are rocketing along a wave or getting smashed by a wave. The result from a huge sup or a small one for that matter hitting someone or yourself at high speed could be catastrophic to say the least. To help you understand this, a standard surfboard that the average person is riding would be approximately 30 to 40 litres in volume, where as a SUP at a beginner’s level averages around 175 litres, let’s just say 4 to 5 times the size! Pretty dangerous hey. Now the way SUP has taken off, the surf has become quite congested of late, so I feel what I am about to talk about is hugely important to keep everyone safe and happy in the water.
Firstly, it is extremely important to get to know your SUP before you hit the surf. By this I don’t mean to pull your SUP out on the lawn at home and caress it and admire it, I mean to spend some serious time in a flat-water zone and learn how to ride the board properly. I cannot stress this enough, it is hugely important if you are serious about SUP surfing. You need to learn the board on flat water until the board feels like part of your body. You need to be totally in control of that board and not under the control of the board. You may be thinking shit that sounds like hard work, well yes, it is! but so is sitting by a hospital bed looking at old mate with 50 stitches in his head because your SUP, which was in control of the situation tried to kill the poor bugger.
Now, once you have spent the time on the flat-water it’s time to find a wave. You need to find a nice wide stretch of beach, preferably with no one around for your first experience of SUP surfing. Don’t pick the local main swimming beach because I can guarantee, that when you fly down your first wave uncontrollably, it can be like ten pin bowling except the skittles are people’s heads (very nasty!). We are blessed here on the far south coast to have access to perfect, quiet stretches of beach, so there is no excuse for not taking advantage of this. Now I am not going to get into the specifics of how to catch waves in this piece, just let me say that when you finally work it out and feel the thrill of paddling into your first wave and riding it to the beach, life is pretty damn good. But please hang on a minute. You are still nowhere near ready to enter a more crowded surf zone. You need to practice, practice and practice some more. Remember I said when you train on the flat water you need to work until the SUP becomes part of your body? Well now you need to reach that level in the uncrowded surf zone.
OK, let’s just say you put the hours in and you reach this level. The next step is to find a nice clean wave face to ride. So, let me just quickly tell you about the basics of how waves work. Up until this stage in your sup surfing career, you have probably been catching what are known as close outs. A close out is a wave that breaks along a whole beach in one movement, in one straight line. To ride a wave face we need to find a peeling wave which are known as right or left handers. Now to explain this as simply as possible, if you are standing on the beach looking out at the breaking waves, a wave that is peeling from your left to your right is called a left hander and a wave peeling from right to left is called a right hander. Now you are really playing with the big boys because when you find a location like this everyone else has probably found it as well which results in a crowd. Now, this is why you need to pay some serious attention to spending the time getting step one and step two right as you will need very good board control to safely navigate the crowd.
OK, now it’s time to talk about dropping in. Dropping in is one of the biggest no no’s in surfing, so listen carefully. For the sake of this exercise we will imagine we have found a right hander, so this is a wave breaking from right to left when you are looking at it from the beach. Now the basic rule is that the person who is sitting the deepest, which means the furthest to the right, gets priority to the next wave that comes (unless they signal that you can have it). So, if a wave comes and that person paddles for it, you should not paddle for the wave and just let them have it. If you are next in line, then you become the person with priority. If you paddle for the wave as well, and you take it and the person with priority has taken it, you have just dropped in on them! If you don’t take their head off with your board, you are sure as night follows day, going to cop a mouth full of abuse. So, now I want you to think about this situation. Let’s just say the person who has priority takes the wave and is dropping into a beauty, now, you are paddling for this wave as well and the wave catching process has begun. You look to your left and you see the person who had priority flying down the line towards you and you think shit, I didn’t see him (or her) I better pull off the back of the wave. Now, let’s just say you haven’t spent the time learning the first 2 steps we previously spoke about and the board is still controlling you. Try to picture what is going to happen. Firstly, most SUP beginners just continue on and destroy the wave for the person who had priority or even worse just mow the person down (OUCH!! This will make you extremely unpopular). The second scenario is that you try to pull off the back of the wave and get caught in the lip and get sucked over the front of the wave (this is called getting sucked over the falls) onto the horrified surfer who had priority. This is a recipe for disaster. This sort of behaviour will make you very unpopular in the water very fast as you will be known as extremely dangerous!
Please be aware that this is a very basic view of what happens in the surf zone. If you want to get out there and experience the buzz of surfing, you need to watch people who know what they’re doing and learn from them. Be very respectful and listen to any advice that you may be given. Finally, don’t enter the critical crowded zones until you have done the hard yards and mastered step 1 and 2.
So, to conclude, SUP surfing isn’t just a case of getting out there and having a crack. There are a lot of rules you must heed. Please remember, your very large board with its long leg rope can be extremely dangerous. Just to leave you with one last scenario, imagine this, you are half way out at your favourite break and a bigger wave appears that breaks in front of you. You have an abundance of swimmers behind you and you jump off the board and dive under the wave to protect yourself from your board. The result of this action is a 10-foot board on a 10-foot leg rope dragging around behind you, once again treating swimmer’s heads like skittles. So please remember, if you want to take the surf on, be smart, be safe and spend the time learning the basics before entering a busy surf environment. This way you will enjoy your time on the water much more and gain respect from the other water users.