Does the surfer on the inside have the right of way?

There have been numerous books written about or with regard to surfing etiquette. Most notably Shaun Tomson’s “Surfers Code” explores basic surfing rules and how they can be applied to life. Nat Young’s “Surf Rage” excavates concepts after the rules have been broken. Wood crafted signs explaining ‘rules’ or guidelines exist at famous surf spots such as Steamer Lane, Rincon and spots along various coastlines of the globe including Australia and Europe. Rules are everywhere.

We all have some concept of what the rules are or should be. Nevertheless, one thing surfers are very good at is breaking rules. It’s a part of our anti-establishment DNA.

In the 50s 60s and 70s, as a subculture of American society, surfers were left of left. We were borderless, free-wheeling, sovereign entities — liberal in our ways and means. Surfers from the 50s such as Munoz, Van Dyke, Dora, Trent, Curren, Harrison and later on Hynson, Peck, Potts, and Gale were on the edge of societal norms and many surfers structured their values system in this fashion. We shunned the ‘Father Knows Best’ country club path for a lifestyle scorned by society. Riding waves had no socially redeeming quality. You can’t sell it, you can’t save it. What good is it? Inherent in the selling/saving model is a rule set.

It wasn’t that we set out to break the rules, rules simply weren’t considered. There was no malice. More accurately, there was no forethought. Societal structure was for them, not for us. Etiquette in the lineup existed. But it was rarely talked about, and God forbid that we, as a culture, would script out a set of rules.

Fast forward to 2009; 20 million surfers reside on this planet. According to some of the men mentioned above, more live on other planets. Regardless, the sheer volume of surfers in the water requires that we at least attempt to follow some common rules or guidelines.

Surfing etiquette is a slippery slope. One rule may be the norm at one spot but the same rule completely scoffed at if applied at another spot.

(As a side note, there are some incredibly sophisticated sub-rules that only locals are aware of. For instance, in the 70s, at one well-known but highly localized San Diego spot, it was generally known and agreed upon that you did not acknowledge anyone on the trail walking down or up the cliff. It didn't matter if it was your mother. No acknowledgement. Treat everyone as an outsider. More on these 'locals only' rules later.)

Let's start with a rule that everyone can, at first glance, agree upon. The concept of the surfer on the inside, the surfer who has deepest position, has the right of way. Looks good on paper. It is hard to argue with this. Whoever is deepest goes, everyone else — back off. I think we can all agree this is a good rule. This is one we could and should all adhere too, right?

But hold on.

Seventy-year-old Legend Guy has been surfing Rincon for 50 years. He sits and waits. He doesn't bother to hustle, nor does he have the capacity to hustle. Twenty-year-old Sticker Boy paddles out and positions himself on the inside of Legend Guy. A wave comes, both drop in, and within seconds f-bombs break the glorious yet relative silence of the lineup. Most of us would agree (I think) that it was Legends Guy's wave. There are a number of other examples, the point is, regardless, our seemingly most salient rule, guy on the inside has possession, turns out to be full of loopholes, the above example being just one of them.

By the way, for the record, Legend Guy told Sticker Boy to 'f*%# off, I've been waiting 53 years for that wave.'


So while it seems that books, and wondrously crafted wooden signs are noble efforts, they alone are not the answer. Moreover, in some cases, they hurt.

One such sign advises surfers, when paddling out, to paddle onto the shoulder of the wave, towards the channel. I've always thought it better to be in the whitewater, taking it on the head, so as to avoid the surfer riding the wave. And, when avoiding a collision between a rider and a paddler, whose responsibility is it? The rider is going faster and arguably has more control of the outcome. But the rider is busy riding. He shouldn't be burdened with the paddlers' whereabouts.

What about Maritime law? Smaller vessels always yield to larger vessels. And what about the rule that states the first surfer to his feet takes possession of the wave? And what if you are always on your feet (SUP)? When does the SUP surfers' ride begin and end?

It's no wonder our forefathers shunned rules –too confusing. Just go surf. Stay tuned, as we'll look further into etiquette, rules and guidelines in future pieces on

What are your thoughts?