Travel surf etiquette

I was having a grand ole time surfing at Ala Moana Bowls the other day when a rude, disrespecting woman decided to paddle for a wave and proceeded to cut off three other surfers and nearly behead my friend. Growing ever more confrontational in my old age, I began to argue with the lady about her very inappropriate surf etiquette. Profanities were exchanged, I nearly spit in her face, and she nearly punched me. Two perfectly mature female surfers in Honolulu suddenly became mortal enemies over shoulder-high waves just days before the New Year.

This immediately got me thinking about my surfing experiences abroad. I’ve been fortunate enough to have surfed in some of the most idyllic places in the world, with Costa Rica, West Timor, and Fiji topping that list. While I don’t claim to be an expert in the sport, I usually know how to behave in the water — especially in foreign waters.
Wherever in the world you are, there is a universal surf etiquette. Surfing manners are essentially like body language: you show others your intentions, and they show you yours.

While there are no written rules in the water, it’s still wise to follow standard surfing protocol — especially when you’re in a foreign country. I’ve been to places like Kuta Beach where the surfer tourists outnumber the locals, and the last thing I want to see is a fight, or a spoiled travel destination. So here are a few things to keep in mind on your next exotic surf trip:

  • Respect the locals: You are, after all, in their territory. In most cases, these surfing locals do not have the opportunity that we do to travel to surfing destinations. We should keep this in mind even before we set foot on their land and in their waters. In return, you may find a breadth of knowledge that they would be willing to share with you!
  • Know the “right of way” rule: The person “inside” of you has priority on the wave. That means if you’re going left, the person farthest to the right should have the wave; if you’re going right, the person farthest left should take it. Don’t fight about it if you get cut off! Odds are there is another wave on the horizon.
  • Tag teaming and cutting off is not cool: I really hate when groups of surfers collaborate in the water to catch all the set waves. Sharing is caring, and surfing should be fun — not competitive.
  • The ocean is in charge: My friend Matt once remarked that “the ocean is his boss, and [he] is just an employee.” I really like this outlook when surfing. As every surfer will know, the ocean is a very powerful force. You are never in charge out there, so let the people who are out there, sharing the experience with you, enjoy the experience.
  • Smile: I have countless new friends from surfing. Just the other day, I was surfing at Pupukea and got to practice my Spanish with a visiting Brazilian surfer from Sao Paolo. In September, I was surfing at “Las Lanchas” in Punta de Mita, Mexico (near Puerto Vallarta) and it was just me and a fishing boat captain out at the point, chatting it up, smiling, and enjoying the surf. Making friends out on the water is one of the coolest, most memorable experiences in my lifetime.

When in doubt, let the other guy have the wave. Fighting for waves is not fun, nor is it worth making enemies. Enjoy the ocean.