How to Understand Surfing Right of Way

Surfing––who has the right of way on the wave? While apparently mystifying to many inexperienced surfers, the question of who has the right of way is very straightforward. The surfer riding the wave or the surfer in the best position to catch the wave has the right of way and should be respected, both to avoid injury, and to enhance the overall surfing experience.


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    Check ahead. When considering an oncoming wave, look toward the beach to make certain that your path is clear for at least the amount of space you'll need to negotiate your take off.
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    Determine which side of the peak you are on. If you're on the right side, you'll probably want to go right. Remember that in surfing, the right and the left are based on being in the water, facing the beach. When someone on the beach says "Hey, look at Otter going left!", inexperienced surfers will be looking at a surfer going to their left, whereas a left for the surfer would actually be traveling to their right.
    • Look to the left and right and see if anyone else is going for the wave before you commit. Once you commit, give it all you've got or why bother?
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    Be ready to go but be generous too. Even if there is another surfer closer to the peak going for the wave it doesn't mean you have to give it up, but be prepared to do so should the surfer catch the wave. To stop your forward motion, lean back on your board and grab the rails, lifting the nose out of the water. In most cases this should cause sufficient drag to slow you enough to miss the wave. If you should get sucked along with the wave, just do your best not to hit or get hit.
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    If you are in the "pocket" and ready to do a two paddle drop in, but there's another surfer at the peak and you can't tell which way he may be going, ask him or her. Yell at the surfer: "Left or Right?" Sometimes they don't hear, sometimes they don't care, but if you are able to take advantage of an open wave, why not? All you have to do is ask... Most surfers respect the courtesy that you asked, and the courage that you went for a wave that close to breaking!
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    When paddling out, the surfer on the wave always has the right of way. Nothing worse than enjoying a really good ride and having some Barney ruin it by paddling out to the line up right in your path. The prone paddler should always "eat" the wave, go through the white water behind the surfer rather than cutting in front of the rider on green water.


  • Keep your eyes peeled. Know where other surfers are in the water, know where the wave can be expected to break, and where you need to be to catch the wave.
  • Talk with other surfers. Some won't want to, but most will. Ask about what conditions are best for that break, high tide or low, and so forth.
  • Respect the locals, you must earn their respect. If you have decent skills and don't snake waves, aren't a pest, you'll do fine.
  • Never surf alone or at night. There have been cases of surfboards washed up with no sign of the rider.
  • Know the break you're going to ride on a particularly challenging day. You don't want to attempt strange breaks on huge days; in some places you'll be several miles down the coast before you know it.
  • Stay stoked. Perhaps after you've surfed for 50 years and realize that it's one of the three best things in life, you'll understand what this means. If you never get to that particular Nirvana, enjoy what surfing you do, just do it safely, respectfully and joyfully.
  • When you decide to go for a wave, go for it full throttle, as if it will be the last wave you ever have a chance to ride, like there's no tomorrow. Don't give it a halfhearted try–like Yoda says, "There is only do or not do." Always give it one hundred percent.


  • Sharks? This depends on where you are. In the 50 years in the waters of So. Cal., the initial author has only seen one that was a potential threat. Plenty of barracuda, tuna, dolphin, sea lions, etc., but only one shark. Not much of a worry.
  • Rays can be more of a concern than sharks. The barb contains mild poisons and can be quite irritating and for some people, can be life threatening if allergic to it. It is best treated with plenty of hot water.
  • Jellyfish may be a problem. See How to treat jellyfish stings for help on dealing with them. However, always know whether or not the jellyfish are toxic before going in the waters.

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Categories: Surfing