Wave priority in surfing: the rules say 'one surfer, one wave' | Photo: Shutterstock

How can you tell when a surfer has the right of way over another wave rider? What is a priority in surfing?

Surfing is the sport of catching waves before they break. As a result, surfers need to position themselves in the lineup so that they can catch the rollers in the right spot, i.e., where they start to break.

Every wave breaks to the right or left, and like in any civilized street system, there are rules for each player. However, the ocean has no police power or ticketing systems.

In surfing, we like to call it "surf etiquette." It's an informal code of conduct.

But wave priorities are more than gentleman's rules - priorities prevent crashes, injuries, and damaged surfboards.

Paddling into the path of a surfer who waited for his dream run and is riding the wave down the line at full speed is extremely dangerous and rude.

Surfers who break priority rules should expect consequences. Breaches of priority rules usually end up in unpleasant discussions, insults, and fights.

As a general rule of thumb, you'd say that surfing is "One man, one wave," except when an A-frame wave peels off to the right and left, offering two different riding opportunities.

The following picture shows a wave that can be ridden simultaneously by two surfers - one goes right, and the other goes left.

A-frame wave: one wave, and two riding opportunities | Photo: Cestari/WSL

Surf priority rules are especially important and relevant to beginners and first-timers, as they often inadvertently drop in on others' waves, causing multiple irritating outcomes.

Remember that the surfing's priority rule only applies when a surfer takes off. There's nothing wrong when five riders paddle for the same wave.

The Basic Rules

In the end, it all comes down to respecting others and vice versa. There are two wave priority rules:

  1. The surfer who is closest to the curl, the peak, or the breaking part of the wave has the right of way and priority over all other surfers;
  2. The surfer who is farther outside and away from the shore has priority over all other surfers sitting or paddling on the inside, even if closer to breaking part of the wave;

In the example below, the surfer in blue has priority over the red and black surfers. If the blue surfer doesn't catch it, priority switches to red. The surfer in black may only drop in if the other two don't ride that left-hand wave.

Wave priorities in surfing: the surfer who is closest to the curl, the peak or the breaking part of the wave has the right of way and priority over all other surfers

That said, surfers without priority should never drop in, and if by accident they do so, they must kick out or pull back their boards.

Unfortunately, a small minority of surfers will always try to gain priority, even when they've just finished riding a wave.

That's called "snaking," and it's considered a disrespectful attitude.

"Snakers" rely on their physical advantages to get all the waves from other people. They paddle around surfers with priority to get closer to the peak.

However, the day will come when someone stronger and fitter will pay them back in the same coin. It's called karma, and it frequently happens throughout life.

So, enjoy surfing and play by the rules - it will be worth it in the long run.

If, for any reason, you make a mistake or unintentionally drop in on a fellow surfer, apologize for it, and everything will be okay.

Discover the four types of breaking waves.

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