The Unspoken Surfing Rules Beginners Need to Know

by Dan Ketchum

If you eat breakfast with the Rockwell Kitchen crew on Topanga Beach, you can look one way and see our chefs cooking up the next plate of locally sourced goodness; look the other way, and you’ll see a horizon stacked with surfers. 

You can’t take the surf out of Malibu, and we encourage everyone to embrace that community, but it’s true that you’re looking at a culture full of unspoken surfing rules. So before you grab a board and stock up on wax, let’s make those unspoken rules a little more spoken with some basic surfing etiquette that’ll serve you not just in Malibu, but anywhere you choose to chase that endless summer.

Surf To Your Ability

One of the first surfing rules is as simple as it is humble: stay honest with yourself. It’s safer to start with soft, small waves and less powerful breaks.  Not only will you feel comfortable and have less painful wipeouts, but no one will call you a kook for crowding up the more veteran-friendly beaches. In Malibu, mornings at County Line or Zuma Beach offer plenty of space and nice soft tops. 

Think Before You Paddle

When you paddle out, make sure you paddle wide, leaving a big berth so you don’t get in anyone’s way. Watch other surfers and imagine the lines they’ll take along the shoulder. Try not to get in those lines, and definitely don’t “snake,” which is the practice of making a big S-shape as you paddle around another surfer to get the right of way. 

As you keep an eye out for breaks, aim for those that you know you can handle, like mellow midsizers, rather than rocky swells. It’ll keep you safe and it projects respect to the locals. 

Respect the Rules of the Road

Practicing as much as you can with an instructor —  we recommend our buddies at Boardriders — or a few friends is absolutely essential, but one day you’ll be ready to catch green waves with the greater surfing public. The thing is, lots of other people are going to want those same waves, and dropping in on another surfer is bad etiquette. 

As a rule of thumb, the wave belongs to the person who can net the longest potential ride from it, or the surfer closest to its peak. If that’s not you, wait it out.

And what you learned in kindergarten is still true: take turns. On Topanga Beach, the rocky terrain makes for swells  —the height of a house sometimes — with a steady supply of takeoff zones and breaks. Given these output of breaks, surfers wait in line and let each other take a wave in turn. So mind the lineup and if you don’t catch the wave when it’s your turn to paddle for it, go back to the end of the line. Much of surfing is a practice in patience, but that’s no big deal when the view is that good. 

Surf Safe

There are two important rules for safe surfing: don’t forget to put your leash on as soon as you hit the water, and always communicate. More than just cutting back on tension (never be afraid to say sorry), being vocal can really help you avoid dangerous collisions. Let others know where you’re headed, and make sure you know their route as well. And no matter what happens, always hold on to your board (learn turtle rolls and duck dives to assist this) to avoid hitting fellow surfers. 

Last rule, and maybe the most important: give respect to gain respect. As Malibu surf legend (and Rockwell Kitchen’s coffee partner) Laird Hamilton tells GQ, “When someone’s a genuine, true beginner, and they’re respectful and try to do the right thing, they’re going to get plenty of help and encouragement in the lineup.” 

Practice patience, be polite, look out for one another, continue to learn and don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Now you’re ready for the dawn patrol!

In addition to his experience as a mixologist, menu designer, bar manager and traveler, Dan has been a freelance writer and Los Angeles resident since 2009. He has previously written for Everything Food, Farmshelf, Hunker, Out East Rosé, Kellogg’s, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate, among others.


Barefoot Surf: Surf Etiquette: 10 Rules a Beginner Needs to Know

GQ: Don’t Be a Kook: The GQ Guide to Surf Etiquette

Surf the Greats: 15 Surfing Etiquette and Safety Points to make You a Better Surfer