Considering the ever increasing crowds of surfers at popular surf spots each year, surfers running into each other is a relatively rare occurrence. How do surfers avoid hitting each others when surfing, especially in crowded conditions?
Proficient surfers follow rules to stay out of each other’s way. Surfers paddle out in the broken section of a wave being ridden. Surfers avoid dropping in on each other (right of way rules). Beginners should initially stay away from the peak. Surfers use vocal communication at takeoff and in waves.
To avoid collision, surfers tend to apply good practices at different moments: when paddling out, when paddling into a wave, when taking off, when riding, when kicking out.
Avoiding collision when paddling out
One of the most important aspects of surfing in crowded conditions is for surfers paddling out to avoid getting in the way of surfers riding a wave.
Surfers who are paddling out should always paddle towards the inside of the wave, that is, the part of the wave that has already broken. A surfer riding an incoming wave will generally be in the unbroken part (at the curl), so by doing this the paddler doesn’t get in the way.
For a surfer riding a good wave, there’s nothing worse than seeing someone paddling towards you at the place where you need to go to fully enjoy the wave. It’s also a dangerous situation as the rider is close to the curl where the wave power is greatest.
Surfers who paddle out often tend to forget this rule as it makes it harder for them to go across the wave – duck diving in whitewater is tougher than in or over the face of the wave. However this is probably the #1 rule to avoid risks of collision.
Paddling for a wave without hitting anyone
When surfers see an incoming wave, they start paddling for that wave. In crowded conditions, it often happens that you see someone paddling further down in front of you. If that’s the case, it’s safest to pull out and let the wave go.
Speaking of pulling out, when the waves are powerful it’s not always easy to change your mind once you started paddling into the wave. Some waves leave not room for indecision.
Learning when and how to pull the break before takeoff is important to avoid running into someone.
Another important thing for takeoff is that right of way rules must be second nature. While 4 or 5 surfers may be padding for a given wave at the same time, only one will be allowed to drop in and ride it – in general the surfer who is closest to the peak.
Most experienced surfers know these rules and will pull back if another surfer closer to the peak of the wave is ready to drop into the wave. This is an essential skill surfers acquire to avoid running into each other at takeoff.
Avoiding collision: no drop-in
The dreaded term “dropping in on someone” means paddling into a wave when someone has already started riding it. Dropping in surfing’s capital offense and a major possible cause of collision.
To avoid this, while they’re paddling hard into a wave, right before they drop and stand up, experienced surfers generally take a good and hard look left and right to verify no-one is already riding in the wave, or is also paddling for it while being closer to the peak.
This involves a quick assessment of a potentially complex situation. If someone else is there, the surfer needs to instantly understand who has the right of way and if s/he can safely and “legally” continue to engage in the wave.
Over time, this becomes a gut feeling – sort of like when driving in traffic – that tells you at a glance whether or not you should take that drop.
Some surfers will play it safe and pull back if they see someone else paddling into the wave. Others will bully into the wave no matter what at the risk hitting the other guy.
Experienced surfers know that sometimes, they may accidentally drop in on someone just because they can’t see the other surfer at takeoff – e.g. they’re buried inside a barrel! Many surfers will check behind them again once in the wave to make sure no-one else is there.
There are also cases where the wave breaks both ways, left and right, allowing for two surfers to ride the same wave. In these cases, though, you need to make sure at takeoff the other rider is going in the opposite direction to avoid running into each other.
Beginners often lack the ability to quickly assess the direction of the wave and see who has right of way, so they might drop in on other surfers and risk hitting them – since they also lack control. When in doubt, a beginner should generally wait for another wave.
Riding the wave without hitting paddlers
When riding down the wave, chances are you will sooner or later come across another surfing paddling out towards you. While the paddle should normally head toward the whitewater to get out of your way, it’s not always possible – waves break in many ways.
When that’s the case, it’s obviously the rider’s responsibility to avoid hitting the paddler by riding around him/her. When the wave is nice, the rider may be tempted to rush down the wave in front of the paddler, incurring the risk of falling on top of him/her.
To avoid this risk, it’s best to ride down your wave past the paddler and only then make your turn, drawing a circle around him/her.
This may mean losing your wave if it’s a fast one, but this can save the other paddler from getting run over and being hit by your board’s nose or fins.
Make yourself heard to avoid collision
Another important practice surfers use to avoid running into each other is to communicate verbally.
When several surfers are paddling hard for a wave, the surfer closer to the peak will often verbally confirm he’s going for the wave with a “yup” or some other audio clue.
If you don’t do this, the other surfers paddling for the wave might think you’re forgoing your wave. Or, in the heat of the action, one of them may not have seen you paddling.
Likewise, once you’re standing on your surfboard and starting to ride down the wave among crowds, it’s common practice to emit a verbal sound to let everyone know you’re in and that they shouldn’t drop in.
Verbal communication in general is good for avoiding running each other. For example, when paddling for a wave, you may ask the surfer closer to the peak “are you going?”
Likewise, if it’s a split peak (both left and right), you might ask another surfer paddling for a wave at the same time as you if s/he’s heading left or right.
Conversely, if you change your mind and decide not to drop into the wave you have priority for, you might let the other surfers know with something like “go, go, go!”
Surfers hate seeing a nice wave go to waste (unridden), and the second best thing to riding it is seeing another surfer ride it as it should.
Learners: avoid running into others
Newbies should generally stick to broken waves and whitewater, as they tend to go straight perpendicular to the wave, as opposed to riding down the face wave, parallel to it.
As a beginner, if you were to catch a broken wave close to the peak, by going straight down toward the sand you might be in a collision course with another surfer who’s riding the next wave in the direction it’s breaking (vs toward the beach).
Since beginner surfers tend to ride straight down toward the beach, they tend to ride parallel to each other so they’re are unlikely to hit each other.
Safe surfing: don’t risk it!
Some final thoughts: when surfing in crowds, it’s best to play it safe. If at takeoff you see someone in your riding line, pull back. If someone is paddling in your direction while you ride a wave, draw a wide circle around them even it if means losing your wave.
If too many people are fighting for the same wave, wait for the next one. It’s not worth the risk of hitting or getting hit by a surfboard. You may end up or send someone at the hospital or worse.
Don’t drop in on others, keep your eyes wide open, double or triple check even once in the wave. Getting into a fight or get banned from the spot for hitting someone with your board will surely ruin your day.