As vast and spacious as the ocean is, sometimes it feels like surfers are magnetically attracted to each other because collisions happen enough to be worrisome. This is a serious problem because, when you’re traveling at 20 mph (32 km/h) and you aren’t wearing much protective gear if any at all, you can easily give yourself a nasty injury.
With surfing growing in popularity each year and millions of surfers worldwide, the chances of being on a collision course with fellow surfers increases each year.
In the best case scenario, you can avoid a collision at the last second by swerving out of the way or literally jumping off your board (kicking out), but I wouldn’t exactly call either one of those “good” outcomes. At least in this case, the only thing that is injured is your pride.
When you actually do collide with another surfer, you can break your board, get a nasty cut, get a concussion, lose consciousness or become disoriented (a major drowning risk), or even suffer a permanent head injury.
To reduce the likelihood of running into other surfers, there are some unwritten “laws” of the ocean that should be followed so that everyone can stay safe while surfing. In this article, we will go over the best practices that surfers follow to avoid running into each other, as well as answer common questions on this topic.
- Most common reasons why surfers run into each other
- How to avoid running into other surfers
- Are there right of way rules?
- How often do surfers run into each other?
- What are the most common injuries sustained when running into a surfer?
- Can you be run over by other surfers while paddling out?
- How do I paddle out safely without getting run over?
Most common reasons why surfers run into each other
You might be wondering: isn’t the ocean absolutely enormous, so how the heck do people even run into each other? There are actually countless ways surfers can collide, however some ways are more common than others.
In this section, we will cover the common mistakes beginners make that lead to dangerous collisions. This list is by no means exhaustive, however by avoiding these mistakes, you can already drastically reduce the chances of running into a fellow surfer.
One of the most common causes of a surfer collision is known as dropping in. It refers to when a surfer “drops in” front of another surfer while they are riding a wave. Think of it like cutting someone off while driving – you don’t expect it and it can cause you to have a knee-jerk reaction that is very dangerous for both people.
As such, there is a rule about dropping in; don’t do it. Drop ins are almost always a surprise and, since it typically occurs near the peak of the wave, very fast. Drop ins are especially common when there is only a small peak on a wave and all of the surfers are in close proximity as they wait for the set.
Yet another big no-no in surfer etiquette and a major cause of collisions is snaking. Snaking is when you paddle around another surfer who was in front of you so that now you are the closest surfer to the peak; it’s kind of like dropping in to be honest.
In effect, you have stolen the right of way from this surfer, and that makes you a snake and a wave hog. This is very much frowned upon and you will earn the ire of all the surfers who have witnessed this, especially the person you snaked.
For the same reason that dropping in is dangerous, you could have someone behind you in close proximity and you may not know where they are once you’re ahead of them. Furthermore, this action is considered highly disrespectful and someone might be out for your blood.
Surfers don’t usually fight but when another surfer does something extremely dangerous and disrespectful, it might give them cause to start a brawl which is also dangerous.
Lack of board control
This point has less to do with etiquette or knowing any rules and refers to a general lack of control due to inexperience. It’s possible that you might accidentally drop in or snake someone when you’re first starting out, however the problem is amplified if you lack board control on top of committing these surfing sins.
When you’re just starting out, unless you were blessed by the surfing gods to have insane board balance naturally, you will probably fall off a bunch or lack the control to turn your board out of the way, resulting in a higher chance of running into another surfer.
Unfortunately, you cannot improve your board control unless you get out there and practice. In the meantime, I suggest you keep your distance and try to adhere to surfing etiquette to the best of your ability.
Paddling through a lineup
Next, you should never paddle through a lineup. This will increase your chances of being run over and is also disrespectful to other surfers who just want to ride the waves without obstructions.
A common mistake beginner surfers make is: they catch a wave, then turn around and paddle in a direct line back to where they came from. This typically causes them to paddle through a lineup and forces the other surfers to dodge you as they ride past.
Most surfers can do this easily enough, however you don’t know how experienced they are and perhaps they might not see you until it’s too late. Plus, it’s just disrespectful and you might get a few nasty looks from people who have to dodge you.
Surfing in the same direction
In some instances, two or more surfers can take off on the same wave. Particularly with new surfers who are not yet proficient at reading the waves, this can result in a situation where two surfers are on the same wave going in the same direction but towards each other.
Unless at least one of the surfers knows how to kick out, then the chances are high that there will be a collision. Collisions are more likely with onshore winds because the waves may break in all directions and there is not a clear direction to take off in.
A question surfers sometimes ask is if two or more surfers can ride the same wave without any issues, and we kind of answered that above. Yes, it is possible and it happens all the time. It won’t necessarily be possible for every wave and things get trickier if there is a beginner in the mix, but it’s possible.
How to avoid running into other surfers
Now that you know about the most common ways surfers run into each other, you will be better able to avoid those pitfalls. In this section, we will discuss the best practices you should adhere to so that you can surf safely and responsibly.
Wait your turn
When you see a lineup, join it and patiently wait your turn. Do not snake or drop in on another surfer’s wave. By waiting your turn, you are being respectful, orderly, and will ensure that no one is dropping in on anyone.
Make yourself heard
Even if everybody knows about right of way rules, sometimes the situation is still unclear. For these moments, you can communicate verbally to avoid any confusion. Obviously you don’t have much time except to say a few words, but even that is enough.
For instance, when multiple surfers are paddling towards a wave, the surfer closest to the peak (who has the right of way) can verbally confirm that they are going for the wave by saying “yup” or some other audio cue just in case.
If this is not done, there is a possibility that another surfer might think you’re giving up your right of way. Or, more realistically, another surfer might not have noticed you while paddling and not realized you are in front of them.
Similarly, when you’re on your surfboard and riding down the wave among crowds, it’s a good habit to make a verbal sound (preferably not “cowabunga”) to let everyone in close proximity around you know that you’re in and that they shouldn’t drop in.
As you can see, verbal communication is a quick and easy way for surfers to avoid going on a collision course with each other. For instance, if a surfer who is close to the peak is hesitating for some reason, you can just ask them “are you going” instead of snaking in.
Another situation is when there’s a split peak, you can ask the surfer in front of you if they are going left or right and you can go the other direction.
On the other hand, you might decide to forgo a wave and you can let the surfer behind you have the right of way by telling them “you can go” or something to that effect. There’s no reason to waste a good wave. Even if you’re not the one riding it, the next best thing is to see someone else take advantage of it.
Master kicking out
A kick out is sort of like an “eject” button for fighter jets. You might have decided that a wave might be too big a challenge for you at the last second and you don’t want to ride it. So what do you do, is it too late to bail out? You might still have time to bail out and that’s what kicking out is.
Learning how to kick out is one of the most important defensive maneuvers you can learn as a surfer. It lets you turn off the back of a wave quickly. This is crucial if you dropped in on someone or were dropped in on, or if you and another surfer are on a collision course.
With a simple twist in the hips, you can kick out and avoid running into another surfer. Yes, you will waste a wave, but it’s a better outcome than brain damage.
Are there right of way rules?
Most people come across the concept of right of way when taking their driving knowledge test. Is there such a thing as a right of way for surfing? Indeed. Assuming a surfer did not snake their position, the surfer closest to the peak has the right of way.
For instance, if there is a surfer on your right shoulder and you are paddling for a left side, then it is their wave, not yours. Another way of looking at this is which surfer could have had the longest possible ride? Let that person get the wave.
Essentially, the person who is nearest to the breaking white water has the right of way.
How often do surfers run into each other?
Experienced surfers rarely collide with one another since they have better board control and balance than beginners and know about the right of way rules.
With that said, while a bay with only brand new surfers would have a higher chance of collision, it is still unlikely since most newbies tend to ride straight on waves and therefore are parallel to each other. This is also how 110 people were able to ride the same wave simultaneously and set a Guinness World Record in 2009.
The issue is when you mix experienced surfers who expect their fellow surfers to follow certain rules, but a beginner may act unpredictably and not understand they are in the way or that they lack the board control to avoid accidents. For instance, a new surfer may unintentionally drop in on others and this is a classic example of how a collision can occur.
Another common cause of collisions in new surfers is overconfidence. Once they’ve reached a decent level of competency, they become bolder and more daring, and this unfortunately causes more collisions.
Lastly, new surfers who have just started riding along the wave (instead of straight) can take off in the wrong direction and run into surfers going in the opposite direction.
What are the most common injuries sustained when running into a surfer?
What kind of injuries do you think the human body will sustain when two people moving at speeds of 20 mph (32 km/h) without wearing any helmets crash into each other?
Head trauma, lacerations, a concussion, disorientation, loss of consciousness, even brain damage or death. You would be lucky if you survived a collision with only a few scratches or bruises.
Running into a surfer can break your board and even some of your bones, depending on the speed of the collision and the angle of it. In this situation, you want to avoid damage to your body as much as possible, even if that means sacrificing the board; as cheesy as it sounds, you can always get a new board, but there’s only one of you.
Collisions while surfing are so dangerous because, not only can the impact cause serious damage, but depending on how badly you are injured, you can easily drown afterwards.
For example, a head injury can cause you to be disoriented, and this can lead to drowning. You can also suffer a concussion and, in the worst cases, it can also cause brain damage or death.
Another common injury of a surfer collision are lacerations (cuts) from the sharp fins at the bottom of your or the other surfer’s board. This is less likely to occur in a direct collision, but rather if one surfer runs over another surfer. You can avoid this by not paddling through the lineup.
Can you be run over by other surfers while paddling out?
You absolutely can. One of the most crucial skills a surfer has to learn, especially for crowded conditions, is to avoid getting in the way of a surfer who is riding a wave.
Surfers who are paddling out should try to paddle towards the inside of the wave (the part of the wave that has already broken). A surfer riding an incoming wave will typically be in the unbroken part (at the curl) of the wave, so a paddler who sticks to the inside of the wave will not be in the way.
How do I paddle out safely without getting run over?
When surfers spot a wave, they will begin paddling to that wave. In crowded conditions, it becomes a race to be the first person to that wave. When you see someone paddling in front of you, don’t try to snake your way in. Just pull back and let the wave go to that surfer because he has the right of way.
With that said, it’s not always easy to pull back after you start paddling towards a wave. Some waves leave you with no choice but to keep going. Learning when you should pull the breaks before takeoff is an important skill for surfers to learn to prevent running into someone.
Knowing right of way rules can help you understand what everyone else is thinking so that surfers can move predictably and therefore avoid confusion. While there may be 4 or 5 surfers all chasing down a wave, only one will be allowed to ride it. That person is the one closest to the peak. All other surfers should gracefully bow out.
This is exactly what happens among experienced surfers; they will pull back once they realize they are too far behind and will prepare themselves to drop into the next wave. As long as everyone is one the same page, this can help to avoid collisions among surfers.
Aside from knowing who has the right of way, below are some more practical ways of avoiding collisions while paddling out.
You should paddle wide because paddling straight through breaking waves will make it more difficult to get past the break and also puts you in close proximity to surfers riding a wave.
By paddling wide and staying far away, you are making it safer for everyone around you and most importantly yourself. It’s also more respectful to paddle around the lineup and not through it.
By paddling wide, you avoid most if not all the surfers dropping in on steep waves and drastically reduce your chances of getting hit while paddling out.
Paddle straight (conditional)
Wait a minute, didn’t we just tell you to paddle wide? Why are we now suggesting you paddle straight? Well, it depends on the situation.
If you ever come across a situation where it looks like a surfer is about to ride into you, the common wisdom is that you should continue paddling straight. This allows the other surfer to more easily maneuver around you.
Surfers who are riding a wave are moving faster than you and also have more control of their board. Therefore, it’s much easier for them to swerve or change directions. Also, by continuing your course, you are moving predictably and can allow the surfer (who has more control) to dodge you.
When you also change your course, it can confuse the surfer who expected you to keep going straight. You may move in the same direction where the surfer was swerving to and causing a collision anyway.
Dive under (last ditch attempt)
If it looks like a collision is imminent regardless of what you do, then your last ditch attempt to save yourself is to dive under. This is probably something you would naturally resort to anyways, but we’re going to write it out for those who feel hesitant to do this for some reason.
Generally speaking, you don’t want to dive under because leaving your board can be dangerous because you will no longer have control of where your board ends up. But what else are you going to do, allow yourself to get hit?
When you are facing a new surfer who is about to run into you, who doesn’t have the board control to turn another direction and avoid you, you may need to abandon your board and dive under.
Chances are a collision will still occur; your board will likely get damaged or broken, but it’s a much better outcome than your head getting broken instead.