With our surf season on their way and the steady growth of the Great Lakes surf community, our ISA-certified surf coaches put together some valuable information on surfing etiquette and safety considerations so that we can all enjoy the waves.
Surfing is a sport that takes a lifetime to perfect and having been beginners, we understand how challenging and discouraging it can be to get started. The one thing that made it easier for all of us, in the beginning, was to familiarize ourselves with the unwritten rules or code of surfing. Even though we unintendedly and accidentally broke the rules from time to time, knowing that we were wrong is what allowed us to apologize and keep surfing and progressing in harmony with others wherever we go.
While not set in stone, the ‘rules’ and safety considerations outlined in this post can guide your surf sessions on the Great Lakes and beyond. Take some time to acquaint yourself with these considerations to make your sessions safer and better.
#1 Choose your gear according to your skill level
We often see beginner surfers on high-performance shortboards, and there’s nothing harder than learning to surf on a shortboard. Your learning curve will be much steeper if you start out on the wrong board, and those high-performance surfboards pose great risks not only to yourself but also to those around you. The technology for soft-top surfboards has come a long way, and these durable boards perform extremely well these days. They are affordable, easy to use, extremely buoyant and fairly harmless. The soft layer that contains the foamcore won’t hurt and the plastic fins are unlikely to cut in case of an accident. We always advise our students to start on one of those boards, and once you master your skills, then it’s time to get a second board—preferably a surfboard tailored to your needs so you can progress in the sport.
#2 Choose the break according to your skill level
It doesn’t matter how good a surfer you become, you should always remember to assess your skill level and overall wellbeing on any given day before paddling out. We all should know how much to push as we progress, but most importantly, we should always respect the oceans, rivers, and the Great Lakes. We are very small in comparison to the power of Nature, and any situation can change very quickly if you are not fully aware of your surroundings.
If you are a beginner, you should only surf at established beach breaks when there are other surfers around. Stay away from rocks and reefs, and look for mellow small to midsize waves that allow you to practice safely. Even those places need to be assessed every time you go out. Is it too big for your skill level? Do you have the appropriate wetsuit to keep you warm during the session? What's your fitness level and your overall sense of awareness? Are you under the influence of alcohol or any substance? Think smart, be honest with yourself, and stay safe. There’s no shame in saying that today is not your day, as there will only be other days if you are smart about it.
As you progress with your skills, it’s even more important to assess the conditions of a particular break. Because you can catch 8 out of 10 waves that come your way, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the skills to paddle out at an overhead punchy reef break. We can use our local break ‘The Cove’ as an example. That’s the heaviest break we have in the GTA, and the shoreline is made of debris and rebar. Getting in and out of there safely is extremely technical and can be challenging even for the most advanced surfer. If you sit at the shoreline looking at those heavy waves and thinking should I go out or not for longer than a minute, the answer is probably ‘no’. Until you can duck-dive every single wave that comes your way perfectly and be in full control of your board at all times, that’s not a break suitable for you. Remember, you are in charge of your own safety and there’s nothing wrong about admitting that you are not ready for that yet.
#3 Right of Way
The surfer closest to the peak of the wave has the right of way. If you are sitting in the line-up and a left-hand wave is opening for you but someone to your right (closer to the peak) is paddling for it, that means that he/she has the right of way. If you find yourself on the other side be sure to stop paddling or safely exit the wave while keeping control of your board. Thus allowing the surfer in the better position and already riding to complete their ride.
If someone is up and riding that wave, don’t attempt to drop in between the surfer and the curl of the wave. That surfer can perform a cutback and run right into you. This is called ‘backpaddling’ and it is considered as bad as ‘dropping in’. Experienced surfers can also get through closed out sections and can outrun different sections of the wave. If a surfer riding a wave gets closed out with an impossible section or wipes out, the next surfer down the line can take off. If you’re a very new beginner I’d hold off on doing this anyway until you have a bit more experience. Always be aware of your positioning in relation to other surfers riding the waves.
There are different types of waves and we are going to break down different situations to illustrate different case scenarios.
Beach Breaks can have well-defined peaks as well as peaks that shift according to the swell directions. On the Great Lakes, our beach breaks tend to have extremely irregular peaks, and surfers must be ready to take off quickly due to our short period interval. Whether the wave is opening to the left or the right, always check over your shoulder to ensure there’s not a surfer taking off closer to the peak.
Point breaks are places where the waves wrap around a point and break consistently on the same spot. They can be right-hand or left-hand point breaks. A good example of that on the Great Lakes is ‘The Lighthouse’ at Scarborough Bluffs. Westerly and Southwesterly swells wrap around the Lighthouse point, creating a long and clean wave that peels to the right (and sometimes a short and punchy wave that peels to the left back into the channel). Understanding the right of way at point breaks is pretty simple: the surfer closer to the peak has the right of way. As surfers catch their waves, other surfers can move closer to the peak so they can catch their own waves. As you paddle back from riding a wave, you should sit at the back of the pack, and let surfers ahead of you catch their waves, as you slowly get closer to the peak and wait for your turn again.
A-Frames or Split Peaks
An a-frame or a split peak is a wave that breaks creating a rideable left and a right wall simultaneously. These waves allow two surfers to ride the same wave in opposite directions at the same time. Taking off behind the peak and making your way to the other side is not usually accepted unless there’s no other surfer on the other side.
If a wave is breaking towards itself (a closeout) and two surfers are taking off at each other, both have the right of way. These are delicate situations and it’s advisable to kick out early or ride the wave out to avoid a collision.
#4 Don’t Drop In
‘Dropping in’ means when a surfer is already up and riding on a wave and another surfer further down the line paddles and pops up. Be sure to look both ways when paddling for a wave, this will aid you as a surfer to start deciding whether it is a left or a right-hand wave. Furthermore, you will also see if someone is already up and riding, if so, stop paddling and allow that rider to continue their wave.
As a beginner so much focus is on just catching the wave we sometimes forget to look over our shoulder until it’s too late and we hear a whistle or worse from the person we have dropped in on. Avoid this by always looking both ways and over your shoulder before taking the wave.
We have all dropped in on someone and have also been dropped in on. If that happens, we find that a simple acknowledgment goes a long way.
#5 Don’t Snake
Let’s say there are two surfers, Jon and Lucy. Lucy has just caught a wave and is paddling back out, Jon sees a wave and starts to paddle for it, the peak shifts slightly but he is still in a position to catch the wave. However, now Lucy sees an opportunity and paddles around Jon to get closer to the peak and catches the wave. From this perspective, if Jon pops up, it looks as if he is dropping in on Lucy, and Jon’s only real position now is to exit the wave. Even though Lucy forced herself in the ‘better’ position both surfers know that Jon had the right of way. This is what you call snaking. Maybe aptly named because you physically have to ‘snake’ or move around someone to do it, or perhaps with the action of being a ‘snake’, ruthless and cold without a care for others. Either way, it's not cool to snake other surfers. People can get excited and want to be in a better position, but never paddle around someone to directly get a wave. In this position, you should let that surfer have that ride without harassing him or her, which will put you in position for the next one.
#6 How to Safely Paddle Out
Paddling out is one of the most important aspects of surfing and surfing etiquette often unspoken. To paddle out correctly and to save the most energy and time, you do not impede other surfers while they are riding, and avoid any unnecessary and avoidable circumstances that can be dangerous to you, another surfer or both.
The onus is on you stay out of people’s way (ie. paddle wide, paddle towards the white water, give the open face of the wave to the rider). Firstly, you want to paddle out in the most efficient way possible where you use the least amount of energy. As some of us know and more will come to understand, waves on the lakes can shift a lot. We all get pretty pumped before a surf session, especially when its on, but just take a couple minutes to watch the surf—whether from the car, the beach, or during your warm up. Assess the condition, determine the peak or placement in the lineup you want to surf and locate the easiest way to enter the water and paddle out. You are looking for an area where there are lesser waves and where the power is considerably weaker—this is called the channel. This will save energy from turtle rolls or duck dives but be sure you are well out of the way of other surfers. Do not paddle through the ‘heart of the lineup’ or close to the shoulder where you may impact someone’s wave.
If you catch a wave and bail or finish the wave in the impact zone you have to be very aware of how you paddle back out. Paddling over the green face may be the easiest way but if there is a surfer then it’s in your control to get out of the way. Even if that means taking a couple waves on the head, you’ll appreciate it when the circumstances are flipped.
#5B Stay in the Shallows When Necessary
The very first thing to consider again is your skill. If you aren’t ready to surf green waves or think that day is too big for you, then stay closer to shore. When you are learning to surf it’s actually the white water you are looking for, for it being far more consistent breaking, easier to catch and the ideal style of wave to learn the pop-up, practice and refine your stance, and begin small turns.
A rule of thumb is if you can touch the ground and stand-up comfortably when surfing the whitewater then choose to stand. We aren’t entering any big wave surf events, so we don’t need to rush to paddle back out back just yet. Avoid paddling or laying on your board as you can quickly drift and or get sucked into unwanted areas. By standing you are using yourself as an anchor and staying in good position. Progression happens much faster when you take every required step to progress. When you start to skip steps, this tends to lead to bad habits and will actually slow down your progression in the sport.
#6 Don’t be Greedy for Waves
All of us are in the water for the same reason—to ride waves and to enjoy it. Now you may not know too much science to catch a wave but a bodyboard, shortboard, longboard, kayak, SUP or regardless of your craft of choice, they all have different buoyancies, volumes and all catch waves at different points. With some of these watercrafts catching a wave far before the wave is peaking and breaking, and others at the last second. Just because you can catch the wave, it doesn’t mean you should. Don’t be a wave hog. Give a wave, take a wave, share the stoke and keep it fair.
Communication is often something not spoken too much, which is ironic, but this can help your surf session a lot. Firstly, from a good morning greeting, especially when surfing a new spot, you’ll find simple acknowledgments go a long way. But even when in the water, communication can help a lot. For example, if you find yourself paddling for a wave with another surfer to your side just ask left or right? You may find you are both paddling for the same wave but are planning on surfing in the opposite direction. This will save yourself battling for it, or one or both missing the wave or being out of position. On the plus side, good communication creates a more enjoyable vibe, which is a beneficial thing for everyone.
#8 An Apology Goes a Long Way
These rules are something to always have in the back of your mind and will become more natural to you with time. However, all of these have been broken by every surfer at some point, even the world’s best. Plus, always remember every surfer has been a beginner as well. One of the most important things to remember is simply to say sorry. You will find a head nod, a wave gesture and a quick sorry will go a long way. Just imagine you have caught the perfect wave and someone drops in, if they just look at you after and say nothing it may grind your gears a little, but if they say sorry, you quickly realize it’s not the end of the world and it’s hard to stay mad at someone who is genuinely apologetic.
#9 Hold Onto Your Board
Losing control of your board is a big no go, especially in a crowded spot. Whether you are riding a little twin fin 5’6” or cruising on your 10’ longboard, this is something to always avoid. Remember how long that board is, and now add another 6-10 feet of leash (the leg rope that attaches you to your board). That gives you a very large circumference around you for where your board may end up. Be aware of your board at all times, as to not endanger yourself and other surfers. Obviously, when you are learning, it is hard to stay in control but just be careful and mindful at all times.
If you are paddling or walking with your board, and you see a big wave about to hit you do not just throw your board if there are others in the water. As we said, this board has the ability to hit someone who may be 20 feet behind you. If you are riding a wave, avoid flinging your board in front of you, where you may again, put others at risk. One safety tip that is important to emphasize again is to surf a board to your ability. If you are learning or progressing, use a soft top, these are by far the best boards to learn on whether you are looking to rent or buy. By doing so, it will not only make the session more enjoyable and easier to progress it will be safer for you and everyone in the water.
#10 Give Respect to Earn Respect
We would all love to surf spots where all these rules apply, but unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. As a beginner, try to follow these steps as closely as possible. However, you may come across more experienced surfers or locals who don’t always follow the exact same rules. Though as previously said a simple ‘good morning’ and some respect goes a long way, and you will often find people are nice in return. And if they aren’t, that’s their problem. You have gone out of your way to show your respect.
#11 It’s Not All For the Gram
There are many well-known surf spots that are widely publicized on Surfline, Magic Seaweed and Great Lakes Surfing Platforms. We don’t see any problems with pictures from these spots being posted online unless they are not private land. We believe everyone has the right to surf any waves, especially on public land. If a surfer puts in the work to find less well-known waves, great for him or her. They have earned the right to ride that wave and should be allowed to enjoy it in harmony with others. But, if you find yourself in a more low key spot on oceans, rivers or lakes, don’t be afraid to enjoy the moment and leave your camera in the car. This will help drastically when it comes to issues with local surfers, who may not want their spot to be publicly posted on all social media platforms.
#12. Look Out for Each Other
This may not exactly be about surf etiquette, but it is definitely something to consider when surfing a quiet beach, especially on the lakes. Between Labour Day in September and the May long weekend, none of our beaches are patrolled by lifeguards. During the summer months, even though lifeguards are present, they are rarely trained for open water rescue when there are waves. Furthermore, winter surfing can be dangerous when not given the right respect. As surfers, we are in charge of our own safety and are the only ones who can rescue other surfers and swimmers in distress. If you are out on the water, be sure to look out for one another, and to help those who may be stranded outside in desperate times. If you don’t have proper rescue training, remember never to give your hand to a drowning person as they can drown you with them. Approach them with care and offer your board or a floatation device. Once they are no longer panicking, start to bring them back to shore with the help of the waves.
#13 Respect Our Natural Environment
The Great Lakes may not always hold the power of the ocean, but they sure deserve a high amount of respect, with some days proving to be just as powerful and dangerous. Be sure to show the beach some respect as well. We are lucky enough to have these beautiful beaches all around us and lakes large enough to create waves. Let’s all be grateful and respectful. Take all trash with you, and it doesn’t harm to pick up any other trash you see along the way.
#14 Have an Exit Plan
This is more of a pet peeve about safety, especially when the temperature drops below freezing. That idea of an endless ‘one more wave’ doesn’t apply on the lakes in the winter. From the moment you start getting cold to the moment you start to warm up, there’s about 30 minutes in between. If you notice that you are losing the capacity to generate heat, get out of the water immediately. Run back to your car, turn the heat on and drop your surfboard outside. With your extremities numb, you won’t know if you are getting frostbite. Have everything laid out in your car before you go out, so that you are ready to warm up safely upon your return. Once you remove your mittens and slowly change into dry clothes, or get into your DryRobe, you can go back outside to deal with racking your board.
#15 Have Fun & Bring Good Vibes Only
Nobody enjoys being around a cranky person on land, and there’s nothing worse than bad vibes in the water. Positivity creates positive spaces for people to enjoy themselves, the waves and the company of one another. It is OK to have a bad day, but please don’t let your bad day ruin everyone else’s session. You don’t need to be hooting and hollering to have a good time, but try to leave any negativity at home when paddling out.
Antonio is an ISA-certified surf coach, movement teacher and community builder. He was born and raised in Brazil and graduated from OCAD University with a degree in Graphic Design. Antonio is the founder and CEO of Surf the Greats. Find him on Instagram.