What does it mean to have priority in surfing?

Surfing is an exciting and challenging sport involving catching waves before they break. In order to make the most of what the sport has to offer, surfers must position themselves to catch the waves correctly. However, in any surf spot, there are likely to be several surfers looking to ride the wave, and as a result, there must be a system that ensures both safety and fairness. We call this ‘surf etiquette’, and a big part of this simple code of conduct is determining priority. Priorities are essential in ensuring that injuries and crashes are avoided, as well as preventing damage to surfboards. However, surf etiquette also provides a positive surf experience and community.

Priority rules in surfing are particularly crucial for beginners and first-timers to keep in mind. It can be easy to inadvertently drop in on other surfers waves, which can cause annoyance and accidents, even if you’re in surf lessons at Croyde.

Consider this scenario, a newbie surfer paddles into the path of an experienced local riding their dream run at full speed. ‘Dropping in’ in this way is not only inconsiderate but also extremely dangerous. If you break priority rules and surf etiquette, you should expect there to be consequences including insults, heated discussions and even fights.

Generally, ‘one man, one wave’ is the rule. However, often an A-frame wave will peel off in two directions offering two riding opportunities. In this situation, it is possible for a wave to be be ridden at the same time by two different people, so long as one goes left and one goes right.

But which surfers get to take these opportunities? This depends on the rules of priority. It is worth noting that priority only applies when a surfer takes off, and it is anyone’s wave until that point. It is not uncommon for many surfers to paddle for the same wave at once.

The Two Golden Rules of Surf Priority

Surf etiquette really comes down to courtesy, safety and respect. There are two priority rules that you must observe at all times:

Firstly, the surfer closest to the breaking part of the wave, the curl or the peak has priority over any other surfer and right of way. This is the surfer who has the longest potential ride and will be able to enjoy riding the shoulder of the wave for the most time. For example, if you are paddling towards a wave with the intention of going left, but there is a surfer to the right of you paddling for the same wave, they have the right of way. You may ride the wave only if they fail to catch the wave or fall off their surfboard.

There are other exceptions to this rule. If a surfer is already up on their feet, even if you are closer to the peak, you shouldn’t take off between the surfer and the peak of the wave even if you would have a longer ride.

Also, if you are completely sure that a surfer will get caught in the white water and won’t make it past a certain point in the wave, you can drop in. This can be tricky to judge, so you should only take off where you are 100% certain.

Secondly, the surfer who is further away from the shore and farther outside has priority over all of the other surfers paddling or sitting on the inside, even where they are closer to the curl, the peak or breaking part of the wave.

Surfers who do not have priority should never drop in on another surfers wave. If you do so by accident, you should pull back your board or kick out. As a beginner, it can be challenging to know which waves you can paddle into and which you may not, particularly in busy surf spots.

It is very poor etiquette to use a physical advantage to gain priority over other surfers. This is known as ‘snaking’ and is even more of a no-no than dropping in. Snaking is where a fitter surfer attempts to get all of the waves by paddling past surfers who have priority to get closer to the peaks of waves. This is seen as disrespectful to other surfers and should be avoided.

If you are new to surfing or in it for the long run, it is likely you will drop in on other surfers by accident sometimes. Be aware of your surroundings, kick out, pull back, apologise where necessary and you should be able to avoid the incident becoming too uncomfortable (even if it is a little embarrassing).