“That’s far enough slug,” the guy said with an apparent level of seriousness behind a sly grin.
With only three heads in the water that morning, paddling out had been an easy call. After hurriedly throwing on my wetsuit, I was making my way into the lineup via the break’s adjacent channel, where I watched as one of those three heads stroked into a set-wave, abruptly stalled through the drop — curbing speed with the aid of both hands — and briefly disappeared under an azure curtain. Emerging from the little cylinder, the surfer-in-Dayglo quickly initiated a bottom turn, changed direction mid-face and proceeded to bash the lip, sending a fan of water through the air, before kicking out and landing stomach first on his board within six feet of me. I was respectfully keeping my distance, trailing him as we both paddled toward the peak, when he stopped, sat up on his board, turned toward me and proffered the previously stated warning.
This interaction took place roughly a decade ago, as I was enjoying my first spring season in San Francisco. Determined to tap into the idiosyncratic nature of the region’s surf, I’d driven south and stopped to check on a somewhat well-known break tucked behind a headland of sand-colored rock just a few miles north of Santa Cruz-proper. No, I was not a student at nearby University of California Santa Cruz (“slug” is a reference to the UCSC mascot, the banana slug). But the point of this guy’s admonition was obvious — he was a local. I was not.
To be clear, he had every right to the best sets of the day. Besides the fact that he’d been waiting on the peak longer, and clearly surfed at a high level, he was, again, a local (relative to me, at least).
The rules of any lineup shift and transmogrify based on a combination of variables, from the merit or tenure of those in the water to the type of equipment being ridden. There’s an often unspoken hierarchy at play, working hand-in-hand with long-established rules of lineup etiquette — closest to the peak, first to his or her feet, etc. — that determines who is entitled to ride a wave. And the degree to which one internalizes the rules of a particular break is highly correlated to the amount of time one spends surfing that break.
When surfing was just an insular, counterculture activity practiced by a collection of like-minded individuals all relatively familiar with one another, lineup rules were intuitive and became ingrained in the community’s collective consciousness. But with surfing’s most recent wave of budding popularity, more and more new faces enter the water every single day, many of them uninitiated to the distinctive hierarchy of the break they’re paddling into.
Things have long been hectic in the lineups of Northeast Florida’s most hallowed breaks. Last spring, I personally witnessed two verbal altercations turn physical in one (not uncharacteristically) crowded day at the Jax Beach Pier. And I’ll bet anyone who consistently surfed the pier this summer likely incurred a ding or two from bashing rails with someone unaware of the seemingly subjective rules regarding lineup etiquette.
Crowd control is to surfing what the Riemann Hypothesis is to mathematics — to date, a problem without a solution. During previous surf booms, localism, as best exemplified by Miki Dora kicking his board at townie interlopers during the hectic post-Gidget Malibu days, cropped up as a Nativist, often violent, imperfect panacea. Yet, although localism seems ingrained in our culture, sharing waves predates it by hundreds of years, with Ancient Hawaiian chiefs and commoners, women and children riding the surf (or he’e nalu as the ancient Hawaiians called it) together and sharing the stoke.
Education might be the best recourse. Last summer, legendary local surfer and shaper Clay Bennett took to Facebook to relay a collection of rules he’d gathered and honed over his many decades surfing in Northeast Florida and abroad. Far from reeking of elitism, Bennett’s rules reflect an intentional outlook and a collective consideration of a variety of aspects of wave-riding, from the tangible to the socio-cultural.
RIGHT of WAY (Listed in order of priority)
A: Farthest out – surfer the farthest out has waited the longest or positioned themselves the best.
B: Closest to the peak – surfer closest to the cresting portion of the wave has the best opportunity to make the most of the wave.
C: First to his or her feet.
D: If a surfer has one or more of top three criteria and calls “left” or ” right” they have right of wave (also, if you can’t catch it, communicate that).
Don’t Drop in on Others – Never drop in on a surfer already up and riding. This is a sure fire way to get people angry, endanger others, and not be welcomed in the lineup anywhere.
DON’T SNAKE (or back paddle) – Snaking happens when you paddle around someone to get inside position when they already have the inside position.
DON’T BE A WAVE HOG – Give others a chance to enjoy waves, too (this especially applies to longboarders).
PADDLING OUT CONSCIOUSLY – Before you paddle out, take a good look at where the waves are breaking and determine the best path. Paddle out wide of the breaking waves and do not get in the path of a surfer riding a wave.
SURF WITHIN YOUR ABILITY – Do not surf larger waves or crowded spots until your ability matches your desire. Surfing out of your ability makes you a potential hazard to others or yourself.
RESPECT THE LOCALS – Keep in mind the locals surf the spot everyday. Be kind and respectful.
APOLOGIZE – If you accidentally drop in on someone, run into someone, paddle in front of someone, or breach any unwritten rule, just apologize.
HELP OTHER SURFERS – Surfing can be dangerous, so look out after each other.
RESPECT THE BEACH – Leave only footprints! Be a good steward, pick up trash and do not cause intentional damage to the beach or areas we surf.
The majority of Bennett’s proposed rules, when followed, render lineup etiquette similar to a five-way traffic stop (the trick is in surfing we must account for the fact the vehicles at that stop have been pulling up much the same way, day after day, for years, perhaps decades).
Looking back to my own experience as an interloper, I realize that, although I’d never be a local at that spot between Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties, my through deference and respect, I eventually did learn that fella’s name (Dave). And over the years, Dave would say hi, ask how the waves might be breaking in my neck of the woods, and, on the rarest of occasions, pass on a set wave, hooting me into it instead. Going from slug to familiar face in a half-decade or so was a mere pittance compared to the amount of time guys like Bennett have put in at our local breaks.
Until Kelly Slater has a wave pool in every surf town in the world, waves will remain a finite resource. Equitably sharing them means following the rules, paying attention to your surroundings, and yes, giving away a few good ones.