A Guide to SUP Surfing Etiquette With Coach Ian Cairns

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Proper SUP Surfing Etiquette with Former US SUP Team Coach Ian Cairns

The stigma that keeps standup paddlers at bay in crowded surf zones is real. The wariness of traditional surfers, particularly high-performance shortboarders, is valid. It manifests in the lack of safety and equity caused by clashing styles of wave riding in a busy lineup, one that inherently beckons conflict, if not disaster, when forced at the wrong break without proper etiquette. But with exaggerated respect, general courtesy and an understanding of surfing hierarchy, it is possible for SUP to coexist with surfing. Here, former surfing champion and US SUP Team coach Ian Cairns shares some pointers that might help earn you and the rest of SUP surfing a secure spot in the local lineup. –MM

Find a peak with the fewest surfers out
Always spend time on the beach surveying the surf and selecting the wave you want to ride. This gives you the chance to find a wave with the fewest surfers on it, so that, from the get-go, you are reducing the potential for conflict.

Paddle out around the break
Because you have been watching, you have seen that there are sets and lulls and that there are channels that run out around the breaking peaks. Paddle out in the channel during a lull. If there are constant sets of waves and the paddle out is too hard, find an easier wave to ride.

Do not get in the way of a rider on the wave
When you’re paddling out always look for a rider on a wave. He has right of way, so try to let him surf past you rather than paddling into his path. Getting run over is not fun, can cause injury, damage to your board and is a major no-no in surfing.

Do not bail your board
If you’re caught inside of a set of waves, you need to learn to kick your board over the wave, rather than bailing out. Bailing sends your board over the falls and it may hit someone behind you. Kicking it over means the board will probably be next to you as you come up. If there are further set waves, turn the board to the beach, look for people that you may hit if you get pushed to the beach and hang on the tail of the board to control your equipment without letting it go. Another idea is to hold the leash as close to the tail of the board as possible and pull the board through the whitewater.

Check who’s in the lineup
As you paddle out, survey the lineup to see who is out already. These guys are in front of you, in line for the next waves, so be cool and remember them. Make sure that you identify the alpha dog in the pack. He is the one you may have problems with, so you need to be ultra respectful and surprise him with kindness.

Wait your turn
Because you know who is out and who needs waves before you, you can easily figure out when your turn in the rotation for waves is about to come up. You get one try at this. How you handle your first wave is often how you’re judged by the pack, so try to get it right and surf it your best.

Give waves away
Sometimes, even if it’s really your turn, give a good wave to someone else who looks hungry. Often they will paddle just to test you, so back off and generously let them go, but make sure you both know that you’re just being cool and generous. It’s a rare occurrence and will build goodwill.

Call sets
Because you’re standing, you can see the set waves coming before anyone, so tell the crew that a set is coming and which wave is better. In this way, you dish up some good waves to the crew and they start to think you’re not so stupid, not cool yet, but not so bad.

Sit down and talk
Constant paddling through a crew in the lineup is seen as threatening to the surfers, so chill out, sit down and wait for your turn. This makes you human and not an eyesore and you may actually start up a conversation with some of the guys out there. Be sociable but not too eager.

Be aware of your wave count
It’s really important to be aware of the amount of good waves you’re taking. Keep count of your waves relative to the rest of the pack’s. It’s easy to look like a wave hog, which is the opposite of your intention. Get a few good ones and move along. That will make you some friends for next time you’re out there.

Do NOT drop in
If someone is already riding the wave, don’t even paddle for it, don’t hover on the top of the wave, don’t take off in front of someone then kick out and certainly don’t ride a whole wave ahead of someone with the right-of-way and stuff them into the whitewater. If you do this you’re back in the doghouse and may be asked to leave.

Do NOT back-paddle
Be super aware of who is out, where they are and whose turn it is for the next ride. Do not paddle around someone sitting and waiting for a wave. It is considered a very aggressive move in regular surfing and doing it will earn you serious heat and a trip to the beach.

Be aware of surfers paddling out when you’re riding
As you’re paddling for a wave, scope the length of the wave for any surfer who’s paddling out, who may potentially paddle in front of you. Although the surfer riding the wave typically has priority, the SUP surfer will usually be viewed in the wrong if there’s a mix up. Be vigilant to avoid any impacts or close calls with surfers.

Increase wave count by catching wide waves
If you’re smart about your paddling and really scope a lineup, you may find that there are good wide or deep waves that are not readily available to the surfers in the primary lineup and this is the way you can increase your wave-count considerably, riding waves that before had gone unridden. To do this you will really need to sharpen your spin-and-go skills, but once you get that dialed, you’re on your way to getting way more waves, without ever impacting the established lineup and the surfers out there.

Move around to other peaks
Do not wear out your welcome. Get a few waves and move on. There are usually many other waves in a surf area, so get a few and move to another peak and practice your magic on a new crew of surfers. This is a sign of respect and will be recognized and rewarded with future bonus waves.

The lineup is a close-knit community
Most surfers go to the same spot over and over. They become “locals” out there and make friends and acquaintances with the other surfers who frequent the break. You can be part of this local crew if you’re cool, friendly, don’t hog waves, generally understand and respect the locals and don’t perpetuate the SUP surfer stereotypes that earn standup guys a bad rap.

Have fun out there!

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