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How to Surf Better Part 1 of 9: Navigating the Lineup


Unlike most other sports, surfing doesn’t happen in a stadium or on a field. Instead, it is a sport pursued in an ever-changing oceanic environment.

And within this setting, each wave is different, breaking in different styles (beach break, reef break, point break, and outer reef) and even differently within those styles. This makes every wave unique, which leads to them taking on nearly mythical personalities and reputations.


Of course, the fact that every wave is different means that it can be challenging to decipher and navigate new lineups, especially if you aren’t a super experienced surfer—or even if you simply aren’t experienced with a specific style of wave.

Here on Oahu, we really only have reef breaks—and of those, only a couple are legitimate reef passes. There are only a couple of beach breaks on the island, no true point breaks, and maybe half a dozen big wave outer reefs. Thus, aside from reef breaks, most surfers on the island don’t have much experience with other types of waves. And since there are literally hundreds of different reef breaks on each of the island’s four coasts, all of which break differently—and since most people typically surf the same handful of waves over and over again—getting to know a new lineup can be one of the most challenging parts of surfing.

Observing a New Lineup

The first thing to do when checking out a new lineup is to stop and observe it—even before paddling out. Is it a reef break? If so, is the reef shallow or deep? Is it sharp or forgiving? Is there a reef pass or some other type of channel, or is it more of a closeout? Is the wave heavy or soft? 

All of these factors will decide not only how you approach the wave, but also if you even have any business paddling out at all.

If it is a beach break, it is important to note if there is one or numerous peaks, if there’s a channel, rip, jetty, or other way to easily paddle out, if the current is strong, and if the sand bar is shallow and heavy or deep and soft.

With point breaks, you want to note how close the wave is breaking to shore, what the shoreline is made up of, what direction the sweep (current) is flowing, and where other people are sitting.

And with big wave spots, you’ll want to note how far offshore the wave is breaking, if there’s a dangerous shore break or any other hazards inside of the wave (such as rocks), if there’s a defined channel, and if the rip is running in or out of the channel.


Entering the Lineup

Once you observe a lineup and decide that it is appropriate for your level of surfing, it is time to venture out into the water. When doing so, it is important to take note of the other surfers in the lineup. The surfer riding the wave always has the right of way, so while you are paddling out, it is your responsibility to stay out of people’s way. This typically means paddling out in the channel (if there is one), where the wave isn’t breaking. Once you get out to the shoulder of the wave, you can start to work your way into the lineup, making sure to stay out of the way of anyone who is up and riding.

If there is not a channel to paddle out in, things will be a bit harder. You are likely going to have to duck dive through a lot of waves or paddle up a point against the current. When doing so, it is always good practice to err on the side of caution and etiquette, which means you will likely have to put yourself in positions that are not ideal for you. In order to avoid getting in people’s way, you might have to paddle out in an area that has more waves closing out and breaking on your head, or you might have to paddle a long distance against the current. Even though this can be annoying, just keep in mind that when you are riding your waves, you’ll appreciate people doing the same for you.

Etiquette in the Lineup

Once you get into the lineup, it is important to observe a few rules of etiquette. As previously mentioned, the person riding the wave has the right of way—and generally speaking, this means the FIRST person riding the wave. At most waves, the person who is sitting deepest will be able to get to their feet and start surfing first, so they are said to have “priority.” However, there is a second unspoken rule that it is not considered good etiquette to simply paddle up to the top of the lineup so that you are deepest and can take all the waves. Remember that if you are capable of doing so, then everyone else in the lineup is too—and if you all get selfish and try to backpaddle each other, you will soon all be out of the lineup and no one will catch any waves.

Instead of jockeying for waves, it is best for everyone to take turns. Take note of who was in the lineup before you. Because they have been waiting longer, they have priority. If they paddle for a wave, you should let them go. If they don’t paddle for it, then it’s fair game! But after you catch a wave, it is important to understand that you are now at the bottom of the priority hierarchy. Everyone who has been waiting longer than you has priority over you. In uncrowded waves, this can be pretty easy to keep track of, but when it’s more crowded, it is easy to get lost in the hubbub. In this case, it is best to err on the side of caution and generosity. The last thing anyone wants is to see someone who is overly aggressive and greedy in the water.

Surf Etiquette

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Things get more complicated when there are surfers of different levels in the water. At some waves, the heavier, more technical section is farther up the reef, and the softer, more user-friendly section is down by the shoulder. In these cases, expert surfers will want to be up at the top, while beginners will be more comfortable further down the line. Unfortunately, this tends to skew the priority arrangement, as the better surfers (who naturally tend to catch more waves) are all sitting deeper than the crowd and therefor are assumed to have priority. Some people will abuse this and take more than their fair share of waves, but generally speaking, it is better to still take your turn. If you want to sit deeper but know that there are a number of beginners who have been waiting longer than you, let them know that you are aware that they have priority, but that you are going to sit deeper because that’s the section that you prefer. If they want to go on a wave, let them know that they can tell you this so that you don’t take off behind them.

Unfortunately, some people don’t follow this rule and are less courteous than others, which means there will be some wave hogs who continue to paddle to the top of the lineup. When this happens, it tends to ruin the vibe in the water, and can sometimes result in conflicts. Typically speaking, there are usually locals who will regulate and make sure that everyone is following the rules. However, sometimes locals will abuse their status and the fact that they know a lot of people in the lineup, and use this as a way to bully their wave into more waves than other people. If this happens, it is often best to choose somewhere else to surf, rather than trying to pick a fight.

This is especially true if you are a newcomer to a lineup. Most waves have a hardcore crew of people who have been surfing it for years. They understand the lineup intimately, and they likely know a lot of the other people in the water. While we certainly don’t advocate for violent localism, it is fair to give people who have been surfing a spot for a long time a bit of extra respect and deference. They don’t own the wave, but in a way you are still sort of a guest in their lineup.

The longer you surf a wave, the more established you will get in the pecking order and the more respect you will begin to receive. As this happens, try to keep in mind the fact that you were once new to the wave, and how intimidating and challenging that was for you. Be kind and considerate to newcomers, offer them advice, and give them waves. After all, there are always more waves coming—and one of the best ways to make someone’s day or even make a new friend is to share.

Navigating Peaky Waves

Many waves break as peaks, especially here in Hawaii, where most of our waves reef breaks. A peak is a wave that breaks in two different directions—left and right. While it can be confusing at first to figure out which way is left and right, the easiest way is to remember that it is the rider’s left and right, not the looker’s left and right. If you are in the water paddling for a wave, the right will be breaking to your right. But, if you are standing on the beach watching a wave break, the right will be breaking to your left!

Not only can waves be peaky, but there is also a peak on a wave! This might sound confusing, but it basically just means that the first place on the wave that breaks (or the spot where the wave splits in two and begins breaking one way and the other) is the peak. Generally speaking, the person closest to the peak has priority because they are usually the person who can catch the wave first. On peaky waves, there might actually be two people who have priority—one for the left and one for the right. However, this can get a bit confusing when there are both longboarders and shortboards in the lineup, since longboarders can often catch waves before they break (due to the high volume and fast paddle speed of their boards). The person closest to the peak still typically has priority, even if they don’t get to their feet first, but as always, the best rule is to always err on the side of generosity and courtesy.

To make things even more confusing, some people take off on one side of the peak but go the other way! For instance, they might be on the right side of the peak but choose to go left, taking off “behind the peak.” These are typically experienced surfers who are trying to backdoor barrels or take off really deep with a lot of speed so that they can drive through the peak and hit the most critical sections. For this reason, it is always best to look over your shoulder toward the peak when you are paddling for a wave. If you see a person deeper than you who looks like they are going to surf your way, you probably want to pull back—even if they look like they are too deep for the wave. Remember, everyone surfs at different levels, and what is too deep for some people is totally makeable for others. 

Communication in the Lineup

To help prevent confusion, collisions, and conflicts, it is best to maintain open communication while you are surfing in a crowded lineup. Chat with people while you are waiting for waves. Be friendly and get to know them, and be forthright about your level of surfing and the types of waves that you are looking for. Maybe you only want small inside waves, and the person you are talking to is only waiting for sets. If so, then you won’t have to worry about competing for the same wave! If you are paddling for a right and see another person paddling for it from deeper on the peak, they may be planning to go left or they may be planning to backdoor the right. Ask them politely which way they are planning to go. If they have priority for the way they are planning to go, then let them catch the wave and do your best to stay out of their way. But if they are planning to go the opposite direction than you, then you both get to ride the wave on opposite sides of the peak. Paddle your hardest, make the drop, and enjoy the ride! 



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