Surf Kayaking Etiquette

by Eric Soares on August 15, 2011

by Eric Soares and John Lull

Ever been kayak surfing backwards and get speared in the kidney by the bow of another boater who didn’t even know you were there?  Ever have a bloke broach down a big wave and land hull first on your head?  These calamities have happened to us.  We don’t want them to happen to you, so we offer some suggestions regarding safety etiquette in the surf zone.  These courtesies may differ from those in a surf contest, and are safety oriented, not right-of-way based.  For reading convenience, we have ordered these ten tips in a logical way.  Here we go.

John Lull surfs at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz--a great surfing spot

1Surf in a secret spot where no one else goes.  And don’t go blabbing about it, or it will get crowded fast.  A crowd, especially if board surfers are about, is the key ingredient for disaster.  NEVER paddle in a herd of board surfers, say on a busy weekend at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, as kayaks can hurt board surfers and some of these surfer dudes are rabidly territorial.  If you know a place where you and your trusted buddies can go where others are unlikely to follow, this is ideal.  It’s worth it to paddle a couple of miles to have a great break to yourself.  This is what we Tsunami Rangers do 99% of the time.

Kayaks can crash into surfers, swimmers, and other boaters, so surf at uncrowded breaks

2-Once you get to your secret spot, stay out of the way of anyone surfing or broaching.  This means when you are paddling out to the surfing lineup, you must paddle away from the surfing area and over to the side in a channel where it’s safe to go out.  NEVER paddle straight out through the surf impact zone, where others are surfing in, no matter how convenient.  If you are paddling out through the surf zone and get smacked by a surfing boat, it’s 100% your fault.  It’s akin to driving the wrong way on a one-way street.  Also, when paddling out, never follow directly behind another paddler.  If a wave hits the paddler in front, it can drive him backwards directly into your bow (this has happened; see story below).  Keep in mind the biggest danger out there is other kayaks.  Avoid collision at all cost!

I [John Lull] have been speared in the back twice by another kayak.  The worst time it was due to a kayaker following directly behind me out at Pillar Point.  I was driven backwards by a huge breaking wave and impaled on the bow of the boat behind me.  It took several months to recover from the contusions that resulted and I was lucky I didn’t break my back.

As the kayaker in the background starts to surf, the guy downwave must get out of his way

3-If you are down wave but out of the surf zone and somehow a surfer (in control) or broacher (out of control) careers toward you, get out of the way fast.  It may not be your fault that someone is surfing toward you, but who wants to get skewered?  So move out of the surfer’s vector immediately, so he knows he can continue without having to deal with you.  Keep your eyes open at all times for other surfers on the wave.

4-If a surfing boat will strike you, wait until the last possible moment and turn upside down shoreward just as you are being struck.  By waiting for slight contact to turn upside down, you will avoid a premature capsize and a possible spearing while underwater (a very bad scenario).  At any rate, you want the speeding surfer to hit your hull, not your body.  Don’t try to turn aside the surfer’s boat with your hand, as his velocity will overpower your strength and you’ll still get hit, but now your hand will also be broken.

Once I [Eric Soares] got wiped out at Pillar Point and came out of my boat, a whitewater “freestyle” kayak I had borrowed.  As I was swimming toward shore to retrieve my boat, a friend came upwave to assist me. I yelled at him to go away, but before he could move a big wave broke on him and he landed on my head with his hull.  Luckily I wore a helmet and ducked underwater as he was striking me, but I was still knocked out for a couple of seconds. I came to mad as a hornet.  Fortunately for him he could paddle faster than I could swim after him.

In this classic Michael Powers photo, we see Misha Dynnikov surfing at Ross' Cove In Half Moon Bay

5-If you are in the surfing line-up, go when it’s your turn and it’s safe.  By “safe” we mean no one is down wave in your path.  Even though you may have right-of-way, it’s wrong to purposefully surf toward someone and hope they move.  You would feel bad if you put someone in the hospital because they were disoriented in the surf and failed to yield to you.  Instead, wait until it is safe, then go, even if you miss the best wave of the day.  You can lecture the dodo brain about etiquette when you are both waiting in the line-up.  By the way, if cretins won’t or can’t be safe and courteous in the surf, even after you have talked with them, paddle away and surf another place or day. Also, remember this:  before taking off on a wave look to either side, not just in front of you, because surfing a wave can carry you some distance laterally.

Books and DVDs detail safety procedures in the surf

6-If you are surfing, and suddenly someone is there in front of you, simply turn and surf away from them. If you can’t do that, and collision is imminent, wait until the last second (see #4), and capsize seaward away from the outgoing boater.  Strike his hull with your hull, not your pointy bow.

7-When in the line-up, do not steal another surfer’s wave.  It’s common among board surfers to “drop in” on someone else’s wave if he is not in the pocket (the sweet spot of the break).  This is stupid.  Kayaks are bigger and less maneuverable than surf boards and collision is much more likely and serious.  Resist the urge.  If two of you inadvertently drop in on the same wave and there isn’t enough room for both of you, the surfer closest to the break has possession.  If you’re farther out on the shoulder, pull off.  The guy in the pocket will not be able to get out of your way or pull off as easily.

Tsunami Ranger surf champ Deb Volturno rips it up (photo by Laura Rosser)

8-Don’t surf backwards.  You can’t see very well and if someone is down wave, either you or she is toast.  Now, if every boater is accounted for and it’s safe, then go for it. In fact, if no one is in your way, you can do any surfing trick you fancy, like 360s, endos, pirouettes, and the like.  Why not?  That’s what surfing is all about.

9-In the line-up, space apart; don’t bunch up.  If you are far enough away from your companions, it may be safe enough for more than one person to surf a wave.  One guy takes the right shoulder and the other guy takes the left.  We do this all the time, and it works because we communicate with each other and stay out of each other’s route.  On a steep wave you should both eventually turn in opposite directions to avoid any chance of collision when the wave breaks.

Two guys can line up at once if there's plenty of room to surf and they communicate with each other

10-Once again, if you have warned unsafe surfers once about etiquette, and they persist in being unsafe, leave immediately.  There is no use reasoning with people like this.  You don’t want to be there when their karmic cluster bomb goes boom.

Years ago, John Dixon and I [Eric Soares] paddled out to surf at Pillar Point.  When we got there we noticed several other boaters were out surfing.  One guy in particular was blatantly unsafe.  Dixon and I explained the safety procedures to him, but he said he didn’t have to listen to us, so we left Pillar Point and surfed instead at Ross’ Cove. We certainly didn’t want to be around the foolhardy and ignorant surfer.  As it turned out, two weeks later that same kayaker died while surfing at Pillar Point.

We hope these safety tips will make your ventures into the surf zone as safe as possible.  We couldn’t cover every possibility in this short piece, so we welcome your safety suggestions.  And please share your surf zone tales!  Just click on the comment button below.  Let’s Ride the Grooveline….

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven King August 15, 2011 at 10:37 am

Great post Eric and John,

I would only add two thoughts. One is to state the obvious that there is almost no joy that comes close to catching a nice long ride on a wave in a kayak. Boat, paddler and ocean merge for a few moments of bliss! All the more reason to be sure that it does not end in pain and agony for anyone. I had some sweet rides near reserve yesterday!

The other thought is that now there is a third category of wave riders out at many spots, the paddle board surfers. They seem to be able to control their boards but all the same applies when surfing with them. Any thoughts paddle board surfers?


Mark Hutson August 16, 2011 at 11:31 pm

Hey Steve,

Only just in the last month have I gotten involved with SUPping (stand up paddling), and am a real beginner–especially in the surf. I can, however add this perspective…. Some of the paddlers are good and will be able to surf like a long boarder and in control of their board, whereas guys like me–who, even though I know surf ettiquette quite well from long boarding and kayak surfing–we are still not in control as we paddle to catch a wave or while on the wave. So, I would suggest to kayakers…watch and see how the stand up paddler is doing…some are good and are safer to surf around and others…stay clear of them! The leg leash will allow that board to go in with the wave 10-12′, plus the length of the board (10-12′) adds up to quite a long distance that you can get hit if they wipeout in front of you. Keep clear of them!

It’s a real fun activity but the learning curve to actually surf these things is a long process!! Good for core muscle exercise and that’s why I’m doing it. Plus, it gives me a fun challenge in conditions too small that I normally couldn’t be bothered surfing in otherwise.


Paul McHugh August 15, 2011 at 11:30 am

I would add that, if you are new to a surf break and see other kayakers out there, spend some time watching where they set up for waves, and take some counsel from that. This is particularly crucial at a place like Pillar Point, where the best take-off spot can vary widely due to the size and angle of the swell, and can change not only from set to set, but from wave to wave. At that site, I’ve had several frustrating moments when people attempted to set up to the inside of my position… which can turn extremely dangerous for both boaters. The more crowded the break, the more you want to rotate through the line-up. Wait your turn.


Dennis Kuhr August 15, 2011 at 11:41 am

Good article Erik and John. John, you have a lot of balls to be surfing at Steamers! The waves can be the best, which cannot be said for the attitude toward kayakers, although the attitude may have been earned by the kayakers your article addresses-too bad. Anyway, seems to me you covered the subject in full, and in an entertaining manner.
To Steven, seems to me it doesn’t matter what you are paddling, the rules are basic courtesy and remain the same all the way down to your minimalist body surfer.
Have a grand and safe time on the retreat!


Tess August 19, 2011 at 6:14 pm

“seems to me it doesn’t matter what you are paddling, the rules are basic courtesy and remain the same all the way down to your minimalist body surfer”.
I was in shallow water paddling back out after surfing in when I noticed a kite surfer speeding directly toward me from the side. The only option that popped into my head was to roll away from him if necessary. It wasnt necessary and the cheeky bugger smiled at me as he jumped over me, but still….


Ed Anderson August 15, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Right on!!! Thanks Eric and John for writing this. As someone who lives to surf, I am so glad to see this simple etiquette refresher. I have seen violations of almost all of these points, and while many should be simple common sense, the over-abundance of Barneys and Adam-Henrys indicates that common sense and mutual respect ain’t always that common.

My only addition would be if someone asks what ‘yak surfing is like, frown, shake your downcast head, and tell them, “It sucks! Don’t even bother!” 😉


Eric Soares August 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Thanks for the useful comments everyone.

I agree with Dennis that SUPs, body surfers, everyone out there needs to follow these simple etiquette rules. Paul brings up a good point about surveying a surfing spot as you approach to see where people are setting up. It sucks to have folks set up inside of you, just asking to get wiped out by both you and big waves.

Ed is right when he says to act like ‘yak surfing sucks, but that’s hard to do around a bunch of board surfers when you can literally take three waves by the time they get to ride just one. They get jealous. That’s why it’s best to find a secret spot and if you can’t, then be gracious and always wait for your turn in the line-up.


Eric Soares August 16, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Ed Anderson forwarded this “kayak contest right of way” link that may prove useful: Check it out!


Fat Paddler August 16, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Great article Eric and John, cheers! I nearly got speared by one of my own surfing mates last weekend on his ocean ski when I got bunched up against rocks in a break zone couldn’t get out of his way. Fortunately he *just* missed, but it gave us both something to think about for the future. Watching an 18 foot torpedo coming at you at speed is not something I ever want to see again!


Mark Hutson August 16, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Regarding surfers–in any mode of surfing–that seem to be ignorant of the etiquette/safety rules, I would suggest a gentle and enlightened word to them privately and on the side when you can, would benefit them and others immensely. It’s often a hard thing to do socially, but those of us that know, I feel, should “step up to the plate” and talk to them.

Now as Eric pointed out, if they are belligerent, then it’s not going to work and best to move on, because they’ll come up with some excuse to be trouble. But, from my experience, most that I’ve ever talked to say something like…”Oh, I didn’t realize that…thanks.” And I’ve found that mostly that’s what it is…ignorance but without attitude. The ones with attitude and should know better are not worth messing with–you can usually tell by their behaviour if you watch who and what’s happening in the lineup.


Kevin August 18, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Hi Eric, great advice. I would add a no 11. If you don’t want to follow rules 1 – 10, go to NZ where surf kayaking has only 3 rules:

1. If there is a surfer in the zone, pick up the wave before he can so you have automatic ROW, this is called the “right wing rule” and often used in politics.
2. If there is another kayaker, go to the other end of the beach. This is called the “exclusivity rule” where there can be no more than two people on an NZ beach at one time without written dispensation.
3. If there is more than one other kayaker or surfer, ie people not following the “exclusivity rule”, then you are at a convention. This is where society’s rules fall apart, and one must invoke the “ultimate rule” which is is to get out of there quickly as there are plenty of other geat vacant beaches . This is commonly referred to as the “Sir Edmund Hillary Rule” – find a peak for your self and if required, take one other to guard the other end of the beach.


Eric Soares August 18, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Ha ha! Thanks for your additional “Rule #11” Kevin. Having been to NZ, I must concur with you. Our party camped on a great beach at Motukawanui, and a small boat puttered up to the beach. I got a bit huffy, because after all, there were unoccupied islands around, not to mention the 5 other vacant beaches on this island, but it turned out that these 2 blokes were sharing the cabin with us, and we all became great friends who shared food and drink. It was a happy ending after all!


John Lull August 19, 2011 at 10:13 am

Hey Dennis, regarding surfing at Steamers Lane, I believe that photo was taken during one of the kayak surf contests, some years ago. I don’t surf there otherwise. It’s way too crowded for my taste.

And yeah, lots of ‘attitute.’ Personally I understand that attitude because kayak surfers in the early years had no idea what they were doing, especially out at Steamers Lane. The board surfers simply assume a kayak surfer knows nothing about surf etiquette. I also suspect they are just a tiny bit jealous of the fact a kayaker can catch twice as many waves!


Tess August 19, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Eric, are you writing this blog just for me? he he
As you know I surf with ‘L plates’ (L plates are car stickers used to identify learner drivers in Aust) so I’m sucking up all the great info in your Surf series. I’d much rather learn via your stories than the John Lull/Eric Soares way – I’m glad you both weren’t more seriously injured.


Eric Soares August 20, 2011 at 8:39 am

Tess, yes, how did you know? We’re writing it all for you. This surf etiquette piece completes our summer surf entering, exiting and etiquette series. You are right–it’s better to learn from others’ experience (Bismarck), than from your own (bad) experience. Hopefully, you’ll have more fun experiences and fewer bruises. Please feel free to ask us any questions and we’ll do our best to answer.

For the next 8 days I’ll be kayaking incommunicado and incognito in a secret place, so John Lull will be in charge of answering all comments. I couldn’t leave it in better hands…right, John?


John Lull August 20, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Right Eric. Got it!

Hey Tess, actually 99% of my surfing experience has been nothing but fun and exhilaration. There’s nothing quite like flying on the face of a wave!


Nancy Soares August 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm

I remember the first time I surfed at Pillar Point – for some reason there were quite a lot of people that day. I caught a wave, started to paddle forward and suddenly realized half of my paddle was missing. Another kayaker to my right had come so close to me they sheared off my paddle. I had to paddle back to shore with a canoe stroke! Thank goodness they didn’t hit me!!!


Eric Soares August 26, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Yeah, Nancy, that was a bummer that your blade got broken that day. But remember the time that you took a big wave, flipped over and the wave itself rolled you back up? Sometimes things go your way; sometimes they don’t.


Carl Velkrom January 11, 2014 at 10:10 pm

Some of this article seems to be unintentionally misleading.

Kayaks in known, regularly surfed surfbreak areas should never be present at all, except on days designated to their use.

Everybody knows this, except ***holes, and that’s why you don’t see kayaks out in surf line-ups, though plenty of surfers own them.

It’s not doing anybody any favors to suggest otherwise. It’s just encouraging kayakers — especially less experienced, more ignorant ones — to put themselves in situations where they’re going to have serious personal conflicts with surfers.

Kayakers who have never been skilled surfers — and most surfers aren’t even skilled surfers and never will be — will never be able to understand how to interact with surfers without radically degrading surfers’ experience and greatly upping the stress factor in the water, just due to differences in positioning and moving through the line-up.

The best rule you could tell kayaks is the first one you mentioned: to find a private break and stay completely away from surfers.

You will not find a single skilled surfer in any city of the world who will tell you any of what I’ve written above is incorrect in any way.


John Lull January 12, 2014 at 9:46 pm

I think you missed the whole point of the article, which is to educate kayak surfers. You also missed my post regarding crowded surf breaks like Steamers Lane. I stay away from them, whether they are board surfers or other kayakers. And we made that point very clearly in the article, right up front. However, no one owns the waves and there is no reason why skilled kayak surfers should stay out of the water or only go to certain prescribed areas, any more than board surfers, or, these days, stand-up paddle surfers.

We probably should have added that inexperienced kayakers need to work on their skills in small surf away from other surfers. So now I’ve said it. But we’ve made that point numerous times in other articles on learning to surf.

The point of this entire article is to point out the need to pay attention and learn how to share the waves in a safe manner. Nothing misleading about that!


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