How Does a Surfing Lineup Work? | What You Should Know

Surfing has often been seen as a sport for rebels, outcasts, and the slightly insane, which is why it is often surprising to find that there are many unofficial rules when it comes to how a surfing lineup should work.

There are approximately 35 million surfers in the world, and without a “rule book,” a break can become incredibly dangerous.

Although there are numerous surfing etiquette rules that all surfers should know, there are six main rules that apply to the lineup and involve who has right of way, dropping in, snaking, where to paddle, and board control.

To help keep yourself and others safe in the water, you would be wise to learn how a surfing lineup works and to stick to the rules.

6 Golden Rules of a Surf Lineup

  1. The closest to the peak gets the wave.
  2. Don’t drop in on other surfers.
  3. Wait your turn.
  4. Don’t snake other surfers.
  5. Paddle around the lineup.
  6. Don’t throw away your board.

1. The closest to the peak gets the wave

If you do not understand who has the right of way on a wave, it is near impossible to follow correct surfing etiquette.

In a way, all of the lineup rules stem from this single rule: the surfer closest to the peak of the wave has the right of way.

In other words, the surfer who is closest to the breaking section of the wave, or the surfer that has the longest potential ride has the right to the wave.

2. Don’t Drop In on Other Surfers

Dropping in on another surfers wave is one of the most disrespectful things you could do while surfing, and ironically, one of the most common mistakes that new surfers make.

If a surfer is riding a wave from the peak and another surfer drops in on the wave in front of them, it is known as dropping in.

Doing this will cut off the other surfer, therefore ruining their wave. This is why it is important to be aware of who is closest to the peak. If it is not you, then it is not your wave.

3. Wait Your Turn

Just because you can paddle for every wave, does not mean you should. This is especially true in a busy lineup.

A surf lineup should work as a circular system. If you are at the peak and catch a wave, once you have paddled back to the lineup you should join the queue from the back and wait your turn.

If you constantly skip the line and paddle straight to the peak you will very quickly annoy other surfers in the water, which in some cases will get you kicked out of the lineup altogether.

4. Don’t Snake Other Surfers

As a surfer needs to be at the peak of a wave to claim it, some surfers choose to jump the line and sneak their way into the peak like a snake.

Snaking is a way of paddling around other surfers so that you are closest to the peak of the wave, and therefore technically have right of way.

This is closely tied to waiting your turn after catching a wave. If you have just made it back to the lineup then do not paddle to the peak and steal the wave from someone else.

You, technically you will be in a position to “claim” the wave, but through the eyes of other surfers, all you are is a thief.

5. Paddle Around the Lineup

When paddling out to the back of the break, you should never paddle straight to the peak. Doing this will put you in the way of surfers riding the waves.

The last thing you want is to wait in a lineup for your wave, finally, take off on it, only to have to bail from your ride because a disrespectful surfer is paddling directly through the break and straight toward you.

This is something that would surely piss you off, so don’t do it to others.

Instead of paddling directly to the peak, you should paddle around the break. 

This can be done by riding a rip current, simply paddling around the main break, or by taking a walk down the beach and then paddling back to the lineup once you have passed the backline.

6. Don’t Throw Away Your Board

Surfboards are hard, sharp, and can cause some serious damage. If you cannot control your surfboard in the conditions that are presented, then you have no right to paddle out.

If you are the type of person to ditch their board the second a large set comes in, only to swim down and avoid being tumbled, then you need to reconsider your actions.

Although doing this does not directly affect the lineup, it is seen as a dangerous and careless act when done around other surfers.

If you cannot make it to the backline without ditching your surfboard then it is best to come back another day and put some effort into improving your duck diving.

Tips to Improve Surfing Lineups

Now that you are aware of the rules of a surfing lineup it is up to you to learn, remember, and follow them.

The following tips are great ways in which you can improve how you act in a surfing lineup and will make following the above lineup rules easier.

Greet Other Surfers at the Lineup

Putting a little effort into greeting other surfers when you first arrive at a lineup will take you a long way.

Getting to know the other surfers in the water, or at the least, being friendly will reduce the chances of them dropping in on, or snaking you.

This will also make it more likely that if you make a mistake someone will politely correct you, instead of getting angry.

Call Your Wave and Direction

Communication is key when in a surfing lineup, especially when it is crowded and the waves are breaking in multiple directions.

Even though you are at the peak of a wave, and therefore it is technically your wave, it is worth calling out and claiming the wave.

It is always possible that there is another surfer paddling for the wave simply because they didn’t see you.

You should also call your direction when surfing an A-frame break. Doing this will allow two surfers to ride the same wave at the same time but in opposite directions.

Give Others Space

Try your best not to sit right on top of other surfers while waiting in the lineup. Yes, everyone wants to be in a perfect position, but sitting 30cm away from each other makes truing around and paddling incredibly difficult. 

A setup like this could also become dangerous if a rogue set-wave form further out and breaks where everyone is waiting.

Out of respect, you should always keep a couple of meters distance between you and other surfers, as well as never sit directly between others and the shore.


A surf lineup is a finely tuned machine that works perfectly if everyone follows the rules, but can become an absolute chaotic disaster when the rules are ignored.

There are not many rules when it comes to surfing etiquette, and therefore it is your responsibility to learn and maintain the rules that do exist.

Everyone goes surfing to ride waves, it is not fair on others to be selfish and think that you are the only one there for that reason.

If you follow the rules and be respectful to others you will find very few problems in the water.

This post may contain links that we earn a small commission from, at no cost to you, read more.

Leave a Comment