Understanding the Comical Complexities of a Surf Lineup

“This one’s mine!” All sorts of boards, all sorts of ability levels. Yikes! Photo: David Gor

The Inertia

On the surface, the rules of a lineup are simple and straightforward. One surfer per wave. Surfer closest to the curl has the right of way. Take turns. Don’t paddle through a surfer’s line. But the reality of a lineup is so much more complex. It’s an ever-evolving set of (not necessarily agreed upon) unwritten rules that shapes the sense of order.

As us surfers wait for a wave, in the milliseconds that it takes to look left and right to make sure we are, in fact, in position, we’re doing thousands of subconscious micro calculations. Our brains are crunching the numbers. We’re not just thinking about position, but who the locals are, seniority, skill, who’s been back-paddling, who’s been hogging waves, who snaked who, what type of board others are riding. And don’t forget the added variables when there’s a strong sideshore current mixing up the lineup, a compact, slabby takeoff zone, or so many people that everything goes out the window. It’s this mental calculus we’ve all learned to input into our brains to receive an output: to go or not to go.

I feel for the intermediate surfer who reaches the point of their progression where they’re competent enough to be thrust into an advanced lineup. They have to learn these rules on the fly. They discover there’s way more to it than they thought and plenty of exceptions. This intermediate surfer may think he’s in position for a wave, only to have one of the locals call him off. Then a surfer who isn’t a local, but is far more skilled, paddles around him because, of course, wave choice is a meritocracy of who surfs best. That same skilled surfer returns to the lineup and sits three feet in front of the intermediate surfer, ready to repeat the process. Then an older 60-plus guy calls the intermediate surfer off the next wave because in his mind he has seniority and deserves it.

This newby sits baffled by the new rules he’s learning, constantly searching for the goldilocks zone in the lineup where he isn’t too close to the top to threaten the “boys,” but still in a position to get a reasonably sized wave. In a survival of the fittest mindset, he’ll look around and figure out who he might have priority over. He hones in on a mid-length wielding surfer paddling with their legs spread far apart and chest glued to the board. The mental formula will tell him that this surfer can’t pop-up fast enough to make the first section. Now he can go.

After years of experience and hundreds of sessions, these unwritten rules and minute calculations get ingrained into our heads. We’ve all gone through this learning process. But even in expert-only lineups the rules can be perplexing. 

I vividly remember one of the local expats at Uluwatu dropping into dangerously shallow, overhead tubes with other surfers already riding them. With a grin, he would signal to the surfer that he just burned to not back down and continue to join him in the barrel. When I asked said surfer why he does that, he said he just, “usually goes on the good ones regardless.” Ok, added to my mental notes next time I see that guy down the line of a wave I’m riding.

I’ve seen these unwritten lineup rules play out hundreds of times at breaks in my former home of San Diego. At one particularly localized San Diego right hander, I watched one guy ridicule and banish several surfers from the lineup simply because they paddled out from a different location on the beach. In his mind, that indicated that they hadn’t surfed this spot before. That same surfer and his posse would loudly blame anyone in shouting distance for “snowballing” the barrels they had no chance to make. At another San Diego spot surfers wearing leashes are kicked out, but only if it’s a certain size. If it gets big enough, you can wear a leash. How do you know when it’s big enough? The unwritten rules create an unspoken consensus. Good luck figuring it out. Finally, at a nearby spot only accessible by boat, old, wealthy surfers with their own water crafts tell me that they claim the inside of the break as theirs. You’re welcome to cautiously surf on the outside, but you better pull out of the wave before they deem you’ve been riding for too long. 

Understanding the Comical Complexities of a Surf Lineup

Small wave, lots of bodies = bad combo. Photo: Mick Kirchman

During my time abroad I always had to gauge the new set of rules for each lineup. In Mauritius I was expelled from the water simply for being a foreigner. But if I returned at dead low tide, when the water over the reef was shallow and the waves were not as good, no one seemed to mind. In Reunion Island, one surfer of the dozens in the water took a dislike to my foreign presence. In combatively under-toned French, he told me any wave I took would, in fact, be his wave. He held true to his word, dropping in on my first wave, then he seemed to get tired of chasing one surfer around a large lineup. 

And just several weeks ago my miscalculation of these rules of a lineup cost me a six-inch gash in my board. While surfing a certain Santa Cruz point break, a longboarder dropped in on another longboarder. To not paddle through his line, I paddled toward the foam, aiming to split the sizable gap between the two surfers. However, I misjudged the surfer’s skill and when I realized that he was out of control and unable to get his board going down the line, it was too late. He ran me over. The exception: you should paddle through a surfer’s line if you deem they can’t safely complete a proper bottom turn.


I often get many friends and family that come to me for surf lessons. I’m always happy to show them the ropes. However, I  dread putting them into crowded lineups. The easy longboard spots are always full of beginners, but also competent longboarders. The calculations of where to sit and how to behave in a lineup become absurdly complex for someone who just learned which ankle their leash goes on. I cringe with second-hand anxiety when these friends enter the lineup to fend for themselves. 

They say hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. That may be true, but I would argue that the hardest thing to learn is the rules of a surfing lineup in all its infinite iterations. If anything, it’s certainly more consequential. An accidental breaking of the rules in surfing can lead to, at best, a few choice profanities, and at worse, a fist fight in the water. It’s all part of this crazy sport/lifestyle we’re a part of. And instead of overthinking it, I just laugh at its utter complexity and nearly inexplicable nature, while wishing those trying to get a hang of it the best of luck.


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