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Proper Pipeline Etiquette: Fighting Over the Next Big Wave

Some of earliest sightings of surfers dates back to the late 1700s when Captain James Cook made his third and final trip to the Hawaiian islands. His Lieutenant Cook described a “diversion” on the water in this very detailed entry into his journal:

“The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, and lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, and their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, thye wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, and altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, and the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its direct. If the Swell drives him close to the rocks before he is overtaken by its break, he is much prais’d.”

Although his description is archaic, it still sounds almost identical to that of today’s modern surfing competitions. Just as it was in the days of Captain Cook, if twenty, thirty or more men were out on a wave, there are bound to be disagreements, especially about who gets the next big wave.

Rules & Etiquette
The World Surf League doesn’t really have any specific rules on who gets to take on the next wave in judging their competitions, but rather states,

The surfer with priority has the unconditional right of way to catch any wave they choose. Other surfers in the heat can paddle for, and catch, the same wave, but only if they do not hinder the scoring potential of a surfer with priority. A surfer loses priority once they catch a wave and/or a surfer paddles for but misses a wave. If two or more surfers catch a wave, the first surfer to make it to the take-off zone will get priority.”

But the WSL doesn’t state the actual definition of “priority”, only to say that it as a position on the wave once it has been caught. On the other hand, Surfing For Life states the proper etiquette when it comes to riding a wave,

“The surfer closest to the peak of the wave has the right of way. This means if you’re paddling for a right, and a surfer on your left is also paddling for it, you must yield to him or her.”

Sounds remarkably similar to the rules of the road, so you wouldn’t think there’d be much confusion or confrontation, but you’d be wrong.

Takedown in the Sand
With cameras everywhere nowadays, if you were to pop over to YouTube and search for “surfers fighting over waves,” you’d have a plethora of fighting videos available for your review. With very few exceptions, most of these brawls are occurring on the beach after the fact. It would seem that once on dry land, these guys (and gals to be fair) have a good recollection of who stepped on their toes while out in the surf.