How to STAND OUT while blending in with RESPECT at your local surfing lineup By Ian ‘Kanga’ Cairns

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Ian Cairns is a legend.  Sorry, I don’t know how else to say that.

So, when I asked for his help in gathering some sup surfing guidelines for Standup Journal online and he got back to me within a half hour, I was pretty stoked.  He’s watched this sport from it’s inception.  He’s been on both sides of it, as a professional surfer and a sup rider.  He knows the ins and outs of any surf break and he’s a world-class coach to many of the world’s top surfers.

Beyond that, he cares.  He cares about the sport.  He cares about the people. And he cares about it’s growth, proper growth not just exploding into mainstream and making all the money you can from it growth.  He’s in it for the long haul and I respect that.  His agenda is to see the sport of sup surfing grow with integrity and find its place amid the larger world of surfing, alongside professional surfers, respected institutions and more.

So, when Ian “Kanga” Cairns speaks to the heart of sup surfing etiquette, I listen.  We should all listen.   Here’s his most recent guide on How to be Successful in any Surf line up as a Standup Paddle Surfer.  If we all abide by the guidelines outlined here, it may not eradicate the conflict out there, but it sure as hell will simmer it down.

sup etiquette ian cairns, glenn dubock
Santa Cruz, CA has one of America’s highest concentration of surfers per capita…and “per Capitola,” the town where sup surfers and laydown surfers are learning to blend. Photo by Glenn Dubock

Sup Surfing Etiquette by Ian Cairns

Find a peak with the fewest surfers out
Always spend time on the beach surveying the surf and selecting the waves you want to ride. Peaks 1,2 & 3. This gives you the chance to find a wave with the fewest surfers on it, so that, from the get-go, you are reducing the potential for conflict.

Paddle out around the break
Because you have been watching, you have seen that there are sets and lulls and that there are channels that run out around the breaking peaks. Paddle out in the channel during a lull. If there are constant sets of waves and the paddle out is too hard, find an easier wave to ride.

Do NOT get in the way of a rider on the wave
When you’re paddling out always look for a rider on a wave. He has right of way, so try to let him surf past you rather than paddling into his path. Getting run over is not fun, can cause injury, damage to your board and is a major no-no in surfing.

“Chill out, sit down… this makes you human and not an eyesore… start up a conversation, but don’t be offended if no one wants to know all about how awesome your board is”  -Ian Cairns

Do NOT bail on your board
If you’re caught inside of a set of waves, you need to learn to kick your board over the wave, rather than bailing out. Bailing sends your board over the falls and it may hit someone behind you. Kicking it over probably means the board will be next to you, as you come up. If there are further set waves, turn the board toward the beach, look for people that you may hit if you get pushed to the beach and hang on the tail of the board to control your equipment without letting it go. Another idea is to hold the leash as close to the tail of the board as possible and pull the board through the whitewater.

Check who’s in the lineup
As you paddle out, survey the lineup to see who is out already. These guys are in front of you, in line for the next waves, so be cool and remember them. Make sure that you identify the alpha dog in the pack. He is the one you may have problems with, so you need to be ultra respectful and surprise him with kindness.

Wait your turn
Because you know who is out and who needs waves before you, you can easily figure out when your turn in the rotation for waves is about to come up. You get one try at this. If you screw up this wave, you’re done for good, so make sure you make the wave and surf it well.

Give waves away
Sometimes, even if it’s really your turn, give a good wave to someone else who looks hungry. Often they will paddle just to test you, so back off and generously let them go, but make sure you both know that you’re just being cool and generous. It’s a rare occurrence and will build goodwill.

Using a leash is “… a sign of respect to the crew in the water that you’re knowledgeable and aware.  ALWAYS wear a leash.”

Call sets
Because you’re standing, you can see the set waves coming before anyone, so tell the surf crew that a set is coming and which wave is better. In this way, you dish up some good waves to the crew and they start to think you’re not so stupid, not cool yet, but not so bad.

Sit down and talk
Constant paddling through a crew in the lineup is seen as threatening to surfers, so chill out, sit down and wait for your turn. This makes you human and not an eyesore. You may actually start up a conversation with some of the guys out there. There is a lot of interest in Sup, but its not cool yet, so don’t be offended if no one wants to know all about how awesome your board is etc. Just be sociable.

Be aware of your wave count
As you get a few waves, be really aware if you’re getting too many of the really good waves. It’s easy to do and you start to look like a wave hog, which is exactly the opposite of our intention. Get a few good ones and move along to another peak. That will make you some friends for next time you’re out there.

Do NOT drop in
If someone is already riding the wave, don’t even paddle for it, don’t hover on the top of the wave, don’t take off in front of someone and flick out and certainly don’t ride a whole wave and stuff someone in the whitewater. If you do this you’re back in the doghouse and may be asked to leave.

“Make friends and acquaintances with the other surfers who frequent the break. You can be part of this local crew if you’re cool, friendly, don’t hog waves, generally understand and respect the locals.”

Do NOT paddle around someone and snake their wave
Be super aware of who is out, where they are and whose turn it is for the next ride. Do not paddle around someone sitting and waiting for a wave. It is considered very aggressive in regular surfing. You’re on probation and this will get you serious heat and a trip to the beach.

Beware of “Tunnel Vision”
Safe and fun surfing is all about sharing waves with the other surfers out there and not getting caught up in hassles. When you’re learning, you are focusing so much on your skills and catching the next wave, that you are not scanning the whole lineup and your field of concentration is only on what you’re doing, not what is happening around you. We call this “Tunnel Vision” and this can often lead to taking off in front of someone, a drop-in, and bad news. Always stay focused on where you are in relation to the waves and to the other surfers out there.

Be aware of surfers paddling out when you’re riding
As you’re paddling for a wave, scope the length of the wave for any surfer who’s paddling out, who may potentially paddle in front of you. Although the surfer riding the wave has priority, you’re on a Sup and will be in the wrong if there’s a mix up, simply because you’re on a Sup. So, be vigilant to avoid any impacts or close calls with surfers.

Always control your equipment
Bailing your board is bad form. Try to paddle over waves, or launch your board over the whitewater, but do not dive and let the Sup wash in on the whitewater behind you. Every surfer sees a Sup as a dangerous object and thinks we are kooks bailing on their boards. This adds fuel to the fire. Learn how to hold onto your leash near the tail of the board to pull it through waves. Be really careful of others in the lineup if you fall riding a wave. Hitting another surfer in the lineup is instant dismissal and adds fuel to the surfer debate that Sup boards should not be out there.

“This is the way you can increase your wave-count considerably …without ever impacting the established lineup and the surfers out there.”

Use a Shorter Leash
I like to use the shortest leash possible, around 6’ or 7’ at the most, regardless of how long the board is. This keeps the board close to me at all times, speeding up my ability to get to the board quickly after a wipeout and hopefully before the next wave comes, so I can control my equipment. This will also lead to fewer leash tangles and step-ons but most importantly it is also a sign of respect to the crew in the water that you’re knowledgeable and aware. ALWAYS wear a leash.

Increase wave count by catching wide waves
If you’re smart about your paddling and really scope a lineup, you may find that there are wide or deep waves that are not readily available to the surfers in the primary lineup. This is the way you can increase your wave-count considerably, riding waves that before had gone un-ridden. It is also consistent with the idea of selecting peaks 1,2 & 3 as alternative waves to ride. To do this you will really need to sharpen your spin and go skills, but once you get this dialed, you’re on your way to getting way more waves, without ever impacting the established lineup and the surfers out there.

Move around to other peaks
Do not wear out your welcome. Get a few waves and move on. There are usually many other waves in a surf area, so get a few and move to another peak and practice your magic on this new crew of surfers. This is a sign of respect and will be recognized and rewarded with future bonus waves.

The lineup is a close-knit community
Most surfers go to the same spot over and over and they become “locals” out there and make friends and acquaintances with the other surfers who frequent the break. You can be part of this local crew if you’re cool, friendly, don’t hog waves, generally understand and respect the locals and don’t act like the average Sup kook.

Have fun out there!

— Ian

Ian Cairns sup surf etiquette
Ian Cairns surfs with pride and style; none the less he always checks up and down to line to be sure his “footprint” on the local surfers is minimal at his and partner Sean Poynter’s Sup ‘n Surf Retreat, Punta Mita, Mexico. Photo: Kjell van Sice

For other Sup Safety Tips, check our Standup Journal’s comprehensive Sup Guide, breaking down the mechanics of paddling, surfing and gear for your needs.

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Evelyn O'Doherty, editor & publisher of the new Standup Journal 2.0 is a former school teacher gone rogue. She left her career as a teacher in order to spend more time near or on the water after learning to surf turned her life around (upsidedown?). She is a year-round surfer and paddler living on the eastern tip of Long Island in NY who is a certified SUP instructor, seasoned SUP racer and avid longboard surfer. Evelyn was hired as Online Editor to Standup Journal in 2016. Her passion for the project quickly led to her success and eventually taking over the mag herself in Oct. 2018. Today, as editor, publisher and chief bottle washer at Standup Journal, Evelyn keeps her toes wet writing, traveling, paddling, surfing, and learning to foil. You can find her most days paddling out on Gardiner's Bay or surfing Ditch Plains in Montauk, NY.