What Are The Rules And Regulations Of Surfing?

East coast, west coast. This heated debate of which coastline is “better” will probably never come to an end. However, there is one thing that even the most ardent supporters of each coast will agree upon: the universality of surfing. Believed to have originated over 3000 years ago in Western Polynesia, the sport of surfing is one of the most ancient athletic activities in human history. Today, it has grown into a culture and a lifestyle in its own right and has now become synonymous for leisure and simplicity, requiring only a board and a swell.

The Water

Before surfing, the athlete must first locate and identify a suitable location with swells, which are a series of unbroken, forward-moving surface waves. As they have been generated from far away by distant weather systems, swells create strong, long-lasting waves that are powerful enough to carry a surfer forward. Any body of water large enough to accommodate swells, such as oceans and large lakes, can be used for surfing. It does not matter whether it is saltwater or freshwater.

Every wave can be broken down into four parts: the lip, barrel, peak, and shoulder. The lip refers to the very top of the wave, while the barrel refers to the curved, hollow area underneath. The peak, located near the lip, is the part of the wave that exerts the greatest amount of force, while the shoulder, the downward slopes on either end of the wave, is the part with the least amount of force. As you will learn below, each of these four parts of the wave offers its own unique advantages in surfing.

The Conditions

Because surfing is typically practiced outdoors, its safety and success are heavily dependent upon weather conditions. Once a body of water with swells has been located, the most optimal condition for surfing is having no wind, as winds create short, choppy waves that are difficult for surfboards to move through. However, any offshore wind (blowing from the land out to the water) up to 20 knots will be suitable for surfing. High tides are also preferable, as this would mean that incoming waves will be able to travel greater distances before breaking.

The most important thing to watch out for are rip currents. These are strong, fast-moving currents that are traveling out towards the sea, and are usually formed as waves crash and recede from the shoreline. They can be extremely dangerous, as they are almost impossible to swim against and can sweep individuals far out into the sea. Always exercise caution and listen to your lifeguard.

The Objectives

The ultimate goal of surfing is to catch and ride a swell by standing up on the surfboard. There are numerous different ways that this can be done, but the most common method involves paddling out a certain distance away from the shore and to get into position on the path of an incoming swell. Most importantly, the sport of surfing requires a good understanding and a strong respect for the forces of nature, more so than any other human sport.


As the ultimate culture of casual minimalism, the sport of surfing only really requires one piece of equipment: the surfboard. There are six main types of surfboards, each with its own unique advantages. For beginners, the fish board is usually recommended, as it travels more slowly and smoothly, and tends to be easier to balance on. Another board that is well-suited for beginners is the longboard, which can reach up to 11 ft long, allowing the surfer to easily paddle and catch waves. For heavier surfers, the funboard is also known for being easy to catch waves on, while the hybrid allows for speed and agile maneuvering. For more advanced surfers, the shortboard is designed for power and fast, steep waves, while the gun, which is built for large, intense waves, allows for heightened control maintenance of speed.

Other optional pieces of equipment include the wetsuit, leash, and surfboard wax. The wetsuit is highly recommended for individuals who will be surfing in cooler temperatures. The leash is a strap that is attached to the surfboard at one end and wrapped around the rider’s ankle at the other, preventing the rider from losing the surfboard. This is especially important in the case of a riptide, as having a surfboard will allow for easier travel back to shore than having to swim. Finally, the surfboard wax, which is simply applied straight to the board, provides the rider with a stronger grip, decreasing the chances of slipping and falling off.

Catching the Wave

When choosing a place to start surfing, the basic rule of thumb is that the water should be deep enough that should you slip and fall off the surfboard, there is no chance of hitting the bottom and sustaining an injury. Once a suitable location has been spotted, paddle out to it by lying stomach-down on the surfboard and stroking with your arms on either side. Make sure to paddle straight forward and to face oncoming waves head-on, rather than at an angle, to prevent loss of momentum.

Once you have reached your intended spot, turn the board back around to point towards the shore. Make sure to check over your shoulder frequently for signs of any incoming swells. Next, once an approaching swell has been spotted, make any necessary last-minute adjustments to ensure that you are directly in the path of the lip of the wave. Finally, as the swell draws closer and closer, begin to rapidly paddle towards the shore. This helps to build up enough speed and power so that you can be “caught” by the wave properly, and not just swept up in it. Avoid the temptation to look back towards the wave as you paddle, as doing so will decrease your momentum.

Riding the Wave

As soon as you have caught the wave, it is time to stand up on the board. The most effective and popular way to do this is by a move called the pop-up. Similar to how you would do a push-up, quickly bring your arms out of the water and onto the surfboard to help lift up your torso. Simultaneously, bring both legs out of the water and onto the surfboard. Your hands and feet should push off the surfboard at the same time to bring you into an upright standing position without losing balance. Make sure that your feet are firmly planted and that your knees are bent, and allow the wave to carry you to shore.

When standing on the surfboard, it is important to note that your body should be facing sideways. If you feel most comfortable standing so that your left side is closest to the shore, then you are referred to as “natural.” On the other hand, if you feel most comfortable standing with your right side closest to the shore, you are known as “goofy.” However, there is no correct or “better” way of standing, and whether you are natural or goofy is simply a matter of personal preference.

Fouls and Penalties

Although surfing is best known for being a largely casual, leisure sport, there are numerous competitions globally. The largest professional surfing competitions are run annually by the World Surfing League (WSL), which comes with its own set of unique rules and points system.

There are several common ways that a surfer can incur fouls and penalties, or interferences, as they are called, in a WSL competition. For instance, an interference will be called if the competitor uses any other equipment besides a surfboard. An interference will also be called if a competitor is believed to have affected the scoring potential of another competitor who had been given the right of way for a particular wave, by either verbal or physical means. Furthermore, an interference will be given if an intentional collision occurs. If both of the collided individuals are deemed to have been responsible, each will be penalized with an interference.

Once a surfer has been given two interferences, he or she will immediately be ejected from the competition. Moreover, any points that had been earned during the round in which the interferences were called will be either reduced in half if the surfer did not have the right of way, or will be given a zero if the surfer did have the right of way.

Scoring and Winning

In a WSL competition, a panel of five judges will each give the competitor a score upon consideration of the following:

  1. Commitment and degree of difficulty
  2. Innovative and progressive maneuvers
  3. Combination of major maneuvers
  4. Variety of maneuvers
  5. Speed, power, and flow.

The highest score that can be given by each judge is 10, while the lowest that can be given is 1. Once all the judges have submitted their scores, the highest and the lowest scores will be dropped, and the average of the remaining three scores will be taken to determine the competitor’s score. Finally, the competitor with the highest score will be deemed the winner.

Rules of Surfing

Always check the weather conditions before surfing. Avoid any onshore or strong offshore winds. Wearing a wetsuit is a good idea if you think that the water temperature might feel a little cold.

Be vigilant and watch out for rip currents. If caught unaware, they can sweep you far out into the sea, and depending on the distance, may make it extremely difficult for you to swim back towards the shore.

Use common sense and basic manners. Don’t interfere or “steal” a wave if it’s clear that someone else has already gotten into position to catch it.

Similarly, don’t get in the path of anyone who is riding a wave back to shore.

There are many different types of surfboards, and each one has been built to suit different needs. Make sure you know the level of your surfing abilities, as well as what kinds of waves you are hoping to take on.

Before catching a wave, make sure you are far out enough that there is absolutely no chance of you falling off your board and injuring yourself on the bottom of the lake or ocean.

As your intended wave draws near, begin paddling towards the shore as fast as you can in order to build up momentum and properly catch the wave.

If you prefer to stand on the surfboard with your left side at the front, you are called “natural.” Conversely, if you prefer to stand with your right side at the front, you are called “goofy.” However, there is no right or wrong way to stand on the surfboard, it is all a matter of what feels the best for you.

The penalty system for WSL-sanctioned competitions is mostly based on safety, common sense, and good sportsmanship. Each penalty is referred to as an “interference.” Once a surfer has been given two interferences, he or she will not only be immediately ejected from the competition, but will also suffer the loss of points as well.

No other equipment besides the surfboard is allowed in a WSL competition.

Every competitor will be scored by a panel of five judges on his or her commitment and degree of difficulty, innovative and progressive maneuvers, combination of major maneuvers, variety of maneuvers, as well as speed, power, and flow.