Say a prayer for peace in the lineup: A board at Bird’s Surf Shed. Photo by Chris Ahrens
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: Does surfing need new rulebook?

From the time I began surfing in February of 1962 until just last weekend I have heard about the rules of surfing. One of the main rules, and that most often cited, concerns the courtesy of allowing the surfer deepest to the curling portion of the wave the right of way. That worked perfectly for decades, centuries actually, until the mid ‘60s, when a wave called the “Shortboard Revolution” unexpectedly broke, and all the old rules became obsolete. Problem is, most people continued siting the old rule as if nothing had changed.

While the so-called Shortboard Revolution put most all surfers on shorter surfboards than they had previously ridden, it would eventually lead to an inequity in surf lineups around the world. Because of surf magazine (our bibles at the time) pressure, most everyone turned from surfboards that averaged in the mid-9-foot range, to ones smaller than 7 feet. Inspired by Santa Barbara’s George Greenough, these shorter surfboards gave surfers the ability to turn harder and get deeper into the tube. All good, so far. Then, what I have termed the “Longboard Renaissance” occurred, and a movement that began with little notice in the early to mid ‘70s, finally took firm hold about a decade and a half later, and split surfers into two distinct camps.

Shortboards were like quick maneuvering race cars and their riders tended to be younger, more radical surfers who, like skateboarders (as many of them were) found interest in moves like aerials, or simply riding tighter and deeper. Longboards were slower, smoothing moving vehicles made for gliding. Longboarders rediscovered the joys of soul, style and noseriding in waves often too small to enjoy on shorter boards. Everything worked for as long as both sects of our subculture stuck to their own regions: Longboarders gravitated toward the points and shortboarders sought out the beach breaks or shallower reefs. Then, as many longboarders became better at riding steeper waves, they began drifting into lineups unofficially designated as shortboard spots. As a result, a war, mostly of words, ensued and there has not been a cease-fire since.

The shortboarders screamed foul after being dropped in on by vehicles with more than twice their paddle power, while longboarders countered by paraphrasing the old rule: “The surfer closest to the curling portion of the wave has the right of way,” even though this no longer made any sense. Because of my age and consequently decreasing skill levels, I myself tend to ride boards in the 7-6-plus range. You would think that would place me firmly in the longboard camp, but it has not. In my opinion, granting someone with a bigger board possession of a wave simply because of their increased ability to catch it is like allowing bigger cars better access to the road than smaller ones.

I have no new rule to offer, but instead a very old one. It is often called the “golden rule,” and we will all have a better time if we obey it. As surfers doing to others as we would want done to ourselves, could only make our ocean experience more fun. The change needs to come from those of us on bigger boards. May I suggest that if you have a 10-foot-6-inch surfboard, you allow someone with a 5-foot-3-inch surfboard to take some of the waves you are in position for?

No matter how big your surfboard, eventually someone with on a bigger board, or a stand up paddleboard will catch a wave before you, and you will realize how archaic the old rulebook really is. As for those on SUPs, even you are not safe from being pushed out of the lineup. Motorized surfboards, or some other wave catching machine, will soon overtake you.