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18 May, 2014


There’s a lot of confusion going around about appropriate surfing etiquette. In the old days it was far easier to learn the subtleties because if you didn’t you got a smack in the head. These days everything is so much more politically correct but what’s been lost with that is that half our population really don’t understand the original surfer’s code of etiquette. Today I want to do my best to explain just one aspect of it.

We’ve all heard of snaking. My bet is you’ve either done it yourself or been on the receiving end of it. But could you actually explain it to me? Do you truly understand what it means? I doubt it very much because snaking is such a grey, ambiguous area that there is no clear, black and white definition that suits all situations. It’s impossible to define for every situation. But by and large, in most cases there is a line in the sand that can be drawn.

Generally a snake is a person who takes off on a wave on the inside without waiting their turn.

If you are surfing a nice spot with half a dozen people out, good manners says that surfers should take turns. This means that after you’ve enjoyed a wave, you should wait at the end of the line and let others have a go next.

But does this work at crowded spots with 30 or more surfers out? With a limited supply of sets and an over supply of frothers, the utopian system of  wait-your-turn simply does not stand a chance. It’s just not realistic on crowded days.

Having said that, if you are one of those really good surfers who gets a lot of waves and is always on the best sets, good etiquette says that you should slow down and let some good ones go through to those less fortunate. Try and share and not be greedy. Just like you would if you were having dinner with your family – you wouldn’t hog all the food just because you’re bigger and stronger than your wife and kids right? At the end of the day some people are selfish in all aspects of their life. In the surf, they’re better known as wave hogs.

But I digress here because there is a difference between a wave hog and a snake. And seeing we are discussing snakes, here are some examples of snaking:-

Snake 1 – a surfer has been up and riding for a considerable time and another surfer (the snake) subsequently catches the wave (snakes them) on their inside well after the first person took off. (It’s debatable, but the wider surfer already up and riding probably needs to have already performed a couple of basic turns in order to establish ownership of that wave. With less time than that, if it then becomes a tighter matter of who was first to their feet, then this same snaking surfer on the inside might now be deemed to be in the right. See below for more explanation.)

Snake  2 – a group of surfers are waiting at a peak and another surfer (snake) repeatedly paddles inside all of them (snakes them) even after repeatedly catching more waves than the others have. (Note the word ‘repeatedly’ can be important here.)

Snake 3 – a surfer (snake) who just caught a wave is paddling out, and without waiting their turn, they spin around (snaking) to catch yet another wave that another surfer who was waiting their turn is paddling to catch.

In contrast, here are some examples of what is not generally classified as snaking:-

First to Feet – a surfer sitting out wide on a big board (typically longboard or SUP) gets onto the wave earlier than another surfer who was also waiting for the same wave on their inside. In this case the surfer on the outside is dropping in and may be oblivious to the fact that a bigger board with superior paddle power does not mean that ‘first to feet’ has right of way over another surfer who was waiting their turn on the inside in a more critical and demanding position. (When two surfers were both waiting their turn in the general take off zone, then right of way always goes to whoever is deepest – which really means whoever is closest to where the wave breaks in its steepest and most critical form. This steepest bit is a.k.a. ‘the critical section’. Taking off here is difficult. Therefore right of way is rewarded to those who have the skill and courage to ride here.)

Talent – a more capable surfer paddles deeper inside less talented surfers and then sits patiently and waits for a wave while they ensure that they let some good ones go through to the other surfers sitting a little wider. In this case, paddling inside without waiting your turn is an earned right on the justification that other surfers of less skill are wasting a good segment of the wave by taking off wider. (Remember though – if you possess the ability to do that, then do so sparingly and with consideration for others. Sit deep but don’t hog.)

Confused? I don’t blame you.

The critical points that needs to be considered are:-

a)    Which surfers were waiting at ‘the initial point of take off?’ If two surfers were both waiting in the general take-off area, and one stands up just a little bit earlier – then it’s the second surfer’s wave and he is not snaking. Remember – right of way is always determined amongst the surfers who were waiting their turn in the general wave take off area.

b) How many waves have been ridden by the people involved relative to everybody else. This is where it gets even more grey. On one hand, snaking is relative to wave count. On the other hand, surfers who have paid their dues with years in the ocean have earned the right to catch a few more waves from a more critical position without having to sit wide and wait around all day. And locals also have the right to catch more waves than non-locals. But not all of them because it’s still a free ocean. So this is why it is impossible to truly define and the best I can do is give some general guidelines.

In most instances, if a surfer is waiting out back in the general take-off area, they take off on a wave and then another surfer who was paddling out at the time after an earlier ride, spins around inside and takes off secondary, then that second person is the snake and they should be ignored. A good old fade bottom turn forcing them to straighten out can be the best treatment that they deserve. Don’t be afraid to politely tell them why you did it.

Some may dis-agree with my definitions above. But having surfed in over thirty countries while being an astute observer of some well ordered line-ups as well as some break-downs in etiquette, abuse, intimidation, fights, violence and all that jazz, I feel like I can offer a balanced point of view that’s not specific to the nuances of one particular break or the other.

Having said that, when I am visiting some other local’s break and that guy with arms as big as my torso and nostrils flaring like a bull mastiff terrier, paddles inside me repeatedly takes off inside me even when I’ve been patiently waiting my turn in the correct take off area, then I tend to ever so politely get off his wave.

Like I said, this etiquette stuff is only ever relevant about 90% of the time.


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