Surfing Priority is a way to create organization and equality in the water. With surfing fast gaining popularity, we need to take priority seriously as lineups continue to crowd!

On a journey of learning to surf or teaching your kids how to surf? Then it's critical to know and understand the ideology and importance of surfing priority.

Surfing priority is one significant aspect of surf etiquette, which is basically one big, unspoken rulebook for surfers and how they treat one another in the water. Out of pure respect for other surfers and our mama ocean, it's a surfer's duty to follow these surfing rules to the best of our abilities.

So, how does priority work in surfing?

From both a competitive surfing standpoint and your everyday surfers' etiquette, here's what to know about surfing priority, how to practice it, and how to pass this info along to your stoked-out surf groms.

The Meaning of Priority in Surfing

I like to describe through examples, so let's do that.

You're in the water with two other surfers, sitting relatively close together in the lineup, and one of the better waves of the set is coming your way. Considering surfing is a free, uncontrolled sport with no referees breathing over your shoulder (competitive surfing is a different story), how are you supposed to determine who has the right to claim this wave?

That's what surfing priority is, a way for surfers to collectively understand and agree upon who has the right to claim a wave as theirs in a fair, respectful, and equal manner. There's a small list of rules used to determine surfing priory in everyday surfing, and surfers use these rules as the baseline for creating equality and overall organization in the lineup!

How Does Priority Work in Surfing

Let's go over how priority works and why it matters, and then I'll get into priority from a competitive standpoint. So, for the everyday surfers and groms, here's how to practice proper surfing priority.

1. Who is Closest to the Peak?

The primary way to determine who has priority over a wave is based on a measure of who is closest to the peak and therefore has the longest ride potential and a claim to that wave.

The peak is the initial point where the wave first picks up and breaks, the highest point, and the ideal location to drop in. It defines the starting basis of determining priority, so let's get back to the example.

You and the two other surfers are sitting in the lineup, looking towards the horizon at the waves coming in. The set wave is approaching, and the peak is forming to your far right, appearing as though it will break right. (therefore, the direction the surfer will ride).

If you were sitting the farthest to the right in the lineup, then you have the best chance of catching the wave in the ideal location and a right to claim this wave. If the other two surfers were sitting to your right in this situation, then priority to this wave is not yours.

Surfer with priority catching a wave.

The surfer paddling into the wave is the closest to the peak and therefore has priority. The surfers to his right do not have a valid claim to the wave.

A Note on Snaking

When a surfer intentionally paddles aggressively around another surfer better positioned in the lineup to catch their wave, essentially forcing themselves closer to the peak, this is known as 'snaking'. It's another part of surfing etiquette that relates to priority and is something you definitely want to avoid.

Let those who have priority have it, and take your wave when priority is naturally yours.

2. Who is the Farthest Out?

beautiful sunset with surfers practicing priority in the water.

This surfer is choosing to hold priority on the outside while waiting for a set.

The second defining aspect of surfing priority is based on how far you position yourself out in the lineup, as in the measure of the distance between the surfers and the shore.

The generalized area where the waves break is your lineup. However, during certain conditions and types of swell (visit my guide to reading a surf report to learn more), an occasional, big set might push towards the lineup, breaking far beyond the standard impact zone.

Surfers call this breaking on the outside, and some surf spots have multiple sandbars/reefs and, therefore, multiple zones to drop in.

Some surfers choose to wait further outside, opting to catch fewer waves and wait patiently for the biggest, best set.

With this, regardless of who is closest to the peak, the surfer the furthest out in the lineup has priority over which wave they want to catch.

If they have read the conditions well enough and positioned themselves accordingly to catch this set wave, then their priority claim is valid.

3. Sharing is Caring

Some surfers simply catch more waves than others. It might be because of a floatier board or a better understanding of the lineup, but regardless, there are always a few who seem to maintain control over priority positioning.

If you are, or become, one of these surfers, then it's always a kind, caring, and respectful move to share some waves. See someone a little further down the line, but who's patiently waiting? Maybe pull out and let them go- you're already in position for the next one.

This is a big life lesson to teach your groms, too, especially if yours is of a talented nature. Teach them to share waves with other kids in the lineup or to offer advice to those who might need it. It'll go a long way, and overall, sometimes giving up priority out of goodwill is the right thing to do!

Priority in Competitive Surfing

Felipe Toledo surfing in the WSL

Priority in competitive surfing is a significant aspect of strategy. Surfers will use priority to claim the better waves or block their opponent from a quality wave to hinder scoring potential.

The only time there's actually someone there to control and decide surfing priority is in competitive surfing. Similar idea, but it's not approached exactly the same.

The Same Idea

Priory in competitive surfing is still a way to determine who has a right over their chosen wave. The idea is all the same; however, breaking priory results in consequence to a score, and it's set up with a different structure.

1. Priority is Initially Set Using Standard Priority Guidelines

When competition begins, the surfers in the water will first determine priory using the standard principles we discussed above and who chooses to catch a wave first.

Before anyone rides a wave, priority is set using our rules of peak proximity. Whoever is closest to the peak has the right to that wave. However, once a surfer catches their first wave, this surfer is then dropped to the last priority, and the first priority is passed to the surfer who has yet to drop in.

If there are more than two surfers in the water, the others will continue to catch waves using standard priority guidelines until all but one has caught their wave.

2. P1 in Surfing

The surfer who has not yet caught a wave now has P1, as in they have full control over priority in the lineup, which is typically one to three other surfers.

The following priorities, either P2, P3, or P4, will follow this cascading setup.

3. So What Does it Mean?

The surfer in P1 can now claim any wave they choose. The other surfer(s) can still catch waves at this time, as long as their waves do not interfere with he/she in P1. This means the surfer with P1 will usually sit and wait for the better sets while the surfer in P2 catches the lower quality waves on the inside.

However, that isn't always a bad thing, as sometimes surfers with P1 will wait too long for a wave that doesn't come while P2 scored a few decent scores on the inside, therefore winning the heat.

Just as well, two surfers with different priorities can still catch the same wave!

The World Surf League states that "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".

So basically, as long as they don't get in the other surfer's way, there won't be consequences, and they will both be judged on the wave. For example, if P1 goes left on a wave and P2 goes right, this is completely legal in competitive surfing.

Priority moves in concession when there are more than two surfers. P1 has priority over all, P2 has priority over P3 and P4, and P3 has priority over P4.

4. Consequences of Breaking Priority Rules

A Perfect Example of Breaking Priority in Competitive Surfing.

Professional competition has priority judges, who keep a careful eye on the surfers in the water and ensure priority rules are followed. If a surfer breaks these rules of surfing, as deemed so by the judges, consequences follow.

In competitive surfing, a surfer's final score is calculated by adding the scores of their best two waves. If a surfer breaks priority, known as an 'interference penalty, their final score is calculated with only their single highest scoring ride.

This means that the highest score they can receive during a heat is a 10, whereas the other surfer has the chance to achieve 20 points (a perfect score). It would only take the non-penalized surfer a 5.01 and a 5.0 to guarantee a heat win.

Surfing Priority: Your Summary

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That about does it for surfing priority. As you can see, it's a huge part of surfing and surfing etiquette, and we as surfers need to follow priority rules with diligence.

Lineups would be hell without it, and surfing wouldn't have the same free-spirited aurora around it that it does if these unspoken rules did not exist. Yes, there are always those who choose to break them, but overall, most surfers follow etiquette with a passion. So, make sure you're one of them and do your best to teach your surf groms the same.

In the end, priority is all about sharing the stoke and maintaining fairness and equality, which, as you know, is something we need more of in today's world…

So be the stoke and be the sun, my salty people!

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Live rad, stay salty.

- Ash, Dev & The Salty Shreds Fam.

August 09, 2022 — Salty Shreds
Tags: surfing

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