Navigating The Surf Lineup- Your Ultimate Guide!

One of the most difficult aspects of surfing, especially as a new surfer, is navigating the surf lineup. In this guide, I break down what the surf lineup is, how it differs from surf break to surf break, and offer tips on how to catch more waves in a crowded surf lineup- even as a beginner! 

Let’s jump in!

Understanding the Surf Lineup

The surf lineup refers to the area where surfers gather and wait for incoming waves. It’s essentially a queue of surfers waiting their turn to ride a wave. A key component of the lineup is the peak, which is where the waves break first and is the prime take-off zone. The surf lineup can look different based on the type of surf break – beach, reef, point, or A-frame waves.

Wave Priority Rules: Simplified lineup etiquette

1. The surfer closest to the peak has the right of way

When a wave is breaking, the surfer closest to the peak of the breaking wave has priority. 

2. Take turns

After you catch a wave, you are essentially at the back of the line for surfing priority. Do not catch a wave, and immediately paddle right back to the deepest spot at the peak. Wait for the other surfers who have been waiting longer, and then catch a wave. 

3. Don’t snake

Snaking, also known as back paddling, is when you’re sitting in the surf lineup, and you paddle behind/around the person with priority and go, essentially stealing their priority.  Being a snake is terible surfing etiquette. This goes in line with the “take turns” rule- if the person closest to the peak has been waiting the longest, it’s their turn! Catch a wave after them. 

Navigating the surf lineup with different types of surf breaks

It’s not always as simple as following the wave priority rules. There are other factors that go into play, including skill level, locals, and the type of surf break you’re at. Here’s how the different surf breaks impact navigating the surf lineup:

  • Beach break

Beach breaks offer several different breaks along the beach, thanks to the sandbars underneath. This allows surfers to spread out, rather than just have one crowded surf lineup. With a beach break, there are several different peaks. This creates a bunch of mini surf lineups, rather than one big complicated lineup. Within your ‘mini’ surf lineup, you should still follow the wave priority rules. 

However, with beach breaks, the sandbars shift, and waves don’t break in the exact same spot every time. This might cause the surf lineup to consistently shift as the waves break in different spots. Personally, I love surfing beach breaks with shifting lineups like this, because it adds an element of luck into the surfing lineup. You might just be sitting out on your board, and a random, perfect wave might come right to you, uncontested- rather than having to always wait and jockey with the surfers around you.

  • Reef break

With a reef break, the wave essentially breaks in the exact same spot, every single time. There are no random waves breaking out of nowhere- you really have to be in the exact same spot every time to catch a wave. This makes the surf lineup super concentrated, as there is one good spot to take off from. 

With reef breaks, the wave priority rules matter the most. 

  • Point break

A point break in surfing is a wave formation that occurs when a wave breaks along a protruding underwater point or headland. It creates long, smooth, and predictable waves that surfers can ride for extended periods of time parallel to shore.

With a point break, there are usually multiple peaks, or at least multiple takeoff points. Typically, the peak furthest out and closest to the headland is going to have the most power, best waves, and you guessed it- the most concentrated lineup. 

Right at the peak of the point break, the lineup might be similar to a reef break. However, the beauty of a point break is there are usually multiple takeoff points and peaks. Each peak will have its own mini lineup, where wave priority rules apply. 

  • A frame waves 
Playa Avellanas Surf
This is an example of an A-frame wave, breaking in Playa Avellanas, Costa Rica

A-frame waves aren’t in the same category as the others, because they’re a type of wave, not a type of surf break. However, they’re relevant to this specific discussion because they affect the surfing lineup. 

With A-frame waves, there are opportunities for two surfers to ride- one in each direction, left and right. In this case, It’s not the singular surfer closest to the peak, as there are two opportunities to go. 

Priority and navigating the lineup with waves like this can be a bit complicated, and it’s probably worth communicating which direction you’re going to the surfer next to you. 

Other factors that influence the surf lineup

Unfortunately, navigating the surfing lineup isn’t as simple as following surf etiquette rules. There are some gray areas, and weird factors to account for. Also, the rules of the surfing lineup aren’t policed- which inevitably means there are some rulebreakers you have to deal with. 

Surfing skill level 

The ability levels of the surfers in the water definitely impacts how the surf lineup operates. Almost always, the more skillful surfers catch more waves. This is because they can successfully take off deeper, and paddle harder than less skilled surfers. 

Surfing skill level directly impacts how the surf lineup works when it comes to having priority for a wave, and missing it. When it’s your turn to go, and you’re sitting deepest at the peak, and you paddle for the wave and miss it, or decide not to go last minute, a lot of surfers will take that as their queue to go for it. 

In competitive surfing lineups, other surfers in the water will know exactly how skilled the surfers around them are- and act accordingly. I’m not going to get into the discussion of if that’s fair or not- it’s really just how it is. 

Luckily though, if you are a beginner surfer or still honing your skills, I do have some tips for you later down this post to specifically help you catch more waves in a crowded lineup!


Locals are the surfers who live at that break and have likely been surfing there for their whole lives. When it comes to surfing in a crowded lineup that is not your home break- you need to respect the locals. This means backing off of a few waves, not paddling right up against them, and definitely not getting in their way.

Beginner surf spots

In a perfect world, the wave priority rules are followed at every break, even the beginner spots. However, from what I’ve observed at beginner surf spots all over the world, including beginner surf spots in Portugal, beginner surf spots in Costa Rica, and beginner surf spots in California– this is simply not the case! 

At a lot of beginner surf spots, especially when there are hordes of surf camps and surf schools- the rules of the surf lineup just go out the window. Oftentimes, every wave is a party wave. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, that’s just how it is. This isn’t every beginner surf spot, but it’s quite a few of them.

Expert surf spots

On the other end of the spectrum, critical, expert surf breaks like in Hawaii, Indonesia, etc are going to have different, harsher, and more dynamic rules than your average surf lineup. 

Rulebreakers of the surf lineup

Finally, the last factor influencing the surf lineup you have to deal with is everyone’s least favorite part of a surfing lineup- the rulebreakers! Snakes, wave hogs, clueless surfers, etc- they’re inevitably going to be a part of most surf lineups, and unfortunately, you’ll have to deal with them from time to time. Here’s my advice for dealing with the rulebreakers of the surf lineup:

  • Ignore them

Surfing is supposed to be fun. As aggravating as it can be, it’s usually best to let it go. A lot of folks have the “beat them up and ban them from the lineup mentality” and honestly- it’s just not worth it. Especially when said rulebreakers are the locals- and they often are. 

  • Don’t surf next to them

If someone is being super rude in the surf lineup, try to avoid surfing next to them. That way you’re not directly competing with them, and you don’t have to deal with them at all. 

  • Be vocal

While this isn’t always the case, a lot of surf lineup rulebreakers are clueless, and have no idea what they’re doing. In this case, let them know. If someone’s paddling for a wave you’re already riding, whistle at them or call at them to back off. Half the time, they probably didn’t even see you. If it’s a beginner, that’s breaking the rules, they might be doing so unknowingly! In those cases, a few kind words can go a long way. 

Tips for catching more waves in a crowded surf lineup

Analyze the waves before paddling out to the lineup

One good way to catch more waves in a crowded lineup is to take a little time on the beach and observe the waves. Are there any places to paddle out with less of a crowd that are still surfable? Is there a spot other people are missing? Is it even good where the crowd is?

These are all questions you should ask yourself. Something I’ve observed surfing over the years is that just because an area is crowded, that doesn’t mean it’s the best place on the beach to surf. This isn’t always the case, but sometimes it is, and especially with beach breaks. 

A lot of times surfers, especially inexperienced surfers will paddle out to the most crowded spot on the beach- just because there are other people surfing there! 

Sit to the outside and wait, rather than right at the peak

This doesn’t really work at reef breaks, but it does work really well at point breaks, and even beach breaks. When surfing at a point break, rather than sit right at the point, sit a little off to the side. Less waves will come through here, but when they do, you’ll often be the only surfer there waiting! Patience definitely pays off. This was my favorite trick I used surfing all the point break surf spots in Santa Barbara county to still get tons of waves, even when it’s crowded. 

Or, stick to the inside

On the other hand, you can stick to the inside! I don’t necessarily whitewater (although that’s fine too!), but more so I mean don’t surf right at the main peak. If you’re surfing at a point break, there are likely going to be several different spots to surf down the line- pick one of those! 

The same concept can apply to reef breaks and beach breaks- you don’t have to fight for the main break, sometimes the inside can be just as good. 

Surf somewhere else

Sometimes the best way to avoid a crowded lineup is to surf at another beach. Or, paddle out during less busy hours. Typically, the morning and sunset are the most crowded times to surf. I talk more about this in my guide about the best time to surf.

Surf by surfers with your own ability

If you paddle out and you’re in a lineup of experts, you’re going to have a tough time catching waves. While you’re navigating the surfing lineup, if you need to surf next to people, I recommend surfing next to people with a similar ability level to yours. This will even the playing field, and you’ll have a more fair chance of catching waves.

What beginners should do in a crowded surfing lineup

As a beginner surfer, not many things are more daunting than surfing in a crowded lineup! Learning to surf is hard enough as it is, even when it’s not crowded. Here are my best surf tips for beginners when it comes to the lineup:

Do not paddle to the peak in a crowded surf lineup

If you’re a beginner surfer, and the lineup is pretty crowded, I recommend that you do not paddle right to the peak. It’s better to master the ropes on the inside, or at a less crowded spot on the beach than right in the thick of it. 

Surf somewhere else

Catching waves as a beginner is already hard. Throw in 30+ other people jockeying for the same waves as you, and it’s downright impossible. 

Stick to the inside (safely)

If it’s super crowded in the lineup, you might have better luck surfing the inside. Just be safe about it, and don’t surf directly in front of the lineup and create the risk of impact with another surfer. 

Surf next to other beginners

If you’re a beginner, don’t surf next to the best surfers in the lineup! Surf next to other beginners. Since you’ll be at a similar skill level, you’ll have a pretty equal chance at catching more waves. 

How to stay safe in the surf lineup

Surfing in a crowded lineup can be dangerous! Here are some tips for staying safe in the surf lineup. For more overall safety tips, check out my surf safety guide

Communicate with others in the surf lineup

When in a crowded surfing lineup, communication can prevent accidents. If you’re surfing an A-frame wave, communicate which direction you’re going to the surfer next to you. If you’re riding a wave and you notice someone about to drop in on you, whistle or call at them so they see you and know not to go.

Know when it’s just not worth it

Sometimes it’s just not worth it to paddle out when the lineup is THAT crowded. Sometimes it’s best to skip that session, to avoid the risk of surfing collisions. 

Be aware of your surroundings

The most important factor of staying safe in the surf lineup is to be aware of your surroundings. When you’re paddling for a wave, LOOK UP and make sure you’re not about to drop in on someone. Don’t paddle straight back out to the lineup in the middle of a set, and risk collisions. Being aware of your surroundings is absolutely crucial to staying safe in the surf lineup. 

Follow the rules of surfing

Finally, follow all of the rules of surfing, not just the rules of priority. This will make the lineup safer for you, and everyone else in the water. 

Surf Lineup FAQs

What is a lineup in surfing?

A surfing lineup is where the surfers sit in one area of the water all waiting for waves.

Surf Lineup Guide- Final Thoughts

Navigating the surf lineup is complicated, but if adhere to wave priority rules, and stay aware of your surroundings, you should be able to handle the surf lineup and catch plenty of waves.

Happy surfing!

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