Localism: Surfing’s Necessary Evil?

How It All Began…

As the origins of surfing are still considered a mystery, many tall tales of the first ridden wave circulate to this day. Historians voice opinions on the matter but many suggest we turn the calendar back to the beginning of time, aka 1768.

During this historic year it was Captain James Cook, the British explorer who witnessed the first waves ever ridden by the Tahitians in cutout canoes.

So the story goes, approximately 254 years ago a mad man saw a set of waves headed it for him and his canoe. After a brief moment of contemplation he muttered the words “F**K it, I’m going”

Just like that, surfing was born.

In awe of what they just witnessed, the villagers were admiring the courage of our surfing grandfather and it’s during this precise moment that I assume another historic event took place…

After watching Canoe (Kah-no-eh) Slater ride one all the way in, another individual who we’ll call Tahitian number two, came onto the scene. “Next wave is mine” he stated

Just like that, localism was born.

Put rather simply, localism is as old as surfing itself. At least surfing in the form that we’ve grown to understand today.

What Is Localism?

It’s an ambiguous term however, localism can be used to describe the negative tone, set of rules, or attitude expressed by “locals” towards newcomers of a particular surf break.

Some spots have very little to no localism, such as Malibu in Los Angeles where within reason, visiting and catching waves is more of a free for all.

At non-localized spots it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. As long as you have consideration for the other surfers out in the water you should have no problems catching waves without any flak.

On the other hand, when going to a spot known for heavy localism you’ll need to be on your P’s and Q’s.

Localism isn’t black and white, it has it’s levels kind of like hot-sauce. Some spots are pretty mild / no bad vibes and other spots you can feel the heat before you even paddle out, in which case you should duck tape your lease agreement to your surfboard before paddling out.

Speaking from personal experience, you often don’t find out how “localized” a spot really is until it’s too late so keep your head on a swivel and don’t get lost in the sauce. The video below is the best resource for determining the degree of localism at the next spot you surf.

Use the F-A-F-O method the next time you surf unfamiliar waters. You might find yourself in a bit of trouble, or you very well might just find out 👍🏼

Surfing at a heavily localized spot, if you don’t have a recognizable face and your skill level isn’t impressive the treatment one can expect to receive is as if you don’t exist at all. I have a trick for combating this issue but we’ll get into it later…

if you’re a newcomer and/or inexperienced surfer and find yourself intruding on the natural flow of order in the lineup you may find yourself catching some hostility from other surfers. In such situations, as the suspect tried and convicted of kookish behavior you open yourself up to being called names, mildly harrased, or even told to get out of the water.

Catching waves at this point may seem impossible and certainly not fun. Some people make the grave mistake of responding defensively which can quickly escalate these situations.

Make no mistake, the water isn’t your high school playground. When local enforcers threaten to knock your block off, they’re often AREN’T bluffing. Pushing back against people like this has certainly lead to a fair amount of fist fights, both in the water and out.

Let’s Look At It From The Locals’ Perspective

Just because a surf spot has a localized reputation that doesn’t mean you should be prepared for some type of prison yard recess activity; often times quite the opposite.

Just because a surf spot is localized doesn’t mean everyone there is preparing for their audition of Bully Beatdown. The term Localism often has a dual meaning with the word Regulated.

Many surfers when at a localized spot surf with consideration for the people around them. However, these same surfers take a much looser approach when at less localized places. Just because it’s a “one-man sport” doesn’t mean the other surfers are your competitors.

It happens to the best of us, at one point or another every surfer has made a miscalculation and ended up dropping in on someone, preventing someone from taking off, or created an unsafe situation out in the water. You hate to see it but these things happen.

At the end of the day we all just want to catch our wave(s) and stay safe out there. The responsibility of ensuring you’re in the right position, not cutting anyone off, and maintaining proper etiquette ultimately falls on ourselves.

However, the consequences of our miscalculations ultimately impact the surfers we share waves with.

Lifeguard saves unresponsive surfer in hawaii
Lifeguards save unresponsive surfer from the water at Pipeline.

When it comes to hardcore spots like infamous Pipeline on the North Shore of Hawaii for example, having inexperienced surfers out in the water causes a legitimate safety risk to other surfers.

When someone corrects you on something it’s best to keep in mind that for the majority of situations they are just trying to keep things running smoothly so no one gets ran over and no one is accidentally pulling off heists on peoples waves.

Concluding Thoughts

Because of contests, social media apps like Surfline and Instagram, and the rapid growth of surfing’s economy, the days of being able to keep waves a secret have sailed off into the Tahitian sunset.

Nowadays if you haven’t heard of a spot, its either because you haven’t looked hard enough, talked with the right people, or the waves just aren’t worth mentioning.

Screenshot of surfline
Surfline even has a rating system on their app to score the degree of localism at surf spots.

With that said, heres some things I like to keep in mind as a newcomer surfing spots I haven’t been to before and the mentality I have surfing back home at my everyday break.

Tips for Surfing a New Spot

  • Watch before paddling out. Before I hit the water I like to spend at least a couple sets (usually no less than 10 minutes) stretching and watching surfers. Things I look for: where the peak is breaking, where people start to paddle back out once they catch a wave, identifying any sense of order among everyone out and average skill level of surfers. The reason I do this is so once I am in the water I’m not playing a guessing game. I’ll have a rough idea how things are moving and I can quickly begin catching waves knowing where I’ll need to sit in order to be in position.
  • TALK. Surfing is a vocal sport, it’s more fun that way. Especially if it’s super crowded I’ll announce “going left” when paddling into a wave. I’ll throw out a “yeewww!” to someone dropping in. This sends the message that I want to see everyone catch fun rides and when it’s my turn, I’m going to let it be know so no one “accidentally” cuts me off. Being vocal keeps my head in the game, helps me make friends, and as strange as it sounds, actually gives me a little extra confidence to paddle harder on waves I’m going for.
  • Don’t be Naive. This goes hand in hand with point number one. I never just rock up to a spot unknowingly and paddle out without a basic understanding of how things operate. If you’re a beginner surfer it’s best to assume that the more difficult the wave, the more regulated the crowd is likely going to be.
  • Know what you’re getting yourself into. If every surfer I see is throwing airs with stickers on their boards and I’m still trying to learn the basics on a foam board with a receipt that reads “Kirkland Signature” in my back pocket, I know I’m probably at the wrong beach.

Also, not always necessary but worth noting; if I see someone who’s clearly a local, instead of getting into a paddle battle, I just let them have priority on waves that aren’t obviously mine. The idea here is that I’ll show some respect, get the next wave by default, and if good karma exists, when I’m back at my home break hopefully people will do the same for me.

Guide for surf etiquette

As A Local

I live on a public beach, it’s not up to par for the WSL but nonetheless has a reputation for having a tough crowd from time to time. It can be a super fun wave and is fairly consistent but because it isn’t spitting tubes on a daily basis like the infamous Pipeline, it doesn’t normally attract large crowds and I don’t feel entitled to surf with an aggressive, free-for-all style since it’s just not necessary.

However, I keep the following points in mind when I paddle out.

  • Rather than using my “local” reputation as an excuse to flaunt a get out of jail free card redeemable for any wave I want, I approach my morning surf as if I was at any other spot. It goes like this… Rule number one: the person closest to the peak gets the wave. Rule number two: we’re all out to have a good time and be safe. Rule number three: anyone interfering with rules number one and two will be categorized as a kook.
  • If someone cuts me off, bails their board right in front of me on a paddle out, or shows any other lack of etiquette, instead of telling them to head for the sand like the old guys once told me, I’ll usually accept that mistakes happen. If it proves to be an issue I’ll correct the mistake and it may sound something like “hey bro make sure you look next time, I was right behind you and almost ran you over”, or “Don’t let go of your board when someone’s behind you, you almost took my head off”.
  • As a bonus Rule number four to my first point; it’s not my responsibility to correct everyone out in the water. It’s not my job nor do I want to play that role. Some people get off on showing their dominance in the water but I personally like to let the surfing speak for itself. Unless someone is posing a blatant risk, the best practice is keeping some space and letting them go through the learning process just like everyone else.
Surfers split a wave in san diego
Two surfers split a wave without fighting over who gets what.

Unfortunately you’ll find dickheads no matter where you are or what you’re doing. That’s just a part of life. But as a surfer, a few negative experiences might make you ready to put down the surf wax and pickup some brass knuckles. Before you do, I challenge you to throw on some reggae and take a breather…

If you’re a newcomer, a good attitude and some smiles will go along way. If you’re a third generation local, pulling the fratboy “You don’t belong here. Do you know who my dad is?” card only makes you look like a doucher.

You don’t have to think the way I think or surf the way I surf but keeping some of these things in mind will ensure your sessions remain fun whether you’re at your home break or deep in some far away land where the locals still ride cutout canoes.

This topic can be a can of worms but if you have conflicting opinions or additional points I’d be curious to hear. Until then, I’ll see you in the water. But hopefully not 😉

Justin Gregory is an old-fashioned redneck hillbilly from Washington State who tripped over his shoelaces and found himself carrying a surfboard. For a dude in his twenties, he's seen it all. He lived among natives in Alaska, worked as a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea, commonly paid off bribes to the Mexican police, and sold luxury real estate to foreign millionaires in Southern California. Somewhere along the line, he learned how to read and write (barely) which lead him to write surf content to keep all of you ungrateful kooks entertained. Of course, when he's not blowing off emails to catch waves in Baja or track Mule Deer in the mountains. You can read his stuff here on our blog and follow him on Instagram @Justin5Gregory.


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