Surf safety & etiquette

Surfing is addictive, but it involves much more than grabbing a board and hitting the waves. It's about learning the culture, participating in the lifestyle, and understanding surf safety and etiquette. Knowing this universal code of conduct is essential to your enjoyment and reputation as a surfer.

Watch these surf safety videos to learn more.

Choosing the right location and equipment to suit your ability helps everyone stay safe in the water.

Controlling your board and using a leg rope keeps everyone safer in the water.

Find out why dropping in is a bad idea.

Paddling and positioning explains right of way in the lineup.

Learn how to position your board and stay safe in the water.

Watch out for other watercraft!

We are lucky to get huge swells at times on the Gold Coast. Tow surfers need to stay aware, keep your distance and give way to board surfers in the water.

Choosing the right location & equipment

Acknowledging your skill level and choosing the right location and equipment is critical to your enjoyment and development of surfing. The following tips will ensure you get quality time in the water while respecting the safety of other ocean beach users.

  • Beginner surfers:
    • can catch the whitewash and small unbroken waves
    • small and soft waves are perfect for beginners.
    • are encouraged to enrol in professional lessons facilitated by a licenced surf school
    • are encouraged to use soft-top surfboards. They are perfect for buoyancy, stability, and safety.
  • Intermediate surfers perform small manoeuvres with weak control and power.
  • Advanced surfers perform critical manoeuvres with total control, power, and speed.
  • Hollow and powerful waves break very quickly and are only for advanced surfers.
  • Study conditions – every surf environment is dynamic, constantly changing.
  • If in doubt, don't paddle out – it doesn't matter whether you're a beginner, intermediate, or an advanced surfer.
  • Choosing the right surfboard relevant to your skill level impacts your development.
  • There isn't any one surfboard that is perfect for one person in all conditions. Surfing on a regular basis will give you the knowledge to build a quiver of boards of various styles, sizes, and shapes.

Positioning & taking off

One of the most nerve-racking scenarios any beginner or developing surfer will ever face is understanding the following, all whilst respecting surf etiquette:

  • exactly where to paddle out along with the correct positioning
  • determining what's a good or bad wave
  • when to paddle for the wave and how to catch it
  • how to navigate other surfers.

You can limit the chances of collision or confrontation by remembering the following:

Paddling out

  • Don't paddle straight into the heart of the break. Watch conditions for 10 minutes and observe experienced surfers. Note their paddle lines and how they are getting out to the surf zone.
  • Where possible, paddle out through a channel, or rip, and then parallel to the beach.
  • Do not paddle in front on another surfer riding a wave unless you're no threat to their trajectory
  • If 'caught inside' the shoreward side of an incoming wave, or set of waves, aim for the whitewash of the wave. Leave the wave pocket and shoulder undisturbed for the surfer up and riding.

Catching a wave

  • The surfer closest to the wave peak has the right of way.
  • Do not 'drop in'.
  • When it's your turn to take off, communicate your intent to those surfers around you.
  • Only take off it's safe to do so. Remember, hesitation is dangerous. Whether you're paddling to get out of the way, or to catch a wave, be deliberate in your commitment and actions.
  • It is possible at some beach to have a split peak, where surfers take off at the same time in different directions. That is, one surfer goes left, one surfer goes right. This requires communication from all surfers to clarify intent.
  • If there is no other surfer in either position, you can choose to either go left, right, or backdoor the peak.
  • Do not take off behind the peak unless there's nobody on the other side. In this scenario, surfers will split the peak and surf in the opposite direction.

After the wave

Once you've caught a wave, paddle back out to the take off point by staying wide of the main break.

Board control

Understanding how to control your board is a crucial skill and respectful etiquette toward other ocean user groups. The following tips will help you manage the enormous responsibility you have under your feet:

  • Always wear a leg rope. Stray surfboards can do serious carnage and harm.
  • You never have permission to throw or discard your board.
  • Be honest with yourself. If you're not confident that you can manage your board, you should go back to surfing smaller waves and working on the basics.
  • When in the shallows, hold your board with both hands at your side, perpendicular to the waves.
  • Never paddle directly behind anyone. Accidents do happen, and surfers can lose control of their board for reasons beyond their control.
  • If negotiating a breaking wave, keep calm and perform a duck dive:
    1. grab the rails under your chest
    2. lean your upper body over the front part of the board
    3. use paddle speed and shoulder strength to push the nose under water.
  • If you do fall off or lose control of your board, locate it as soon as safely possible.
  • The more time spent in the water, the greater your confidence, understanding and ability to read waves and conditions.
  • Never turn your back on the sea. Always watch for conditions such as waves and wind power that turn surfboards into dangerous missiles.

Dropping in

The drop in rule in surfing is a way of establishing order and safety in the line up. If you're closest to the peak, it's your wave. Once you've ridden your wave, you go to the back of the queue and wait your turn.

A drop in happens when a surfer paddles for, and catches, a wave that someone else is already up and riding, obstructing their path. This can be dangerous to other surfers, even when accidental. If you do your best to avoid dropping in, you can avoid trouble in the line up. Here's what you need to know:

  • The 'peak' is the highest point of a wave – the part that breaks first.
  • The surfer closest to the peak has right of way.
  • Look to the peak as you paddle for a wave.
  • Do not attempt to catch or ride a wave if there is a surfer, closer to the peak, paddling and committed to taking off.
  • If said surfer misses the wave, or falls off their board, you may attempt to catch the wave if you're closest to the peak.
  • If you're closest to the peak, communicate your intent, and always take notice of what is going on around you.
  • If you accidently drop in on someone, immediately apologise by giving a wave or saying sorry.

Try to steer off the back of the wave – minimising any disturbance to the wave face which might hinder the surfer with priority.


Don't jump the queue! This is greedy, selfish and can ruin the good vibes in the line up.

Here's how you can limit your chances of 'snaking':

  • Don't paddle around another surfer to give yourself the right of way over a wave. That's snaking.
  • It's bad manners to ride a wave and paddle straight back out past everyone to take the inside position again. This can cause confrontation in the water.
  • Respect that not everybody has the same board or skill level as you.
  • If a surfer is riding a wave, but drifts away from the pocket, where the wave has the most power and thrust, now surfing the open face – it is still their wave. It does not mean that you can then paddle on their inside and take off closer to the peak.
  • Be aware that, depending where you're surfing, there might be a rotation system in place that surfers are abiding by.
  • Reading conditions, and positioning yourself to be in the right spot to take waves, comes from time and experience in the ocean.
  • Let the other surfer go, especially if you've ridden a great wave. Good things come to those who wait.

Beware of other craft

Coastal bars are shallow, shifting sandbanks, located at the entrance to rivers and coastal estuaries. Powered watercraft navigate coastal bars to access or reach shelter from open waters. The following tips can help surfers avoid collisions which could result in serious injury or death:

  • Coastal bars are dynamic environments. Currents, swell, wind, and weather conditions can change quickly and without warning.
  • Before paddling across a bar with breaking waves, it is important to observe conditions for at least 10 minutes.
  • Strong outflowing tidal currents can cause waves to become steeper, higher, and more likely to break aggressively.
  • Never paddle across a coastal bar before or after sunrise. Early morning/afternoon light can obscure or blind the vision of powered watercraft operators.
  • Once you start paddling, don't stop or stay idle.
  • Pay attention to your surrounds and remain vigilant.
  • Never depend on powered watercraft operators being able to see you.
  • If you anticipate a collision, raise your voice, wave your arms, and take any precautionary measures necessary to draw attention to your position.

Tow-in surfing

There are several definitions of tow-in surfing. We define the activity as any recreational power craft (PWC) used in connection with aquatic equipment in or near a surf zone. The Gold Coast has the greatest concentration of tow-in surfing activity in Queensland. This makes the following etiquette paramount to the safety of all ocean beach users:

  • The City's Chief Lifeguard is responsible for the closure of the bathing reserve to users on observation of unsafe conditions.
  • Local Law No. 10 (Bathing Reserves) 2004 stipulates that a person must not use a PWC for tow-in surfing or power-assisted surfing in a bathing reserve if the vessel is operated within:
    (a) 400 metres seawards of low water mark or ordinary spring tides; or
    (b) 200 metres of all aquatic equipment, wind powered craft and swimmers.
  • This section does not prevent the use of a PWC vessel for tow-in surfing or power-assisted surfing when:
    (a) the beach is closed due to extreme weather conditions and is
    (b) not operated within 200 metres of any aquatic equipment, wind powered craft or swimmers
  • PWCs giving way to other ocean users in the surf zone includes:
    (a) Surfers stepping off PWCs giving way to all paddle surfers
    (b) PWC vessel masters preventing the interaction of their wake with the surf zone
  • Safe distance laws are imposed to promote the safe operation of vessels when operating near other vessels, infrastructure, or persons in the water.
  • Tow-in surfing enthusiasts are encouraged to read the Maritime Safety Queensland Tow-in surfing code of conduct.

Learn more. Download:


In less than a century, the Gold Coast has evolved from a string of seaside villages to one of the most famous holiday destinations in the world. Much of that growth and success has been built on our reputation as a surf city.

By 1917, Queensland's southern coastal strip was being described as a 'surfer's paradise' and in 1933, the township known as Elston was officially renamed Surfers Paradise.

The growth in the popularity of surfing during the 1950s and 1960s went hand in hand with the development of the Gold Coast. From Southport to Coolangatta, holiday houses, motels and guesthouses were built to accommodate the droves of visitors wanting to enjoy our coast.

The 1970s saw the development of a strong surfing industry on the Gold Coast, and by 1977, the city was ready to take centre stage when it hosted the Stubbies Surf Classic at Burleigh Heads.

This was the first event of the modern world surfing tour. Local surfing legend Michael Peterson took out the inaugural event and is now immortalised in bronze and granite at Kirra Beach.

Nowadays it's not surprising to paddle out alongside a world champion at our renowned surf breaks and the city regularly hosts national and international professional surfing contests.

Note: images sourced from City Libraries' Local Studies Collection, Picture Gold Coast

Supporting our surf scene

We take surfing seriously. In fact, we're so serious about the sport we've become the first local government in the world to formally recognise the importance of surfing to our community in a Surf Management Plan. The plan aims to protect and enhance the Gold Coast's surf amenity.

Whether you ride a short board, mal, or SUP, here's what you need to know. The Plan aims to:

  • educate about local surf etiquette and surf safety
  • manage beaches using world's best practice
  • collaborate with the community to manage our surf spots.

Surfer or not, we'd love you to check out the work we're doing by downloading our Surf Management Plan.

World Surfing Reserve

Between Burleigh Point and Snapper Rocks is where the magic happens. At least, that was the part of the coastline declared a World Surfing Reserve in 2015.

The Gold Coast joins an honour roll of other renowned World Surf Reserves including:

  • Malibu, California
  • Ericeira, Portugal
  • Manly Beach, Australia
  • Santa Cruz, California
  • Huanchaco, Peru
  • Bahia Todos Santos, Baja California Mexico
  • Punta de Lobos, Chile.

Find out more about our World Surfing Reserve.