Tippers debunks “tribal localism”

“Anger” doesn’t exsist here; more like bewilderment.

Ordinarily, during the middle of the week, on a crisp, clear morning, the great wave hog paddles his way from the channel over to the main break. The wave hog, paddling laboriously, resembles a wounded seal struggling to swim to its next destination. The wave hog emerges on these superb mornings reeking of admonition, and he has a sense of calamity. The wave hog is not aspiring malevolence, but he certainly doesn’t want to recognize what might be regarded as “normal.” He only knows one thing: I need to find somebody to talk with.

The break at Tippers is classified by its crowd of surfers, which can range from a younger group of people surfing before work to a clan of retired surfing old-timers who have claimed the break their own for decades. Paddle out on a relatively decent surf day and you will find the entire gang sequestered in different spots. Most surfers’ choice of where to line up with the waves usually depends on their preference of how they want to ride the wave. Some like their rights and others like their lefts, as we call it. I’ll explain it this way: when you catch a wave, you don’t just drop down the face of it and go straight. In surfing, that’s astonishingly taboo. We call it “straightening out.” What you do is catch the wave, make the drop and ride left or right down the face of the wave until it “closes out” (meaning it crashes completely).

I happen to like the lefts, a lot. But… there’s a group of other surfers who like it just as much. Days like this draw the competitive spirit out of everybody, and before you know it, it becomes a hassle just to catch waves. The older guys become stingy and if you try to experiment a little with their routines, you might find yourself in the crosshairs of resentment.

Now, I’ve been surfing for about the last 10 years, off and on at Tippers, and then different spots throughout North County San Diego. Most breaks resemble the quintessence of a laid-back environment: everybody surfing for the joy of catching waves and sharing conversations. Of course, there is a break called “Swamis,” which, woefully, resembles the exact opposite of laid-back. Here, different groups of people gather around a vivid point break, hassling for waves that break perfectly over a reef. The mood has always been: sit in your place in the water, wait your turn, and if you’re lucky, then you may have a wave. Surfing Swamis always feels as though it’s more like going into battle, versus enjoying one of the coolest things you can do with “Mother Nature.”

In an article by Kai Potter, titled, “Localism Is Surfing’s Dark Side,” it’s easy to see just how easy localism can quickly turn everybody’s daily surf adventure into a nightmare:

Good waves are hard to come by. Perfect waves even more so. A good wave is rare and highly sought after, and so it is a valuable thing. Like other rare and valuable things, good waves are regulated and fiercely protected. In the surfing world, that complex system of enforcement is called localism.

Localism is the expression of a protective instinct: a wave kept secret, a spot closely guarded, a form of ownership exerted over certain waves or stretches of coastline, a break regulated by a group of surfers who lay claim to it.

It manifests in a number of ways, some subtle, some overt. It is on display in messages left at surf spots: “Locals Only” scrawled across a sign. It can be something as simple as being “vibe out” when in the water — being ignored or disregarded, given dismissive looks, made to feel unwelcome. It is something you encounter nearly anytime you surf somewhere that is not your home break.

You may park at a new spot, surf, and return to find your windows caked in surf wax; some colorful phrase written on your car. It’s somebody’s way of saying, “You’re not welcome. Don’t come back.”

Flickr: Johanna Johnson .

I like the point Potter is capturing: if these local spots allow more newbies and others to steal their waves, then what will be left for them? Why share something that should remain secret? Furthermore, some of these groups might decide the waves should only be surfed by those who deserve to surf them.

The good news: Tippers is not this way. As I said at the outset, the break is defined by the surfers who lay claim to it. But in this sense, Tippers lays claim to nobody. At Tippers, you may be a surfer, but you are also a human being within the constraints of our society. Tippers provides solace for meeting the surfer’s obsession to catch waves, but this spot recognizes the concept of human interaction in its purest form. Some of the best people I have met in my life, I met at Tippers.

Localism is deeply ingrained in surf culture and history. The same tribalism that bonds surfers as a whole, practiced on a smaller scale, allows for division and for the creation of the other. It speaks of the most basic tendencies that have allowed us, as humans, to survive. And of the very basic self-serving instincts that have driven us apart.

Even here there is no escaping our simple animal nature. Protect what feeds you so that the resources remain, so that I may feed mine.

Several times, I unconsciously made the mistake of going left when I should have gone right. I didn’t pay a price with physical threats or verbal abuse, but I have been rebuked. With that scolding comes learning. However, part of understanding surf etiquette is first knowing the rules in the first place. The problem: so many beginning surfers do not understand this etiquette; they find out what gets them into trouble only when they are out in the water. I almost wonder why more don’t look into this? You wouldn’t play another sport without knowing the rules.

Here’s a sample from the city of Del Mar website:


It’s important to observe the correct etiquette while surfing, otherwise, there is a risk for injuries. Most of the do’s and don’ts here are advice and can be used in most occasions. Please try to adhere to these unwritten rules, keep yourself out of trouble, and enjoy your surfing.

Observe Right of Way

Learn who has the right of way on the wave:

o Furthest out: the surfer that is furthest out or that has been waiting longest

o Furthest inside: the closest surfer to the peak of the breaking wave

o First to feet: the first to feet or first onto the wave

o Communication: the call of “Left!” or “Right!” if the wave is dual-peaking

Don’t Drop In

Cutting in front of other surfers who are up and riding is a quick way of getting yourself in trouble or injured with other surfers. Observe the right of way.

Don’t Snake

Repeatedly paddling round someone to get into the inside position on a wave is a no-no.

Don’t Hog the Waves

Share them around. Even if you can paddle furthest outside and catch the waves first every time you reach the lineup, don’t do it often.

Do Apologize

If you drop in on someone, run over someone, or breach the etiquette and rules in any way, just apologize. It’s just good manners. We’ve all done things that we shouldn’t have when out surfing, saying sorry goes a long way to smoothing things over.

Respect the Locals

Keep in mind that the locals surf the spot every day. Give respect while visiting a spot, keep things friendly, earn some respect for yourself. Don’t mob surf spots in large numbers. Don’t rush straight outside, take your time.

Learn the Right Way to Paddle Out

This includes not ditching your board or paddling into the path of other surfers. Take a moment to observe the waves and time your paddle out accordingly with the timing of sets and use your best judgment to avoid other surf users. If you have questions don’t hesitate to ask a lifeguard.

Surf Spots that Suit your Ability

Try not to pick a spot that is out of your ability range. You’ll only end up upsetting the other surfers by getting in the way or being a potential hazard for everyone. Always check with lifeguards if you are unsure on where to surf.

Help other Surfers

Always aid another surfer in trouble. Surfing can be dangerous and even fatal, look after each other.

Respect the Beach

Leave only footprints. Don’t litter, graffiti, vandalize, or otherwise impact the beach or surroundings.

Make sure you have proper and functional equipment such as a leash, sunscreen, and wetsuit for cold or warm conditions.

Remember to inquire with local Lifeguards for detailed information on safety, rules, and conditions. Enjoy the waves!

I have a nickname for all the surfers at Tippers who break one of these daily (but we won’t go into those specifics today).

Tippers is undoubtedly tribal, as I wouldn’t want to be the new guy again, but it’s also convivial. We don’t see outsiders; we see people who want to have fun and enjoy the waves. We might comment on newbie mistakes, but until they put us into physical danger, we just laugh and attempt to acclimate these newbies to the break. After all, surfing is fun, but it would be nice if the wave hog would learn something…

Works Cited:

  1. Potter, Kai. “Localism Is Surfing’s Dark Side.” The Provincetown Independent. January 23, 2021. https://provincetownindependent.org/community/sports/2020/01/23/localism-is-surfings-dark-side/
  2. City of Del Mar website. “Surfing Etiquette.” https://www.delmar.ca.us/747/Surfing-Etiquette

CA-based, perpetually hopeful for the progress of society… Follow me on Twitter @andrewnintzel22

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