Monday, December 12, 2011

Social “Surf” Intelligence: How some SUP surfers get Respect in the Surf Line-Up While Some Do Not, by Len Barrow

In the past few years I have met a few Sup Surfers that get a great deal of respect in the surf. As an Anthropologist, I have made it a point to observe there social techniques. The methods that these surfers used were quite surprising yet most sensible. Also, SUP surfers new to the game can adapt these methods with great ease. That’s the good news!

Before we get into their techniques, it is important to recognize that in In SUP surfing you are almost given absolute power in regards to which wave you want. You are figuratively given the “nuclear option” to get any wave you desire, even if you are of modest skill. Some SUP surfers who are new to the sport may have the American mentality that “I purchased this board and this is a public surf break therefore I can do whatever I want”. Technically this is true, yet with this attitude, one runs into a wall or over the nearest cliff vis-à-vis surf subculture. Surfers have their own cultural code. Most surfers are concerned with behavior and politeness, not on what you own or do on land. You may be the CEO of a large corporation and drive a Mercedes and have great prestige on land yet a strange cultural phenomenon occurs. Anthropologists call it a ” Social Inversion” . American “Land Culture” and its hierarchies are flipped upside down in the water. All of your prestige on land means absolutely nothing in the water. In fact, the prestigious people in the water are often poppers on land!

If you are new to surf etiquette and surf culture this paper will help you get along with surfers. Surfing social rules are not written down thus they are difficult for the beginner to decipher. The surfer’s code is just that, an unwritten code that has many variables according to time and place. You could actually write a large book on the code as it is most variable.

Despite the codes complexity and unwritten status a few things can be done to fit your SUP in as one of the surfing tribe.

Surf Only to Your Skill Level “Size and Conditions”

In the surfing subculture, “safety behaviors” factor in dominantly at some levels of the surfers code. When you surf your SUP in bigger waves, honestly evaluate your skill set. Regular surfers are required to do this at some time in their careers as they have endangered others. There is nothing worse than a beginner zooming down a twelve foot face into a crowd of surfers. I have been run over by a SUP at double over head Mokuleia. Let me tell you that this is not fun. The guy had a quad and it was 4x the pain across my back. I was lucky. I did not get severely hurt. Other surfers have gotten horribly injured. This will ruin your reputation as surfers will regard you as a danger in the surf. In surf etiquette and surfing subculture a dangerous surfer/SUPer are of the lowest rank, an often asked to leave due to safety issues. I am not saying these beliefs and actions are right or wrong. I am just indicating that they exist as part of the surfing subculture. At any rate evaluating your skill set will help yourself and other to keep safe.

“Talk Story” with Everyone.

In Hawaii, “Talk Story” is local pigeon for being genuinely friendly and casually chatting with people with stories for no real reason other than to talk. In Hawaii it is a normal thing to do, even with strangers. It’s actually fun and part of everyday local life here in the islands.

One guy that does this to great effect is our Hawaii State Surfing SUP Champion Tommy Chun-Min. Everyone knows Tommy! He is the only SUP even “allowed” out at Kewalo’s (this point is hyper-localized by short-boarders). Mr. Chun-Min will paddle out and actually greet everyone. Even new-comers! He always has something interesting and nice to say and people look forward to talking to him.

If you are from the states this may sound like ingenuously bullshitting your way around yet humans are social creatures. By talking to people you make social connections. In this type of connection an informal social contract arises. You become an acquaintance and generally friendly, thus must share the waves. By sharing with your new friend, he or she reciprocates (this is called generalized reciprocity in Anthropology) by giving your acquaintance respect and waves! In layman’s terms, it’s hard to burn a friend (unless you are a sociopath). Therefore make friends! It’s that simple. If you don’t believe me try the behavior.

Use Non Verbal Queue’s

After you have gotten a set wave, paddle out slowly. By doing this you are nonverbally communicating that you are not a wave hog and relaxed. If you paddle out like a Viking hell bent on pillaging the waves. People will not take kindly to this. You will get a bad reputation in short order and surfers have a way of dealing with over-zealous Suppers. Even though you can get every wave on your Sup, you cannot block surfers from taking off “BEHIND” you ruining “your” wave by surfing 6 inches in back of you. Some surfers have this method fined tuned and I see the idea developing rather rapidly.

When you paddle back out outside, sit down on your SUP on occasion. I am a Symbolic Anthropologist. My writings are not just the musings of a non-violent person. When you are “erect” on your SUP while surfers are lying down it conveys a “dominance display” type behavior on behalf of the SUP rider even though the Sup surfer does not mean it. This may sound funny but it occurs. By sitting down you convey the message that you are chill and respectful to all. If you think that sitting down on you SUP is for weak people, I have seen Bonga Perkins, Duane Desoto, Robin Johnston and Kanoa Beaupre use this method quite frequently. They certainly are NOT weak people. In fact they are rippers who get along well with others.

Always Look Backwards to Observe Who Did Not Get Waves.

Kainoa Beaupre is respected by both shortboarders and longboarders as he has a special way of sharing. Mr. Beaupre will often look back to see who is getting waves and who is not. If a set wave comes in and is heading towards a person who has not gotten a good wave in a while, Kainoa will yell go! go! to that individual. He has even done this kindly to me a couple of times before. Even though he can get every wave, he makes sure that everyone has fun. This endears Kainoa to all. Mr. Beaupre has a lot of Aloha. He is a buddy of mine and this is one of the reason I dig him.

The good news is that SUP surfers and Board surfers can get along. There is no need to have conflict if we practice a few pleasantries. Basically it’s all about sharing the waves. And Guess what!




  1. Good read, Robert! Looking forward to trying and maybe buying your 9'8" Rockit. Aloha, Mike M.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mike.
    This post was actually written by my friend, Len Barrow, co author of the blog.
    We have the 9'8 Rockit available for demo at our shop, for more info, please check it out on our website at:

    To watch a video of the board in action, check out this video:


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