SUP Surfing in Crowds – Strategies and Tactics to get more waves and make surfers happy

Erik Antonson
Erik Antonson
May 2, 2016May 3, 2016

Surfing a paddle board in a crowded lineup requires a special tact.  I surf 50% of the time at a crowded beachbreak and in this post I’ll share some tactics and strategies I use to make sure I don’t have issues with surfers, get waves and most important never endanger anyone.

Before you decide to surf in a crowded spot make sure you’re at a level that you can confidently work amongst the surfers without being in the way or putting anyone in a bad situation.  If you don’t feel comfortable controlling your board because the surf is too big, then maybe you should find a beach where the waves are smaller or there’s less folks out.  Also, remember that surfing on a paddle board give you a lot more range, so maybe you can surf down the beach from the surfers still get great waves and never have to deal with anyone.

Getting out:  When you’re paddling out it’s 100% your responsibility to stay out of the way of anyone riding a wave.  This means that if a big set is headed your way and there’s a guy in the pocket coming right at you, you need to head to the inside and take the wave on the head.  There’s nothing worse than finally getting that great wave and having someone paddle right in your way to avoid getting worked.  This goes for everyone, not just paddle surfers.  I covered some strategies for dealing with the impact zone a few days ago… Read them here.  Make sure you’re not leaving your board in a place where it will swing back and hit the surfer or someone behind you.  Countless times I’ve had to hold onto my board and just get obliterated to not endanger someone behind me.

Inside Sneaker:  Most folk’s goal when paddling out is to get to the outside.  Not mine.  My goal is to pick off a wave on the inside for every wave I catch from the outside.  This ups your wave count without having to compete with surfers for the wave.  Once you open up the playing field to the entire lineup, not just outside, you’ll be amazed at how many good waves go unridden.  I learned this strategy on a paddle board, but now use it on a shortboard to great success.  Obviously there are certain waves where this isn’t possible…  reef breaks, or days when it’s too big to wait around inside, but more often than not, you can get great waves that nobody wants.

Outside bomb:  The lineup will normally be where majority of good waves are breaking.  There’ll be those inside sneakers that come though and there will also be some outside bombs.  It’s 100% fair game to catch any wave that no one else can catch and this is where the paddle board advantage comes in.  You’ll see the wave first and have the fastest approach and ability to get in the right spot.  I don’t like to go sit way outside for two reasons.  First, you’ll miss any waves that aren’t breaking way outside the lineup and I think it’s bad form to paddle for 20m inside to try to catch a wave other folks are in the right spot for…  This will get some dirty looks and start building animosity.  Second, if you go sit way outside you’ll likely bring folks out with you.  Then, you have to worry about priority and paddling around folks (which you shouldn’t do if they have a shot at catching the wave).  I’ve found that sitting just a touch outside, still with surfers, but those farthest out is the best approach.  You will see the wave first, make sure to call it out to everyone near you, but then it’s a sprint to see who can get there.  If someone else is in the spot, it’s their wave.  But more times than not you’ll be catching the wave and dropping in while they’re duck diving under it.  You’ll have to get comfortable with late drops, but this works well and it’s fair.

Assimilate:  There’s nothing worse that a paddle surfer who paddles out the back and then stands in front of 15 surfers for 10 minutes waiting for a set.  You’re asking for an issue by sticking out like that. Sit down.  Especially if you’re going to surf the same peak for an entire morning.

Roam:  Paddle boards are great for the amount of distance you can cover.  I try to surf a large swatch beach, and try not to paddle back out to the same peak over and over when there’s folks on it.

Look for holes:  From your vantage point, standing, you can see more of the lineup than shortboarders.  You can also paddle faster.  While you’re paddling back out look for holes in the lineup.  Normally this will occur at my beach when a rip comes through.  The shortboarders won’t want to paddle through the rip so they’ll get bunched up on one side.  Normally our rips will move down the beach and this will clear out the lineup on the other side.  You’ll have to paddle through 30-70m of bumpy water, but you’ll be rewarded with 15-30 minutes of an uncrowded lineup.  Once you get a few good ones, surfers will converge on you, so start roaming and looking for holes.

Stoking locals out:  A strategy that has worked great for me is to help put my friends and locals on waves.  We can use our advantage to get waves, but we can also use it to get waves for other folks.  I always try to call out the first few waves of a set and guide folks to them.  I’ll even yell down the beach to a buddy if I see the set before him.  Many times guys paddle back out and thank me for their wave of the day.  This is also a tactical move as you can put surfers on waves and make sure they’re in position to catch them, which clears out the lineup.  Everybody wins.  There’s nothing worse than a surfer being on the inside, you can’t paddle around him without being a full-on ass but then they don’t catch the wave.  Now you’re in the same situation for the next wave.  Much better to stoke them out, get them in the right spot and then you can have the next one.  You’ll be surprised how stoked this will make surfers.  They won’t mind sitting next to you…  Never forget that the lineup is a tribal setting.  There are leaders and if you can make the leaders happy and accept you, then you don’t have to worry about the other folks so much.

Let waves go by:  There are times when you’re in the exact right spot, you’ve been out the longest, but there’s someone inside that also has a great shot at the wave.  Depending on the situation, it might be best to call it out for them.  Give them a “Go! Go!”  See what happens.

What not to do:  What makes me cringe and I try to be the first person to say something as I want our beach here to stay paddle surf friendly is the following…  Paddle right out to the most crowded peak.  Stand right in front of the lineup waiting for the set.  Catch the first wave of the set.  Paddle back out to the same peak and repeat.

Putting it all together… a normal beach break session:  I know that’s probably more than you think about when you surf around folks.  So, how does it all look when it comes together.  I’ll walk you though a normal session.

While stretching on the beach I’m looking for holes in the lineup and little channels.  Ideally you can find channel next to a hole and get right out.  As I’m paddling out, I’m looking for waves.  I’d love to enter the lineup with one or two waves under my belt.  I look for holes or folks who don’t want much to do with surfing.  You’ll always find a few folks sitting together who are excited to just be out, but don’t want to really catch any waves.  These are great spots because they look crowded but no one is competing for waves.  Get out, sit down.  Call out some waves.  Wait for a set, call it out sprint outside and get a bomb.  Try to pick off a wave or two on the inside as you’re moving down the beach to a different peak.  Sit down.  Call out a few waves for folks, catch one.  Don’t go all the way inside, but use the wave to move down the beach 50m.

It’s a game.  And it’s quite fun once you get the hang of it.  I’d love to hear you thoughts on surfing in a crowd in the comments below.  Anything I missed??? Or got wrong???

Progression Journal


  • Mitchell P.

    Really enjoying your posts, Erik! Super relevant and articulate. That is the exact strategy I’ll be working on at my favorite beach break. Recently realized how rewarding it is to pick off the inside waves, I’ll be working on piecing the other strategies into my paddle surf game! Thank you.

    • Erik -- PaddleWoo

      Thanks.. been meaning to write this one for a bit now. Hope it works for you!

  • Kane Johnson

    Erik I just started getting into Paddlewoo and I love it! Sometimes I don’t have time to listen to an entire podcast so this blogging about SUP surfing is awesome! It is extremely helpful and very topical! Thank you for all that you do and keep it up.

    • Erik -- PaddleWoo

      Thanks Kane!

  • Matt Hassenrik

    Great piece here and I’ll be sharing it for sure. As a Paddlesurf community we have the responsibility to integrate well with lay down surfers and to be respectful of them. I have found that sitting down after paddling out is huge. It allows me to say “hey” and chat for a bit. This buys me so much more goodwill. We don’t have to be outsiders, it’s all about respect and sharing waves. This is even true on Lake Michigan where I surf. Thanks again, keep up the great posts!

    • ryan

      Keep up the great work paddlewoo, educating newer sup surfers/ and surfers in general is key.
      – north 2 boards

  • Haywood Newkirk

    Erik, lots of spot on stuff here for sure, but a couple more things that will help. If you are inexperienced, find a spot with very few people out when you are just getting started. The biggest complaint surfers have here at Wrightsville Beach about standup is inexperienced guys not being able to control their boards and wreaking havoc in the lineup. The second thing is to get out of the impact zone as quickly as possible! After riding a wave it is often much quicker to just get back on your board and paddle out on your belly, as opposed to trying to standup and navigate through incoming surf and the crowd. I really enjoy your podcasts and have become great friends with Colin, Mo, Giorgio, the Grant Boyz, etc. Keep up the good work

    • Erik -- PaddleWoo

      100% Agree. I also didn’t mention that riding a smaller board is an advantage in the whitewater as there is less pull. So, you get back on your board quicker and deal with fewer waves. Thanks for the input! E

  • randall

    i paddle out at a crowded reef break. on my first wave a 15 year old kid paddles in front of me. in yell “go go”. i ride the wave all the way to the inside and when we kick out high five em. take any wave i want for the rest of the session occasionally sharing or calling others into em. it ain’t brain surgery.

  • Lesa Prowse

    Thanks Erik, I have just recently found paddle woo, your attitude to integrating SUPs in the lineup (or down the beach) is spot on. I have recently realised that the sneaky inside one is a thing and not just a repeating fluke… When reading this post, I realised that I surf a session pretty much as you described. The only other tip I would add is surf the early shift, just on daybreak, you’ll get it uncrowded, for a while at least and it builds respect with other surfers.

    • Erik -- PaddleWoo

      Dawn patrol sessions are the best!

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