I don't teach surf etiquette. Or at least, I assume clients know surf etiquette when they work with me. But I've been surprised and despite focusing on paddling technique, I sometimes have to step in and provide some guidance on surf etiquette.
However, surf etiquette has many layers, and the more complex layers have traditionally been difficult to explain. Enter Brad Jacobson's recent video on surf "rules".
With a Bruce Brown-esq style narration and quippy movie clips embedded, Brad's videos are edited well and quite entertaining. This video explains surf etiquette the best I've seen in a long while. Filming mostly in Southern California, he has plenty of video showing poor etiquette examples as well as what to do to avoid breaking the "rules".
Here's a summary:
Paddling Out: If a surfer is riding as you are paddling out, take note of the direction they are surfing and paddle the opposite way to avoid crossing over their path (or interfering in their ride).
This usually means that you will get destroyed by the whitewater, but if you learn how to duck dive, sea anchor, turtle roll, or use the bounce techniques efficiently, no whitewater will scare you. Or avoid it all completely with your paddling out strategy (getting out technique and getting out strategy is taught in my Level 2 course).
Exception: Sometimes, you may paddle in the same direction as the surfer is riding, if you are too far over to redirect around the surfer.
Only do this if you know you are far enough on the shoulder and can make it over the wave before the surfer gets to you.
Paddling Out:If there is utter chaos in front of you paddling out, paddle towards the surfer traversing the wave. By the time you get to the surfer, he/she will be gone (as long as they are traversing across the wave. (Best to see the visual on this specific scenario - video below).
Paddling Out:Do not paddle directly to the main peak when first arriving (he said if it's your first time paddling out at a certain spot, but I believe this rule applies even at your local spot that you frequent, especially if there are already surfers there).
Let those in position get their waves and get in "line" or in the general takeoff area to wait your "turn".
Or, as Brad notes, go find another peak to warm up on. Then cruise over slowly, showing those who are already there some respect.
Back Paddling 1: When a surfer catches a wave, paddles back out past everyone sitting at the takeoff zone waiting their turn. Then they proceed to catch another set wave behind the group, then doing it all again, completely disregarding the surfers who have sat there waiting for waves. (I have never used "back paddling" to describe this, but it's definitely a behavior to avoid nonetheless).
Normally, the rotation is: catch a wave, paddle back out, wait in "line" or your "turn".
"Line" usually references point breaks with a clear order up to the main takeoff area.
"Turn" usually references well defined beach break takeoff areas or reef take off areas - mostly the surfers aren't in a "line" but rather in a grouping. Those surfers sitting there have a general sense of who gets the next few waves, even if the order gets a little muttled from time to time.
Exception: if the group at the takeoff zone is not taking off on waves, then a skilled surfer may deem the waves wasted and continue to takeoff on the set waves. However, a respectful skilled surfer would encourage those at the takeoff zone to at least try to take off on the sets, else ask them nicely to paddle down the beach elsewhere or to the shoulder to observe.
Back Paddling 2: When a surfer is lined up at the optimal takeoff zone, but another surfer paddles from the shoulder around and behind the surfer to claim priority via positioning. (This is the "back paddling" definition I am familiar with).
Generally, you want to avoid back paddling.
One exception I can think of is if someone continually blows the takeoff/wave after you've given them several chances. Back paddling in this scenario is marginally better than outright snaking the person on the next wave that comes through and you may potentially still get in a scuffle. Be sure to have a strong case ready to defend if said surfer you back paddled or snaked gets upset. ("Snaking" or "burning" a surfer means the surfer is dropping into the wave in front of the surfer already riding - very dangerous and disrespectful in most cases).
Catching a Wave: Be sure to look over your shoulder towards the peak to make sure no one is paddling for the wave already (or riding already).
Avoid being so laser focused on catching the wave that you aren't aware there is someone inside, closer to the peak, than you.
Who Has Priority? The barebones definition of who has priority is that the priority surfer is the one closest to the peak and farthest out.
Generally, the only time it's okay for two surfers to take off at the same time is when they are "splitting" the peak - one going right, the other going left (without crossing over each other). With a little communication, this kind of teamwork is a fantastic strategy to get great waves.
Exceptions: several specific scenarios but here are some -
If you back paddle the wrong surfer in the lineup (i.e. a heavy local), they will snake/burn you (i.e. drop in on you) and go anyways.
If you back paddle too many times, other surfers will be upset and snake/burn you.
If you continually blow the takeoff or paddle for the wave but pull back (more than a handful of times), other surfers will assume you will pull back/blow it again and will takeoff in front of you.
If the surfer takes off too deep and has no chance of making it around a section (learn all about identifying places on the wave where this happens in the Level 2 course).
This is a more advanced exception because you need to have knowledge of the wave (i.e. Level 2 or local knowledge) and an idea of that surfer's skill level (i.e. whether they have the skills to generate speed to get around the section).
Generally, give the surfer the benefit of doubt they will make it. If they clearly don't make it after several attempts, then takeoff off.
Respecting the Locals:
Give them the set waves - don't even sniff at them (unless no one is going).
Don't paddle on the shoulder for a wave they are paddling for (this one is my "rule"). Expect them to catch the wave. If they don't catch it, swoop and go but don't even paddle for the wave if they are paddling or looking like they will paddle for it.
Brad says that it's okay to paddle for a wave if someone else inside of you is also paddling for it. I'm generally okay with that if that inside surfer is not a local.
BUT never paddle for a wave on the shoulder when the wave is a barreling wave - this will cause the barrel to chandelier which means it crumbles the top part of the barrel, possibly cutting off the surfing in the barrel trying to make it through. This is a very bad move and bums everyone out.
Besides, you shouldn't be paddling to takeoff where the barrel is flying down the line anyways (again, learn about how to identify takeoff zones in Level 2). Takeoff at the main takeoff zone or the next takeoff zone on the wave (which typically isn't where it is truly barreling).
Given the locals space. Ease into the takeoff area and even then it may take a long time until they hoot you into one.
IF you make a mistake, try to apologize.
If the victim looks like they are going to explode on you, you might benefit from sitting on the inside to let them cool off a bit (i.e. let them get a few good waves then go find them).
Consider heading into the beach completely, depending on the severity of your "crime".
If you are on the wave and drop in on someone, avoid just falling to get out the way. That is not actually "getting out of the way". The board and your body are now obstacles for the surfer riding.
Instead, pull out of the wave with control. If you don't have that skillset yet, avoid getting into that situation altogether (surf a different break, don't paddle if someone is paddling for it already in the priority position, create a strategy that avoids this scenario).
If you are the surfer being dropped in on, give a hoot, or whistle, or callout to let the surfer on the shoulder know you're on it and you have the wave.
Remember that you, too, were once in that position. Have a bit of empathy.
HANG ON TO YOUR BOARD
Learn to duckdive, sea anchor, turtle roll, or bounce correctly so you always have your board with you and under control.
Avoid bailing the board, especially with many surfers around. That's a disaster and can be avoided if you learn proper technique and practice it (a lot).
The absolute best way to avoid most of this is to have a proper getting out strategy as well as a strategy on how to paddle back out after catching a wave (knowing where to go if you end up in different spots after you ride your waves). This is also covered in Level 2 and not only saves you any potential confrontation with the above scenarios but also saves you a ton of energy during your surf.
Here's the full video for all the visuals. Hope this is helpful.