Avoid the Kook Zone: Sup Surfing Do’s and Don’ts

Safe SUP Surfing for the Beginner

Safe SUP Surfing for the Beginner


We all love the Kookslams Instagram feed, right? But precious few of us would really care to have a video of us posted there.  In fact, I live in abject fear of being a kook in the lineup. When I wiped out and launched my board straight at mentor, friend and SUP trainer extraordinaire Suzie Cooney last spring, I wanted to immediately get out of the water, run up into the West Maui Mountains and hide, never to be seen again, especially in the surf zone. As I sat on the beach two weeks ago, waiting for Ocean Rescue to arrive, I chastised myself for whatever Kook move surely resulted in my calf being filleted by my fin.

Safe SUP Surfing for the Beginner
Learn how to bail so that this doesn’t happen!

But Suzie was great.  She helped me figure out what happened and what I could do next time to avoid that kind of situation. She is a kind and patient teacher.  And it wasn’t a kook move that resulted in my fin injury – fin injuries can happen to anyone at anytime.

I’ve been really lucky to have great teachers to help me progress in my paddle surfing. I am still a beginner.  And I will be for a long time, although I have definitely seen progression.  But as SUP becomes more popular, and as more people are buying inexpensive boards, it is likely that a lot of those folks are going to venture into the surf, most likely without the benefit of instruction, help, necessary skills or basic knowledge of waves and surfing etiquette.  So, here are some tips that hopefully will help.

More than just a newbie

First of all, what, exactly is a kook?  In surfing terms it’s widely agreed that a kook is someone who may or may not be a newbie but is clueless about or disrespectful of manners in the lineup.  I like this definition from Barefoot Surf Travel’s Livemore blog:

“A surfer who has an exaggerated perception of his/her surf skills. His/her lack of surf knowledge, especially concerning surf ethics, usually interferes with other surfer’s fun in the water.”

Just because you are a beginner doesn’t mean you are automatically a kook – we all fall, we all have to learn from our mistakes.  If you are not falling, you are not challenging yourself and you’re are not learning, no matter where you are paddling.  It’s that lack of knowledge, sometimes combined with inflated sense of skills or ego, or disregard for the power of the ocean, or just a general lack of common sense and cluelessness that can push someone into the Kook Zone.

How to Stay out of the Kook Zone

  1. Know and admit your own skill level. If you are a beginner, admit that to yourself and others. Transparency, authenticity and honesty in the lineup goes along way, especially with other paddle surfers.   If you’ve only paddled flat water, then don’t go out when the waves are big or even big-ish or when the periods are short. If someone with experience tries to help you learn the ropes, let them. Be nice, be gracious, and don’t poo-poo what they are saying.
Choose a break that matches your skills
  1. Understand that your equipment can be dangerous. Fins can slice and dice, boards, even inflatable ones, can inflict damage on you or others.  Know how to wipe out safely, wear the right kind of leash – not a coiled one! End your session if that leash breaks and you don’t have a spare.  Many beaches have leash rules. Obey them. Know how to handle your board in the soup, on the beach and going to and from the ocean and the car. Pay attention to swim zone flags. See #4.
  2. Understand there’s a big difference between flat water and the ocean.  If flat water is two dimensional, then the ocean is four dimensional.  Forces are different: wind, tide, current all come together and can change in ways they just don’t on the flats. Understand how all of that works at the break you are surfing.  Learn what onshore and offshore winds mean and how that influences the surf zone.  Know the tidal influences and when the tide changes. Watch the waves before you get in the water. Don’t assume that just because you’ve been paddling all summer on your inland lake you know how to handle yourself in the ocean.
  3. Stay away from surf breaks that are crowded, especially with prone or “traditional” surfers. In some spots, prone surfers just don’t care for paddle surfers.  Our boards are bigger and more dangerous, we can see the sets coming sooner and can catch more waves quicker. Start out in a place that’s known to be a beginner’s break and that is friendly to SUP surfers. Don’t know where that is? Ask at the local shops.  Barring that, look at who is in the water before you get in.   If you find yourself in the water with prone surfers and more experienced paddle surfers,  then stay as far away as you can from them.  You may not get as many waves, and you may have to be satisfied with waves of lesser quality, but you’ll still be learning and you’ll send a good, respectful signal to the folks with whom you are sharing the water.
  4. Stay away from people in the shore break.  Kids, boogie boarders, waders, fishermen and women….you have to look out for them.  They are probably not paying any attention to you.  Know how and when to kick out of your wave, or just sit down, jump off safely, or otherwise end your wave ride in a safe way to avoid swimmers.  Don’t ride the foam all the way to the beach! You could hurt yourself, others and/or your board.
Stay away from the crowded swim beach

5. Learn Surf Etiquette. There are rules to wave catching when you are sharing the lineup with others.  Abide by them, or you could find yourself on the receiving end of stink eye, a stern lecture, a trip to the ER or all of the above. The rules apply to SUP surfing just as much, if not more so, as they do to prone surfing.

Surf Etiquette

  • Right of Way: the surfer closest to the peak of the wave has priority
  • Do not drop in: that means don’t try to catch a wave that someone has already caught, cutting them off. It is NOT cool.
  • Do not snake: this is super important for us paddle surfers – don’t use your advantage to be constantly paddling around others waiting for a wave in order to get the best position. You will be labeled a wave hog and rude in a heart beat.
  • Don’t be a wave hog: share.  Let others get some. Watch for surfers who have been waiting a while and let them go. If you’re standing, call out the sets when they are about to come in, then let others get some.
  • Don’t get in the way paddling back out: after your wave, go around – don’t paddle straight back out through the peak of the wave.  Paddle out toward the shoulder of the wave to stay out of the other surfers’ way.
Safe SUP Surfing for the Beginner
Watch for incoming surfers when you are going out
  • Control your board: don’t just ditch it, learn how to hold onto the leash so the board does’t hurt anyone else after a wipeout and you are trying to paddle back out.  Learn how kick or  push the board over the waves as you go back out.
Don’t just let the board go where it wants – keep it in control in the impact zone
  • Communicate with other surfers. This is a no brainer.
  • Do not dive head first when you wipe out: that is a one-way ticket to a head or spine injury, especially in shallow water or areas with lots of sand bars
  • Be Respectful of others: be nice, polite, observe the local vibe in the line up. Be quietly enthusiastic. Sit down and talk to others.  And for goodness sakes, if you screw up, APOLOGIZE PROFUSELY.
  • Be Respectful of the Beach and Ocean: clean up after yourself, pick up trash if you see it, stay off the dunes, etc.
  • Have fun!

Take Some Classes

Perhaps one of the biggest things you can do to stay out of the Kook Zone is get instruction.  Sure, there are lots of great videos and books out there, and you should definitely check those out, but nothing can replace one-on-one, in the water classes.  Local shops will often have group classes, or pros who can give you personalized help.   SUP races and events like the Carolina Cup will often have surf and ocean paddling clinics that are affordable and super helpful, and are taught by some of the best pros out there.  If you really are into it, take a SUP surfing vacation where all you do is paddle surf, get instruction and maybe even get video taped so you can improve that much faster.   Make friends with someone who knows their way around the lineup and is willing to go out with you and help you.

Zane Schweitzer’s sup surfing clinic indoors on a rainy day at the 2017 Carolina Cup

Most important, keep an open mind and be willing to learn, learn, learn.  We never stop learning in this sport, which is one of the reasons why I love it so!

We’ve all had our Kook moments, I am sure.  But if we admit that we made a mistake and if we learn from it, chances are we won’t get stuck in the Kook Zone for very long!

Safe SUP Surfing for the Beginner

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