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Surf Etiquette: The Right Way to Catch a Wave

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I met Dunia Burgos a few years ago on my first trip to Nicaragua and we instantly hit it off. The country's top woman surfer, she is known on her home beach of Maderas as much for her jaw-dropping surf skills as she is for her unwavering warmth. Her demeanour counters every stereotype of locals being fiercely territorial over their beach. In fact, Burgos seems to welcome every surfer into the water, regardless of their skill.

If you are lucky enough to meet Burgos in the lineup at Maderas, paddle over and say hello. Be sure to heed her etiquette tips, which she bestowed to me over a cup of coffee in the shade at The Maderas Village.

  • Before you dip a toe into the water, take a few minutes to do some reconnaissance from the beach. Chat with people coming in from a surf, watch for rocks and rips in the water and how the waves are breaking. This due diligence is important not only for your safety, but also to avoid needlessly getting in anyone's way in the water.
  • When you are ready to make your way out, Burgos recommends easing into the lineup, particularly at a locals beach. She suggests sticking to the shoulder for a bit and gradually making your way over. A head nod, wave and a quick hello never hurt either.
  • The surfer closest to the peak of the wave has priority on it. So if you are paddling after a right-breaking wave and a surfer on your left is also chasing it, they get the right of way.
  • If you accidentally drop in on someone else's wave, say you are sorry. If it was genuinely an accident and you did not see them, and your apology is sincere, you will likely be forgiven. But do not do it again.
  • As you paddle back out, avoid heading straight into the lineup as inevitably someone will end up surfing right into you, which is not fun for them and is extremely dangerous for you. Go around, or paddle in behind the direction they are headed. If you find yourself directly in the path of someone on a wave, your first instinct might be to duck dive, though Burgos cautions to just stay still. This way, the surfer can clearly see you (bobbing on your board with a distraught look on your face) and plan their route around you. If you disappear under the water, they simply cannot plan around you and risk running right over you. In fact, Burgos stands by this advice to any surfer in a moment of uncertainty: do not move.
  • Always know where your board is. Burgos reminds that a long board, when coupled with a leash of the same length, can travel quite a distance. If you are not constantly mindful of where your board is, you are potentially posing a risk to anyone in a 15-foot radius. Most bumps and bruises (or heaven forbid, worse) are from surf boards, either your own or someone else's, so be aware of the distance in between you and other surfers.

It is simply not in Burgo's good nature to talk surf etiquette tips without putting her signature warm touch on the subject. She has a lovely saying, "If you do not surf, never start. If you surf, never stop" and encourages her students to shirk off the intimidation of the sport and the line up and get out there. Disclaimer: she makes it look deceivingly easy.