What is a Kook? (And How to Avoid Being One)

what is a kook; surfer falling off surfboard

If you spend enough time around surfers, you’ll eventually hear the word “kook.” It’s a classic part of our vernacular, one that dates back to the early 1950s, when the Gidget beach culture was in full effect in California. 

Today, you are likely to hear people using the word in a number of different ways—sometimes out of anger, and sometimes teasing; sometimes in response to a breach of etiquette, and others simply because their friend did something silly.

Here in Cardiff, there’s a surfing statue that everyone has nicknamed the Cardiff Kook because of his wonky surfing style. Other people are kooks because they carry their boards the wrong way or are too loud and braggy in the lineup. And then of course there’s the classic surfing kook—the guy who has never been on a board before and can barely paddle it out to the lineup.

So, what exactly is a “kook?”

Originally, a kook was a newbie in the water—someone who hadn’t quite figured the surfing thing out yet. They probably struggled to paddle, fell a lot (even when the waves weren’t critical), and didn’t understand the basic rules of the lineup. Over the years, this evolved to the point where even good surfers were “kooking it” when they bogged a rail or blew a good wave. And since “kook” had a negative connotation to it, it soon took on other meanings, such as someone who looked or acted ridiculous. 

Regardless of how the term is used, the major takeaway is that if you are kooking it, you are probably doing something wrong—so the obvious goal is to not be a kook! Today we are going to discuss things that kooks do and things that kooks don’t do, to help you avoid kooking it in the water, on land, and even online!

How to Avoid Being a Kook

kook move: dropping in on another surfer
100% kook move: dropping in on people. / photo by Jeremy Bishop

If you are trying to not be a kook—and ultimately, we all probably should be doing just that—there are things you will want to avoid doing, and other things that you should definitely try to do. Dig through this list and see how many of these kooky actions are things you do on the regular. Then try to avoid them and stop being a kook!

13 Things Kooks Do

kook move; surfer losing control of surfboard
Losing control of your board and hitting another surfer? Grade-A kookness. / photo by Venti Views
  1. Get in the way: The lineup has an unwritten set of rules and etiquette, and at the heart of these rules is staying out of the way of the surfer riding the wave. If you find yourself getting in the way frequently, then you are probably kooking it. In this case, it would be a good idea to review surfing etiquette best practices, and maybe look for advice from a more experienced surfer.
  2. Ruin other people’s waves: There are a number of ways to ruin other people’s waves, including paddling out in the middle of the lineup, not getting out of the way when they are paddling into a wave, pushing a section over onto them from the shoulder, and the ultimate crime of dropping in on them (more on that in a second). You will know if you are consistently ruining people’s waves, because you’ll probably get called a kook a bunch—and not in a friendly, teasing way!
  3. Drop in on people: Dropping in is the ultimate no-no in surfing. Generally speaking, the surfers in the lineup should be taking turns, and one way to regulate that is for the person who is sitting deepest (and can take off on the wave first) to have priority. If someone is already riding a wave and you take off in front of them (“drop in”), not only will you ruin their wave, but you will also put everyone in danger of a collision. Don’t do it!
  4. Back-paddle: As mentioned above, in a perfect world, we’d all take turns in the lineup. But since many people are greedy kooks, a basic priority system has been developed where the person who is deepest is the one who typically gets the wave—and the way to earn your spot deepest in the lineup is to wait your turn. If you catch a wave and then immediately paddle back out and sit deeper than everyone else (this is called back-paddling), you are a kook—even if you are the best surfer in the lineup. Some things are more important than ability, and being a considerate person is one of them.
  5. Surf waves that are outside of their capabilities: It is important to know your own ability and choose waves that are appropriate, otherwise you are likely to get in the way, get hurt, or hurt someone else. Kooks are often unaware that they are putting themselves in dangerous situations because they are unaware of their limited capabilities. Try to be self-aware, and don’t paddle out to advance waves until you have the skills to do so.
  6. Ride the wrong boards: Generally speaking, people are free to ride whatever they want. If you can rip on an ironing board and that sounds fun to you, then by all means, go ahead and do it. But sometimes certain board choices are just plain kooky—often because the board is so inappropriate for the waves that it endangers people or makes it incredibly difficult to have fun. In general, riding a longboard in slabs, a shortboard in tiny dribble, or a gun in anything but proper XL swell is kooky. If you’re a beginner and need help finding the right surfboard, check out this guide to the best beginner surfboards.  
  7. Lay their boards wax-down in the sand: A lot of kooky actions are the result of a lack of awareness—and putting your board deck-down into the sand is a great example. Anyone who stops for a moment and considers the ramifications of putting sun-softened wax face-down in the sand will realize that it’s going to create a huge mess—but since kooks are often oblivious to just about everything, they likely won’t realize what they are doing until it’s too late.
  8. Put their fins on backward (or forget to screw them in): You’d be surprised how often both of these mistakes are made. Just goes to show you there are a lot of kooks in the world!
  9. Put their wetsuits on backward: Even if you are a lifelong surfer who is simply in a rush and puts their wettie on backward, you’re still kooking it—but if we can’t all laugh at our own kookiness now and then, we should probably taking ourselves so seriously.
  10. Wax the bottoms of their boards: In snowboarding and skiing, wax is for making you slipperier so you go faster, so it is applied to the bottom of the board. In surfing, it has the opposite job—to help you stick to the board better. Don’t be a kook—wax your deck, not the bottom.
  11. Put their leash cuff under their wetsuit: Again, when you are oblivious, it is often easy to make silly mistakes—and one classic mistake is failing to put your leash cuff under the leg of your wetsuit. This simple action takes only a second but can save you the discomfort and ridicule of having a wetsuit leg fill up with water like a clumsy balloon.
  12. Talk loudly about their surf gear: Have you ever noticed that the best surfers are often the ones who brag the least? If you find yourself overly excited about all of your newfangled toys and telling everyone about the expensive, trendy gear you just bought, you probably aren’t dominating your local break. If people notice your new board and are interested in it, then by all means, tell them about it or even let them try it. But generally speaking, no one wants to hear you carrying on about your signature series leash or your top-of-the-line wetsuit.
  13. Reveal secret spots: This is one for all the armchair pundits and weekend warriors out there who want to prove how core they are by showing people that they know where the secret spots are located. If you comment on an Instagram post or an article and tell everyone where a wave is, you are blowing it big time. Kooks blow up spots; core surfers keep spots to themselves, then paddle out quietly and enjoy the empty barrels.
  14. Build kooky statues: If you still don’t know what a kook looks like, come to Cardiff and check out the local surf art—you’ll figure it out pretty quickly.

10 Things Kooks Don’t Do (and Therefore, you Should Do)

surfer giving shaka sign in the ocean at sunset
photo by Steven Wilcox

Sometimes it’s not what you do that makes you a kook, but what you don’t do. If you aren’t doing these things, then you are probably blowing it.

  1. Understand surfing etiquette: This ties into the first few items on our list of things that kooks do, such as ruining waves, getting in the way, burning people, and back-paddling. The best way to avoid doing these things is to learn and understand etiquette before paddling out to learn how to surf. If you don’t do that, you are kooking it. For starters, check out this guide on how to surf.
  2. Apologize when they ruin someone’s wave: The time will inevitably come when you get in someone’s way and ruin their wave—whether due to a kooky breach of etiquette, or simple bad luck. When this happens, the correct thing to do is acknowledge your transgression and apologize. Kooks don’t apologize because they usually don’t even know they’ve done something wrong.
  3. Look up the line when taking off: When you watch beginners trying to catch waves, you will often notice that they don’t look over their shoulders to watch the wave peeling toward them. Instead, they just look straight ahead and paddle blindly toward shore, hoping to catch the wave. This is a mistake for two reasons. First, waves are easier to catch if you are in the right spot, and you can make micro-adjustments (paddling faster or waiting for the wave before paddling) if you look over your shoulder and realize you aren’t in the perfect position. Second, and much more importantly, if you don’t look over your shoulder toward the peak, you won’t be able to see if anyone is already riding the wave. Then you’ll end up dropping in on them—the ultimate kook move.
  4. Learn the basics before trying to rip: Once you spend enough time in the water, you’ll begin to notice that good surfers are smooth and efficient, while kooks are erratic and clumsy. This is true whether they are paddling, pumping down the line, or doing maneuvers—and it’s typically the result of trying to progress too quickly. If you don’t learn the fundamentals first, you are going to look ridiculous when you try to hit the lip or pump down the line—and no one wants to see you thrashing around and hopping for speed. Learn to walk before you run, otherwise, you will end up kooking it.
  5. Paddle out in the channel: The best way to ruin someone’s day and be called a kook is to get in their way while they are riding a wave—and if you don’t paddle out where you are supposed to, the chances of this happening are pretty good. Experienced, considerate surfers paddle out in the channel. Kooks don’t.
  6. Appreciate and respect local cultures: Ultimately you will get to the point where you surf well enough that you want to travel for waves. The surf tourism industry is massive, and there’s not much better than visiting a beautiful, foreign country and scoring epic barrels. Unfortunately, even the best surfers in the world can be total kooks if they aren’t respectful and appreciative of the cultures that they travel to. If you show up in a country with different social norms and don’t follow the local rules, you are a kook. And if you travel somewhere amazing but get so fixated on the waves that you don’t appreciate the local color around you, you are definitely kooking it.
  7. Clean up after themselves: Let’s not pull any punches here—if you make a mess at the beach (or anywhere, for that matter), it’s your responsibility to clean up after yourself. Otherwise, you are a top-notch kook.
  8. Acknowledge the other surfers in the lineup: Surfers are known for being territorial and greedy, and often bring aggressive attitudes with them to the lineup. Doing so is a classic kook move, no matter how good of a surfer you are. A considerate surfer will paddle out and greet the other people who were in the lineup before them. Some people even go so far as to shake hands with everyone before catching a wave. At the very least, acknowledge the people around you. 
  9. Teach beginners instead of vibing them: While we have established the fact that beginner surfers can be kooks who get in the way and ruin people’s waves, it’s also possible to react to beginners in a kooky way. Sure, you may be bummed when a kook ruins your wave—but if you yell at them or vibe them instead of calmly and compassionately explaining to them what they did wrong and how they can be a safer, more polite surfer in the future, then you are just as much a kook as they are.
Surfer falling off of surfboard
photo by Guy Kawasaki

Now that you know what a kook is and how to avoid being one, here’s a bit of bad news: we all end up doing kooky things now and then. It’s inevitable—you are going to ‘kook it’ at some point! The important thing is how you react when you do. If you are defensive, aggressive, obnoxious, or embarrassed about your kookiness, then you are only building more layers in your kookdom. If, on the other hand, you laugh it off, apologize to anyone you might have wronged, and learn from your mistakes, then you really aren’t that much of a kook after all!

girl with surfboard on oceanview balcony

Epic surf trips made easy.

Explore luxury done-for-you surf vacations with Lush Palm Private Retreats.


If you’re a beginner surfer and want to avoid kook status, check out these Surfing For Beginners resources and these guides:

How to Surf / The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Surfing

The Best Beginner Surfboards

Surf Travel 101


Leave a Comment

2 thoughts on “What is a Kook? (And How to Avoid Being One)”