I've been chasing waves for over 30 years now. After trying competitions in my younger days – rather unsuccessfully – I settled into seeking out fun and uncrowded line ups, both around the country and overseas. I'm not a big wave charger or an aerial junkie. Just overhead is usually big enough for me, and hollow enough to get covered but not if it means risking serious injury. In other words, I'd consider myself middle of the road in terms of both surfing ability and desire.
And what I love about surfing, aside from the waves of course, is the vibe associated with it...the stoke. This is a great thing, a shared mindset, and something that should probably be appreciated more than it is these days.
To my aging eyes, stoke is sometimes being overtaken by an urge to get more waves, as if accumulation is more important than feeling. And this leads on to the one thing that really sticks in my craw about surfing: over the top localism and the surf rage that goes with it. I can't think of any other activity that has the same level of post pissing, chest thumping, macho posturing as surfing. This is a black mark on us as surfers.
After being seriously assaulted in 2000 at Angourie, an Australian surf break, former world surfing champion Nat Young edited a collection of writings for a book Surf Rage. One of the contributors, Derek Rielly, wrote this about the complex and fluid rules of surfing: ‘They change to suit the amount of time a surfer has spent at a surf spot, and how well he surfs, thus confusing the cockles out of a beginner and putting them in a position they have no idea how to get out of and causing flashes of tempers from surfers who expect order at their break.' Reilly believes there has been a paradigm shift in surfing culture, ‘from one fiercely anti-establishment and pro-drugs that regarded the line-up as an escape from the bullshit of the world to one that is increasingly aggressive, conservative and competition-driven yet, paradoxically, constantly working to attract more participants'.
As the number of surfers grows, along with the advent of lighter long boards and other surf craft, novice surfers can increasingly compete with those who have spent years learning the art of riding. None of this is an excuse for violence in the ocean. And it all contributes to taking the fun out of the sport.
Another writer in Young's book, American Glen Hening, describes aggressive surfers acting like ‘true believers fighting over who will take communion, pushing and shoving and cutting in line with an infantile "Me First! Me First!" attitude as we approach the altar where our religion is confirmed. And when we finally attain the holy moment and connect with the body and soul of our faith, what do we do? "Mine! Mine!" becomes our mantra'.
I want to reflect on an eperience I had a few years back at a remote break south of Dunedin. Friends Mat, Eric and I were scrambling along the coast through the dried seaweed, mud and sheep droppings, towards the distant break. Things were cranking, and so we were pretty amped to get amongst it.
There were two guys in the line-up and as we neared they started drifting towards the inside, apparently sated by their morning session, and probably perturbed by the sight of more boards. As another set powered through, Mat and Eric increased their pace while I stopped to take a quick photo of the set rolling through. Suddenly, the two in the water started yelling out, telling me to ‘fuck off'.
I yelled back ‘what's the problem', and they kept replying with various forms of colourful language while pumping their fists in the air. By this stage Mat and Eric had disappeared around the next headland. I figured it was better to go and front up to the guys in the water rather than run the risk of getting my vehicle trashed. Of course there was the possibility of me getting trashed also, and I felt no great sense of conviction as I picked a way down the rocks to where they were paddling in.
I consider myself pretty mellow in the surf, but tend not to back down if someone takes offense at some imagined indiscretion and acts aggressively towards me. Consequently I've ended up in a few waterborne verbal tussles and I should have turned away when really I should have kept my mouth shut and paddled in the other direction.
The pecking order, especially at crowded breaks but even at remote spots such as this, is a deeply ingrained and rather delicate hierarchal mix of experience, macho aggression and a misplaced notion of local ownership. In a growing sport with a sometimes fickle resource, jockeying for the best waves, or for any waves, can quickly escalate into physical confrontation.
By the time I reached the small cove on the inside, the two surfers were on shore. One was sitting on a rocky knoll with his board resting on his knees, and the other standing and stretching - or maybe limbering up - on the sand in front of him. I wandered up to the one standing, trying to project a non-violent air of confidence. Getting closer, I recognised them as Dunedin locals. They were both around my age, and the one sitting down had a reputation as a bit of a hothead.
I figured it prudent to stop a measured distance away.
‘What's the problem?' I asked the guy who had been stretching.
‘What's your problem? You shouldn't be taking photos of this place,' the hothead said.
I ignored him, and look at the guy standing, who had long hair and was solidly built. He stopped stretching. I didn't know whether to take that as a good sign, or whether he was ready to have a go. Perhaps I was a few seconds away from getting my arse kicked.
‘Look I don't want any problems,' I offered. ‘I've been surfing here for years and this is the first time I've brought a camera.'
‘This is one of the last secret spots round here,' the longhair said pointing at the line-up. ‘Don't want word getting out to the masses.'
‘Got no argument from me,' I replied.
‘We've had this all morning to ourselves, and were just talking about how great it is, and then you guys show up.'
‘Never seen you here before,' hothead stated.
‘Likewise. It's that kind of place though isn't it? People know about it, but usually no one can be bothered walking here.'
‘Guess so,' longhair admitted, shrugging his shoulders. ‘So everything's all right?'
‘Yeah...sure. Fine by me.'
‘Thank God,' he said, visibly relaxing. ‘I thought I was going to be in for a scrap. You didn't look so big from a distance.'
We both laughed, relieved that the tension had been broken, and hothead mentioned something about getting out there before the onshore picked up. I glanced at him and nodded, before turning around and walking back up the hill towards the point.
This whole cultural shift in and around the line-up is probably best presented in an Australian movie Bra Boys. It tells the story of a notorious surfing tribe, and the Aberton brothers, who live in Maroubra, a depressed community a few kilometres from Sydney. But what starts out as a probing documentary-type look at the culture surrounding localism ends up being little more than pro surf gang propaganda. I guess it's not surprising given that one of the Abertons co-directs, and spends a fair chunk of screen time justifying violence as a means of demonstrating loyalty. This glorifying of backyard fistfights, and protecting your local patch against outsiders at all costs, comes across as nothing more than macho posturing at its worst.
Macho aggression is archaic, ugly and unnecessary. Surf rage ruins the stoke of riding waves more quickly than a howling onshore, and the notion of localism in a place as remote as the one Mat, Eric and I had chosen to visit seems ridiculous. Wanting to keep a choice break quiet is fair enough, but surely no one has more of a right to what is essentially a free and public resource than anyone else.
Take a breath. Respect each other. Respect the waves.
Paul Hersey is a Christchurch/Dunedin writer, surfer and climber. His work has been published in The Surfer's Journal, Alpinist and New Zealand Geographic. His book Searching For Groundswell: A New Zealand Surfer's Road Trip was published by New Holland in 2010. Parts of this article have been taken from that book...
For more on Paul's work, check out his blog: www.paulherseywrites.com