Unwritten Rule

With surfing at a crossroads, we asked some of our longest serving gurus what our next step should be

| posted on December 29, 2013
Evidence of how backwards things have become: Pros ignoring accepted protocol, using jet skies to increase wave count. Photo: Joli

Evidence of how backwards things have become: Pros ignoring accepted protocol, using jet skies to increase wave count. Photo: Joli

This feature originally appeared in our “Crowd Control” issue, in which we attempted to solve surfing’s overpopulation issues. It was a noble effort, but so far hard evidence suggests we didn’t solve the problem. This is Part 1 of 4 of our Crowd Control series.

If someone had of handed Bruce Brown a crayon back in 1966 and told him to draw his worst nightmare it’s unlikely he could have come up with anything worse than what I’m witnessing at Upper Trestles today. Two, three, four, five surfers systematically fading one another in what at first seems to be some strange choreography. Once the wave rolls over, however, leaving the surfers shaking their fists at one another, it’s revealed as something else entirely.

Being Australian, my first response was: Why is no blood being spilled over this? You can’t just fade someone rail-to-rail and get away with it. Why, if that were the case this whole sport would go to seed in a matter of minutes. Yet in the year 2013 we have arrived at exactly this scenario at many of our most popular spots.

“There are a lot of things that are legal that aren’t ethical,” begins Herbie Fletcher, perennial Dude and Californian surfing icon who’s cast an eye over the culture for some 50 years now. He’s seen it all, from beat-downs on the North Shore, to being forced to turn his back on pumping waves because of overzealous locals, to watching his two sons, Christian and Nathan, completely reinvent the sport, to getting burned at Trestles by some guy on an epoxy mini-mal who thought the famous Herbie was an anthropomorphic Volkswagen with speed stripes and a flapping hood.

“I just think people oughta know their spot. If people take off in front of you, you get pissed off, man,” he says, with Dude-like intonation, “something is gonna happen; there is gonna be yelling and if you get in a fight they’re gonna sue you. It never used to be like that. You’d have an argument and it would be over with.”

It is a thin fabric that holds surfing together. With so many unwritten rules—some of which have long passed their use by date and others that sit at direct odds with conventional law, it was inevitable that surfing would find itself in a serious pickle one day.

During a recent session at all-time Kirra I saw just how backwards things have become. International pros burning the common surfer, jet skis running a VIP limousine service to get pros back to the top of the lineup (pumping ribs of wake through the lineup in the process and ruining waves), and a dangerous self-serving madness on behalf of most in the lineup made for an interesting case study.

“That’s fuckin’ bullshit,” old-school Kirra legend Wayne Deane told me that night when I informed him of the situation. “See, in my day that wouldn’t have happened. Someone woulda got a fuckin’ punch in the head quick smart,” he snarled. And it’s true. Up until recently surfing had its own set of rules away from Mr. Law. The system had its flaws, sure—mostly in the form of power-mad kooks inflicting mob justice on soft targets who dared surf a spot they shouldn’t have—but is the current situation any better? One where the rules of surfing go out the window because people know they’re protected by a legal technicality?

“Kirra is just that sort of nightmare, and so is Trestles and Pipe and Sunset, with people that can’t surf and are out there causing fucking havoc,” says Herbie. “So the good guys take off on the weaker guys, right? It’s just the way it is, man. What do you do in a race? I dunno, it’s hard to regulate.”

The situation is further confused by the different interpretations of “the rules” around the world. The Superbank, for instance, is a complete free-for-all where you’ll see some of the most heinous fades in history, with zero come-uppance. Drive 10 minutes up the coast to Burleigh and commit a foul there (snake or burn or object to being snaked or burned), however, and you’ll find yourself in an old fashioned duke-‘em-out on the sand.

Likewise in California, where Trestles is chaos but up the coast at Santa Cruz, break the unwritten rules and the old boys might mistake you for 18th at Augusta. “I’ve seen them hitting golf balls at people out in the water,” says local pro Nat Young of his senior Westside boys. Then you venture into surfing’s outposts and things get weird. At Mundaka, home to the sometimes militant, always fiercely nationalistic Basque people, you might expect arrogant blow-ins to have their car torched. But it’s actually quite the opposite. “I have surfed it for 20 years and surf the peak, and I can snake a little bit, but with so many people, sometimes it’s impossible to control,” tells Julen Larranga, a saggy-afro’d behemoth and respected local figure in the Basque surfing community.

In Morocco, surfing talent means nothing, a fact Mitch Coleborn learned when he was burned by a bad Moroccan surfer only to be fiercely chastised (to the point he feared for his safety) afterward. It’s all about being local over there, or in the case of a certain infamous British surf camp operator, hiring someone local to clear the lineup for teams of European pros to surf it alone (yeah, it happened to me).

In Bali, Japanese businessman operate by a similar principle, paying a crew of local heavies to chauffeur them around the island’s premiere waves and get them their undue share. Then you’ve got Ireland, home to some of the coldest, most inhospitable waves on the planet, where after driving three hours through an arctic hurricane to surf a barreling left reef with my host—Ireland’s first pro surfer, Fergal Smith—we were accosted for bringing our party of four to the wave. “They say, ‘You’re gonna look back in 10 or 15 years and think, ‘What have I done to the place?’” says Fergal. Even Hawaii is showing signs of bending to the modern way. “I think there is way less aggression,” says Hawaiian hard-man, Kala Alexander, “a lot of characters have grown up…we’ve all had our ups and downs and everyone is focused right now. It’s about winning titles and winning contests.”

So this is where we find ourselves: an emerging sub-culture jammed through the ringer of a society that is pinpricking itself to death with litigation and opportunistic lawyers. What ever shall we do, Herbie?

“Being around a long time, it’s better just to get over it, man. Just have fun. Fuck it, catch another wave, man,” he says. “You don’t have to fight about it. It’s annoying when someone takes off in front of you, but fighting is just stupid. Have fun.” —Jed Smith

  • Kalkikalki Kalki

    And this article is in Surfer that makes its money from advertising by promoting surfing. You ask Herbie, who made films that promote surfing and I assume sell product. You don’t see the irony in your article or what you’re doing?

    There are places where surfing has not been over sold, I’m not saying where, cos sure enough there will be some kooks right along to sell it out. Cold water and big sharks also helps.

  • erik

    How can you have fun when you constantly have to battle others just to catch a wave? Surf Uppers and you have a handful of guys out there who think they are surfing in a heat and that they are entitled to any wave they want.

    I say “f-em” and that they deserve an attitude adjustment.

  • Jason

    The problem I have encountered in recent years is greed. On the better days at a lineup that I would normally get with just a few people, I am surrounded by people of similar (average) surfing ability to me. The same few guys get most of the waves, not because they are better surfers, or spend more time in that lineup, but because they are the most aggressive and the biggest jerks. I’m out there to enjoy the morning and they seem intent on getting every single ride able wave that comes through. So I’m left with either getting into a stressful altercation that could wind up harming my family if it got violent, or just sitting there trying to get a few scraps. After nearly 30 years of surfing, crowds are the only thing that ever make me consider walking away.

  • Im dumb

    Crazy idea: How about don’t surf trestles, malibu, blacks or rincon? Problem solved.

  • larkstan

    I took a case of good beer to the parking lot to share with the locals. The next day, I got plenty of waves. There’s always a way…

  • Rob

    Same old problem with surfing…..too many participants and not enough waves at the local surf breaks. What to do? I have rolled this around in my head for 10+ years now and there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer. Dawn Patrol is crowded, mid morning is crowded, lunchtime is crowded, afternoon is crowded, sunset is crowded, hell even full moon is crowded. Nobody works in Socal, nobody goes to school in Socal, they all go to trestles, 7 days a week, all hours of the day.

  • Quitosan

    party waves for all, Lol

  • Rob

    Crazy Idea: Don’t surf the popular breaks. Been there done that….surfed the less popular breaks in Socal, some of which are not as good of waves. Guess What? They are now crowded because of the overflow caused by the overpopulation of the premier quality waves like Trestles, Malibu, Blacks, Rincon, etc. Yes, its all very ironic that we discuss this on a website that is a medium to sell surf products and equipment. Most other sports don’t have this problem because the resource can be produced or regulated (Too many golfers, build another gold course. Too many skiiers, limit the amount of lift tickets)

  • We are all Kooks

    If you are a good enough surfer, you can paddle out anywhere at any time and still figure out how to get good waves. You have to surf at a place that allows you to do this though. Patience, respect, knowledge. You want to whine about Pipeline and Trestles? Two places you are not good enough to surf at? Watch Kolohe surf Trestles, watch JJF or JOB surf Pipe. They own it. You want to get waves, own YOUR spot. I was just in Bali, so frustrating seeing locals paddle out with Jap tourist surfers and push them into waves, LEGIT waves, in front of other Balinese surfers who didn’t get mad cause they knew there buddy is getting paid. You say anything or drop in, the Balinese will quickly deal with you, this is how they make their living. So I fought fire with fire, hire the locals to block for you as well; Knowledge. If you paddle out to a crowded local spot, don’t take set waves at first and don’t paddle battle; Respect. Knowing it will take twice as long to earn a set wave knowing you are accepted into a line up and will get more set waves instead of stealing one and getting
    out of the water; Patience. I almost feel stupid for having to explain this to other surfers. One way or another, we are ALL kooks to someone. Remember that, and start having more fun in the water.

  • Mark Gregory

    Coming up on 40 years in the water. There are some places that I just don’t go near anymore. Some are great waves, others not so much. There are still places between the super thick crowds to get a few waves with much less stress.
    Its only going to get worse too, as more and more people surf. There aren’t going to be more waves.

  • capt. H

    Well on a slightly off topic topic….they are turning Kirra into a cruise ship terminal if you are not fighting mad about that, you should be…

  • bruce

    blaming lawyers for the end of localism is a cop-out. not many lawyers want to sue a local for their tundra and collection of surf vids. localism is dying because the masses multiple and advance. the sheer numbers are overwhelming, and locals are losing ground. when one of the brave holdouts does beat the crap out of an offender, all it takes is one highly publicized arrest by law enforcement to deter future enforcement and, ironically, create lawlessness in the line-up.

  • timmy

    Ban legropes.

  • dante rondo

    Peace on earth…And good will amounst all surfers…It is more fun when you share…! Wouldn’t that be nice ? Unfortunately that is not “The human condition” now or ever…So where do we go from here with surfing being so popular and crowded in 2014 ? Intelligent surfers know that violence and blatant aggression is not the answer. Words and diplomacy in the line-up would be a good start and end. There are surfers at nearly every break that have entitlement issues and are greedy as to their wave count. Sometimes they are the best surfers in the line-up and sometimes not…Is the problem new ? Not at all. I will quickly recount an experience from 1964, summer, Redondo Breakwater, small waves. A skinhead guy is calling all of us off waves so he can take every one of them (Greed again !) I am 14 yrs. old, he is probably 18. I finally go for a wave a call him a f..ker, because he tries to bully me out of it. Then i have to escape the guy by out paddling him to get away. Lo and behold, in my freshmen year at Redondo High, i get bullied by this guy all year because he is a big senior ! His greed and trying to control the line -up created the problem in the first place ! When you look at the vast problems we are facing as a civilisation on this planet right now…With radioactive pollution from Fukushima drifting around the Pacific, and climate change threatening entire cultures, species and food/water supply…I think surfers need to grow up and count their blessings that they can paddle out there and enjoy the waves and ocean environment ! This could be a limited time pleasure for many of us now , younger or older…So when you paddle out, try to think about the bigger picture that you are only a small grain of sand within. Even if you are the best in the line-up ! Don’t be greedy and raise your conciseness and aloha up !

  • dante rondo

    Hey ! It is more fun when you share ! Peace on earth and in the line-up ! Good will amoung’st all surfers ! Let’s all be grateful that we can go out there and enjoy the waves and ocean environment ! Leave you aggressive baggage at home ! Take a lesson from most female surfers ! They are beautiful to watch and they generally are not yelling or try to start a fight !! Use words and diplomacy in situations ! Even if you are the best local in your line-up ! Stay humble and be smart ! Surfing can still have lots of aloha ! If your prone to violence…Punch it out on your punching bag before you paddle out ! Have fun ! Be gracious, not bitter ! Travel the world alone and surf in other surfer’s “Backyards” ! And then bring that vibe back to your local spot where you may have big entitlement issues ! Smile more ! Don’t stink eye a stranger to your home break ! He or she could turn out to be a friend, a good connection within our current global tribe ! You want to be concerned about something real big ? How about the Fukushima radiation drifting around The Pacific ! How about global climate change that threatens entire cultures, species, islands, low lying coast lines such as Bangladesh, or the Tuva Islands, or Maldives , our global food and water supply ! Let’s put surfing in the proper perspective ! It is a pleasurable sport and activity ! Use your anger in a constructive way to affect change ! Surfers, let’s evolve as people and move beyond so much pettiness and the me/myself/i syndrome ! Share “The sand box” , because in the bigger picture we do not “Own it” ! Evolution of conciseness is the key to our survival here on the planet and in the surfing line-ups around the world !!

  • ShirleyEugest

    Grew up surfing in the early 60’s at one of the best breaks in California. 6 guys out on a crowded day, all good friends. You think you hate crowds. Why I oughta.