Rabbit Bartholomew Speaks Out Against Formation of Surf Police
Surfermag.com: How bad has the violence been? Has it really been bad enough and occurring with such frequency to warrant governmental involvement?
Rabbit: There’ve really only been a few very isolated instances of violence. I’ve surfed Snapper for 40 years and seen one guy cop a punch in the head. When you consider how many people jump into the SuperBank from dawn to dusk every day, these cases of surf rage are really isolated.
Surfermag.com: Is this sort of thing, the consideration of surf police, something that comes up every few years in Australia, say after a recent outbreak of surf rage induced violence, or is this something that has gradually been built up to by escalating violence and an increase in incidents?
Rabbit: It’s just the result of a media beat-up. The crowd is generally well behaved when it comes to actual violence. Yes, there are drop-ins, tunings and some snaking, but we also get two-week-long swells, and when that happens, thirsts are quenched. It comes out in the wash if you just keep surfing. But journalists are sent down to Snapper to sniff out a story, and when they come across an actual case, they seize it and blow it up, usually on the front page.
Surfermag.com: How would the implementation of surf police change the experience of surfing on the Gold Coast? Would the resulting order and organization make it a better experience or would it ruin the inherently freedom-oriented draw of surfing? Or would it hardly make a difference at all? Would chaos still be king out there?
Rabbit: The very concept of surf police is ridiculous. You have to ask yourself how it could be implemented for starters. I mean, even when you go surfing with a buddy you don’t see each other until you’re back in the carpark. The distances involved are so vast. I mean, the logistics would be enormous. A huge force would be required to implement it, leaving the rest of the community to deal with robberies, break-ins, home invasions and other major crime. Real crime. And even then, surfers would come up with ingenious disguises, like two-sided colored rashies, nondescript boardies, hooded sun protectors. Maybe there would even be group actions, like a hundred guys with red boardies and yellow rashies doing surfing’s version of the scene from The Thomas Crown Affair, where hundreds of guys in suits and bowler hats swarm an art gallery to take the authorities’ focus off the real culprit. And then what if the authorities brought in water-borne police on Jet Skis? People would be killed. The machines would be buzzing the lineup, jetting in to nab a drop-in artist or a suspected leash-puller, and just mow people down left, right and center. You’d have fleeing surfers and police pursuits, hundreds of them, requiring a fully mobilized land and sea force, like a coordinated military operation. They would have to divert troops from Iraq to Coolangatta to continually sweep the area for those pesky surfers who consistently paddle inside.
Surfermag.com: What about paddling inside? What about the normal code of ethics? Would the surf police be giving out the equivalent of speeding tickets for people who violate the code?
Rabbit: There’s a perception of total anarchy out there, but the reality is that the vast majority of people do actually observe a code of ethics. It’s just the sheer volume of numbers that makes it an impossible mathematical equation. Three hundred people can’t go into six waves. The fact is, the few instances of violence that occur do make it into the courts where the judicial system deals with it. In this day and age, when individuals are assaulted, they phone their lawyer and make a police report. That’s the legal avenue. There are very few cases before the courts. Why? Because physical assaults are rare. But since the Cronulla riots the Australian media has been trying to link surf rage with civil unrest. Hence the calling of the National Guard. There was a case where a Brazilian youth, after a big night out in the clubs of Surfers Paradise, was bashed while stumbling around at Burleigh at 3 a.m. The media linked this to localism at Burleigh, and by the time it reached Brazil it was Australian racism against Brazilians. I mean, there have been heaps of Aussies bashed after the clubs have let out, but it didn’t make the papers. So this journalist blew this thing up and potentially endangered Australian lives by inciting anger in Brazil. And as far as inspectors giving out tickets for burnings? Think about implementing this. What would they say? “The suspect rode a shortboard, wore white boardshorts with a blue rash vest and was last seen disappearing from view about 400 meters that-a-way, heading in a northerly direction parallel to Marine Parade, Coolangatta. Do not approach this person, he is a multiple offender and is armed with three sharp fins. Reinforcements have been called in; the Riot Squad is on standby.” It’s just absurd. The fact that you need to be a surfer to even make sense of what’s happening in the lineup is another element that needs to be considered. Imagine the indignity of wrongful ticketing, of interpreting a drop-in when it was actually a snaking offence. Getting a ticket and getting snaked, wow, that would really incite surf rage. The inspectors would need riot gear for protection. And they’d have to segregate the surfers based on ability and experience, not to mention the disparities between longboarders and shortboarders, and yeah, throw in the bodyboarders as well.
Surfermag.com: Do you feel like though, somewhere, this issue is a sign of what’s to come? Has crowd saturation at surf spots begun to make any sort of self regulation impossible? And if so, what does that mean for the future of surfing as a whole, both with regards to the nature of the activity and the ocean’s ability to support its increasing popularity?
Rabbit: This is the big question. Of course overcrowding is a major issue and the future is worrisome. It’s very difficult to self-regulate. I mean, there are over a million surfers in Australia, and they come from all walks of life. Some are professionals like doctors and lawyers, some are surf industry people, some are pro surfers and some are just bullies who are big enough to take whatever they want. The vast majority are recreational surfers who surf for the love of it though, and violence is not natural to surfing. The problem at Snapper is that it’s like the “too many rats in a cage” experiment. There are total novices in the same lineup as experts. The real danger is getting run over or bearing down on a learner who is like a deer in the headlights, ready to be mowed down. Around here, it has always been a case of the fittest survives. The best surfers get the best waves, through natural attrition. That was the natural order in the ’60s and ’70s. There was more violence in the ’80s than there is now, when locals really did rule, but once people started being threatened with assault charges there was a sharp decline in punch-outs. One of the main problems from a local’s perspective is that people come here with no respect. They blow into town and paddle straight to the inside. They carry on with behavior that they would absolutely not tolerate on their own home beach. You would not last one hour at a Sydney beach, a Brazilian beach, a Californian beach or a Hawaiian beach acting like visitors do when they come to the Gold Coast. It seems like some people leave their manners at home when they come to Snapper Rocks, and that exasperates the situation. The locals have been overrun and one of the problems is, apart from some more well-known locals, visiting surfers don’t know who the local guys are so they just do what they see others doing and drop-in, snake, paddle inside, push and shove. But, I don’t know what the answer is. Snapper Rocks is the most visited webcam in the world. All surf reporters mention it in every surf report; the television surf reporters get in their cars and drive straight to Snapper in the morning, and the consistency of the place results in a massive tribal word of mouth. The Sand Bypass system supplies consistent sand to Snapper and this has extended the prime surf season by at least 100 days, but the flipside of that is the loss of Kirra. With Kirra out of action for all but the rarest of moments, the area is without a major surfing amenity and that compounds the problems at Snapper. There is a major strategy to get Kirra back to its former glory, but when it breaks for half a day a year and the magazines run stories with great water shots claiming Kirra is back, the project to actually get it back loses ground big time. The problem with Kirra is twofold: there is too much sand accumulated there with no cyclones to move the sand north. But many longtime Kirra surfers cite the shortening of the Big Groyne by 30-meters [about 100 feet] as wrecking the angle of the bank by creating an unmakeable section for 100 meters at the take-off. I mean, hey, when Mick Fanning can’t make it, what hope do the rest of us have? So yes, we need to fix it and stop pumping sand to Kirra. But other answers? Well, the Surfrider Foundation is in the process of getting the Gold Coast City Council and Queensland Government to endorse the erection of signs with a 10-point surf-ethic mantra, so that’s a start. But getting Kirra back and looking at some other wave enhancement opportunities are also moves in the right direction. Also, visiting surfers need to have some respect for the locals and the wave, so teaching kids some surf etiquette is another solution. And simply not being a greedy asshole just because you can be is another. Landing before a magistrate and being criminally convicted is society’s deterrent to violence. But surf police will not work in my opinion. Not in a mile-long arena. It could however, result in longer, deeper, tuberides as offenders shake police trackers by disappearing from the scene. But my final point is that the southern Gold Coast has been painted as a place where anarchy reigns, where surfers are animals, where violence is the rule of thumb and the place is in a state of perpetual chaos. But do you really think this is the reality? Has anyone at all considered that this predicament is the result of exactly the opposite? That it’s the innate friendliness and hospitality of the locals that’s being taken advantage of here? That the traditional open friendliness of the people has been totally overwhelmed?