The vi­o­lence that haunts the pro­fes­sional surf­ing cir­cuit is re­vealed in a new doc­u­men­tary, writes Fred Pawle

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

TWO cul­tures col­lided in De­cem­ber 1976 on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. On one side were Hawai­ians, de­scen­dants of the world’s orig­i­nal surfers. On the other was a group of surfers from South Africa and Aus­tralia who were mostly too young and too am­bi­tious to know when they were be­ing in­sen­si­tive.

The set­ting was the 10km stretch of coast that was home to some of the best breaks in the world, which ex­ploded ev­ery north­ern win­ter as in­tense storms in the north Pa­cific sent moun­tain­ous swells to­wards the is­land’s rocky shore.

Un­til the year be­fore, the Hawai­ians had dom­i­nated the an­nual sea­son of am­a­teur com­pe­ti­tions at their beaches which were, and re­main, the pin­na­cle of the world’s surf meets.

In 1975, how­ever, haoles ( white peo­ple) from Aus­tralia and South Africa had been granted pre­cious in­vi­ta­tions to the meets af­ter prov­ing their skill and courage out of com­pe­ti­tion the year be­fore. They wound up winning each of the four events. The Hawai­ians’ pride was wounded but they hid it well. They had been gen­er­ous hosts to the haoles and as­sumed that the new­com­ers, re­gard­less of their suc­cess, had an un­der­stand­ing of the code of hu­mil­ity and re­spect cen­tral to Hawai­ian cul­ture.

They were to be dis­ap­pointed. In typ­i­cally cocky Aus­tralian style, Ian ‘‘ Kanga’’ Cairns and Wayne ‘‘ Rab­bit’’ Bartholomew wrote ar­ti­cles for a news­pa­per and a mag­a­zine pro­claim­ing dom­i­nance over the old Hawai­ian guard and point­ing out how dif­fi­cult it had been for them to score in­vi­ta­tions to the events in the first place.

The ti­tle of Bartholomew’s piece, taken from a phrase he used in it, was ‘‘ Bustin’ down the door’’. This phrase has since be­come em­blem­atic of the era and be­came the ti­tle of Bartholomew’s 1996 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It is also the ti­tle of a sen­sa­tional new doc­u­men­tary, to be re­leased next month, about ex­actly what hap­pened when Cairns and Bartholomew went back to the North Shore in 1976.

The Hawai­ians’ re­sponse was vis­ceral. Some couldn’t wait for Bartholomew and Cairns to re­turn. As Hawai­ian leg­end Barry Kana­iaupuni ex­plains in the film: ‘‘ Aus­tralians are pushy peo­ple. They like to talk about how great they are . . . You gonna talk like Cas­sius Clay? Put up like Cas­sius Clay. And that’s what hap­pened.’’

If Bartholomew was over-ex­er­cis­ing his ego, it’s easy to un­der­stand why. He was brought up dirt poor in Rain­bow Bay, in what is now the Gold Coast. His fa­ther left when he was 11, at which point Bartholomew be­came the man of the house, among four sis­ters and his mum. On one oc­ca­sion he had to re­sort to steal­ing just to put food on the ta­ble. At 18 he sud­denly found him­self com­pet­ing at world level in the sport he loved and it would be sur­pris­ing if it didn’t go to his head a bit. But the Hawai­ians didn’t know that. As for Cairns, he was a brash West Aus­tralian. ‘‘ I was brought up to have an opin­ion, to say what I thought and to stand up for my­self,’’ he says.

The doc­u­men­tary, nar­rated by Ed Nor­ton, re­counts the re­cep­tion in de­tail: Bartholomew lost some teeth, was forced from his friend’s house and lived un­der bushes for a few days. Cairns got in a fight and re­calls want­ing to kill his op­po­nent. He and Bartholomew went into hid­ing be­cause there were Hawai­ians, armed with knives, al­legedly roam­ing in search of them. Bartholomew men­tions in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that an Aus­tralian non-surfer who was un­lucky enough to bear a pass­ing re­sem­blance to him was smacked in the head with an ash­tray at a bar and taken to hospi­tal with a gashed face.

Af­ter a few weeks of open hos­til­ity a meet­ing was called. Cairns and Bartholomew were forced to face 150 big, an­gry lo­cals and had the of­fen­sive­ness of their com­ments ex­plained to them. Their con­tri­tion was ac­cepted by those present but the Hawai­ian surfers ac­knowl­edged they could not guar­an­tee the of­fend­ers’ safety. Oth­ers had heard about their ar­ro­gance and also wanted a right of re­ply. Cairns armed him­self with a loaded shot­gun and kept it in his car. He re­solved that if any­one took him on he would fight his way back to the car and ‘‘ shoot the bas­tard’’.

The doc­u­men­tary il­lus­trates how quickly mis­guided in­sults can de­gen­er­ate into war, es­pe­cially where a tra­di­tional code of hon­our dic­tates the of­fended party’s re­sponse. The doc­u­men­tary in­ter­sperses this with the best surf footage from the mid-1970s, when, de­spite the trou­bles, surf­ing per­for­mance was be­ing turned on its head. It is the best doc­u­men­tary made about surf­ing. But it has one short­com­ing: the end­ing wraps the story in an al­most nos­tal­gic glow, sug­gest­ing that the trou­bles of three decades ago were re­solved when the war­ring par­ties re­alised they shared a com­mon goal and went on to cre­ate the pro­fes­sional, mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar sport of surf­ing.

This is true, but it’s also true that surf­ing’s trou­bles re­main, as the film’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Shaun Tom­son ( the 1977 world cham­pion) told me this month on the phone from Rio, where the film was be­ing pre­miered.

Tom­son was beaten up in 1976 and a Hawai­ian swung punches at him dur­ing a heat at the Pipe Mas­ters when he was in con­tention for the 1977 world ti­tle. Cairns, mean­while, was threat­ened again on the North Shore this year by a lo­cal who took the film the wrong way.

‘‘ If you weren’t so old, I’d punch you out right now,’’ Cairns, 56, was told.

Says Tom­son: ‘‘ There’s a group of thugs that have been there since the ’ 70s that are still there. I don’t need to name peo­ple, but there’s an el­e­ment in our sport that is hold­ing it back, just like there was a drug el­e­ment when we started that was hold­ing the sport back. The drug el­e­ment was slowly driven out but the thug el­e­ment is still there. It’s small, but it’s still there.’’

It’s the worst man­i­fes­ta­tion of the old code of re­spect and ter­ri­to­ri­al­ity, which is as alive as it ever was. The cul­tural schism be­tween Hawai­ians and the rest of the world re­mains a fea­ture of the in­creas­ingly crowded an­nual con­test sea­son on the North Shore.

There are good rea­sons for this. The ocean is an un­reg­u­lated en­vi­ron­ment. Any­one is free to pad­dle out at, say, Pipe­line or Back­door, two of the best breaks, not just on the North Shore but in the world. It’s like say­ing to the world’s am­a­teur ten­nis play­ers that they can walk on to Wim­ble­don’s cen­tre court for a hit any time they like, then hope things don’t get too crowded or the grass doesn’t get tram­pled. Add to that the po­ten­tial for in­jury or death in big surf and the need for some sort of au­thor­ity in the line-up be­comes cru­cial.

The lo­cals per­form this role mostly with good hu­mour, but in­dis­cre­tions are dealt with force­fully. Few sea­sons go by without some­one be­ing slapped for show­ing too lit­tle re­spect. This year it was Cal­i­for­nian Chris Ward’s turn. In Novem­ber, Ward, rated 23rd in the world, was called to the shore and punched for tak­ing a wave from a lo­cal.

Some­times, this at­ti­tude spills into the com­pe­ti­tions them­selves. Last sea­son, 2000 world cham­pion Sunny Gar­cia was fined $ 5000 by the sports ad­min­is­tra­tors for chas­ing Brazil­ian Neco Padaratz out of the wa­ter dur­ing the Pipe­line Mas­ters for a per­ceived in­dis­cre­tion.

‘‘ It’s my back yard, I can do what I like,’’ Gar­cia told me when I in­ter­viewed him for a surf mag­a­zine this year. By surf­ing stan­dards, this had the hap­pi­est of end­ings. Gar­cia didn’t touch Padaratz and the pair shook hands pub­licly on the beach the next day. ‘‘ We’re friends now,’’ Gar­cia said. ‘‘ It’s over and done.’’

Ter­ri­to­rial war zone: Mark Richards to­day

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