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