The rules of the waves. Plus, we hear from the boarding icon Kelly Slater
In March this year, 11- time world sur ng champion Kelly Slater pulled his rental car up beneath the shade of a tree near Snapper Rocks, an ultra- popular surf break almost on the border between ueensland and New South Wales, Australia.
Slater had been competing in the rst event of his 23rd year on the world pro sur ng tour, the $ 500,000 uiksilver Pro. He hadn’t won, but to the sur ng world at large, it hardly mattered. No surfer has come close to Slater’s achievements in the sport. He’s Michael Jordan, Roger Federer and Cristiano Ronaldo wrapped up in one salty package.
Now he was about to surf for fun. Smiling, acknowledging star- struck kids, Kelly headed for Snapper’s entry point at a light jog, while surfers already in the water turned to check: yep, it’s Slater, he’s coming out, I’m gonna stay and watch.
But someone else was watching and waiting – someone who’d clearly read what Kelly had told the local newspaper about Snapper Rocks only a few days before. “The crowds here are like nothing I’ve ever seen in the world when you’re sur ng,” Slater said. “It’s really, really tough for any one person to get space in the water and it’s mostly not fun.”
And when the champ came back to his car after his session, there it was, scrawled in surf- wax across his windscreen: “F off, tourist.”
Slater’s response was quick and to the point. He showed the world Snapper’s brand of hospitality via In- stagram. “Such great respect surfers have for each other around these parts,” he wrote. “Maybe he’ll brag to his friends and I can nd out who he is that I can thank him in person and return the favour.”
Imagine driving a car on a double- lane road toward an intersection, a dozen other cars around you. Everyone wants to make it through the intersection – rst. But then the road narrows, there’s other cars coming down the cross street and there’s no traf c lights. And as far as you can tell, there are no road rules. Every driver for himself. That’s how it can feel for a sur ng rookie, when you paddle out for the rst few times into a crowded sur ng spot. What are all these people doing? A wave comes and they’re splashing, paddling in different directions, faces contorted, all seemingly trying to do the same thing – catch that all- important wave.
It looks chaotic, but beneath the chaos is a set of rules. And wherever you go – even at Dubai’s last remaining natural surf spot, Sunset Beach, not far from the Burj Al Arab – you’ll nd some version of these rules being played out. Fascinating, highly exible, and most of all, unspoken, surf etiquette is all that stands between the world’s 20 million surfers and complete waterborne anarchy. Thing is, as some spots become too popular for their own good, anarchy, and injury, sometimes seems just an ill- considered move away, and the sport’s stars such as Slater have felt the urge to speak out against it more and more.
“If there was any question as to whether we’ve ruined the Mentawais, the sobering reality of 16 boats 1 average break tonight con rmed it,” tweeted Slater about the waves off the Western coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, back in 2012. He was as equally blunt about Snapper back in March of 2014. “When you get that many people, if you have even just a few people who aren’t really competent, there’s issues , ” he said. “But even for the good guys, there’s risk of them hurting each other. It’s just that there’s so many people and there’s only so much space on a wave that you can ride. We’re all getting in each other’s way and it’s kind of a shame. It’s hard to be a part of.’’
Basic surf etiquette began to take shape decades ago, in sur ng’s craziest, loosest days – the late 1960s and early 1970s, after Gidget and the Beach Boys had receded, when the coasts of Hawaii, Australia and the mainland USA drew ragged bands of wayward young men eager for something new and wild.
To them sur ng was the ultimate freedom – a way of shaking off all the cares and worries of the world, and living as far as possible outside the normal rules.
But they swiftly found that the combination of dangerous new surf locations and shorter, more dif cult surfboards meant that rules – in the water at least – were just what they needed.
Those basic rules of the game remain largely unchanged. Yet the manner in which they’re applied has varied radically from surf spot to surf spot around the globe, for odd reasons that often seem to have nothing to do with sur ng at all, and more about possession.
One of the most hostile and aggressive sur ng environments on earth, for instance, can be found at Lunada Bay at the tip of the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles, California.
Lunada Bay looks anything like a setting for violence. A kilometre- wide slice of Southern Californian coastal paradise, it can be accessed from a cliff walk fronting some of the most elegant real estate in America. Go there during a good swell on a perfect late fall afternoon, as this writer did a couple of years ago, and you’d think you had died and gone to some sort of expensive TV- show heaven.
That is until the local surfers begin throwing rocks at
BREAK ONE OF THE RULES OF SURF ETIQUETTE AT PIPELINE AND IF YOU GET AWAY WITH BEING SLAPPED THINK YOURSELF LUCKY
you, or slashing your car tyres. Lunada Bay surfers have been monstering visitors to the area for generations, according to Geoff Hagins, a surfer from nearby Torrance Beach who has spent much of the past 25 years trying to open up access to the waves at the spot. “It’s nothing but sel shness They just want the place to themselves,” he told me.
In 1996, Hagins led a lawsuit against local Lunada surfer Peter McCollum and a group known as the ‘ Bay Boys’ in an attempt to bring attention to the hostility at the spot. McCollum eventually paid $ 15,000 in settlement fees to Hagins, but it had no effect on the actions of the Bay Boys. In January this year, surf news site the Interia published a call to open Lunada Bay by Newport, California surfer Rory Parker; after numerous threats, the site was forced to withdraw the piece.
If Lunada Bay is about surf greed, the Pipeline is about fear. The Banzai Pipeline, on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii, is the most famous surf spot in the world. Terrifying and dramatic, it provides a showdown site for the world pro sur ng championship each year – and draws top surfers from around the world to its shoreline, eager to have a crack at this Mt Everest of surf zones. But Pipeline also kills – and it doesn’t care whether you’re a novice or a hero. Among its 20- plus fatalities over the past 30 years is Tahiti’s Malik Joyeaux, who’d made his name riding 15- metre surf off the even more terrifying break of Teahupo’o in Tahiti. Yet this didn’t save Joyeaux from striking his head on the Pipeline reef under an innocuous three- metre wave ve years ago.
The surf spot’s deadly reputation has given rise to an almost equally deadly range of local guardians – the Kauai-based Wolfpak, and the Pipeline Posse, whose names might sound silly until you fall foul of their surveillance of the spot. Break one of the rules of surf etiquette at Pipeline and if you get away with being slapped, think yourself lucky.
If you’re unlucky well, just look it up on YouTube. People have been beaten unconscious on the beach at Pipeline just for paddling out at the wrong time. If rock throwing at Lunada Bay is about keeping strangers away, hitting people at Pipeline is about the fear of what might happen if you don’t. As Wolfpak leader Kala Alexander says: “I just have a problem with stupid people who endanger my friends.” Meanwhile on the east coast of Bali, you can simply pay to play – as groups of Japanese surfers have discovered through their tourism networks. The groups pay local enforcers as ‘ guides’ to keep surf spots empty of others. Accounts abound of surfers being abused, threatened or assaulted in the process.
And if the Japanese surf tourists sound like the villains of the piece, think again, says Junji Uchida, editor of Japan’s Sur n’ Life magazine. Uchida says it’s common for Japanese to pay for a ‘ guide’ on their rst trip, then not to bother the second time, guring they know the locations. They are then punched out by the same ‘ guides’ they’d hired the year before.
As New York’s Ma a-‘ protected’ shopkeepers of 60 years ago could have told ‘ em – once you’ve paid protection, you’re hooked.
If all this sounds like a hangover from wilder days, it probably is. And if you’re planning on sur ng Dubai’s Sunset Beach, you won’t have to worry about rock- throwing or insane violence. Expatriate Australian Jason Offord says that while 50 or more surfers might surf Sunset most mornings, “there’s mutual respect and common sense usually surfaces”.
Jason doesn’t see anyone hell- bent on claiming waves or protecting the break. “The reality is that most surfers are blow- ins because we’re expats, and this isn't our birthplace or spiritual home. It’s where we reside for the time being because work has brought us here.
“Most surfers respect each other and the cultural sensitivities of a Muslim country. A lot of the younger surfers were born here, and learned to surf here. And it’s those kids who’ve helped develop the culture and sense of surf community.”
Back at Snapper Rocks, however, the surf community is battling another kind of peculiarly modern dilemma. In the face of the crazy crowds that befuddled even Kelly
Slater, it seems those unwritten surfing rules are in danger of being replaced with actual real laws that Slater in particular would likely welcome-because without them, the champion can only see the situation getting worse down under. "It's toughm I'm worried what five years or ten years or 20 years from now brings, "Slater added back in March at Snapper. "If it's this crowded right now, I don't know what we're going to do. It's really unsafe-there's just people all over the place. It's so not fun for the average person. For anyone that goes out there surfing, it's almost not worth going surfing." Serious consideration is being given by the local Gold Coast City to the idea of a Surf Management Plan-complete with regulations on who should be allowed to surf where and when, pensity systems, specific laws to govern 'sufrage', and a whole raft of other suggestions. "We think there is room for comings," says Brad Farmer, co-chair of a group advising the council on surf legislation. "Not locals and tourists, but according to levels of proficiency and according to the conditions of the surf." Farmer says he hopes any such new laws might "become the blueprint for other surf cities around the world to follow." Will they work any better than the unwritten version? That remains to be seen.
FAMOUS, BUT DEADLY The Banzai Pipeline, on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii, is the most famous surf spot in the world. It is also deadly, having claimed more than 20 lives in the past 30 years
ORDER IN CHAOS Surfers at Venice Beach in California. It looks chaotic, but beneath the chaos is a set of rules
LIVING LEGEND No surfer has come close to Slater’s achievements in the sport
RIDING THE WAVE Slater during the finale of the 14th edition of the Billabong Pro Tahiti surf event in August