Unwritten Rule

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

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