When no one wants to enforce etiquette, we all pay the price. Photo: Glaser

We are often very different creatures on land than we are in the water. The same guy who once helped your grandmother load groceries into her station wagon will literally threaten to eat your children in the lineup. On the other side of that coin, I can be argumentative—hyper confrontational even—when standing on solid ground, but as soon as I enter the water I’m instantly unflappable. There are lots of waves, and more are on the way, so when I see someone screaming at another surfer, splashing water around, or generally freaking out, I feel a tinge of embarrassment for them. On land, publicly losing your cool is frowned upon, even when you’ve been wronged in some way. When someone swoops your parking spot at the beach, or a stranger spills his beer on your new Chuck Taylors at the bar, it sucks, but you keep your cool to avoid looking like a belligerent dick. In the same vein, getting dropped in on, or back paddled, or falling victim to any number of etiquette breaches at your local beach break doesn't seem significant enough to snap. At the end of the day, does it really matter?

Southern California surfers have mellowed out since I learned to surf, or maybe it’s just a byproduct of the omnipresent American phobia of getting sued, but it seems that altercations—verbal and physical—have been on the decline for years. In general, surfers seem less concerned with enforcing etiquette than ever before. For a while I assumed this more peaceful temperament was the best thing for us—like a bold new race of wave sliding Dalai Lamas, we could ride into an aquatic utopia. But after a chance encounter in Laguna Beach, I realized the potential consequences of a non-confrontational collective.

It was a mediocre day, somewhere between knee-to-waist high. But the sun was out, the water was warm, and I clung to hope that if I sat patiently out the back for long enough, the Universe might send me a chest-high set. While I sat, a tiny freckle-faced creature paddled up next to me, and waited on the shoulder. As soon as a wave came I turned and paddled, but the tiny human paid no mind. He looked right at me and dropped in, forcing me to straighten out to avoid running him down, which, depending on Flintstone vitamin intake, may have proved fatal.

I wanted to say something, but he looked to be no older than 10 and I couldn't bring myself to do it. "Kids," I thought, and shook it off. Soon another set appeared on the horizon. As I stood up on the chest-high right, the kid made eye contact before burning me again. I was livid. I paddled back out, rehearsing a fiery rant in my head with each stroke, ready for his return to the peak—but I stopped. "Am I really going to yell at a 10-year-old?" I pondered, quickly losing my fire. "What if he starts crying? Can you get arrested for making a 10-year-old cry? Is that how surfers get restraining orders from surf spots?" In this most litigious age, there was no way to know anything for sure except that I had already overthought the whole situation and was now too flustered to say anything.

As I changed at my car afterward, I reflected on the situation. It’s great if surfers are becoming more amiable, accepting that people make mistakes, turning the other cheek, etc. But let’s face it, human beings are selfish creatures by nature. That’s why people loot when the power goes out, why Michael Jackson outbid Paul McCartney for all those Beatles songs, and why capitalism is the prevailing economic system on planet earth. If people don’t catch a slap on the wrist for acting in a selfish manner, they will keep doing it.

"It's not like it used to be when I was a grom," says Lowers regular Nate Yeomans. "If I burned some older dude, that meant I was either getting dunked or sent in. I've even had my fins broken before. I learned pretty quick as a grom because there were consequences. It seems like that's changed a lot. The groms tend to get a little too arrogant these days because there is not much repercussion. I don't think it would be wise to be physical or anything, especially considering that there are more legal consequences now, but when I got dunked as a kid it definitely taught me to respect the order of things."

I used to think there was virtue in keeping your cool in the lineup at all times. But is that just a cop out? A fallacy that has allowed me to neglect an important civic duty? Maybe I’ve mistaken my own vanity for virtue all these years. One day that freckled little brat will be all grown up. His braces will come off, he will start riding boards over 5'0'', and his pliable little brain will become set in its ways. If he ends up becoming an asshole in the water, what does that make me?