By The Numbers

Utopia is just a queue away

Most lineups operate as a meritocracy: the best surfers get the best waves. But with a bit more structure, would everyone be happier? Photo: Ellis

Most lineups operate as a meritocracy: the best surfers get the best waves. But with a bit more structure, would everyone be happier? Photo: Ellis

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 3 of 4 of our #CrowdControl series.

I'm paddling out at a break I haven't been to before. Looks sort of like Trestles, sort of like Malibu and sort of like Swami's. Very California. The waves are good so it's pretty crowded. Thirty or 40 guys, from the groms inside to the longboarders outside. Nobody's yelling, though, so maybe I'll catch a few waves before it
gets unpleasant.

As I paddle into the lineup, everyone is watching me. When I stop and sit up, the guy nearest me says, "First time here?"

Seems odd. Then a very pretty girl next to him says, "You need to see the WaveMaster."

That's weird. I start to paddle away when another guy says, "The old dude out there."

I look outside and see a heavyset older guy wearing trunks and a wetsuit vest sitting with some younger guys, talking and laughing. It's a lull so I decide to go talk to the old guy, to see what's up.

As I paddle up to him, he looks me over. "You're new here. I don't recall seeing you before."

* "Yeah, first time. Guy in there said..."

+ "You're number 37."

* "What?"

+ "Thirty-seven. That's your number. You need to find 36 and 35. Just in case."

* "In case of what?"

+ "In case they can't catch their wave or decide to go in."

I'm speechless.

+ The "WaveMaster" sees my confusion, sort of sighs, then explains, "You see, it's like this. Wherever you came from, you probably had to fight for waves. On a good day, you'd be lucky to get any waves at all."

* "You all take turns out here?"

+ "Exactly."

– "And I have to wait till my number comes up? What if my wave is tiny?"

+ "Then you learn to appreciate tiny waves."

* "What if it's the wave of the day?"

+ "No one will take off on it. It will be yours to catch and ride."

* "What if half the guys out here can barely stand up, what then?"

+ "Shall we assume you were once like that? That we all were?"

* "I don't get it. So kooks have as much right to the best waves as I do?"

+ "Of course. What makes you special?"

* "Well...I mean, I can...I've paid my dues!"

+ "No doubt you have. But this isn't a club. Fact is, even with 37 of you in the water, you'll get more waves here today than you would where you have to fight for them. And you'll have a better time."

* "Doing what, waiting?"

+ "That and enjoying the day, the ocean, the people around you. All that energy you normally spend trying to outmaneuver everyone and fight for position, all of that's gone here. You know you'll get waves. You know no one will drop in on you. Plus, you know everyone else will get waves. You won't believe it now, but pretty soon you'll start enjoying the waves others get almost as much as your own."

Even pros wait their turn. Danny Fuller, happily rewarded. Photo: Noyle

Even pros wait their turn. Danny Fuller, happily rewarded. Photo: Noyle

As if to make his case, a set arrives. One guy and one guy only paddles for each wave. On the third wave of the set a kook struggles into position and looks terrified. The guys cheer him on. Like they're all his best friends. Trying not to disappoint them, he paddles his ass off and miraculously catches the wave. We can't see him from behind, but everyone is watching and when he comes flying over the back 50 yards down the line, the whole crowd erupts in cheers as if it's the Super Bowl.

The kook paddles back out as happy as any person I've ever seen.

+ "Kinda like that," says the WaveMaster.

* "OK, that's...OK, but what about pros? What if pro surfers come out? You expect them to just take a number and wait like everyone else?"

+ "We do."

* "And if they don't? What if they take off in front of somebody and..."

+ "Then we'll ask them to leave."

* "Who will?"

+ "We all will."

* "Bet that's fun to watch."

+ "Usually, once we explain the rules, they decide to give it a try. Others just leave."

* "And the ones who want to stay and not play by the numbers?"

+ "It's fairly easy to keep someone from catching waves if everyone in the water makes that a priority. Besides, if I call for a Circle, we usually get our point across."

* "What's a Circle?"

+ "A Circle is when someone needs to know we're serious. Everyone in the lineup stops catching waves and paddles over to surround the bad guy--or guys if there's more than one. Nobody talks. Every wave goes unridden. All the fun stops and we just wait. They usually back down and ask for a number or else they paddle in. Or sometimes they go ballistic."

* "Bet you see a lot of fights."

+ "Not as many as you might think. Even pros miss those days when there's no competition and everyone is having fun. Sometimes pros miss that more than anyone."

* "So what about you? What about when you're not here?"

+ "Anyone can be the WaveMaster. If there are only a few guys out and everyone is sharing, no WaveMaster is necessary. But once there are nine guys in the lineup, the guy who's oldest becomes the WaveMaster."

* "Why nine? Why not four or 20 or...?"

+ "Nine seems to be the right number here. At other breaks, the number may be different."

* "So there are other breaks using this system?"

+ "Yup. It seems to be catching on."

* "OK, so why old guys?  What makes them better qualified to be WaveMasters than...?"

+ "You?"

* "Sure. Why not? I've got experience."

+ "One day you'll be the oldest guy out and you'll be the WaveMaster. But it's really more about respect. We respect beginners of all ages and we respect our elders--even if they're not that old. And don't forget the ladies. You may have noticed quite a few surfing here today."

* "Yeah, I did, but...what about competition? Isn't that always going to be…"

+ "If nobody loses, everybody wins. Look way inside. You see those guys in there?"

I count about six guys strung out along the shorebreak section.

+ "We call them Vultures. They don't have numbers. They're allowed to pick off any wave that's riderless. And they can fight among themselves all they want."

* "So if someone falls off or blows a take-off..."

+ "Precisely. No sense letting a good wave go to waste."

* "But if they take off in front of someone who's still matter how bad the rider is...?"

+ "That would be unwise."

* "Sounds like the Mafia."

+ "We do play the numbers."

* "Speaking of numbers, why is it so quiet? Why don't I hear anyone calling out numbers?"

+ "Everyone pretty much knows who's ahead of them and gets into position early. And since everyone is hoping they get the best waves it creates a sort of bond between surfers with numbers close together. Even if they're strangers. We're all greedy bastards, ya know."

* "Right. Hey, am I up yet? I mean we've been talking for..."

+ "Who's got 36 and 35!" shouts the WaveMaster to the pack. Two guys near each other raise their hands.

* "Those are your guys. Judging by the last set and where they're sitting, I'd say your turn is coming pretty soon."

He smiles and throws a kelp bulb at a friend of his. I paddle in a bit to sit near 36.

A decent wave starts forming and 35 moves into position. I trail 36 as he paddles to the next one. The wave after his is a beauty and it's all mine. But the more I paddle for it, the further away it gets.

Like in a dream.

--Neil Stebbins