The Tour Comes to Coolanghetto

What trouble lurks therein? Photo: Nate Lawrence

The journey begins in middle Australia.

As four-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore ascended the stairs to her home on the the night of December 28, 2010, she was attacked with a metal pipe and block of wood. The assailant, thought to be homeless and possibly stalking her, had arrived by bicycle. Steph fended the man away and her screams alerted her aunt, who arrived mid-assault, but the 22-year-old Stephanie would pay with a broken wrist and cuts to her hands.

"I am OK and I think I’ll be alright. It’s a bit of a shame. I won’t let my confidence get down, that’s the main thing,” said Steph, who only returned to the water earlier this month. Her attacker was apprehended in a citizen's arrest when he returned to the scene later by bicycle.

Steph’s attack was the latest in a long line of assaults involving high-profile surfers in the Gold Coast and Coolangatta areas. In some instances, the surfer played victim; in others, aggressor. Now, with the Top 35 spread across the region awaiting continuation of the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, all should bear in mind the dangers that loom as the sun sets on this Australian surf mecca.

Six months prior to the attack on Steph, Dean “Dingo” Morrison was left with a fractured cheekbone and suspected swelling of the brain after being king-hit in an unprovoked attack outside a Coolangatta nightspot.

“He is extremely lucky that, one: he didn’t get killed, and two: he didn’t get brain damage,"said longtime mentor and Coolangatta surfing legend Rabbit Bartholomew after the attack. It came at a critical time for the Cooly kid. Dingo was languishing in the ratings and required good results at the Billabong Pros J-Bay and Tahiti to avoid elimination from the World Tour at the mid-year cutoff. He surfed J-Bay with a fractured cheek but failed to make the cut come Tahiti.

Meters from where Dingo was assaulted, Australian prog-surfer Chris “Chippa” Wilson was blindsided in an unprovoked attack in 2005.

"Me and my mate walked out of the club and went to do a piss. And that's all I remember. I got knocked out while I was doing a piss," Chippa told Stab Magazine following the Dingo incident. He sustained a hole in his cheek, while his friend, who was also rendered unconscious, woke missing a tooth. Chippa's close friend and fellow Cabarita surfer Sam Ford wasn't as lucky. After an unprovoked "one-punch" attack in 2009, he was left permanently brain damaged and confined to a wheelchair.

"There were a lot of fights up here until just recently and we weren't aware of the consequences at all," said Chippa after the incident. "We'd have parties all the time and people would be getting punched out and whatnot. You'd think nothing of it. When this happens to one of your mates, it changes everything."

During Mick Fanning's world title celebrations in November 2007, big-wave surfer and professional cage fighter Richie Vaculik was involved in an alleged assault outside a Coolangatta nightspot. Vaculik was said to have broken a man's jaw in three places, but escaped a charge, instead being ordered to pay a $5000 fine and $7000 dollars to the victim.

And that's just the Coolangatta area. In February 2007, Australian pro Sam Page was "sent flying" down eight stairs by a bouncer's punch while celebrating his 21st birthday at a Surfers Paradise nightclub. He suffered severe head injuries and spent three days in a coma. The bouncer escaped a charge on the grounds that the injuries were not a result of his punch but rather the fall down the stairs, which was an accident. Sam made a full recovery, but his career didn't.

“I hit rock bottom and I've never found that momentum again," he said.

In 2004, Gold Coast pro surfer Clint Kimmins was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stabbing now-convicted drug dealer Dru Baggely with a broken bottle. Kimmins, despite initially acting in self-defense, was ruled to have "unlawfully wounded" the man after stabbing him a second time.

On another occasion, Quiksilver pro favorites and Coolangatta locals Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson were embroiled in a less sinister stoush in 2003. During the annual Christmas Day drunken boxing partaken in by various Coolangatta surfers and locals, Mick and Parko were, unbeknownst to them, set up to fight each other. White Lightning struck a blow to the chin of his opponent, felling him, in the process tagging Parko with the nickname "Joel Dirt," to which he still bristles today.

The violence in the area, of which only a fraction has involved high-profile surfers, is linked it to a wider binge-drinking epidemic and alcohol related violence in Australia, as well as the rise of youth gangs along the Gold Coast and particularly in the Tweed Heads area. Police responded in 2008 by issuing a stronger presence in the area and say results were immediate. Not everyone agrees.

“On a Friday and Saturday night, to me, [Coolangatta] is a no-go zone. It is dangerous. It is terrible what has happened to our little surfing town. There are gangs, there is all kinds of stuff happening down here,” Rabbit said after the injury to Dingo. —Jed Smith