The sport of surfing is forever being rebranded. Numerous reinventions of the WSL aimed at selling the sport to an ever-expanding audience means surfing now has massive worldwide exposure. Large, faceless companies are cashing in on the perceived perception of “coolness” that is inherent in our sport in order to shift mobile phones, t-shirts and pickup trucks to the masses. Which is fine, until these people decide they want a piece of the action for themselves and buy a seven-foot slab of fiberglass and a season parking ticket at one of many prime surf spots around the globe. Now, I’ve got nothing against newcomers to the sport–we all had to start somewhere–but it’s hard to argue against the fact the increasing number of participants is causing anything other than friction in the water.
But is it simply the extra bodies in the ocean causing more incidents of surf rage? Or is it a lack of understanding of surfing politeness? Perhaps it’s not even the newcomers at all. Maybe those who consider themselves experienced in the water have developed such an innate superiority complex that they’re unable to show any sensitivity to the others in the water, regardless of their fellow surfers’ experience.
On any peak, at any location, there is a hierarchy in the water. Even on entering a line-up, your body language, approach and authority naturally slot you into the unspoken order of surfers that exists in the water. That’s often why the very best surfers get more waves than their slightly inferior counterparts; just asserting their dominance allows them the extra second to find themselves in prime position time and time again. Just watch Mick Fanning and pals warming up at Snapper Rocks. Even in one of the most crowded spots in the world, they manage to thread their way through the melee. And as far as I’m aware, Fanning managed to exit the water without punching a “kook.”
So what leads people to lose their rag in the water? Why do some people get so angry that they feel the only way to express their feelings is to lash out at the perpetrator of the surf crime? Lack of etiquette and understanding of basic surf protocol is surely the biggest cause of frustration. Whatever the level of your experience, age, or connection to a break, you don’t drop in on a fellow surfer. It’s the sports’ biggest cardinal sin, and is a surefire way to get those prone to venting their frustration a little hot under their neoprene collar. It’s also mighty annoying when you’re on a wave to have to adjust your line because a paddling surfer is unaware that they should be heading for the breaking shoulder of the wave, rather than the smooth passage of the clean face that you’ve both got your eye on. And ditching that fresh-out-the-box board rather than duck diving… that will raise the hackles of even the most passive member of the surf community.
For those of us who’ve been surfing since we were kids, these conventions have been instilled in us from the start. Perhaps this is the problem with those new to the sport. Who tells them the rules? Is it really their fault that they’re not quite sure of the correct protocol? Maybe we shouldn’t be getting cross; instead, we should be educating surf novices. Posters in car parks, leaflets, ad campaigns… a nice idea, but it’s not going to happen. Could a gentle shout be the best way for them to get the message that they’re not necessarily in the right place at the right time?
I guess it boils down to this: in surfing, the actions of others have a huge impact on our own experiences. Be it a fellow surfer’s inexperience, or a surfer with a self-professed divine right to catch every arriving bump on the horizon, we are not entirely in control of our own wave riding. A fresh-faced footballer has time to hone their skills on their own time and gradually build up to interacting with fellow footballers. A new ice skater isn’t expected to jump on a crowded rink while those with infinitely more experience pirouette and revolve endlessly around them as they master simple techniques. But anyone can paddle out at Jaws and demonstrate their lack of ability in front of far from sympathetic onlookers.
Yet surely our reaction to potential incidents of surf rage reflects how we want to be perceived as a person. Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating to get endlessly burned on a wave, but does that mean we should knock chunks out of someone who, in all honesty, just lacks experience? Life pisses us off constantly, and we deal with it without resorting to knuckle scraping, so perhaps we should try and adopt this attitude in the water.
Even more importantly, we should appreciate those times we do manage to find a little solitude in the water. Enjoy those rare times where you manage to escape the thronging crowds. And let’s ensure we keep those secret spots under wraps for just a little while longer.