Broken waves: Choosing violence in the surf

This story popped up over and over yesterday. It's not a nice one - police intervention and criminal charges following a violent altercation in my home town. Via local newspaper, The Northern Star:
Described by police as a "surf rage" incident, at about 1.30pm on Monday, a Byron Bay man was surfing when police will allege "he and another surfer went to catch the same wave". 
Police said the accused 29-year-old pushed the pointy end of his surfboard into another man's face, causing him facial injuries that bled.
Police went into the surf to get the guy, and he's been charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm, which can carry up to a five year gaol term, or lesser penalties such as home detention, community service, or a suspended sentence.

Whatever he gets, pushing the very pointy tip of your board into someone's face to cut them up is a shocking thing to do. And we're to talking about this happening in pumping surf, and unexpectedly epic conditions. It's not even the middle of summer with no car parks, thousands of people in the water, and scarce waves to share - a time when tensions can be higher. This happened on an early-winter Monday afternoon, filled with sunshine, clear water and small waves.

He thrust the pointy nose of his board into someone's face with the intention of intimidating, frightening and hurting them, because he didn't want to share his wave. And he did hurt him. Intentionally. It's awful!

I don't want to share my waves with strangers either. I'm very much not into this whole-party-waves-with-anyone-who-feels-like-joinging-in approach that is being promoted as part of the Byron surfing ethic and norm. Sharing with friends is fun, but sharing with everyone on your outside, sucks. I'm equally not into the enduring myth of the person on the inside having right of way. That just doesn't work in most lineups now - people just paddle past on rotation and take things because it's their "right" without looking back or take into consideration the many other factors that shape the operation of a busy lineup. Like, say, thinking about who might not be getting waves as you take them all. I definitely get cranky about these things in the surf, and I'm guilty of getting emotional and frustrated and saying something in the water about it all - the other day I told a man, "It might be someone else's turn to get a wave soon, huh". But I've not stabbed someone with my board. I'm not going to either.

This behaviour is not without precedent. I've certainly read accounts of a group of surfers in California who took umbrage with a non-local interloper, and while some men in the group held his arms behind him in the water, allowed another of their group to submerge a shortboard, and allow the water pressure to shoot the board out and stab the man. I don't know what he did to be treated with such retribution - I think it was a locals only kind of thing - but it did not deserve such retribution. (I can't remember where I read that though. Somewhere when I was doing some reading about violence in the surf.)

Such behaviour remains a relic of, in Margaret Henderson's words, surfing as "a last frontier for anxious men and youths". I like to think those days are over, but they're not.

That this happened at broken is no surprise to me though. I'm sad about it being no surprise. I've been going to Broken Head since I could walk, and grew up on the same stretch of beach that it's headland book ends. Broken Head is a place where I've had some of my most precious surfs. It's the last place I went to the beach with my mum and where I surfed the morning after she died - on a borrowed board with no legrope. It's a place where I've surfed waves that challenged me in new ways. It's where I shared my first surf with my nephew.

But it's also become a place I avoid.

It's a break that local shortboarding 'lads' come to surf at dawn and dusk; where dad's take out their competitive groms, encouraging them into aggressive styles of surfing while hovering nearby their often precocious, foul-mouthed children like a protective net; where weekend-only surfers, understandably desperate for waves, often talk little and take a lot. These are stereotypes, and they're far from absolute, but in terms of the vibe in the surf, Broken Head has come to be a place that I find can be a bit scary.

It's more than all of that - it's beautiful and special and home - but a hum of aggression never feels far, and always plays on my mind when I surf there. Because it's the place where I've had my most physical altercations - had someone flick their board into my legs while I was on a wave, had a young boy swear at and insult me in almost empty knee-high peelers, been left to get smashed by a wave from which I could have been saved by him making a slightly different turn - I still have the resulting scars on my back.

This news story sucks and I guess we will see what happens, but I hope it's not an indicator of more to come.


  1. no need to say that I agree.
    But speaking about wave sharing: if someone smiles and leave the wave after a bit I smile back and I find it fun. It relaxes me thinking that I could get a bit of that surfer's wave next time, if in need. I also find that managing a wave in two is more challenging and could give satisfaction. This happens a lot with friends, but not only.
    What I don't get is instead people getting pissed for sharing a wave in a super all year round crowded spot.
    I wonder why they are there at all.
    (and I'm referring to those small days, anyway).
    And finally, I believe that the best surfers in the water are often the ones that cause problems, catching everything all the times, in ten different positions, never stopping, increasing the frustration among others.

    1. Great comment, Fed. Thanks :)

      I agree that we all need to learn to be more generous. My own frustrations boil when those who share are always on your outside, or always paddling past. There are rhythms to the sharing that can be hard to make sense of. I can't always put my fingers on it, and I wish I was a better person than getting frustrated... But as you point out, often it's the "best" surfers who cause tension and fights. A friend, who is an exceptionally good surfer, once told me that the best surfers should get the waves, because they know the breaks best and are always in the right spot, so that's how it goes. My argument that he should let some waves go through, despite him being always in the best spot, fell on deaf ears and he just won't consider another way of surfing. He believes he's earned rights - a position I vehemently disagree with.

      The less I surf, the more generous and calm I am when I'm in the water - an odd equation. I know that these days I make sure to always let some waves go through to those further down the line.

  2. Ah-ah! the less I surf the more anxious I become! But that's fixed instantly with one or two good rides.
    The more I think about it the more I'm convinced that the activity of surfing gives this sort of green card to people to be or act as assholes. Probably one of very few instance in society where the law of the jungle reigns and it's ok. The strongest and bravest or arrogant take control of the liquid place and the others have to bow.
    Think of what would happen if -for some magic- surfers would have to get in line, like any other places in a community, to catch a wave each, in turns!? I would be fine with that. My friends also. But not those used to impose their will over the others.
    Now I also think: could this be one -hidden- reason why there's so much unreasonable adversity against pool waves? Taking turns? Everybody equal?
    Too bad, right?

  3. Hmmm. I hate the idea of lining up in such an ordered way. I like in part the magic of paddling about for waves - of reading the water and the tides and the swell and knowing where to be. I like the idea of waves finding me as well. So lining up doesn't work for me.

    My main gripe is with human nature, I guess, and that is nothing that can be easily resolved.

    As for wave pools, that's an interesting theory...


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