I wasn't there and have only heard about it in the last few days and it is all over the news and I'm not going to post the picture, but that is about the sum of it and any way you look at it, it's not cool.
What it has ignited is a discussion about the nature of increasingly busy and populated surfbreaks and the potential threats they pose. For example, Ben at In Byron Bay Today has been commentating the issue (here and here), and over at Real Surf, there is a 12-page-and-growing forum thread debating the topic. People seem to be upset and engaged and have clearly been thinking about many of the issues for some time. While the idea of this discussion makes sense, what is frightening is many of the ideas and methods being proposed for enforcing 'safety regulations' and 'surf etiquette' at these breaks. Some of the ideas proposed include,
- No legropes (ie. the kooks swim more).
- 'Elders' regulate a bit more (Kind of an aspiration based around reminiscing, "well when I was a grommet...").
- Boardriders clubs regulate surfbreaks (They can wear a specially coloured rash vest to show that they are the keepers of the rules of the break. And everyone knows that boardriders clubs are always the most ethical and open-minded groups of people in the water anyway! Don't they?).
- Grade surfbreaks the way you do ski runs (Which seems kind of arbitrary considering the generally fickle nature of surfbreaks but ok).
- Make board-hire places that hand out rule books.
- Make surf-schools teach surf etiquette as a part of their lessons (These last two in particular are the ones that seem most popular as they focus on beginner surfers, who are the least experienced and therefore least accepted surfers around).
I look out at The Pass and there are shortboards, longboards, fish, alaias, bodyboards, bodysurfers, SUPs, mats, goatboats, kayaks and everything in between. It is a crazily busy break that is full of surfers of every level and age and gender and nationality and degree of local identity, but this is also part of what I love about it. What I do find frustrating is ducking and weaving around folk on the inside who don't act the ways I want them to or have come to expect, and so when they sit in the middle of the break clutching at their board, facing the beach with their back turned to the ocean and make it my responsibility to avoid them by kicking off the wave, I get cranky. Or when I take off on a wave and 17 other people drop in or someone's flying board nearly conks me in the head. All these things drive me loco, but they are part and parcel of surfing this beautiful, long, peeling right-hander that is easy to access and a joy to surf. These things are the trade-off. And while I'll admit that almost every tale of anger and altercation that I have written on this blog (and beyond) come from experiences at The Pass, so do most of the stories of sharing waves with friends, of hanging out and of being happy and content and stoked. The complexities and contradictions are breath-taking!
And you know what else? I learned to surf at The Pass. I was sitting there, unsure of what to do, trying to understand and get better and get waves and not get hurt. Admittedly, being a local I was completely petrified of getting in anyone's way so I stuck out wide to the shoulder and claimed what I could. But I'm quite certain that I got in the way of many people without noticing and ruined many waves. As I got better I found myself moving more and more towards the inside and the point, taking more risks, finding more confidence and finally understanding what was going on. Learning to surf at The Pass, on my own, taught me the rules of that lineup very quickly (being yelled at), taught me how to paddle onto waves (because I was out so wide!) and taught me to turn (because the waves can be like a slalom track!). Learning to surf at The Pass taught me to stand up for myself but also to (try to) exhibit tolerance and understanding for those brand new beginners who came after me. I try to be patient (and often fail!) and I often see my friends take time out to help someone or give them advice or encouragement or to explain something.
And the wave itself really is a wonderful wave for learning! It's easy to get out, it's easy to paddle around, it's long and peeling, generally under two foot and is fairly consistent. It's great for learning because you can get the same kind of wave over and over. When it gets bigger or messier the learners tend to drop away anyway because they can't get out or because the rip is too strong or because the wave is too fast. But as far as grading breaks like ski-runs goes, it could be considered in contention for a 'green run' difficulty rating! Well, some days anyway.
Please don't think that I am trying to sound like I'm approaching anything akin to sainthood though. I do get frightened when there is someone new to surfing who can barely sit on their board, who can't turn and who struggles to paddle but is sitting out the back, taking off on set waves and generally causing havoc. It's. A. Nightmare! I often go wide or go in if there is someone like that out there because I get too scared of their inexperience. Yet I don't often address these people because I don't know what to say. In some ways I admire them for their courage and confidence, but in other ways I want them to pull their head in and take a look around!! I notice that crew generally tend not to address it either, but instead act in ways that I can see are being disrespectful and aggressive. But unfortunately, the person for whom these performances are intended just might not be able to see what the behaviour means because they don't understand what they are supposed to be doing, what the rules are. There are some men out there who yell and carry on and eyeball and humiliate, and the offender paddles away or stands their ground or gets puffed up themselves, but it never comes off well and usually ruins the days for everyone there.
And think about it - how did YOU learn those rules? I mostly learned them through experience. We all make mistakes and we all get in the way. We all break the rules unknowingly and we all get hurt by others. No-one is perfect.
And this is the thing that no-one is talking about. The level of animosity being levelled at the person who's board hit Pascal is huge - they are being crucified in the media and in the Real Surf forum. And while I understand that we all want someone to blame, no-one has mentioned how AWFUL that poor man (it appears to be a guy) must be feeling. Can you imagine what he is going through? How would you feel? I would be absolutely mortified.
And although people are talking about how surfing is inherently dangerous and how people are constantly getting hurt and describing injuries they themselves have sustained from other surfers - both beginners and experienced! - no-one is talking about the injuries they have inflicted on others themselves. Because that is how I know how awful that man must be feeling. Because I have hit people before. I've never caused an injury like that one, but I have certainly lost control, or not turned fast enough, or fallen off and lost my board or, or, or... Some of these accidents have been entirely my fault. Some of them I could blame on the person I hit. But mostly, they're just a combination of things, which stems form the busyness of the break I am surfing in and the different ways of seeing and understanding that break that come from our different skill levels, knowledges and experiences.
So who gets to be the 'keeper of the rules and etiquette'? The 'keeper of who is allowed to surf here and who is not'?The most experienced surfers? The best surfers? Because the 'best' surfers at my local break, at The Pass, are often the worst offenders for dropping in or snaking or being rude. Because they are the ones who know how to do it AND get away with it. And I don't really blame them for that, but does that mean that they get to regulate? The beginners, although not necessarily fitting in with the ways that I have become accustomed to surfing within, are usually the friendliest, the most forgiving, the kindest and the most generous.
I am not claiming to have any answers and I am not claiming that I am the kind of person that sits quietly and never arcs up and never exhibits any kind of impatience or intolerance - that is far from the truth!! What I am trying to do is think a bit more broadly and to consider that perhaps the issue is a little more complex than just finger pointing at beginners or SUPs. Or perhaps, even, within my own assumptions and behaviours?
Because the issue in Byron is not new, and this debate was already slightly inflamed from a separate incident at the same break last December. I'm not going to go into this one, but you can see how the fury and passion is not a sudden ignition, but is the product more of a slow burn...
(And please forgive me this clip, but I couldn't help myself!)