Surfing and Violence

Surfing has justly been described as meditative, even spiritual, but it also has a violent streak that goes back to the sport’s very origins. Hawaiian legend tells of a handsome surfer at Waikiki who was nearly executed after riding the same wave as a high-ranking chieftess. In another incident, a prince whose board glanced off another rider during a surfing competition was later eviscerated on a stone alter as punishment.

Surfing violence in modern times almost always has been the result of turf-protecting localism, overcrowding, or competition. (The mid-’60s beachside riots between “surfies” and “rockers” in Sydney, Australia, were a notable exception.) California surfers visiting Hawaii as far back as the 1940s were often challenged to fight. Californians in turn popularized localism in the late ’60s as a way of keeping outsiders at bay; nonlocals were abused verbally and sometimes physically, but the most popular tactics were to smash visitors’ car windows and/or puncture their tires. Localism-related violence made statewide headlines in the ’90s and early ’00s when surfers from Oxnard, Palos Verdes, and San Francisco were charged in separate incidences with beating up nonlocal surfers.

Intensely crowded lineups can also produce violent acts, particularly when one surfer interferes with another surfer’s wave by “dropping in.” Threats and shouting matches are common, but the aggrieved rider on occasion will paddle up to the drop-in surfer and simply begin punching. Even more dangerous, the trailing surfer might kick his board at the drop-in surfer.

Memorable acts of surfing violence are often associated with surfing competition. After boasting about his country’s performance during the 1975–76 pro contest season on the North Shore of Oahu, Australian surfer and future world champion Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew returned to Hawaii in late 1976 and was immediately beaten up—losing two of his front teeth—at Sunset Beach. On the final day of the 1994 World Longboard Championships at Malibu, a noncompeting surfer who refused to leave the water area was assaulted by two men associated with the event; the noncompetitor was hospitalized with head trauma, facial cuts, and a separated shoulder, and felony charges were brought against the two attackers. Adding a gender twist to surf violence, pro surfer Lynette MacKenzie was fined and suspended from the world tour after a 1999 brawl with a fellow competitor. In 2011, Hawaiian heavyweight Sunny Garcia along with French pro surfer Jeremy Flores were caught on video punching out a local surfer during the Breaka Pro surf contest at Burleigh Heads, Australia; the incident became a minor YouTube hit.

Implied violence has meanwhile been used as a surf industry marketing tool, particularly in the ’90s, as younger surfers brought inner-city street-style elements to the sport. In ads for Bad Boy Club beachwear, thuggish Hawaiian pro surfer Johnny-Boy Gomes was often featured scowling malevolently or raising a clenched fist. (Gomes earned a reputation as the sport’s most violent high-profile surfer; he was fined in 1991 after punching a fellow competitor during a pro event, and in 1999 he was convicted of assault after breaking a surfer’s nose during an argument in the water.) Surf-based fiction also has a penchant for violence—deadly at times—from Eugene Burdick’s grim 1956 novel The Ninth Wave to Kem Nunn’s 1997 noir thriller The Dogs of Winter

Surfing’s most infamous act of violence took place in March 2000, when 1966 world champion Nat Young of Australia was savagely beaten while surfing in front of his house at Angourie Point, New South Wales. Young got into a yelling match with an 18-year-old surfer, then hit him, at which point the teenager’s father jumped Young, breaking both his eye sockets and his cheekbones, and damaging his sinuses. The incident provoked dozens of mainstream press articles on “surf rage,” and prompted Young to write a book of the same title. Some felt the issue was being sensationalized. “We’re not an inherently violent group,” surf journalist Sam George wrote, “and that’s what makes incidents like Nat’s beating so notorious.” A 2011 Surfer poll seemed to call George’s statement into question when 10% of respondents admitted to having thrown a punch in the lineup.

The Swell Life, a documentary chronicling the violent side of surf localism was released by director Darren McInerney in 2001. The award-winning 2008 documentary Bra Boys was steeped in the surf culture violence of Maroubra, a working-class Sydney beachfront suburb. In 2009, the New York Times published a feature-length article on the Wolfpak, a loose-knit group of Hawaiians who for the past several years had dominated the lineup at Pipeline, in part by beating up surfers who didn’t stay clear of Wolkpak members in the water.

From Surfer Magazine