Who owns the water?
Tension between locals and visitors to New Zealand’s most popular surfing spot is nearing a salty breaking point.
Collisions in the water at Raglan are common, but a local surfing legend says the water is becoming more dangerous as visitors flock to ride some of the country’s best breaks. Ambulance call outs this summer have been far from rare.
A photo of an injury suffered by a visiting surfer was posted on the Raglan Community Noticeboard Facebook page, but has since been removed. It was implied the gash was intentionally inflicted by a pissed off local.
Local pro surfer and instructor Daniel Kereopa has found himself at the centre of a debate about localism. A Stuff story published yesterday quoted him saying locals should have the right to choose Raglan’s surf.
The conversation has become as fierce as the waves, and signifies wider strain in the changing coastal town as money from tourists pours in.
The Wireless called Kereopa, who has been surfing at Raglan more than three decades, to ask about the unwritten rules of the water.
What's happening in Raglan?
Raglan has become a real tourism destination without the thought of infrastructure and what it means to live here. The things people are saying online only scratch the surface of what’s going on. People are saying valid things about localism, but when there’s no order, you get chaos.
Raglan isn’t a wave for beginners. It’s powerful, it’s fast and when things go wrong they go badly wrong. You need rules to keep everyone safe. It’s not a case of us locals thinking we’re the only ones who have the right to surf here.
What does “right of way” mean at Raglan?
The general rule is the person closest to the breaking part of the wave has right of way. There’s also the rule, at Raglan especially, that if you’re closest to the wave it doesn’t mean you’re next in line. You’re still behind the guys who have been sitting and waiting there. You have to wait and take turns. That way everybody gets the chance to catch a wave. When someone jumps off the rocks and breaks that rule, then paddles back out and cuts up the inside of everybody and does it again, that’s just bad manners. No one else knows what’s happening and it’s dangerous.
Who does this?
That’s what visitors might do. You find yourself explaining the rules to people 10, 12, 15 times a day and you spend more time explaining than actually surfing. These rules are about safety more than anything else. They’ve worked for a long time, but all of a sudden it’s not working. People come to Raglan and see the waves and think they look beautiful. They’re six-to-eight feet in an outgoing tide, but in two hours there’s going to be a gnarly rip that sucks you out to sea. People die out here.
You’ve surfed in Hawai’i, for instance - is it the same overseas?
I learned quickly in Hawai’i that you’ve got to introduce yourself to locals and understand you’re at the bottom of the pecking order. You sit and watch the locals surf and slowly you’ll get a few waves. I don’t go to Hawai’i - the kingdom of surfing - expecting every single wave. But then you could end up surfing the wave of your life. It takes time to understand not just the waves, but the community as well.
Can you understand the response from people unfamiliar with this way of thinking?
I’m copping a lot of slack for saying this, but I’m one of the only people with the balls to bring it up. Back in the day people used to get slapped around and you learned your lesson straight away.
I was slapped around as a young kid by the older guys, and I quickly learned why guys were doing what they were doing. If you were brought up here or in any surfing community you understand how it all works, but if you’re a visitor coming in for the first time, that culture isn’t ingrained in you.
Do you have sympathy for this injured surfer?
What happened on the internet was a guy getting sad, but it was actually an accident and there are always going to be accidents. What bummed me out is when that happens, there should be a face-to-face chat, rather than somebody posting on social media and everyone having a cry about it. You’ve got to pull people up straight away and ask why that happened and you’ll get an answer right then.
If I was to post on social media every time I got run over, or everytime my children or fiancée or nieces or nephews got run over, tourists would look like absolute wankers. But that’s not what you do. You speak to them and say, “man, you just ran my son over and nearly cut his board in half, what are you going to do about it?” Usually they’ll be very apologetic and might offer to help pay for the ding repair. This doesn’t just happen once or twice a year, but maybe once every week or two.
Why do you surf?
I was a very introverted kid growing up and found a connection with the ocean. I felt like it talked to me. It was somewhere I was comfortable and happy and I couldn’t leave it behind - I thought about it every moment of the day.
How has Raglan changed during your life?
There’s been a cultural and demographic change here. Money is coming into town, but especially my Māori community can no longer afford to live here and my people are dwindling.
This new crossover of culture - Brazilian, Portuguese, French, German - is nice, but we’ve reached a point where we’ve looked after tourism for a long time, perhaps we should look out for locals and the land itself.
We’re a very welcoming people in Raglan and we open our hearts and homes to many different people, but it’s starting to feel like there’s a lot more taking from our home and a lot less giving.
Before all of these people started coming here in the past decade, the town was pretty good. There wasn’t much trouble. But the infrastructure hasn’t been here to service that overloading of people. We get two or three sewage spills every summer.
This is about more than surfing and localism and people thinking everyone here are boofheads. We protest against potential sand mining by Chinese businesses, we’re trying to protect the environment and the landscape, we’re trying to save the last of the maui dolphins, we’re cleaning up the beaches. The people who come to visit see such a beautiful place, but it can feel like they’re not acknowledging the people who really love it and do all of this work.