If you’re not familiar with the world of surfing, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all shakas, sun-bleached hair and those awesome turtles in Finding Nemo.
Pop culture paints surfers as the chillest people around. Their portrayal hangs heavy on an image of carefree beachgoers, willing to give anyone a hand. In reality surf culture, like any sport, is governed by sets of rules. If you mess it up, you're likely to experience the rage of your fellow surfers.
Surf rage, and an associated phenomenon known as localism, arises when surfers, protective of their local turf, end up competing for waves with new comers. Conflict can also boil over when surf etiquette is ignored by newbies. When things get heated, imitation and even physical violence can explode.
A few years ago, a video went viral of a Kiwi surfer rugby tackling a Brazilian who dropped into his wave. His comments summed up surf rage well: "I am a very mellow guy in the surf and this is not at all how I normally would act. However, due to the circumstances and my mood at the time it did seem like a fitting act," he told The NZ Herald.
Jhan Gavala, Massey University Kaupapa Māori Psychology Lecturer, is a seasoned surfer. As well as witnessing surf rage he’s found himself, on rare occasions, raging, too.
Gavala has decided to spend the next three years delving deep into the politics of surfing, devoting his PhD research to finding out more about surf rage at major breaks around the country.
You’ve been surfing for a while?
Yeah, I’ve been surfing for over 30 years.
When was your first taste of surf rage?
When I was grommet, a young surfer, I didn’t know the rules so I getting in the way of experienced surfers, being in places I shouldn’t have been and breaking rules I didn’t know about. I was basically told to ef-off, intimidated by some of the older guys, made to feel unwelcome, given stink eye or excluded. But I’ve also been on the other end of it where I’ve got upset over an issue – like when someone broke the protocol and I’ve become aggressive. I didn’t physically hit anybody but I was verbally abusive after a guy broke a rule, not once, but three times. He ended up getting out of the water and I felt really stink about that, you know? I'm not that kind of person and I wanted to apologise to him but he'd left.
These rules aren’t written, right? They’re part of surfing etiquette that new surfers have to learn?
Yes, that’s the interesting thing. The rules are enforced by the local crews but they’re not enforced by any government or external agency. But there are rules that surfers know about to do with priority; who should take a wave based on your position in the water, the direction the wave is breaking, who’s just caught a wave, and so on. For example, it’s not proper to catch a wave and paddle straight back out to the peak and take the next one. People get upset when they see someone doing that. It’s just like someone jumping in front of you in a queue. Surfers have got these rules that you must abide by in order to keep the peace. As well as that, there are personality factors within each of the surfers that I think interacts with those rules and are interpreted differently by different people and in different places.
So surf rage isn’t just a New Zealand problem?
Oh no, it happens everywhere. It’s actually really bad in Australia, Indonesia and Europe – all over the globe.
Are you seeing growing incidents of surf rage?
In Indonesia, I’ve seen a lot of it. In the three years I spent there, it seemed to be getting worse. But it can be moderated by the surfers who are in the water, depending on how mature they are or the mood they’re in.
One of The Wirless staff told me about how someone drew penises all over his van with surfboard wax when he went surfing in a secluded area. Is that kind of thing common? A kind of warning to outsiders to stay away?
Yeah, that’s boarding on mild to heavy localism. I mean, they didn’t get their windows smashed and they didn’t get their tires punctured. People will definitely wax your car and they’ll wax over your windscreen so you can’t actually see out of it.
What?! I shouldn’t laugh but that’s hilarious.
Yeah! These are all things locals do to protect their breaks. They become protective. It’s a double-edged sword because you want it to be a welcoming culture but you don’t want surf spots to become overcrowded. At some of the surf spots that I go to, I don’t tell anybody about them. With technology, surf spots can start off with two or three surfers in the water and then in half an hour, get super crowded and the ratio of waves to surfers just gets out of kilter.
Does the increasing popularity of surfing mixed with things like live surf cams have much to do with increased rage?
Some of it might come down to technological advances. For example, prior to the invention of the leash, anecdotally there was very little surf rage or aggressiveness in the water. The same thing goes with the invention of the surf cam. What it does is allow surfers who are travelling in from out of town, who aren’t local, to log in and think ‘ok sweet, I’m out there’. All of a sudden, that creates a crowd, a strain of the resource, therefore more competition and flair ups. But I’m not convinced that these are the only antecedents of aggression in the surf so I’m keen to have a really good understanding of it. It’s an important area of study.
Why is it important to study this phenomenon?
Surfing has been used, and is still being used, as a relaxant. You want to go out and enjoy yourself, to unwind. People use it to connect with nature, others to connect with people in a social setting. Now if there’s negativity going on in that space, then it changes the whole dynamic of the encounter. [Rage] really removes what some might say is the core of surfing. Many surfers I speak to are a bit disillusioned with the current attitudes of some surfers in the surf zone. But also, there is a really positive side to localism that needs to be explored and not just vilified.
Cover image: Top Secret! (1984)