At the Neanderthal end, we have our mossbacks (a deprecatory term for old, set-in-their-ways sailors, referring to turtles who've been in the water so long that moss grows on their shells). These guys never actually live at the public surf spots they call their own, but since they usually have no where else to go in their lives, they resent anyone showing up at "their" beach, public be damned. When intruders start riding "their" waves, they start growling with indignation like bull walruses whose cows are being eyed by rivals. They rage with jealousy as if surfing was their substitute for sex, and their aggressive attitudes lead them to commit senseless crimes of passion when they cut off strangers, challenge them to fights, and worse.
At the other end of the spectrum, where professionals make their living off the sport, things are often no different. I have immense respect for Nat Young, a pioneer of advanced surfing equipment, a former world champion, a writer of surfing books, and an acknowledged leader of the surfing tribe for three decades. But Nat has always been aggressive in the water, and he lost it completely
when 18-year-old Luke Hutchinson got in his way. Now Luke is no angel either, and things escalated quickly. Today Nat is recovering from injuries sustained when Luke's dad lost HIS sense of membership in the human race and attacked Nat mercilessly. And that is only the most recent incident amongst the leaders of our sport.
There is the little-known episode involving Johnny-Boy Gomes, winner of $56,000 at a 1998 Pipeline contest organized by his friend Eddie Rothman. It was the biggest first-place check ever in a surfing contest, placing Gomes at the top of the heap as a professional surfer. But only a few months later, Johnny-Boy was told to go back to Hawai'i by community elders after attacking a young local surfer at a beautiful Polynesian reef.
And who can forget another landmark incident: the 1994 World Longboard Championships at Malibu. A veteran 'Bu kneeboarder didn't get out of the way fast enough when the contest started, and so Rick Ernsdorf was hospitalized after being held underwater by Joe Tudor and then having his face pummeled bloody by Lance Hookano.
If you consider that few, if any, veteran waveriders have not seen hostile graffiti, felt the rats-in-a-cage vibe of overcrowded surf spots or witnessed real violence, it becomes apparent that surfers all too readily reveal a deplorable strain of human character in their penchant for aggression over something given for free, a gift from nature that we use for nothing more than some momentary euphoria. We surfers forget that waves are living magic. The huge storms, the powerful winds, the great global routes of major groundswells, the graceful curve of protected shorelines and the symmetry of a wave peeling perfectly all combine to give us an unparalleled experience. And what do we do with it? For whatever reason: ego, low self-esteem, selfishness, or professional greed, it becomes all too easy for surfers to ruin our heaven on earth.
How can this be? We are like true believers fighting over who will take communion, pushing and shoving and cutting in line with an infantile "Me First! Me First!" attitude as we approach the altar where our religion is confirmed. And when we finally attain the holy moment and connect with the body and soul of our faith, what do we do? "Mine! Mine!" becomes our mantra. Just ask yourself, "When was the last time you saw a pro surfer get a great wave, but then paddle back out slowly so that others could share in the same experience? When was the last time you saw a local get out of the water so that the waves would be less crowded for others? When was the last time you saw a good surfer give a kook a wave?"
Until these instincts become definitive of our surfing culture, starting with the surf industry and those making a living off the sport, surfing will suffer from a cancerous sore that won't go away. The pro tours, contests, magazines, videos, surf star reunions, big-wave exploits, and guided trips to remote perfection will all mean very little until the leaders of our sport/art publicly make a commitment that says, "Enough! We leave our egos on the beach, and we enter the ocean with humility and a true sense of brotherhood." Until that day, and until the mossbacks and thugs at a hundred spots around the world wise up to what surfing is supposed to be, the next embarrassing episode of surfers as Serbians is just around the corner.