Sunday, June 29, 2008

On angry surfers

I thought that surfers should be the most relaxed people around. Paddling out into the ocean, resting on a surf board while the smaller waves gently lift you up as they are moving through, looking out into the water to spot a surfable wave rolling in; all that should help develop patience. As you're looking out into the deep blue ocean, you get to see floating plants, various birds, sea lions, sail boats, and perhaps the Big Sur mountains on the horizon. Eventually, a decent wave will come along, and though it requires some skill, you might end up riding the wave toward the shore. Moving together with a force of nature in this way is a great reward for waiting in the best place, identifying the wave that's right for you, and for starting to paddle hard just in the right moment. So much for the rosy picture, and by the way, it's all true.

Except that many surfers are actually quite angry.

One of the first troublesome things I noticed is that waves tend to break around particular points, so there are ideal locations for catching them. You'll find many surfers sitting there; usually more than you'd want to ride together with on a wave. When the wave comes, many will start paddling at the same time. Folks who are good at this can catch a wave a bit earlier, and therefore as you, the beginner, gets very happy that you've just caught a wave, someone comes from the left side and knocks you off your board. At one point I found myself between three other surf boards (four total), all going almost parallel towards the shore with the left most slamming into the other three. And since the other surfers in this collision were females, I could hear them scream stuff like "Stupid bitch, get lost". It wasn't really clear to me who was at fault here. Hmm.

The other day - and this is all happening on Cowell's Beach in Santa Cruz, by the way, supposedly the friendliest place to learn surfing - two male adults got into an argument. I don't know how it started; but most likely they failed to share a wave nicely. I saw the Afro-American guy calling the other guy "white trash", and the white guy saying "I have the technique and ride every wave", and both were loudly arguing back and forth looking into each other's eyes while sitting upright on their boards only a few feet apart. To be sure, not teenagers - I'd guess these guys were 50+ years old. There was a small crowd around, yelling stuff like "Go away, you're not welcome here". I was too far away to get the details, and might have misunderstood part of what happened or who meant to say what; but you get the idea: angry surfers.

I will leave out the story from yesterday, when another surfer collided with me as I was catching a wave. I actually saw him when he was still around 50 ft away, but he was moving surprisingly fast - basically an experienced surfer. He was extremely angry after this incident.

And I won't mention that I heard myself cursing occasionally after missing a wave. Overall though, I think I'm pretty relaxed though.

OK, so if you are actually are an experienced surfer, you will perhaps get angry about my portrayal of some of these situations; because I was implying that the surfer who caught the wave first and is moving from the left should avoid a collision with the novice. This is in sharp contrast to the Surf Etiquette, which (in short) say that whoever catches a wave first has the right of way. The interesting thing about these rules is that they maximize the surfing pleasure for whoever is able to catch waves early and ride them at the optimal points - basically, experienced surfers. They say little about avoiding collisions, and will pretty much always blame the novice for them. Perhaps it's necessary because waves do not provide enough space to pass someone who is slower, so with different rules everyone would only ride the short end of the waves, cutting in front of others. Also, it's not productive to question these rules, and in my opinion surfers must accept them to avoid chaos; but still, to drive home the point how the surf etiquette come across to a snowboarder: It's the equivalent of a skiing slope where any novices need to stand by and wait for the fastest skiers to get their run.

You might say that the experiences I cited are isolated and that by and large, surfers are laid-back, relaxed people. Great to hear, and yes, that's certainly true. I hadn't even mentioned, however, that surfers are routinely vandalizing cameras pointed at their favorite surf spots, that surf-spot turf wars are common and nothing new, and that recently, surfers in Malibu went after Paparazzi on a public beach, throwing them into the water and destroying their equipment.

So, while I enjoy riding waves and all the rest of it, I am honestly wondering why there are so many angry surfers. Perhaps a psychologist should make a study about this to find out how such a relaxing sport might make people angry.

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