Coastal Sports

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Fierce Turf Wars Threaten Competitive Surfing Events

5 Sep, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

In one scene in the surf-centric movie, Blue Crush, a local gang of North Shore surfers becomes irate at the presence of newbie tourists learning to surf on their ‘sweet spot’ beach and sends one of them back to his hotel with a black eye. All was forgiven in the end (hey, this is Hollywood, after all) but in real life, the issue of locals defending their turf from so-called outsiders has become an issue in the surfing community. And it becomes an issue for sports event organizers as well.

As recently as last month, two men and a teenage boy told police they were shot at by locals while surfing in an ‘invitation-only’ beach in New Zealand.

Problem is, it’s not the first time -- and in almost every case, local law enforcement officials are hesitant to take action since they often consider such cases a part of the local culture. As close to home as on a beach near Los Angeles, surfers have repeatedly been known to surround, harass and assault those whom they see as infringing on their turf. The ‘Bay Boys,’ as they’re known, patrol the Lunada Bay – and they don’t take kindly to strangers encroaching upon their idyllic beach, which apart from locals, remains largely unused by the public.

“The reason there’s a lot of space is because we keep it like that. We (expletive) hassle people,” said one man in his fifties as he pulled on a wetsuit and prepared to paddle out. (Reporters who attempted to take pictures and ask questions returned to their cars to find them vandalized.)

The issue can sometimes spill over onto tournaments. The New York Times carried an article about a turf dispute on Hawaii’s North Shore. During a past Pipeline Masters, a fracas in the water spilled onto the beach as Sunny Garcia of Hawaii chased his opening-round opponent, Neco Padaratz of Brazil. Padaratz fled, followed by Garcia and some locals. The police eventually escorted Padaratz from the contest site.

Such incidents create debate about localism, a brand of territorialism that has been practiced at surf breaks around the world for decades. Yet the North Shore remains a focal point because its breaks are a proving ground for professional aspirants who arrive each winter along with the massive swells out of the North Pacific. As surfing has become increasingly popular, some say fear of violent reprisal ensures order and safety at congested and perilous surf spots like Pipeline.

And with surfing in the Tokyo 2024 Olympics, expect an even higher profile – and even more of the turf wars.

In the case of Lunada Bay’s gang of surfers, law enforcement is hesitant to take action. A dispatcher at the police station is caught on camera saying: "We know all of them. They are infamous around here. They are pretty much grown men in little men's mind-set. They don't like anyone who isn't one of the Bay Boys surfing down there. It literally is like a game with kids on a schoolyard to them, and they don't want you playing on their swing set. It is what it is. If you feel uncomfortable, you know, then don't do it."

Hawaii’s problem with turf disputes during surf competitions stretches further back, however. In 1975, a group of surfers from South Africa and Australia swept the North Shore contests and monopolized news media coverage. The Australians even boasted of their superiority to their Hawaiian counterparts.

Some Hawaiians, feeling disrespected at home in a sport their ancestors invented, threatened and thrashed the outsiders when they returned the next winter.

“For the Hawaiians, respect is an important concept, particularly when it comes to being in the ocean,” said Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, Hawaii, who has written about a Hawaiian renaissance in surfing on the North Shore.

Members of Hui O He’e Nalu, known as Da Hui or the Black Shorts, for their uniform surf trunks, paddled into waves during competitions to protest that the water had been closed to them.

The fact that surfing has already had to overcome some interior hurdles relating to surfers’ attitudes about governance, competition and more in order to put on tis Olympic game face has created sufficient strife for planners to deal with. It remains to be seen whether event owners can expect more coverage of these issues as the profile of the sport grows. Surfing, as one of five showcase sports in Japan in 2020, may or may not be included in the Olympics in 2028 in Los Angeles. If it is, organizers will need to locate a beach without hassles, or else confront the problem – something law enforcement is currently hesitant to do.

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