Ag2Dis: things about surfing we probably won't agree on


Photo by Sean Davey

Words By Leighton Alcock

(from TSP88)

So much has been written about localism and the dark underside of surfing that sometimes rears its head. Having surfed all over the world for 35 years I’ve realized it comes down to three things.

– Your own self-esteem.

– Your comfort with the actual surfing location.

– That built-in radar and evaluation process aimed at other surfers.

These observations come from having grown up at a famous, hard-breaking South African beachbreak in the heart of the city, frequented by a mix of high-energy young surfers, ageing longboarders, a small crew of female surfers, and a regular stream of kooks in over their heads and transient surfers. It’s the usual mix you’ll find at most busy surf spots.

The surfer that gets into fights and arguments has probably been doing it his whole surfing life. Ninety percent of the time, even if there are 30-40 people in the water, there’s a mellow vibe with everybody getting their fair share of waves and many chatting amiably. But the easy dynamic can change in a split second.

Surfers have a heightened sense of their surroundings when they enter the water. They scan the environment constantly to position themselves in the best spot for the best waves, but there’s much more going on. Experienced surfers have a highly tuned, built-in scanning and evaluation programme in their brains that appraises the surfers around them, rates them in a sort of compatibility order and computes how much respect they deserve.

I’ve often seen a mellow vibe in the water change when one aggressive surfer paddles out, even before he catches a wave. It’s as if his presence, and vibe, are noticed and seen as a challenge to the mellow status quo. In order to compete for waves in his aggro-heightened environment, everybody else has to up their levels own of aggression, too. And so it descends.

The surfer with good-self esteem is confident in his own skin. He has worked out where his place is in the social standing of the break. He has nothing to prove and just the pleasure of being in the water is enough.

The older longboarder has experienced most situations, is usually happy with his lot and sits far out and waits for hours until his “bomb" arrives. It is accepted that he’s paid for it with his long wait and he’s begrudgingly left alone.

The young hotties have much to prove and are competing with the world for their place in the sun. If they’re any good they’ve probably paid their dues and learned the etiquette needed to keep things from degenerating to the dark side.

The surfer chicks – I have yet to see any abused at all, and actually think the explosion of beautiful young women in the line-up makes everyone behave


Having paddled into many of the most contested breaks all over the world I can honestly say I’ve never had a problem. There are some tricks to it, though. Before you even paddle out, gauge the mood, watch for a while. If you’re a stranger paddling out among the local crew greet other surfers and show respect. Good chance you’ll get a stare with little immediate acknowledgement. What you’ve done is kicked his evaluation system into life with a tiny positive. It’s important not to act like a “rash" and be all over the other surfer, talking continuously and complimenting him on his great waves, etc. All surfers hate crawlers.

Then (importantly), sit and wait. See who’s taking off and who isn’t, who’s waiting for waves and their turn to take-off. Take it slow, absorb the vibe and slowly integrate yourself by getting a few of the lesser waves, gradually building up. Be contained, quiet and humble and within hours you’ll be filed away in other surfers’ minds as “cool" or “ok". Play it smart and you’re in for life.

We all make mistakes. To my undying shame I admit to one. On a boat looking for surf in Indo, there were 12 of us and we hadn’t found good surf for two days. We motored round the corner at Lance’s Right to find it 6ft and perfect with only three others in the water.

To my eternal regret I was one of 12 South African surfers who immediately jumped into the line-up as the boat did a full speed fly-past and went off to anchor further away. It was a massacre. Instant crowd. Instant anger. Instant aggro. To this day I still remember the look of loathing on the faces of the three Australians surfing there.

They bailed in disgust, and I felt ashamed for my part in bad lineup etiquette.

In truth, if we all move thoughtfully and respectfully, there’s just no need for it.