Crashing Waves: Tales of the Weak and Strong

The etiquette of dropping in on another surfers's wave

I took a surf trip with Zach Weisberg a few months ago. We flew from Sydney to Noosa, then drove deep into the “wilds” of Australia’s Gold Coast in order to surf Queensland’s famous point breaks. I also spent a morning shoveling manure at board shaper Tom Wegener’s house in Noosa, but that’s a different story. We ate meat pies, dodged roving gangs of drunken youths in Coolangatta, paddled against the rip at the Super Bank, and went to that club in Byron where they encourage dancing on the tables. You know the one.

We ended up staying with Jed Smith in a house in the Hills of Northern New South Wales. It wasn’t Smith’s house. In fact, it was never entirely clear whose house it was, or if the owners knew that Smith was staying there and making vegetable lasagna from the leftovers in the fridge. Damn good lasagna, though. We woke up every morning before the sun rose and drove out to Broken Head. For three straight days, it pumped perfect right-hand barrels, sans rip, and we surfed until the sun set, until it felt like a game of chicken between catching a final wave and getting eaten by a shark, until we had to paddle in because it was too dark to see.

Somewhere amid the wave-drenched bacchanal, we sat on the little wooden viewing stand watching waves reel off the eponymous headland. An older guy took off at the top of the point when, directly down the line from him, a middle-aged man paddled in, and burned the hell out of him. The snake went on to pull into the barrel on his backside, and get tubed across the entire length of the first section. It was an impressive display of wave riding prowess and unforgivable son-of-a-bitchery. When we paddled out, the snake was still in the lineup and still at it. Every wave was the same: Despite not being in pole position, he would take off in front of someone, stuff the poor guy, then get a three- or four-second barrel. He had that way of making minute adjustments with his butt and arm planted in the wave face that make the board almost look superfluous and sets good tube riders apart from the rest of us. It was wonderful to watch such a good surfer, but after he dropped in on his third consecutive person, the only question left was: How do you reach a point in your life where you are such a piece of shit that you think everyone in the lineup owes you a wave? To put it more diplomatically, how do you rationalize dropping in on people?

When I got home, I started emailing pro surfers, asking them all the same thing: “When, if ever, is it OK to drop in on someone?”

“You could write a book on elements of the drop-in,” said Derek Hynd, via Facebook. “When is it OK? Maybe if the surfer already riding is in no way going to make the section—that’s not when the guy is at full trim in a barrel, by the way.” But, of course, things get far more complicated. “It gets a bit gray at a good wave spot when people paddle past other people either in ignorance of the rights-of-way, or if it’s a case of the better section being deeper. One guy I know well at a classic wave would sit so far down the line that 99% of the crowd would naturally paddle past him on the paddle back out. It was his claim that he shouldn’t need to paddle deep to lay claim if the best section was exactly where he was sitting. He had a claim to eventually drop in on people because of waiting his turn.”

“Dropping in is never really OK, because you look like a fool,” said Adrian Buchan, “but I will make an exception to the rule if I have been waiting my turn and someone has been greedy or paddled past me. Or if someone has blatantly dropped in on me twice, everyone gets a chance. Unfortunately, it only takes a few guys not taking turns in even an un-crowded lineup for the unspoken rules to rapidly disintegrate…kind of like Lord of the Flies, survival of the fittest.” This should sound familiar to anyone who regularly surfs in crowded lineups. In William Golding’s classic, a class of English schoolboys marooned on an island form a society with shining ideals that eventually degenerates into a Hobbesian nightmare where the strong prey on the weak.

In busy lineups, modern surfers have created not a democracy but a meritocracy—a mini society in which the very talented rule over the less talented. I’ve interviewed Buchan a couple of times, and surfed with him a few more. I trust him as much as I would ever trust a pro athlete to not take advantage of his exceptional ability. But I can’t think of too many more World Tour surfers who I feel the same way about.

Not Jordy Smith, anyway. I contacted Smith because he sits in the very highest echelons of our meritocracy, and he also doesn’t seem to worry about sounding diplomatic when quoted in the media. He didn’t disappoint.

“Who in his right mind lets the wave of the day pass him by while a kook on his inside flutters around whistling to the tune of the Pied Piper?” Smith said.

He was half-joking, because I told him not to take the question too seriously, but he was half-right, too. If I know I can surf a wave better than the guy inside of me, sometimes I go. Why “waste” the wave on someone who is going to wiggle his butt, flail his arms, do half a cut back then claim it? But if you believe that, which I do, you have to accept it when it happens to you. At this year’s Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, Mick Fanning dropped in on me during a session at Duranbah. It wasn’t, strictly speaking “fair,” but even I knew I was taking off a little too deep for my humble abilities.

I was, of course, entitled to a retributive drop-in. “I think the only time it’s OK to drop in is if someone blatantly does it to you first,” said free surfer Dion Agius, via email. “If it was obviously on purpose, feel free to return the favor.”

Four-time world champ Stephanie Gilmore agreed. “Etiquette is standard everywhere, and people shouldn’t just willy-nilly drop in,” she said. “But there are definitely certain places in the world where surfers (of both genders) get greedy. It’s like they’re trying to make a statement by getting more waves. You should never be an asshole, but sometimes a little drop-in every now and then helps them to know that you can actually surf and to stop paddling around you to prove they can take off deeper. Like most things in life, there is a standard etiquette that karma helps to regulate, but there will always be one or two [greedy assholes] in every group.” 

And so, the drop-in paradox: It’s always wrong, but sometimes it’s necessary. In the Hobbesian state of nature, the only resources you get are the ones you wrest from your fellow man. In this case, the drop-in is a weapon in your arsenal. If a bully takes your ball on the playground, you run to the teacher—well, I used to, anyway—but if there’s no teacher, no higher arbiter of fairness, the onus is on you to get your ball back. Surfing is one of the few sports that amateurs pursue seriously in which the players are asked to also be their own arbiters. Another is junior tennis, in which players are expected to fairly make their own line calls. If you ever want to see just how nasty children can be to each other, go watch a junior tennis tournament. If you want to see just how nasty grown men and women can be to each other, go watch a crowded day at your local point break. There is always a way to rationalize taking someone else’s wave—he owed me one, he’s not from around here, these crowds are invading my spot, he speaks with a different language, she’s a girl, etc., but they all rest on the notion that you deserve a wave. False. Nature and your fellow man don’t owe you anything, bub.

In 431 BC, the Greek scholar and historian Thucydides wrote a political treatise called the Melian Dialogue, which modern scholars still use to illustrate the textbook definition of how people function in a state of anarchy. It all boils down to this quote: “The strong will do what they can, and the weak will suffer what they must.” That’s how developed surfing societies function. However, when I contacted Tom Carroll, he related a contradictory experience he enjoyed some years back in French Polynesia.

“One exception I noticed [to the “no dropping-in rule] was during my first trip to Moorea, I think in July 1986. The local surfers surfed all together on the wave. This seemed to increase their level of enjoyment. While for me—a young, feisty freckle-faced Australian used to getting lots of waves from the inside position at his home break—this was a big surprise. No aggression, just loads of fun, riding together on perfect 6-foot-plus left pass, Ha’apiti. At first I was offended by the apparent dropping in. But then they would let me go on a big one. They didn’t speak English, only French and their eastern Polynesian dialect. Simply enjoying riding without the notion of ownership, that has lasted with me forever.”

The sharing of waves is common in many embryonic surfing societies, but there always comes a point where the “one man, one wave” mentality takes over, and once you start down that road, there’s no turning back.

“…I’m vicious.” Mickey Dora told Surfer back in the 1960s. “We’re all pushing and shoving, jockeying for position, and if I get the wave first—if I’m in the best position—then I feel I deserve it.”

Dora was no dark prophet, just a guy saying what everyone else was thinking and who had the cojones to back it up in the clutch. Also not someone you would really trust to decide who does and does not deserve waves. And that’s the big dilemma, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, actually:If we all worked together, we’d get a better outcome, or at least one that benefited more people, but as it is I don’t trust you, you don’t trust me, and no one in his right mind trusts the guys catching the most waves, like Dora. And they don’t want to cooperate, anyway. The strong do what they can and the weak accept what they must.

Back out at Broken Head, the serial burner took a final wave in, deep in the tube almost the entire time. Five waves, five drop-ins, five great rides. He was awe-inspiring and disgusting, a king among the lepers in this strange Hobbesian anarchy we call surfing, where as ol’ Tom used to say, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

This story first appeared on The Inertia.


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