FOR the last few days of August, the attention of the surfing world was focused on the coast of Southern California, as a monster swell from Hurricane Marie lit up such fabled breaks as Malibu and The Wedge.
At the former spot there were dramatic scenes when big-wave specialist Laird Hamilton picked off one of the biggest waves of the week and rode it right through the middle of Malibu Pier, calmly slaloming between giant wooden pilings while being chased by a rumbling freight train of whitewater.
Meanwhile, over at The Wedge – a heaving, warping freak of a wave which gets its distinctive shape from swells rebounding off a breakwater and suddenly doubling in size – the acts of derring-do were almost too numerous to mention. Chief clown in this particular carnival of lunacy, however, was pro surfer Jamie O’Brien, who paddled into a clean 15-footer with one surfboard balanced on top of another, hopped to his feet on the larger one, tucked the smaller one under his arm, surfed along for a while, then casually stepped off the larger board onto the smaller one and rode the rest of the wave on that.
Any Scottish surfers watching video footage of either of the above events (almost instantaneously uploaded to YouTube) will probably have had the same two thoughts at about the same time: nice waves; pity about the crowds. O’Brien’s wave is a beauty, but as he takes off you can see in the wave face directly beneath him not one, not two but six surfers all scrambling to get out of the way, with a further four or five paddling frantically just to his right, trying to make it to safety before the wave breaks on their heads. Aerial footage of Hamilton’s second wave at Malibu, meanwhile, shows more surfers than I’ve got time to count strung out across the length of the bay.
The first time I saw Malibu in real life, from a moving car on the Highway, I thought there was some kind of insect swarm in the water – my best guess was flying ants. It was only when I got down onto the sand that I realised the little black dots I was looking at were surfers, hundreds of them, all jostling for waves.
That’s the trouble with Southern California: yes, it is blessed with some heavenly surf geography, but it also has an enormous surfing population, to the extent that, unless you know kung-fu or are prepared to surf at night, it can be nigh-on impossible to get a wave to yourself.
Scotland’s surf spots have nothing like the same problems with overcrowding, but as the sport grows in popularity, some of the more accessible breaks on the East Coast are starting to get busy on good days, and this summer I’ve heard a few stories of tempers becoming frayed out in the line-up. In one case, a surfer on a conventional surfboard became so incensed at somebody on an SUP (stand-up paddle board) hogging all the waves that he grabbed his leash – the stretchy cord that attaches surfer to surfboard – as he rode past and yanked him off his board. To the non-surfer, that probably sounds like unforgivable behaviour, and clearly physically fighting over waves is never OK, but I have to admit that when I first heard that story there was a guilty little part of me that secretly cheered the leash-yanker. Nobody likes a wave-hog, and just because you can catch and surf more waves than everybody else in the water on a given day, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should, whether your enhanced-wave catching ability has to do with the fact that you happen to be stronger and fitter than the people around you, or whether it’s because you have the advantage of riding an SUP, which allows you to catch any little ripple you want long before surfers on conventional boards can get near it.
Never mind altruism – the way we treat each other in the water now will dictate the surf culture we have to live with when we’re all old and grey, and when I’m a wheezy old geezer with a pot belly and a walrus moustache, I’d like to think the young, serious-looking Alphas huddled around the peak at my favourite spot might occasionally take pity on me and let me nab a set wave. Or, to put it another way, if you’re a 20 or 30-something surfer and you bring aggro to the water now, prepare to reap what you sow if you’re still surfing into retirement.