Surge in surfers leads to more violence on the waves

Professional surfer Johnny Boy Gomes reached the pinnacle of the surfing world this winter by winning the Hui Backdoor Shootout - the sport's richest contest. But in early February, a Hawaii judge added a less prestigious accomplishment to Mr. Gomes's rsum - a felony assault conviction.

The judge found the star guilty of breaking a fellow surfer's nose on the North Shore of Oahu. The sentence? In addition to a few pricey fines, Gomes had to come up with a program to tell school kids that the waves are no place for violence.

And for good reason. The Gomes case is no aberration. Surf violence and "localism" - harassment of surfers by other surfers jealously guarding their turf - has become a serious issue along US coasts.

The reason for the tension is clear: too many people on too few waves. And to the disgust and dismay of many surfers, the hang-10 mellowness that has come to characterize surfing is rapidly disappearing from what was once considered the world's most laid-back sport.

*In Palos Verdes, Calif., and other parts of Los Angeles County, undercover police officers are actually paddling out to monitor trouble spots.

*In Oregon and Washington, local surfers regularly escort nonlocal surfers from the water at prized surf breaks.

*Even on the remote reefs of Indonesia, surfers from the US, Brazil, and Australia on chartered boats clash over priority for surf spots.

According to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, the number of surfboards sold is increasing steadily, from 250,000 in 1992 to 350,000 in 1995. There are now about 1.5 million surfers in the US alone. Most are jammed into the small portions of California, Hawaii, and Florida that have the best waves.

In addition, baby boomers are continuing to surf well past the age when many of their predecessors would have hung up their boards in the garage for good. "When I was in my 20s, we rarely saw someone in the lineup who was 40 or 50," says Jim Howe, chief of Oahu lifeguard operations. "Now ... we see plenty of people in their 60s and 70s."

Technology has also contributed to the tension. Whereas before surfers had to be able to ditch work to check the surf at any time or to be able to read complex weather charts to predict a swell, they can now log onto the Web for real-time views of waves at popular breaks.

The camera proliferation has rankled some surfers so much that they regularly spray-paint over lenses to thwart viewers.

Meanwhile, surf-forecasting services can notify customers via pager when the conditions for surfing are good, so the beaches fill up even faster during prime times. Add to this the increasing number of nonsurfers - bodyboarders, windsurfers, and kayakers - and you have a recipe for chaos and overcrowding.

According to Mr. Howe, in many cases the increased wave traffic leads not so much to violence as to surfers taking unnecessary risks. Thus, they can often cause more injuries to themselves and others in a quest to get more waves.

"We have a limited resource that is open to everyone," says Howe. "So people are out there grabbing as much of it as they can and common courtesy is going by the wayside."

For Chris Brewster, it is more than a matter of common courtesy. "What you can see by looking at news accounts ... is that there are a fair number of cases where disagreements have come to blows and serious injuries have been inflicted," says Mr. Brewster, San Diego's chief lifeguard. "We have had chase scenes to apprehend surfers who have allegedly assaulted other surfers. We have had to use rescue boats and police helicopters. That's not the sort of thing we want to see on these beaches."

In response to what he sees as unacceptable levels of incivility and violence in the surf zone - including warnings on popular San Diego Internet sites about hostile surf beaches - Brewster has proposed a piece of state legislation to crack down on crime and localism in surfing.

Called the Open Waves Act, the law would classify surfboards as deadly weapons. (Surfers often try to spear or run over other surfers with their boards.) It would mandate at least 30 days of jail for first offenders who engage in harassment or violent acts in the ocean.

US Rep. Brian Bilbray of California shares Brewster's view. Representative Bilbray is seeking to include surf harassment and localism in federal hate-crime legislation that will likely be drafted this year.

"For somebody to be attacked and assaulted because they walked onto a public beach is just as outrageous as someone being beat up because of the color of their skin," says Bilbray, a surfer who has experienced beach harassment firsthand.

New efforts to eliminate tensions may reduce the most visible incidences of localism, surfers say. But they lament the mounting pressures on prime surfing sites that have made the regulations necessary.

"It's destroying the whole foundation of what the surfing lifestyle is all about," says Howe. "It was about being with the ocean and enjoying the solitude of the ocean with the camaraderie of friends. Try to find that anymore. The bliss is gone."

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