A map battle for surfer havens

Australia's secretive surfers want to keep official maps from pinpointing the hottest beaches.

Venture to any of Australia's beaches on a Saturday morning, and you'll find surfers of all shapes and sizes: thick-armed bricklayers carving up the waves next to paunchy lawyers, the archetypal bronzed teenagers with freckled faces and sun-bleached hair filling the spaces in between.

But a new initiative in Sydney's home state of New South Wales is proving that even though surfers may long ago have left behind their image as dropouts who care only about good waves and good times, there is still plenty of rebellion left.

Earlier this year the state's Geographical Names Boards proposed listing surfing spots on official maps.

Putting the spots and their colorful nicknames like "Voodoo" and "Winkypop" on the map, the argument went, would help rescuers respond more quickly to emergencies by pointing them to sections of beach already named by surfers. With many beaches stretching for miles, sending help to the right section can mean the difference between life and death.

"A lot of Aussies love the surf, and because of that we do have a lot of mishaps and drownings," says Paul Harcomb, the state's chief surveyor. "We think this can save lives."

Allan Young, the civil servant and long-time surfer who came up with the idea, first thought of it during a meeting on the use of traditional Aboriginal names in the state's national parks.

If referring to a hill by its Aboriginal name accorded a practical legitimacy to Australia's indigenous culture, then wouldn't identifying surfing spots do the same?

"It recognizes the cultural significance of surfing," Mr. Young says. "In our society here, if you're a surfer you'll refer to 'Sand Shoes' or 'the Dunny Bowl' and everybody just knows where they are."

But Young's proposal has drawn a mixed reaction from his fellow surfers.

Many, it seems, are worried that putting spots on the map might attract more people to the waves. Or, worse still, undermine one of surfing's most hallowed traditions – the secret spot.

When Tracks, an Australian surfing magazine, polled readers recently, it found that more than two-thirds opposed the idea, says Ben Mondy, its deputy editor.

"It's part of our culture that you don't actually tell people where to find waves," Mr. Mondy says. "That's part of the price of acceptance to the culture, actually learning how to find the waves."

Officials argue they just want to put well-known spots on the map. Moreover, they say, surfers are being asked to come up with the names and it's up to them just how much they reveal.

But Steve Blackley, a surf advocate, says the proposal challenges something that has existed in surf culture ever since the late 1950s when fiberglass boards first made catching a wave easier and the sport's now exponential growth began.

"Whether we like it or not there's an inherent protectionism within surfing whereby people who live by, or surf, a particular break regularly don't want it to get overcrowded," he says. And as a result "there are sacred sites in surfing."

Because of the opposition, officials are proceeding gently with their idea.

And at the same time they're also building up a list of future targets who might be more willing to part with some of their nicknames for their favorite spots.

After all, Harcomb says, "There's over a million people who go fishing in Australia."

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