The philosophy behind surfing is that it is an expression of freedom and individuality, as a wild haired legend gracefully cuts his own trail of white foam, undaunted by the ominously close and monstrous wave that propels him.

Unfortunately this clashes with reality, where quite often beaches are increasingly more crowded. A surfer's creative licence needs to accomodate the unpredictable nature of other surfers. A novice eleven year old grommit, or a forty something who has taken up surfing to assauge a mid-life crisis, can be even more unpredictable than the surf portrayed in Monserrat's The Cruel Sea, especially if out of ego or ignorance they have chosen the wrong surfboard or beach.

The idea of singularity dispelled, surfing has now acquired notions of elitism, no doubt fuelled by corporate marketing strategies targetting this pasttime that highlight efficacy over other attributes (like fun). A pecking order has emerged on many beaches, determining who has access to the choicest of waves. Many non-surfers would be aware of the term surf Nazi, and therefore can understand how surfers who zealously defend their perceived station in the pecking order are seen by others. You may also be aware of the term surf rage, which comes as a result a potent mix of differing opinions on access rights, andrenalin, drugs, alcohol and/or a collision.

Regardless of ethical arguments that concern ascribing property rights to natural resources, for the sake of order some naturally emerging system is required. The tragedy of the commons thesis provides the economic rationale for ensuring that some discipline exists in a perfectly free market to prevent natural resources from being over-used. Unfortunately there are many contending hierarchies, and people will naturally choose the standard that puts them closer to the top of the tree:

  • Provincialism: That the closer you reside to the beach, the more likely your right to surf will be respected by other locals. May also be based on gradiating factors - nationality, attendance at the same high school, or the likelihood that you or your parents are a ratepayer to the local government which funds the beach. The scrawl No Westies at a Sydney beach is a clear example.

  • Hui: In Hawaii, the rigorously enforced surf law that not only recognises the primacy of rights for locals, but implies that in a dispute between two people, the person likely to come second best in a fist fight should give way. The same concept is found in Mauritius and Indonesia. Whereas German Nazis were Brownshirts and Italian Fascisti were Blackshirts, Mauritian Surf Nazis form a gang called the White Shorts, and Balinese form the Black Shorts.

  • Property Rights: In Fiji, the legacy of British property law has allowed hotels and resorts acquire beaches, and to legally turf out non-paying surfers.

  • First come, first served: The person who gets to the pointbreak first rules the waves. In the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia boats from different surf shops race each morning to a reef to declare ownership. But on an individual basis, and commonly acknowledged by most surfers when no other law or hui dictates otherwise, the person up and riding first that is closest to the breaking part of the wave has the right of way. Infringing on this is known as 'dropping in'.

  • Meritocracy: Simply that the best surfer has the right to the best waves, while beginners are (wisely) relegated to less dramatic surf. Wearing the best surf gear is not generally regarded anymore as evidence of surfing ability.

    ref: 27/australia.surfing.reut

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