December 20, 2005

Australian beach battle the dark side of surfing

By James Regan

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Disagreements, sometimes violent, about who owns the beach in Australia are not new.

Long before this month's ethnic riots in some of Sydney's most popular seaside communities, surfers, lifeguards and people who live inland were drawing battle lines in the sand.

"When you are sharing the ocean with like-minded people, the beach becomes like your church," said psychologist Richard Bennett, author of "The Surfer's Mind."

"If someone is coming into your church and blowing out the candles," he said, "you want them to leave."

Running counter to the image of easy-going nomads happy to spend their days riding the ocean's waves, surfers have a history of employing verbal and physical abuse to keep others out of the surf.

A proliferation of testosterone-packed surfing magazines, lighter surfboards and good-as-the-guys girl surf movies such as "Blue Crush" drawing more people into the water, are making matters worse.

The face of former world champion Nat Young, nicknamed "Animal" for his behavior in the water, was rebuilt with titanium mesh a few years ago after a pummeling by a fellow surfer on a popular Australian beach left him unconscious.


"Increasingly, surfers are losing it. Fists are thrown, knives are brandished, out-of-towners are ganged up on, cars are vandalized and boards are speared," wrote Derek Reilly in the book "Surf Rage," compiled by Young after his recovery.

"Australia's waves have long been a battleground for young men proving their masculinity," said an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. "This is an urban war between tribes."

But it's not just Australia.

Cries of "Locals only" and "If you don't live here, don't' surf here," were coined by surfers from Malibu to Cape Town generations ago and still ring out in many communities.

Tim Banas and his son Tom were beaten when they tried to surf at Lunada Bay, a beach notoriously unfriendly to strangers in southern California.

Lunada Bay now swarms with surf monitors and police escorts, surf cams and undercover cops in the water, wrote "Waves" magazine in an article titled "Endless Bummer," a twist on the epic 1960s travel epilogue "Endless Summer," which implored a generation of young surf riders to seek the perfect wave.


In Hawaii, the center of the surfing world, "haoles," or blond surfers, are banned from certain beaches by local toughs.

Australia's lifeguards, struggling for new volunteers ever since the surf craze of the 1960s, draw the ire of surfers by enforcing no-surfing zones in the ocean to protect bathers from errant surfboards.

And in Sydney, people living inland are regarded as intruders by surfers and lifeguards alike. The factions have warred for generations.

"No one wants us here, but it's our beach too. It's just that we don't live here," says Ahmed, a Lebanese-Australian suburban youth who managed to sidestep police roadblocks on Sunday to spend a summer's day on Cronulla Beach, south of Sydney.

A week earlier, 5,000 Cronulla residents, many dressed in the uniform of the beach -- sandals, T-shirt and baseball cap -- clashed with Arabic men and women and police attempting to quell the violence.

Australian media labeled the incident, sparked by a fight between Lebanese youths and lifeguards, the country's worst day of racial tension.

Armed with new powers to make more arrests rushed into law last week, police may have to declare beaches off limits to outsiders over Christmas in hopes of averting a second wave of rioting after learning of telephone text messages calling for "Arabs to unite" against beach residents.