Ben Mallinson was paddling for a routine right-breaking wave at The Pass when the dark-haired surfer suddenly cut across in front of him from the outside.
Mr Mallinson, an experienced local surfer, had just enough time to pull his hand out of the way before the other surfer cannoned into his board.
‘I said “Wtf, dude!?”’ he recalls of the incident.
‘The guy turned around and just gets super aggressive. He’s saying “You wanna go, bro? You wanna go?”.
‘Then he slams his board up and under mine, leaving this big ding.’
When Mr Mallinson posted about the incident on a local Facebook page some hours later, the abuse continued.
Alongside expressions of sympathy and solidarity were a string of abusive posts declaring that he had ‘deserved’ the violent treatment he received.
‘They were more concerned with a technicality rather than questioning – is abuse okay?’ Mr Mallinson says.
It was an ugly incident, but far from an isolated one.
The region’s most popular surf spots such as The Pass, Wategos and Tallows regularly feature acts of aggression, anger and abuse, including a number of serious assaults.
Some say the surf rage is a result of overcrowding and an influx of inexperienced surfers with little or no knowledge of surf etiquette.
But for Mr Mallinson, and a significant number of other local surfers, the issue has a deeper cause – an unhealthy surf culture in which aggression and abuse are deemed acceptable behaviours by men.
‘Somehow, we’ve arrived at this point in coastal culture where it’s totally justifiable and okay for men to abuse other men,’ Mr Mallinson says. ‘We seem to be stuck in this loop that comes from these old legacies of behaviour.’
‘I’m not trying to control anyone’s behaviour – that never works. I just think we need to have a conversation about it and it has to come from within the surf community itself.’
While the close proximity of skilled surfers and beginners at The Pass makes it particularly susceptible to surf rage fuelled by this unhealthy culture, it is not the only location where this occurs.
One particular surfer at Wategoes is infamous within the local surf community for his aggressive and violent behaviour towards both men and women.
‘I was paddling out over the white wash as he was riding in on the wave,’ said one surfer who asked to remain anonymous.
‘He targeted me by coming as close as he could with a cut back… even though he had no need to.
‘[Then] I get my foot squished [by his board]. You can’t say anything to him. He’ll fight you – man, woman, paddle boarder, dog, whoever.’
Culture of silence
This incident, like most examples of violence and aggression in the surf, did not draw any outward response from other surfers.
While in some cases this is owing to fear of reprisals, in other cases it reflects a culture of silence within the surf community.
‘With my altercation, no one was saying anything,’ Mr Mallinson says.
‘There were about six people who could see and hear what was going on and they basically just turned the other way.’
‘If no one says anything there’s no accountability for the behaviour.
‘I want men to use their power, their privilege and their social status in the surf to condemn that behaviour rather than allowing it.’
‘Wouldn’t you rather be thanked for stepping in rather than staying silent and turning away?’
Fellow local surfer, Ellen, believes it’s time for surfers to have ‘a calm conversation with their mates’ when they behave aggressively.
‘It might just be a quiet word at the showers afterwards or over a coffee,’ said Ellen, who asked to have her surname kept confidential.
She said the unhealthy side of local surf-culture included men not respecting women in the line-up.
‘Some guys will just paddle straight past you to the inside and catch the next wave even if you’re right there in the spot waiting,’ she said.
Ellen also sought to emphasise that there had been many occasions when she had been shown care and compassion by men and women in the water.
‘I have had people call me onto waves, check on me when I’ve wiped out and even invited me to join them on another peak so that I’m not surfing alone,’ she says.
‘This is the surf culture I love and want to cultivate.’
Fellow surfer, Garry, agrees.
‘I think surfers need to be more aware of other people,’ he said. ‘They need to be willing to give waves away’.
‘The best vibes in the water are when people are friendly and sharing.
‘It’s probably never going to happen on a point break when it’s crowded, but can happen in other places.’
However, there are a significant number of local surfers who believe aggression and violence in the surf are largely the result of overcrowding and a lack of surf knowledge.
‘I don’t go out that much any more but when I do there just doesn’t seem to be any surf etiquette any more,’ former World Champion surfer and local, Pauline Menczer, says, ‘It’s just a free-for-all out there. The surf schools aren’t that great either – pushing beginners onto waves that people are already on’.
She believes aggression is inevitable when surf spots like The Pass are packed with hundreds of surfers.
‘If you can’t even get a park and then you finally get out there and someone drops in on you, of course there’s going to be aggro.’
‘Short of fining people or introducing surf licences, I don’t really know what you can do about it.’
Whatever the cause of violence and aggression in the surf, as Byron‘s popularity as a tourist destination grows, incidents such as that described by Mr Mallinson are likely to increase.
One thing that most of the surfers interviewed by The Echo agreed on was that solutions must come from the surfing community itself, including those who have been ripping at local breaks for years.