Longboarders, Legropes and the Law
A summertime reprise of a popular topic...
This is an article about blame and responsibility. I was provoked into writing it after getting hit by a loose surfboard at Manly Beach on a midsummer Sunday. As all right-thinking surfers know, the chances of getting hit are greatly increased when surfing at such an hour. Therefore, if first principles are to be observed I'm at fault simply for being out there.
Now, with that small issue out of the way let's move on...
Allow me to paint you a picture: It's 10am Sunday, baking hot, and every parking space within two blocks of the beach is taken. The crowd situation is reflected in the water with fifty people jamming every bank from the south end to the north. The surf is only two to three feet but has good shape with clean lines hitting low tide banks. I choose the least crowded bank and step into the fray.
Whilst walking across the shallow sandbank a longboarder takes off on a wave that's clearly going to close out. Unperturbed he gets to his feet and tries to pull into the hollow closeout which is breaking twenty metres beyond where I am on the bank.
As expected the wave closes out and his board shoots out in front of the whitewash at speed, there's no legrope attached. I notice this and quickly move to the left. The board bounces and bites, taking a sharp turn toward me. I'm in knee deep water, too shallow to duckdive, so at the last second I make a quick movement back to the right. At that moment the board springs out of the wash and hits me I the ribs. I recoil in shock but the pain isn't too bad.
The impact stopped the board's forward motion so I'm standing with it when the owner walks towards me.
"No legrope, mate?"
"Nah, don't need it."
"Your board just hit me," I seethed.
"If you can't get out of the way you shouldn't be out here," was his snappy response.
The red mist descends as I realise this guy is not only unapologetic but downright surly. We're standing two feet apart and the temptation to lash out is strong. It takes willpower to resist a violent response but something needs to be said if only to resolve the tension.
"You looking for a lawsuit then?" I surprised myself by saying it.
He didn't answer and we eye each other off momentarily. When it was clear a stalemate had been reached we paddled back out, veering away from each other to give distance while the pack hushed and stared.
The confrontation throws me, however, and I can't get into the session. After twenty minutes of average waves I call it quits and head for shore. Whilst on the beach I notice two longboarders heading out for a surf, both of them without legropes, just as the longboarder whose board hit me had been.
In the following week I played the event over and over in my head toying with various scenarios and endings. After the indignation and anger faded what I was left with were two separate yet related issues. The first being longboarders and their predisposition to shun legropes. Aside from SUPs, longboards are the least ideal surfcraft to use unharnessed and yet it's deemed acceptable to do so.
The second issue involved the legal implications of not wearing a legrope. It might've been a throwaway line but my taunt about a lawsuit stuck in my mind: What are the legal rights of someone hit by a loose board? In this case it was only height that prevented injury, someone younger or shorter would've been hit flush in the face with the longboard. What then? Could a parent respond to an act of surfing negligence with a lawsuit, and if so, under what law?
While doing research it struck me how little such issues concerned longboarders. If media images are to be believed the modern longboarder has little need for a legrope at all. From Pacific Longboarder to Slide Magazine, to the many longboarding blogs and websites, including Swellnet, the majority of images show longboarders surfing without a legrope.
An argument may be mounted by longboarders who walk the board that legropes get in the way, though for the majority of longboarders and all those who surf mid-length boards it's a moot point. For them there's no functional gain by losing the leggy. So if it isn't for function why then do so many longboarders not wear legropes?
Conducting informal interviews over the next few weeks I found that the majority of longboarders put the reason down to how it feels. "It feels free" being the simplest way to summarise their collective responses.
Longboarders, however, don't have the mortgage on this feeling. Shortboarders can doff the legrope and also delight in the buzz of being disconnected. Bodyboarders too, even SUPs, no surfcraft are excluded and yet on any given day the number of longboarders without legropes far outstrips all other craft.
At this juncture it's hard not to point the finger at fashion. Longboarders didn't always ride leashless, it's a trend that's appeared in the last five years and coincided with the rise of surfing hipsters. The simplified aesthetic has found a natural home in retro longboarding where the stripped down, 'leave it all on the beach' ethos is strong, and seemingly applies to surfing staples such as legropes.
The thought of it infuriates; that longboarders would forego the safety of others for the mere sake of fashion is recklessness writ large. Surfing amongst like-minded folk at, say, Noosa is one thing but elsewhere they are indulging their freedoms by jeopardising the freedom of others.
One of the most famous statements pertaining to freedom was uttered by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1894: "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." In this context a surfer's right to ride leashless ends when his board hits me in the fucking ribs.
So what can be done about it?
After the initial incident I rang Manly Lifeguards to ask of their opinion. The person who answered the phone offered a friendly and sympathetic ear as I explained what happened. However, when I told him I was a journalist exploring hypothetical legal scenarios in the surf zone he took a wary tone and avoided further discussion. "I can't say any more," he said, "you'll need to contact council."
Before hanging up I asked one last question: Do Manly lifeguards ever stop surfers from entering the surf without legropes. "We have no legal right to do so," was the blunt reply.
In the following week I called Waverley and Cronulla lifeguards, engaging in similar conversations and receiving similar responses. An email reply from the office of the General Manager of Manly Council shed little light on the issue except to reiterate what I'd already discovered: Lifeguards have no formal power to stop surfers who paddle out at a crowded wave without a legrope. The feeling I got was that no-one wanted to discuss it.
I then went looking for legal precedents, lawsuits created by victims of stray boards. In the US they were easy to find as some states have leash laws making it illegal to enter the surf without one. If an accident happens due to a protagonist not wearing a legrope they are automatically assigned blame.
In Australia, where no such laws exists, cases are harder to find. In 2002 the NSW State government introduced the Civil Liability Act. The Act created significant hurdles for injured persons to recover damages, even in instances where the other party was negligent or at fault.
Andy Munro is a senior associate with Slater & Gordon Lawyers, Coffs Harbour. Prior to the Act, says Munro, "a number of high profile personal injury cases...prompted the then government to significantly change the laws insofar as they related to persons injured in public places."
The Civil Liability Act includes restrictions that relate to 'obvious risk' and 'recreational activities'. "In my view," says Munro, "the courts would likely find that surfing is a dangerous recreational activity within the meaning of the Civil Liability Act. That would apply regardless of whether the board rider was wearing a legrope or not."
Further, says Munro, "the act of placing oneself in a crowded line up in the circumstances where it may be expected there will be a varying degree of skill and experience would likely leave the courts to conclude that there was an obvious risk, notwithstanding the use or otherwise of legropes or the type of surfcraft being used."
The Civil Liability Act therefore protects irresponsible longboarders on two fronts. "The prospect," Munro concludes, "of a person injured by a stray surfboard in recovering damages, is not impossible but fraught with difficulty."
Which ultimately means that the law doesn't protect surfers should they be hit by an errant longboard – or any other surfcraft - irrespective of how negligent their owner is. Just how the victim responds is dependent on their temperament and tolerance; they may turn the other cheek, take an eye for an eye, or like me, stop surfing at 10am on summer Sunday mornings.