The age of the hypercrowd
If this isn't upon you yet, then it's coming to a break near you very soon. If you doubt this do a simple calculation of population growth on your spreadsheet. Assume that ten years ago there were 1,000 surfers in your area. If the rate of growth was around 5% there will now be around 1,500 - that is an extra 500 surfers. Consider then that if the growth rate is maintained over the next ten years there will be around 2,500. The situation varies from place to place but as a generalisation whatever crowd problems we face now, they will not only get worse, but get worse at an ever increasing rate.
Recent events on the Gold Coast have highlighted the issues but that is only the tip of the problem. It may be more extreme in epic conditions but it is there on any decent day at any urban break and the better known rural ones. As many others have commented this is a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons in which a shared resource is stretched beyond its breaking point by population growth.
We have known about this problem for years and done nothing because there has been no solution beyond the personal one of removing oneself, regularly or permanently, to less crowded locations. If this remains our approach then surfing, over much of its traditional territory, will very soon, to all our detriment, be thoroughly degraded. For the vast majority of us surfing is a recreation and we have benefited enormously from our participation. These benefits have arisen from particular features of the surfing experience that become less effective as the crowd increases.
If we take exercise first it is a reasonable hypothesis that its benefits increase directly with the number of waves ridden. As the crowd increases average activity decreases. This is easily observed, watch a crowded line up and, unless there is a current running through it, most of the crowd will be static for long periods. A further discouragement to activity is that those surfers who do move through the crowd following the peaks are often accused of hassling.
One of the other benefits comes from being in a natural environment. When we surf ideally our attention should be on natural features; the waves, winds, rips, beaches, reefs and aquatic life. A significant body of research links time spent in natural environments to reduced stress and better mental health. In crowds, by necessity, a large part of our attention is diverted to paying attention to what others are doing.
The third benefit has, in the past, come from the sense of community that used to develop around particular breaks. Many of us have made life long friends with people we met in the water but beyond those few strong relationships, perhaps more importantly, we all know large numbers of people by sight who we will greet and happily share the available waves with. People who surfed then were at less risk of becoming socially isolated. That the degree of friendliness has an inverse relationship with crowd size goes without saying. When people paddle out in crowded conditions, look around and cannot see a single familiar face, then the very existence of anything like a local surfing community is brought into doubt.
If the future is like the past we can expect no meaningful response. Crowd behaviour will get worse. Fewer benefits will flow to those who choose surfing as a life long recreation and we will all have lost something that can never be replaced. There are other possibilities but returning to the past is not one of them; surfing can never be the wonderfully free and easy thing it once was.
The inability of surfers to decide what sort of future they want in terms of equitable access to waves is, of course, a decision in itself and a decision that could see our destiny taken out of our hands by the wider community. Surf Life Saving Australia already sets the conditions for school surfing activities, and the surf clubs, through the nipper movement, are bringing forward large numbers of young surfers. It is not hard to imagine them expanding into junior competition. This fits in with the gentrification of beachside areas. The middle class are very keen of structuring heir offspring's time! Would you be happy to wait for the under-10s, -12s, -14s, and -16s to finish their weekly event before you get to surf your favourite spot?
Another possibility, if public liability issues became serious enough, would be pay-to-surf plans to limit the numbers in the water. How many hours at the Superbank would you be happy to book before your Gold Coast holiday? Or would you prefer "Surf Inspectors" on jet skis controlling access to the take off area? Or maybe something similar to a martial arts belt system? Sorry but Black Belts only today!
Like most other aspects of our lives we long ago sacrificed control over surfing to commercial entities dedicated to nothing but profit. We could take that control back but it would require some widely accepted view of where we want to go and people with the passion to show the way. We should wish ourselves luck, we will definitely need it. //blindboy