Parko, Mick, and Dingo caught by the Water Police at Snapper Rocks
Last Thursday, as the finalists of the Quiksilver Pro were negotiating below sea level drainers at Kirra, Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning, and Dean Morrison were revelling in what Parko called “the best Snapper in a long time.” In fact, Parko nabbed a barrel that many were calling the best Snapper barrel ever.
However, unlike his comrades down the point who were clearly catching waves under their own steam, Parko may have taken the easy route of a step off. Many people suspect that’s the case, among them is Acting Senior Sergeant of Queensland Water Police, Mitch Gray.
The matter came up during a half-hour conversation Swellnet had with Snr Sgt Gray. Ostensibly the talk was about what the collective authorities - that being Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ), Water Police, and Police - are doing to control unlawful PWC use on the Gold Coast. Snr Sgt Gray is at the top of the pyramid here, each office reports to him.
Before we get into the details of the recent events he wants to set straight the rumours that his officers are indifferent to illegal behaviour; that the Water Police know illegal tow surfing is happening but won’t do anything.
“We do the rosters a month in advance,” explains Snr Sgt Gray. “However, big swells are unpredictable and we don’t always have the flexibility to change rosters and allocate extra resources to the southern points.”
They are, however, getting better at anticipating problem times and preparing for them. “We don’t have our head in the sand. Half of the office here surfs, so we know when big waves are coming. We just have to get more proactive.”
They’re being helped along by a public that’s increasingly outraged by illegal PWC use, even if their frustrations are sometimes misdirected. During the Cyclone Gita swell Snr Sgt Gray said his office received just two formal complaints of illegal PWC use (though the lifeguards and MSQ received many more). By comparison, I received ten times that number to my personal phone and Swellnet had hundreds of comments on the issue.
Despite the lack of reporting the authorities were acutely aware of the problem and got on the front foot for the following swell. This was the swell from Tropical Cyclone Linda which hit the Gold Coast last Thursday - finals day for the Quiksilver Pro.
“We got down to Currumbin at 8am, the MSQ were already doing covert patrols, but we went out and within half an hour we’d cleared nine skis from the water,” says Sgt Grey. “A lot of them received infringement notices. Some of them weren’t committing offences at the time so they were given a talk, all their details were recorded in our system so if they do it again they can’t plead ignorance.”
Two skis were down at Laceys Lane but they “were comfortably beyond the legal distance” and were allowed to carry on. By 9am the paddle surfers at the Alley were untroubled by any skis.
There are two ways the authorities can choose to tackle the PWC problem: covertly or overtly. To date, the MSQ have operated more covertly, they’ll sit back and watch the events, then mail out infringement notices the next day. The problem with this approach is that no-one bar the offender is aware of the penalty so the general public think nothing is happening.
Increasingly, covert action, or public policing, is being viewed as a more effective deterrent. “We want the paddle surfers to know that they’re being heard,” says Snr Sgt Gray, “and we want jet ski riders to know that if they break the law they’ll be caught.”
After clearing the lineup at Currumbin, Snr Sgt Gray headed down towards Kirra where he “nabbed another three vessels there” and dealt with them accordingly. He then noticed two skis out at Snapper Rocks that he suspected were doing step offs among the crowd.
By midday the surf at Snapper Rocks was six foot plus. “When there’s that much surf it’s hard to see what’s happening from a distance, so we had to motor out around the shark nets and come in but the skis saw us and stopped,” recounted Snr Sgt Gray.
Joel Parkinson and Dean Morrison were on one ski, Mick Fanning on the other.
Celebrating the perfect crime...almost.
“We said to them, ‘You guys cant be here, you’re within 200 metres of the surfers’. So we explained the laws and they just packed up and left straight away. They were really good about it in that regard.”
And what about the other surfers in the water?
“All the paddle surfers in the water appreciated it. No doubt about it,” says Snr Sgt Gray.
Though they got away without a fine, the three pros received a marine caution which still counts as an infringement. “A marine caution is a way of us recording that you’ve been given a warning. You’ve been given all the info you need to operate that vessel lawfully and there’s no second chances.”
Over the course of the day Snr Sgt Gray says he had “about 20 interactions” with PWCs that resulted in 8 drivers getting infringement notices because the Water Police or MSQ witnessed the breach. Each of those drivers will receive a $372 fine while the rest received marine cautions and had the interaction recorded.
A PWC license isn’t like a car license where demerit points accumulate till you hit zero and your license gets suspended. There are no demerit points on the water, but a newly implemented system allows the Water Police to suspend the license of anyone caught four times within a two year stretch.
It’s a tool that’s rarely been used, not because the police are unwilling but because, as Snr Sgt Gray says, “Adult repeat offenders are rare. Believe it or not, but they tend to pull their head in after they get caught.”
The Gold Coast Water Police and MSQ put a lot of boots on the ground during Cyclone Linda, but it won’t always be the case that so many resources are available. The resolve is there to end the cowboy behaviour so I ask Snr Sgt Grey what the public can do to assist.
“The simplest thing is to call the Police Assistance Line - 131 444 - if an offence is being committed.”
Anyone who calls the Police Assistance Line - which is set up to report real time criminal events - connects to an operator who will divert their call to the relevant department. In this case they’ll be put onto the Gold Coast Water Police.
“I encourage all surfers to call that number when they see the law being broken. I can check it on the surf cams. I can zoom in and look at it, then allocate resources to take care of it ASAP. I can even ring the Palm Beach coppers and get them to drive down there and check it out.”
“I’ve got the capacity to do this stuff but I can only do it if people call me up and tell me. If people don’t call then I’ll send the resources elsewhere.”
And so the onus is upon paddle surfers. No-one else is going to bring order to the Gold Coast lineups. Aside from Wayne Deane, all the local elders have lost their tongues, Surfing Australia - who have a constitution that supposedly upholds the rights of recreational surfers - continue to ignore it, and despite recreational surfers being their market the World Surf League seems to find these incidents nothing more than a source of amusement and web traffic.
In Swellnet’s last article we said there are just two bits of information Gold Coast paddle surfers need to know:
- PWCs cannot exceed 6 knots while within 60 metres of a surfer or swimmer. And,
- When a surfer paddles out at Currumbin all towing must stop.
You can add the following phone number to that list:
- When you see a PWC break the law call 131 444.
I’ll leave the last word to Acting Senior Sergeant Mitch Gray.
“If someone’s got the guts to paddle out at six-to-eight foot Alley or Kirra, where it’s high risk and they need to call on all their fitness and experience, then give them the respect they deserve.”