Author Lauren Hill and a rare moment of solitude out at The Pass, no leash required. Photo Nathan Oldfield
31 May 23
This considered take on it all is by Lauren Hill, and it’s lifted from Patagonia’s Roaring Journals essays. The link to the original article, including vids, is at the bottom of this page – along with other great Roaring Journal pieces.
I was surfing inside The Pass with my five-year-old last summer on a glorious mid-week day with few other folks in the water, light offshores and peeling little one-to-two footers, head-high for my little guy.
It was a momentous occasion – not just because the crowd was mellow – but it was the first time where he was in control of his own paddling and (most of) his own wave catching. We talked a lot about crowds and keeping a wide berth from other surfers, because lots of people who surf out there don’t know how to control their boards yet.
It’s the reason we rarely take him to surf The Pass, because as a family we weigh the risk as (often) higher than necessary because of the density of humans: learners, boats, SUPs and the general chaos of that particular lineup.
Still, I love the wave. It’s one of the great wonders of the surfing world – so user friendly, just the right speed and tempo for a heavy longboard. Despite the chaos and with a sense of humour, it is a beautiful place to ride waves – the sweeping bay, mountain silhouettes, and the kind of lovely runners that I still dream about.
It was high noon; the water was summer-turquoise and we were out wide and far down the point. When he caught his fifth or sixth wave, my son dropped in, ate it somewhere down the line, and when he popped up, his leggie had snapped.
It took me 10 or 15 paddle stokes to get to him through calm water, as the waves were lully and spacious. We paddled my longboard together and had to ride a wave on our bellies to rescue his foamie from the inside.
I couldn’t believe a 22kg surfer and a one-footer could snap a legrope. Neither could he. It was all fun and funny in those conditions, but he had questions: why did that happen? What is the point of a legrope if they just break when you need them most?
I grew up on a little island in the Atlantic, where you had to search for other people to surf with on the 23kms of open beachies. Mostly the waves are under waist-high and soft, so I never wore a legrope with my longboard.
I wasn’t trying to, as one recent article put it, live out some “retro-nostalgia dream,” I was just trying to work out how to cross-step and a leggie makes that harder. You end up tripping over them and they get stuck between your toes. If you’ve ever walked a dog, you know the second-hand annoyance of ankle-tangle.
Of course ease is not worth the risk of someone else’s safety, but when you’re surfing with a couple of mates, not wearing a legrope can simply be a decision based on function, not an aesthetic one. Not some “hipster fad” situation.
Learning to surf without a legrope made my risk assessment more precise – if I thought I was going to fall and lose my board, I wouldn’t go. For better or worse, it made me a more conservative wave rider and I’m grateful to have had that option. It was valuable.
I’m not implying that my experience is the same as surfing crowded pointbreaks here in Australia. I grew up with different circumstances. I’m NOT implying that legropes don’t play a role in the order of a lineup. But I also don’t think it should be against the law to surf without one, if you are also surfing with awareness of set and setting.
There is nuance to this conversation that isn’t captured by the polarised, loudest voices in the meagre public assertions. As with all issues, media favours the extremities, where we end up pitted against one another and common sense is squashed by hyperbole.
My anecdotal experience over the last 22 surfing years is that (of course) legropes are very helpful at times, but they are a secondary line of safety, not a primary safety device. They aren’t meant to be used that way.
Even their packaging makes this clear. Many (not all), legropes are wrapped with a warning:
“This leash is for convenience only and should not replace surfing ability, ocean knowledge or common sense.”
“This leash must be used at your own risk. This product is used in conjunction with a sport that is considered dangerous.”
How can a local council enforce leashes as “safety devices,” when manufacturers of said devices are adamant that “safety” is not their purpose? According to makers, their purpose is convenience, even if they do a good job at keeping boards close to the user most of the time.
And sometimes too close. I know of at least two very experienced surfers whose eyes were gouged by the slingshot return of board by a legrope. One of them, local Pass surfer and former pro Derek Hynd. “I’m one of the few legitimate conscientious objectors to legropes there can be,” he said in an interview last year. “Lost an eye from one in competition in 1980.”
Still, for most of us, hypothetically injuring oneself just feels less bad than hurting someone else.
At five, my little guy isn’t yet capable of maintaining adequate control of his own craft, so we mostly surf away from others. His snapped leggie became a conversation about the importance of capability in the water.
We talked about how it’s unwise to rely 100 per cent on a legrope not snapping, even in little waves. Our first line of safety should always be our capabilities and sensitivities: the ability to read waves and water, to abide by lineup etiquette, and to be able to hang onto our crafts. Legrope, or not, still, accidents happen.
Byron Bay’s recent “Legrope Law,” which theoretically carries an $1,100 fine for non-compliance, is a knee jerk reaction to a horrible accident – the near fatal encounter Matt Cassidy had with a longboard whose leash had also snapped. I’m sorry that happened to him, and glad that he’s made a full recovery.
His unfortunate accident was not a singular event. Loose longboards roll through The Pass semi-regularly, as they do at the points in Noosa, Malibu, Rincon etc., and people do get hurt. Most people in the water are paying enough attention to be able to manoeuvre around an oncoming board, in the same way we are regularly required to manoeuvre around oncoming wave riders. Being in the ocean is fundamentally about paying attention.
Sometimes loose boards, or out of control surfers, can’t be avoided. That is part the agreement when you paddle into a crowded lineup. You will be dropped in on. You will likely have to surf slalom through packs of buoy-people on the inside. The Pass is increasingly hectic. Most surfers know this and still choose to surf there.
Those who know The Pass agree: surfers ditching their leashed boards is the most consistently dangerous element of surfing there. Emboldened by the perceived safety of a legrope, folks audaciously paddle out beyond their capability and rely on “ditching” to move around the lineup.
“For every lost log I’ve seen at The Pass, and I’ve seen a few – about 20 in a year – I’ve seen a thousand instances of this more dangerous move of jumping out the back of a wave without thought for the third party,” said Derek Hynd.
The accepted pedagogy from surf schools remains – get as far away from your board as possible. In other words, ditch to keep yourself safe, never mind the dozen people paddling out behind you. Even leashed, that’s something like 20ft of projectile surfboard.
To the list of other real and present Pass dangers please also add: dive boat propellers speeding though the line-up, the 25-foot-plus radius and considerable mass of stand-up paddleboards being flung around, and the newest danger of flying foilboard blades slicing through the crowd.
Not to mention people doing any number of irresponsible things: parents pushing their kids in front of other surfers, surf school instructors pushing beginners in front of other surfers, overripe shred lords attempting fin blows right next to others’ heads.
The “Legrope Law” is a flimsy attempt at grappling with the very real, and new-ish pressures on line-ups. It will probably do very little to impact safety. I haven’t seen any stats yet, but I would bet that the number of injuries from loose longboards pales in comparison to the number of injuries from leashed boards (many, if not most, self-inflicted). I hope that Council will be tracking the impact by collecting data from the local hospital. They have indicated that an education campaign underpins the law, but we can only hope this means more than sparse signage.
I understand and agree with the need to address safety at our local line-up, but we are letting legislation stand in for what should be meaningful cultural conversation about the balance between personal responsibility, social responsibility, and safety. The law is a reactionary attempt to just do-something! , instead of taking measure, via representative community consultation, of what might produce impactful change.
If we agree that it is Council’s role to regulate for safety in the line-up, which we are agreeing to by allowing a ‘Legrope Law,’ then a logical trajectory is banning the use of fins at crowded line-ups. No doubt they are the most dangerous element in terms of equipment.
Is governmental regulation really the direction we want to go with surfing? Should we transition to an all-finless lineup at all breaks over a certain human density
Noosa Councillor and longboarding icon Tom Wegener says he is “all for it”… but only sarcastically. In 2010, he innovated the finless foamie Albacore model to adapt to the crowding of Noosa’s points. In fact, he’s opposed to council regulation in the lineup. He doesn’t believe that “Noosa has the appetite to follow Byron’s leash law.”
The independent Councillor who proposed the legrope law in Byron, Cr. Cate Coorey, said that this is about changing surf culture and “keeping surfers safe from each other.”
But shouldn’t that be up to us?
The widely circulating metaphor is that wearing a legrope is akin to wearing a seatbelt. Which makes sense if you don’t think about it too much.
“But it’s not like that at all,” journalist Margie Wegener quipped in a lengthy conversation on the topic. “In reality, mandating legropes for safety is more like telling people, ‘It’s fine to take your hands off the wheel, as long as you have a seatbelt on.’”
The thing with driving is that you have to prove your competence to do it – and even then (in Australia) you have to earn greater responsibility (higher speeds, etc.) over time. We don’t have that in surfing (yet).
We’re in the process of exiting the patriarchal “learn by knuckles” system of line-up management – that plenty of old boys are now romanticising (punching fins out, etc). I’m sure we can do better than that. I got dropped in on by an overzealous silverback just last week at The Pass. Drop-ins can be fun, sometimes they’re dangerous. This one was just meh. Made eye contact. Went anyway. It happens.
What struck me (thankfully not his fins on the late drop), was that three separate people paddled up to me afterward and commented on how ruthless and lame that guy was for dropping in. But no one said anything to him.
This is where the old boys got it right: they felt a sense of protection over and responsibility for their places. And they weren’t afraid to defend the social contract of etiquette and respect.
We’ve (largely, rightfully) ushered out their violence, but we haven’t replaced the old ways with anything at all. We are all probably guilty of watching weird, dangerous, violent shit go down at our locals and not saying anything to the perpetrator.
As the wisdom of the aviation authority suggests – see something, say something. And it can be intimidating to say something, so let’s back up folks when they’re trying to do the right thing by regulating in the lineup.
It doesn’t have to be a shame and blame pack-attack as it was in the past, but as a group of people looking out for each other. We are, each of us, being called to take the kind of responsibility that real community requires – including calling people out when they lose their boards. Loose logs torpedoing into the kiddie zone in the shallows isn’t okay.
The passing of this leggie law feels like a turning point where we can either take responsibility as a community, or we hand it over to outside entities.
So, if legrope laws are not a panacea for line-up OH&S, but we agree that there are safety issues in our lineups, what can we do?
To start, we already have very capable people employed to address safety at the beach: lifeguards. Instead of wasting budget on a practically unenforceable legrope law (Council’s admission), why don’t we engage full-time lifeguards at The Pass? Assign a pair to be on full-time duty at the point, whose role it is to redirect newbies to the inside, call out people who are making the lineup less safe, and act as resources for educating people about paying attention in the ocean. Lifeguards are already charged with this kind of duty in places like the North Shore and Malibu.
Where our local council has succeeded is in stoking the fires of conversation on the issue. We need to talk about this as a community. More than that. We need to listen to one another when it comes to lineup politics. Or maybe we should just commit to finless, soft craft only at The Pass, make it a playground in the safest possible way, and then we can all remember that this is just surfing, and it is meant to be fun?
Despite the surf-troll comments on the Internet, I’ve found surfers around the world to be overwhelmingly kind, caring and good humoured. I don’t claim to have the right answer to making the lineup safer, but I’m confident that we can find common sense ways to do it as a community without the need for legislation.
- AUTHOR: LAUREN HILL
- SOURCE: PATAGONIA’S "ROARING JOURNALS"