davenport003Bill Pearse has written an insightful article about real life anarchy in the game of golf. I had been thinking of writing a similar article about surfing, and Pearce’s article was the catalyst to get it done. But I don’t want to repeat what he has already expressed. Instead, I’d like to focus on scarcity, because that may be the biggest difference between golf and surfing.

In surfing, the key problem is that waves are a scarce resource. The better the surf spot, the more crowded and competitive it is. So how have surfers worked out ways to distribute these scarce resources with  minimal government interference? There are three principles at play in the allocation of surfing’s scarce waves. Each principle provides a check and balance against the other two. And yet none of these principles were built into the sport, like the rules of golf. These principles simply evolved.

First, surfing is a meritocracy. Catching waves is not easy. It requires both physical and mental skills to put yourself in the right place at the right time,  and to do so better than other surfers who are competing for the same waves. Better surfers get more waves simply by virtue of their skill.  The more difficult and challenging the wave is, the more one’s skill level becomes a competitive advantage. Even in less challenging waves, a good surfer’s obvious skill earns the respect and deference of other surfers.

But meritocracy is constrained by unwritten rules that are generally recognized at most surf spots throughout the world, although the degree of respect for those rules varies from spot to spot.  Generally, the first surfer to catch the wave closest to the peak, has priority. It is considered bad surf etiquette to take off on the shoulder of the wave and get in the way of the rider who is closest to the peak. It is also considered bad etiquette to “back paddle” someone by paddling around them to get closer to the peak and claim better position. Moreover, even if you are skilled and obtained best position in a fair way, you can be shunned as a wave hog if you catch too many waves.  Sharing the stoke is part of surf  etiquette.

But surf etiquette is checked both by skill and the third principle. There are prescriptive rights in surfing. As with property law, those who have been there, exploiting the resource for the longest time, have the right to the waves and are justified in excluding others from the surf. In property law, there is a principle called adverse possession. If you occupy a piece of land openly, notoriously (i.e., you make sure everyone knows about your claim), hostile to other competing claims, for a certain period of time, you become its owner. There are spots in Southern California within driving distance of thousands of surfers that are too localized to just go for a surf. You have to “pay your dues ” first. You have to spend years working your way into the lineup, earning the respect of the locals.

Each spot has a different balance of these three principles. Malibu, for example, is a very crowded spot. But it is sort of like a surf commons. Pretty much anyone can show up, paddle out and not be shunned. More than one person can ride the same wave. Same with San Onofre or Waikiki. But don’t even think about paddling out at Pipeline on Oahu’s north shore. It’s considered one of the best waves in world, but supply is low while demand is extreme. A successful ride there comes at a very high price. It is very dangerous and requires extraordinary skill and experience. You have to surf there for years before you will have the skill to put yourself in better position than dozens of other guys who have surfed there for decades. And if you get in anybody’s way at Pipeline, you might get beaten, not just by the waves but by one of the locals in the “wolf pack”,  who enforce a kind of pecking order in the water. If  you break those rules, you will be shunned, sent to the beach and maybe pounded. At a spot like Pipeline, surf etiquette is less important than skill and prescriptive rights. You can be in the best position for a wave, but a local will drop in on you anyway because you have no prescriptive rights there.

And yet, a really good surfer can be shunned at an easy, beginner friendly surfspot like San Onofre if he is a “wave hog”  or if he drops in on others’ waves. Surf etiquette is more important than prescriptive rights at some surfspots, while skill or prescriptive rights are more important at others.

Most shunning in surfing is nonviolent. Most spots have enforcers who will let you know if you are out of line, some diplomatically, some not. Last week, I had to tell a beginner that it was up to the paddler to get out of the way of the rider, and that next time he had to be more proactive about that. Other enforcers will simply call someone a “kook” or tell them to paddle in or paddle down the beach. Sometimes a group of locals will all shun someone who is being a kook.

In surfing, there is always a remote risk that a disagreement over the distribution of scarce waves will result in some violence, but the real constraint on behavior is the fear of being shunned by other surfers. If you can’t earn the respect of  other surfers, you’re going to have to search for some empty surf spots, and there aren’t many of those left these days.