Localism in surfing or surf localism is a phenomenon that usually refers to the bad attitude of local surfers towards visiting foreign or tourist surfers from other places. In other words, the struggle for the spots and waves between them.
The phenomenon emerged relatively recently with the growing popularity of this sport in the world and easier and cheaper travel options, which led to the fact that the most popular world surfing spots have much more people now. We can assume that the situation will become even more complicated after the surfing Olympics debut in Tokyo, Japan, in 2021.
Seva Shulgin*, one of Russia's top surfers, has experienced localism more than once, not by word of mouth, but as a daily surfing reality.
In this post, we share an excerpt from his first book, "Find Your Wave" (Eksmo, 2020, Russian language), published recently, where he tells about his experience of understanding surfing localism, its features in Mauritius, Hawaii, Australia, and Sri Lanka, and gives advice on how to deal with it.
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In recent years, there has been a revolution going on in the surfing world. It used to be a brotherhood where many knew each other. The main principle, "Share!" once was an essential part of surfing.
Nowadays surfing has become a mass trend and simply a stylish thing to do. (Editor's note: even luxury brands such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Marc Jacobs have developed their own surf designs.) According to my observations, today, the total number of surfers grows the same in just one year as it used to grow in 10 years. This has made once beautiful surfing spots into touristic beaches where it is not possible to surf anymore. Among such places are Bali, Cabo Verde, and Morocco.
However, modern surfers are not the ones to blame: it is simply an issue of overloaded spots. Every one of us now has a choice: you either follow the rules — or you surf. The place to start on a wave is usually called "the line-up", which simply means an area where a group of surfers are waiting in line. And yet, how can you take turns on Bali, for example, where a set has five waves max, while there are 50 people waiting for a takeoff?! Naturally, the order breaks, and conflicts follow.
Then there are the locals who think that they have the priority and every right to surf without waiting in line. So, to continue the example, if five locals come, they have just taken all the waves to themselves. Tourists often disagree, and more conflicts follow.
The locals are discontent because they cannot just ride their home waves as much as they want to. On the other hand, they do understand that tourists surfers bring money to the economy. Thus, a dilemma!
Every region, every island, and every spot has its own crowd, its own rules, and its own situation with the locals. There are places where the locals are ready to fight for their waves, and there are places where everyone is welcome. With some spots, outsiders will not even be able to get in without making some special arrangements first.
The term "localism" comes from the word "local". However, there are times when these "localism rules" are set not by the locals themselves but by expats – people who have lived in another country for several generations. This is how it works in Mauritius, for example.
Photo: Seva Shulgin
When my friends and I first came to Mauritius 15 years ago, we could not believe it was real! The water here is sky-blue and so clear that all the reefs are in plain sight. Outstanding quality of waves — both for and windsurfing: with ideal length and wave-to-wind ratio. And almost no people at that. We had not surfed in the Indian Ocean yet, so, for us, discovering Mauritius was like discovering the New World must have been for Columbus!
I still remember how I first set out in the ocean there on a windboard and looked at the shore. It was dusk, the sun was falling into the ocean, and the mountain ranges were reflecting in the water... An amazing light, like on Claude Monet's "Impression, Sunrise."
The island's culture astonished us just as much. On Mauritius, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Catholicism live together in harmony. There is no aggression among the people of different religions, unlike in Indonesia, for example. The people are incredibly kind, open, and calm. An atmosphere of complete serenity.
That said, Mauritius also has the most brutal localism of all I have ever seen. It was started by a few white French people who moved there 30 years ago and formed a group named the White Shorts which, as they claim, "strives for the cleanliness of the spots."
These are quite rough, not letting anyone surf the best spots, keeping them all to themselves. Everyone knows their faces, knows that they beat other surfers, and yet the police do not interfere: according to an unwritten rule, they have nothing to do with anything happening on the water.
The White Shorts' leader's name is Bruno, he is about 60, and he is a complete psycho. I think he used to be in the military. He does not even talk to people: he just breaks into yelling, not far from frothing at the mouth. At the same time, the rest of his clique are youngsters, mostly children of the initial members of the White Shorts.
There is a spot at Tamarin Bay where outsiders are forbidden to enter. The only chance to get there is to pay $200 to the White Shorts. Wealthy tourists who surf well do exactly that, and they spend the whole day riding these amazing waves. Everyone understands that the locals made a business out of it, and Modern surfing is an industry. Everything sells.
Photo: Seva Shilgin
When we just came to Mauritius, we weren't aware of the situation. We tried to confront the White Shorts, we had one quarrel after another, and sometimes things got quite serious.
For instance, once my friends and I were standing on the shore, getting ready to go onto the spot. Three locals went by, mumbling, "You ain't gonna surf today!" "Yes, we will!" I said, and we set off.
After some time, we saw that a whole group was swimming towards us, with the clear intention to hit us on the head with their boards. While we were surfing, the locals go the whole gang together. Three of us, twelve of them. And fighting in water is not at all the same as on the land: if two people go out on you, you cannot do anything.
We got it really hard that time: my friend almost had his eye taken out by the nose of a board.
Then we spent two hours waiting for them on the shore, thinking we could take them out if they got out one by one. And yet, they sat in the water to the last and then got out altogether. At first, we thought to set their car on fire but then dropped the idea. We just put some sugar into their tank. Their ride went to a halt after 20 meters. (Editor's note: the presence of sugar in the car's tank can potentially lead to the need for a full fuel system overhaul.)
We came to love Mauritius and started going there for a month at least two times a year, and we weren't going to miss out on such great waves because of these hoodlums. So, our opposition went on for many years. In the end, both we and them understood that we will just have to deal with the existence of one another. We discussed the rules and agreed to follow them. I am not seeking friendship with them, but there is no conflict either. If they come to the spot, we leave. If we meet on the shore, we greet each other.
Nevertheless, this is an unsteady peace ready to fall apart at any moment. It requires a lot of patience, too.
At times, some teenager comes by, posing as White Shorts, and yell their signature, "Fuck you!" It's not a problem to put such a punk in line; however, if big brothers come to the rescue, some punches might be thrown. And by the way, a fight is not the worst thing that can happen. They might, for example, go to the police and falsely accuse us of selling drugs. A couple of Russian surfers have been deported before on such a report without any real looking into it. It's useless to go against the local community, and this is how it goes everywhere.
When you first encounter localism, you just start boiling. We weren't the exception, and a lot of other people I know felt this way too when they started coming to Mauritius. Up to that day, I had no opinion of him, and his work was missed on me at that time. We only knew each other because our waves crossed on Mauritius.
As time went by, I came to see that even such overt localism has its benefits. During the last 10 years, many of the spots have died out because of an inrush of tourists; however, in Mauritius, those are still empty: the White Shorts still scare people off. The Russian community has grown, but we still ride magnificent waves, no waiting in line or conflicts whatsoever. Even so, it has all required serious compromises with the locals.
Photo: Seva Shulgin
In Hawaii, all the surfers know each other, but localism is also present there. What's more, it applies not only to outsiders but to the people living on the nearby islands as well.
I know one of the Maui Boys called Shaun Lopez. Shaun is a nephew of Gerry Lopez, a surfing legend from Oahu, the discoverer of Pipeline, which is now one of the top three surfing spots in the world.
I once met Shaun on Maui, and he told me about going to Pipeline when huge waves were expected, with his buddy who is from the Maui Boys too: "The locals let me surf because they knew I'm Lopez's nephew. But they didn't let my fellow surf at all. We spent five days on that spot, and he didn't even ride a single wave." This does not mean that they literally stood in his way forbidding him to surf. In Hawaii, outsiders will be asked to let locals go first, and if they refuse, they will be asked to leave.
There are a lot of tricks to using when a group wants not to let anyone else surf. Surfers pack the starting point and do not let any outsiders in. Or a person makes believe he is already going for the wave, so you have no right to take it. However, this person then does not ride it. Instead, they let the next one from their group go — but not you.
As for tow-in surfing, it is all strictly regulated.
At Jaws, as with all spots famous for the biggest waves on the planet (such as Nazaré in Portugal, Teahupoo in Tahiti, and Mavericks in California), there are local communities. Anyone who feels that they are up for that can ride these waves with the help of the locals. If you are not a surfing star, who will get a ride just out of respect, then, as I've mentioned before, it will cost you about $1000 a day to surf with a Jet pilot (which means 3–4 hours of riding and 5–6 good waves). The pilots at these spots are professionals. They know all the ins and outs of "their" waves, adequately assess all the risks, and do their best to ensure your safety.
Photo: Seva Shulgin
Some places don't have any localism at all, one example being Australia. Here, surfing is a popular pastime. Everyone rides the same waves, be it millionaires, blue collars, police officers, or clerks. And they all do it with a smile! To tell the truth, there used to be one well-known criminal gang of surfers called the Bra Boys. However, I wouldn't call it an expression of localism per se. The Bra Boys were simply a gang doing all kinds of things while also surfing in their free time. (Editor's note: there is an eponymous documentary about the Bra Boys produced and narrated by Russell Crowe.)
In Sri Lanka, there is a group of "locals" called the Beach Boys. They collect fees from surfing schools. In essence, it's a racket, plain and simple, but everybody accepted these rules; otherwise, you will not get to teach at all. Yes, you can surf, but no teaching: the locals are convinced that only they have the right to profit from the surfing industry. It doesn't matter if you came with a group from the start or just decided to show the basics to your son or wife.
The choice is simple: you either give your students to them, or you can still be a teacher yourself, but then you will need to hire a local instructor and pay them $20 an hour to just swim nearby, wasting breath and going through all the usual notions. In any case, there is no use since they can barely surf and speak no English. The only few words they can give you are, "Stroke, stroke, stroke! Stand up!" They also have a signature cry, "O-o-oh!" This is how they show their support to students when they are able to stand on the board.
Their greed reaches absurd levels. I once swam out with a friend, and they saw that I was giving advice to him and started to argue, and then we had a violent confrontation on the shore. You can manage one or two of them, but they jump at you 15 people at once. After all, they don't know who they are dealing with: you might as well be a world kickboxing champion. It's impossible to make a deal with them because there is no logic in their words, nothing, but the only rule: "It will be as we say."
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This is the second excerpt from Seva's book that we are publishing. Read the first one, where he gave a lot of advice to beginner surfers on how to take up this sport and overcome the fear of big waves.
* Seva Shulgin is a surfer from Moscow, Russia, spending the last year mostly in Costa Rica. He liked and played hockey as a kid, but got injured and could not make a professional career in that sport. He then tried many other sports until he became interested in windsurfing, where after two years he was already the Russian champion.
His passion for waves took him to Peahi, on the north shore of the island of Maui in the U.S. state of Hawaii, where he was the first Russian surfer to ride the famous and very dangerous "Jaws" wave.
In addition to the book, Seva has also shot and self-produced a full-length movie about his "Jaws" experience and surfing in general, "The Yard. The Big Wave" (Amazon, 2016, English language), which was shown in cinemas in 56 Russian cities. In order to raise money for the movie making, Seva held a successful crowdfunding campaign on the Boomstarter site (Russian Kickstarter), where he raised almost 1,000,000 rubles (at the rate of March 1, 2021, is $13,500) from almost 400 sponsors.
Follow Seva on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, where there are many other short movies about surfing in Russia and different parts of the world from him. Go to his surf school and camp in Costa Rica to learn from the best sportsmen: Surfcostarica.ru.
Learn more about how to read the surf / swell forecast in a special Windy.app presentation with examples and tips from professional surfers with many years of experience of riding the biggest and best waves on the planet.
Text: Ivan Kuznetsov, an outdoor journalist, editor and writer from the Dolomites, Italy, and Karelia, Finland, with 10 years of professional experience. His favorite sports are hiking, cycling and sauna. Read his other articles
Cover photo: Seva Shulgin
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