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Grand Central Terminal, in the Curl

Jeff Divine

Lower Trestles, a famous and famously packed Southern California surfing spot.

Published: August 14, 2005

MONTAUK, N.Y. — Ah, to surf in Montauk, N.Y., home to some of the best waves in the Northeastern United States. Those gently rolling peelers, those green speckled cliffs over yonder, those people in the water fiercely competing for the same waves. Ack!

On a sunny day the most popular point break here - not too long ago an idyllic surf destination just for those plenty in the know - can turn into something akin to the Long Island Expressway on a Friday night, with all of its gridlock and fender benders.

Want a wave? There are already five others on it - or a bright orange kayak bearing down on you, ready to take your head off. A friend had just such a near-miss here a couple of weeks ago. Think you have one to yourself? One of the many (many, many, many) newer members of the tribe is liable to breach age-old etiquette prohibiting dropping in on a wave somebody is already riding and smash up your board in the process. It is no wonder that the old-timers here and elsewhere around the nation are making for a sore bunch these days.

An estimated surge in new surfers to 2.4 million from 1.5 million in the last decade, according to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, is just the beginning. With every passing year the ranks of newer ocean-riding sports seem to grow just as much, just as fast. There are the ocean kayakers; the kite surfers who strap their feet into boards that are powered by giant parachutes worthy of an Apollo capsule; the "tow-at" surfers who water ski behind WaveRunners that drop them directly into the breakers, giving them a distinct advantage over the purists who paddle themselves into waves.

"You can just see that the use of surf breaks is growing by leaps and bounds," said Steve Pezman, the publisher of The Surfer's Journal, who has been recording the growth and evolution of surfing for nearly four decades. "Meanwhile the resource has remained consistent, which at best has a kind of moderate carrying capacity for a quality experience."

The increase in tension at local breaks in the United States has been particularly acute this summer, as good waves have been uncharacteristically hard to come by because of a lack of favorable wave-generating weather on both coasts (hurricanes are brewing in the Atlantic and Pacific, promising to break the trend, at least for a few days, this week).

Dan Shoemaker, a surfer who recently converted to kite-boarding in San Diego, said he looked on in shock when a surfer recently punched a friend of his in the face after a particularly tense day between surfers and "kiters," whose wind power helps them, too, to breeze past their arm-powered forebears. "We try to every extent possible to give wave to the surfers, but you can feel the tension," he said.

The anger can just as easily be directed toward fellow traditional surfers.

Witness this recent Internet posting on in response to one visitor's message asking for advice about where to surf when in the Hamptons: "Drown yourself," wrote someone with the Internet handle awesome-at-falling.

But woe to awesome-at-falling. Such angry locals, who for so long held the line against overcrowding by harassing outsiders, have been overwhelmed in many spots by the forces most frequently blamed for the boom in surfing and its offshoots, including the media obsession with surf-based water sports; the marketing sophistication of surf-related businesses; and perhaps most significant, Internet monitoring services that let wave prospectors use a few clicks to identify the perfect time to hit the surf.

So where localism - itself a black mark on the sport - has failed, government is starting to step in.

Some municipalities in Long Beach Island, N.J., are refusing to allow certain surf instructors to teach in their waters because of the crowds they bring, The Asbury Park Press reported last week. Surf camps became so numerous in San Onofre, Calif., that the State Department of Parks and Recreation decided to scale back the number of instructional permits. "We had three camps operating simultaneously with 120 foamy boards in the water," said Steve Long, a superintendent for the state parks department in San Clemente. "That was intolerable for the average recreational surfer."

Taking another approach, Gov. Richard J. Codey of New Jersey announced in June that the state would spend $40,000 to create new surf breaks along the coast using artificial reefs.

Of course, the best solution rests with the ocean adventurers themselves: mutual respect; devotion to rules that have governed surfing since the second guy showed up in the line-up; and generosity toward your fellow man or woman. In short, sharing.

Not a chance.

These are humans we're talking about, chasing the same high.

Chris Dixon contributed reporting from Laguna Beach, Calif., for this article.


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Photo: Puget Sound, 1934: Waves punish the Seattle coastline.
Photo: Puget Sound, 1934: Waves punish the Seattle coastline.