A former Greens MP says tough regulations may be needed to combat reckless behaviour in the surf, and a lawyer specialising in sports believes surfers who refuse to wear a leg rope could be legally liable for any injuries they cause.
Veteran surfer Ian Cohen said the situation at The Pass in Byron Bay was now so bad he would not paddle out without a helmet.
He said the famous point break had become a blackspot for violence and injuries.
“I actually think we’re going to need some sort of patrol thing, like lifesavers with their flags patrolling for safety,” Mr Cohen said.
“Have a whistle and say to a person, ‘look you’re acting like a ratbag, you either get out of the water or we call the police’.”
Mr Cohen said the dangers posed by aggressive crowds were made much worse by people who refused to wear leg ropes.
He said during a recent swim at The Pass he counted 20 surfers from a line-up of nearly 100 who were not wearing leg ropes.
Mr Cohen said the growing trend that gave some surfers “an extra sense of freedom” was nothing but “selfishness”.
He likened it to 20 per cent of people driving cars without brakes.
“There’s been some horrendous damage out there and people are getting life-changing injuries,” he said.
“Serious injuries where they don’t recover, and I think that’s an appalling situation.”
Broken ribs, collapsed lung
Thais Pupio was left with three broken ribs and a collapsed lung after being hit by another surfer’s board at The Pass earlier this year.
“He looked at me and asked if I was okay and I said no, but then he started paddling away,” Ms Pupio said.
“He said you can’t just sit still on your board like that.
“I feel it’s really bad that the guy made no offer to help me and had no idea of the consequence.
“I understand that accidents happen and of course we need to be more careful to avoid those things.
“But I reckon … if you leave the scene, you [should face] really serious consequences like in a car accident or something.”
Suffolk Park resident Dennis Haydock had a similar story about his nine-year-old grandson almost being hit by a runaway long board.
He said the nine-year-old’s father pushed the board away before it hit his son, only to be verbally abused by its owner.
“If I had been down there myself — I’m a bit more confrontational — I would have taken her board and snapped it in half,” he said.
“It’s just so dangerous not to have a leg rope on.”
The concerns were not limited to Byron Bay.
Not just Byron Bay
Max Pendergast, who runs a Facebook page called Byron Bay Surf Safety, said it had been overwhelmed by stories about injuries caused by surfers not wearing leg ropes.
“Whenever I put any post up regarding leg ropes, it’s overwhelmed with stories about people being hit, people nearly being hit, arguments, physical fights,” he said.
“So much so that some of the posts we’ve done we’ve had to take down because people have replies threatening physical violence to other surfers.
“It’s not just Byron Bay — I’ve had replies from up the coast at Currumbin and Snapper and those breaks too.”
Southern Cross University law lecturer Andy Gibson said surfers who did not wear leg ropes could be legally liable if their boards injured someone.
But he said the difficulty with filing a negligence suit would be the ability to claim compensation and legal costs from the culprit.
Mr Gibson said pursuing legal action would be time consuming and costly.
“You can always bring a negligence [claim] against someone who causes you injury,” he said.
“But that pre-supposes that that person’s got the necessary funds to be able to pay the damages in the first place, and historically surfers have not been considered to be people with loads and loads of money.”
Mr Gibson said even if laws around leg ropes were introduced, they would be difficult to enforce.
“If the number of injuries reached a sufficiently high number and they’re also sufficiently serious enough, then parliaments may well decide it’s an area that needs to be legislated on,” he said.
“But it would be a very tricky area to enforce as well.
“We’ve seen a code of practice be introduced by surfers about what’s the right thing to do on the wave and what’s the wrong thing, and maybe that’s something that needs to be included into that code on conduct.”