Troubled Waters: Surfers Say Stand Up ‘Sweepers’ Don’t Share Waves

As reported by Terry Rodgers for The Union Tribune.

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Pranksters have adorned a statue of a surfer on Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas in various costumes over the past 16 months, including a ballerina’s tutu.

The sartorial sabotage perpetrated against the bronze artwork is a form of guerrilla resistance, a rebuff in this laid-back beach town to outsiders who try to claim surf culture as their own.

One morning, the statue appeared with a broom attached to the surfer’s hand along with a sign that read "No Sweepers."

To many, the sign was confusing. To those in the know, it was a protest against a burgeoning sport that some say is threatening to overwhelm California’s already congested surfing spots.

The target of the protesters’ ire? Stand-up paddle surfing.

The sport originated in the South Pacific and briefly flourished in Hawaii a half-century ago. In Southern California, stand-up paddle surfing was almost unknown until just a few years ago. There has been friction between traditional surfers and stand-up paddlers ever since.

Practitioners of the sport use extra-thick surfboards from 10 to 12 feet long, which they propel with a long-handled paddle that, from a distance, resembles a broom.

It’s the paddle that prompts some traditional surfers to derisively refer to their brethren as "sweepers" or "janitors."

"I wish they’d get them out of here. They’re mostly kooks who don’t know how to surf," said Richie Cravey, 20, who surfs regularly at Cardiff Reef in Encinitas, a spot that attracts legions of stand-up paddlers.

Well, it’s not necessarily true that they don’t know how to surf.

Surfboard shaper Ron House, 61, surfed the traditional way for more than 40 years before switching completely to stand-up paddle surfing.

"I’m not inclined to lay down and wallow on my stomach anymore," said House, who lives in San Clemente. "The stand-up thing is way more comfortable."

The most pervasive complaint about stand-up paddlers is that they can dominate the water. By standing rather than sitting to wait for waves, they can spot swells before traditional surfers and then use their superior paddle power to catch waves first.

"If there’s a sweeper who’s pretty good at a reef or point break, nobody gets waves except the sweeper," said veteran long board surfer Joe Ditler, 57.

"For a surf break to function properly, people have to share. Sweepers don’t share."

Stand-up paddle surfers say they try to practice the "aloha" spirit and often let waves go by that they could easily take.

But the temptation to grab the wave is almost irresistible when one has such an overwhelming advantage, said Scott Bass, a former professional surfer, author and filmmaker who helped popularize stand-up paddle surfing at Cardiff Reef.

"The animosity out there is pretty thick and it’s understandable," said Bass, editor of Surfer magazine’s Web site. "And it’s because, no matter how hard we try to share, we’re almost always catching another wave."

Bass, the host of a weekly radio show focusing on surfing, said he is on a personal mission to persuade stand-up paddle surfers to take the ethical high ground.

Stand-up paddle surfing was originally promoted as an aquatic "cross-country" sport that would enable surfers to access more remote surf breaks.

"It originally had this ethos of going off the beaten path," Bass said. "People have forgotten about that."

Considerate stand-up paddle surfers should avoid the most popular and crowded surf breaks altogether, he said, adding that they should also refrain from attaching an ankle leash to the board.

That way, if the paddler falls, he will give others a chance at the waves while he swims for his board. The double edge to that practice is that the massive boards, when separated from the paddler, are like redwood stumps rolling down a hill at deer-eyed surfers.

"I want to see the sport done properly and respectfully," Bass said.

Stand-up paddle surfing, also called beach boy surfing, originated in Polynesian culture and spread to Hawaii. The so-called beach boys – primarily native Hawaiians who gave surfing lessons to tourists at Waikiki Beach – used handcrafted wooden paddles to propel oversized surfboards for fun and as a platform to photograph their clients.

The sport’s resurgence began in the mid-1990s, when Laird Hamilton, the world’s most renowned big-wave surfer and then-resident of Hawaii, incorporated it into his training regimen to build strength and endurance.

Stand-up paddle surfing was unknown on the West Coast until Hamilton showed up one day in 2001 at Malibu near Los Angeles with a gigantic longboard and paddle. His artistry captured surfers’ attention and inspired admirers to give it a try.

In the past six years, the sport has quickly spread in the United States and internationally. Many pro surfers and Hollywood celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan have been seen paddling the jumbo-sized boards.

For the full story head to The Union Tribune.