Are SUPs challenging surfing’s hegemony?

I wish to return to a posting on the SUPHQ.com Forum I made on April 09, 2010. This comment was made within a debate within the local SUP community about the increased incidents of social tensions from stand-up surfers in Cape Town waters and that the local surf media “shunned”  SUP riders . I have a view that these tensions point to the fragile hold stand-up surfing has on promoting itself as the pinnicle wave-riding experience: surfing’s hegemony is being challenged by the emergence of SUPs on the waves, a challenge not unlike other forms of wave-riding craft (bodyboards, wave-skis). The epiphenomena of this hegemonic challenge can be seen in the discourses about access to waves, skill, and water safety. Factors which mask some of the material (market) forces at play in the surf.

I have some ideas that go beyond SUP vs surfer in the line-up and will speak as a wave-rider who also calls himself a surfer, an identity I have nurthured since a grom.

So, a quick view of some of my thoughts, what is expressed in these posts and in other surf media is part of a bigger picture:

Thesis 1: The boom in the surfing market and the waning power of shortboarding: Since the 1990s, the revival of riding waves on any type of board – especially the revival of longboarding – has threatened the social hieracrchy that is being precariously held onto by shortboarding (this is not just at the individual level but also how the surf media and market promote what surfing is seen as kewl). Longer boards with increased paddle power and more people with a range of surfing abilities in the water competing for the same waves at popular (or even less popular) breaks make for increased tensions in the water.

Thesis 2: New kids on the block are seen as kooks: The arrival of SUPs in the line-up adds to the mix described above, and as the new kids (although the demographics of SUPpers is less youthful in age overall) SUPs are the most visible in the line-up (in terms of size of board, with a paddle, and already standing) and hence take the most ire from surfers who feel threatened. Adding to this is the rapid uptake of SUPs among not just proficient surfers, kiters and wavesailers but new entrants to the SUP lifestyle so there is a range of ability out in the water. However, abilities are averaged out and SUP riders are classified/perceived as the “kooks” in surfing’s social mix both as having come late to the wave party and still considered as gaining proficiency in water. Yet, these “kooks” are taking off deeper or further out so this is a further challenge to the surfing social order described in Thesis 1.

Thesis 3: Its all about perceived and real concernes about water saftey. While there is currenlty a challenge to surfing’s status quo, what motivates most wave-users is a concern that they may be injured by an out of control SUP. It is about the space that is required to ensure one feels safe in the water (what has been termed the kill-zone” in much of SUP media). Its about the size and weight of boards, length of leash and the added factor of a paddle that influence when someone feels they are in danger of getting hurt. These fears among non-SUPper are in part due to their inexperience with the equipment. So, add more people to the surf zone (compouded by perceptions of Thesis 1 and 2), then add boards with larger potential “kill-zones”, and the result is a rise in anxiety in the water about their personal safety. This plays to psychic fears which get translated into social fears of SUPs and loop back into the current surfer backlash against SUPs.

So, while respect for others in the water (as a surfer and a SUPper) is key to good wave-riding relations (the only histrocially tried and test answer I can find besides find an out of the way spot to ride waves), at present the debate is quite loaded (and puts SUPS on the moral low-ground). Also, we need to take the view that is is not all surfers but only a few who respond negatively to SUPS. So I hope in looking at other social factors (and there are others – e.g. are SUPs a challenge to surfing’s machoism?) we can start addressing and talking about what is making for the current state of increasing tensions at some spots. Dialogue is a good and first step toward better understanding for all wave-riders.

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