Why do surfers have gangs?

By: Charles W. Bryant
Surfer dude surfing
Surfing Image Gallery A surfer on the Oahu's North Shore. See more surfing pictures.
Karl Weatherly/Getty Images


It was summer 1991. George Bush Sr­. was midway through his presidential term, and gas was just above a dollar a gallon. The Gulf War was over and most people didn't yet know the name Kurt Cobain. It was a big year for movies -- "Terminator 2," "Silence of the Lambs" and "City Slickers" all debuted with strong numbers before a 27-year-old Keanu Reeves stormed the big screen as FBI special agent Johnny Utah in "Point Break." That movie may have been dwarfed by the other blockbusters releases that year, but it did do one thing -- it introduced surfer gangs to the mainstream public. Patrick Swayz­e played Bodhi, the leader of a gang of murderous but laid-back bank robbers called the Ex-Presidents. They surfed, they chilled out beside the fire and they shot up banks.


"Point Break" was good summer movie fun, but there have been real surfer gangs all over the world for decades. They may not rob banks, but they do commit real crimes like assault, battery and even murder. From California to Australia, if there's an inlet known for great waves, chances are someone is fighting over it. Recent surfing related assaults in the United States, England and Australia have garnered an abundance of attention. The nonfiction film about the legendary "Bra Boys" surf gang became the highest grossing documentary in Australia's history after its 2007 release [source: ABC News].

So why do surfers have gangs? The answer is pretty simple and it awaits you on the following page.


Surfing Violence

Crowded surf
Crowded waters can lead to violence.
Lukas Creter/Getty Images

Surfers are usually known to be laid-back, easy going types. They wax philosophic as they wax their long board and hang around in the water discussing Zen and the perfect wave. That's true in some cases, but surfers can also be violent and highly territorial. Violence can happen for a number of reasons, but most fights stem from overcrowded waters. Like most gangs, it's usually about defending territory. In this case, the territory is the ocean's waters.

There may be 326 million trillion gallons of ocean on Earth, but only a portion of that is accessible shoreline. And a smaller portion of that shoreline has waves that can be surfed. And even smaller still are the areas of shoreline that actually have consistently great surfing waves. Surfing is a $2.6 billion industry, and some of that money comes from novices interested in getting into the sport [source: The First Post]. When a novice gets in the way of an experienced surfer, tempers can flare. Even if a beach isn't well-known for violence, known as localism, there's still the potential for a fight if local etiquette isn't respected. It varies from beach to beach, but in general, there are two ways you can earn the right to a wave -- be the first one up or be the closest to the wave's break.


These rules are actually in place for a reason. Colliding with another surfer is dangerous, so a set of ground rules in crowded waters helps to keep surfers out of the hospital. And since there aren't surf police that roam the beaches, the surfers themselves play judge, jury and punisher when the code is violated. Localism is so bad at some beaches that intruders are spotted by their choice of wetsuit or board and told to leave before they ever touch the water.

Surf Gangs: Wolfpak

Tough guy surfer
Wolfpak leader Kala Alexander at the premiere of the surfing film "Blue Crush."
Robert Mora/Getty Images

Surf gangs have been protecting their beaches for decades, but localism really took hold in the 1970s. The invention of the Boogie Board had a lot to do with it. The soft foam body board was a hit with kids who didn't know how to surf but yearned to ride the waves. The other thing that happened in the 1970s was the rise of professional surfing competitions. All of the sudden there was big money to be had as a professional surfer, and this made the competition for waves more cutthroat.

Ask most surfers about whether or not there's a local gang, and they'll likely respond with a quick "no." Even well-known surfer gangs like Hawaii's Wolfpak refer to themselves as family, not a gang. But police see it differently. If a group of surfers get together, name themselves and carry out acts of vandalism and violence to protect their turf, the law considers them a gang. The Wolfpak is notorious for protecting Oahu's famous North Shore.


The most well-known Pak member, Kala Alexander, is a muscle-bound professional surfer with Wolfpak tattooed across his knuckles. Alexander has served time in prison for assault, and his reputation as a brawler is more legendary than his surfing skills. Alexander claims that it's all about respecting local customs. In recent years, the Wolfpak has tried to repair its image by taking part in volunteer beach cleanups. Alexander himself has made appearances in the movies "Blue Crush" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," and filmed a reality series about the Wolfpak called "The 808" that he's shopping to television networks.

Other Surfer Gangs

Boogie Boarder
Some say that the invention of the Boogie Board had a hand in overcrowding the ocean.
Photodisc/Getty Images

Another famous surfer gang has been the subject of a documentary film narrated by actor Russell Crowe called "Bra Boys: Blood is Thicker than Water." Australia's Bra Boys, short for the beachside suburb Maroubra, has been protecting its turf since the 1960s. The film was made by Sunny Abberton, one of three brothers who are members of the notorious gang. The Bra Boys gang members have used intimidation and violence to keep nonlocals from invading their surf. This violence has led to clashes with police and one Bra Boy, younger brother Jai Abberton, shot and killed another man in what was later ruled to be an act of self-defense. Another Abberton, Koby, has been jailed multiple times. The most recent incarceration stemmed from an assault on an off-duty police officer in a nightclub.

Gangs in Southern California include the Silver Strand Locals (SSL), the Oxnard Shores Locals (OSL) and the Pierpoint Rats, who were notorious for localism violence in the 1980s and 1990s. These gangs claim that they're only trying to enforce the unwritten code of the waves. This code has long been established and failure to follow the code is the ultimate sign of disrespect. Paparazzi in Malibu, Calif., were attacked in the summer of 2008 for taking pictures of actor Matthew McConaughey while he surfed. It seemed like the incident was less about protecting the actor's privacy than keeping the intrusive photographers off the beach. Another surfer was beaten and killed in La Jolla, Calif., in 2007 and a Hawaiian surfer was killed in a fight in 2008.


Police have a hard time controlling surfer gangs for a couple of reasons. They don't spend a lot of time patrolling beaches, and many of these crimes go unreported for fears of retribution. You don't even have to be a novice to get the rough treatment. A professional surfer from California was ejected from the waters in Hawaii and smacked around after he cut off another surfer in 2008. He didn't report it to police and would only confirm that the incident occurred.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "Bra Boy surfer Koby Abberton jailed in Hawaii again." Allnewsweb.com. July 12, 2008.http://www.allnewsweb.com/page999993.php
  • "Localism at Jordon River BC." CoastalBC.com. November 2007.http://www.surfingvancouverisland.com/surf/st720jordanriverlocalism.htm
  • "Malibu surfer gang not an isolated incident." VC Reporter. July 3, 2008.http://www.vcreporter.com/cms/story/detail/malibu_surfer_gang_not_an_isolated_incident/6105/
  • "Rival surf gangs fight for the waves." The First Post. March 12, 2009.http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/2726,features,rival-surf-gangs-fight-for-the-waves
  • Abrahamson, Alan. "Surf Wars." Los Angeles Times. July 21, 1997.http://articles.latimes.com/p/1997/jul/21/local/me-15241
  • Fontaine, Evan. "Violence in San Diego Lineup." Surfline. Oct. 16, 2008.http://www.surfline.com/surf-news/man-jailed-after-punching-seaside-surfer-violence-in-san-diego-lineup_19428/
  • Friedman, Emily. "Wave Wars: Surfing's Violent Subculture." ABC News. June 26, 2008.http://a.abcnews.com/Sports/story?id=5246486&page=1
  • Higgins, Matt. "Rough Waves, Tougher Beaches." The New York Times. Jan. 22, 2009.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/sports/othersports/23surfing.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&sq=surfing&st=cse&scp=5
  • Lacey, Mark. "Surf's Up, and So Is the Crime Rate on Baja's Beaches." The New York Times. Dec. 25, 2007.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/25/world/americas/25baja.html?_r=1&ref=world
  • Melekian, Brad. "Rough Justice." Outside. November 2008.http://outside.away.com/outside/culture/200811/surfing-hawaii-1.html