Surfers Know the Biggest Risk They Take. Now, It May Get Worse.

The sun was out and the water was smooth on July 5, 2018, the day Mark Olson’s back got sliced open by a surfboard fin. Earlier that morning, Olson had chatted with a buddy about the surf conditions at Miramar Beach in Montecito, an exclusive enclave on California’s central coast. When Olson got to the beach and paddled out into the water, he saw waves with “a clean, fun shape,” he later recalled. “Classic Miramar.”

Olson set up among the other surfers and watched the waves rolling in. Surfing is a waiting game, and a typical session involves a lot of floating and staring. Soon there came a rideable wave, about three feet tall, and Olson and a few other surfers started paddling for position. Olson and one other guy made the wave and popped to their feet; it was go time. To outsiders, surfers might seem like a devil-may-care bunch, but they follow complex rules when determining who has right of way on a wave, and those who don’t wait their turn usually hear about it, loudly, out in the water. The other surfer was behind Olson on the wave, meaning that guy had priority, but Olson believed they were a safe distance from each other. He couldn’t say the same thing about the third surfer, Patrick Saville, who entered the wave next, right in front of Olson.

Surfers call this “dropping in” or “shoulder hopping.” If someone is already riding a wave and you try to catch that same wave in front of them, you’re the baddie. Many nonsurfers are familiar with the general idea from the original Point Break movie, when Keanu Reeves’ character, Johnny Utah, clambers onto this dorky pink surfboard and gets right in the way of another rider. It’s easy to sympathize with Utah after the other surfer punches him in the face and cuts his leash, the cord that keeps him connected to his surfboard. It’s even easier to sympathize with our brown-eyed hero after the other surfer and his buddies try to rough up Utah on the beach.

Those guys are assholes and their response to Utah is completely outsized. But the thing is, Utah could’ve seriously hurt that other surfer with his board. When it comes to surf etiquette, Utah was in the wrong. He doesn’t deserve to get punched, but he’s still an inexperienced surfer, the type of newbie longtime surfers might call a “kook.” Which brings us back to Mark Olson and Patrick Saville on July 5, 2018.

Saville dropped in on Olson, and Olson veered back toward the whitewater, the crashing part of the wave, to avoid bumping into Saville. Olson grabbed hold of his board, held his breath and went under. Before he came back up, he felt something ram into his back. “I immediately stood up in pain,” he later recalled. “I put my hand in through my wetsuit that was sliced open and inside the flesh of my torso that had been cut wide open.”

Olson was standing in waist-high water, screaming in anguish. He turned toward the beach and saw a greenish-yellow longboard in the whitewater, and that’s when he realized Saville had been out there without a leash. Saville helped Olson toward the shore, and they were soon joined by Olson’s buddy, fellow Montecito surfer Dorian Avery. While they waited for the paramedics, Avery got a good look at Olson’s back. “It was a very deep, long, open wound that looked like he had been cut open by a filet knife,” Avery later recalled. “It made me nauseous and feel like throwing up. The cut was through his wetsuit. It looked like his guts were hanging out.”

Two years later, Olson sued Saville for personal injury and damages. Olson lost the first round when the judge declared that “the inherent risks of the sport of surfing include surfers ‘dropping in’ on other surfers, not wearing leashes while riding longboards of the type used by respondent, and using surfboards that have sharp fins.” Olson lost the second round last month when an appellate court upheld the original decision, affirming that surfing is inherently risky and being a kook is not enough to make you liable for others’ injuries.

Olson and his lawyer declined to speak to Slate for this story; Saville could not be reached and his lawyers did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But both surfers provided plenty of details from that day in the court documents, which also include insights from former pros about surf etiquette and show just how risky collisions in the water can be.

Sharks might get all the media attention when it comes to surf injuries, and the girl in Blue Crush might have gotten wrecked by a reef, but the biggest risk to wave-riders is all the boards banging around during wipeouts. I’ve experienced this danger myself. A few years ago I fell off my surfboard and somehow jammed my foot down on a fin; I wound up needing stitches and had to walk on crutches for weeks. Many of my surfing friends have similar stories of getting sliced by their fins or bludgeoned by their boards.

It can get especially dangerous when multiple surfers are hustling for the same waves, and the informal rules for right of way are there to help keep them from slamming into each other. The sport’s popularity boomed during the pandemic lockdowns, bringing more and more kooks into the water. Which means the appellate court’s decision might have the unintended consequence of eroding surf etiquette at a time when it’s needed most.

So what is surf etiquette exactly? Olson’s legal team brought in former pro Shaun Tomson, who laid out a version of the rules similar those posted on signs at popular surf breaks. In short, those rules are: 1) don’t drop in on surfers already riding a wave, and 2) don’t lose control of your board. This etiquette is not obvious to new surfers, and they often learn the rules from others in the water, usually not in sotto voce. There’s a lot of ambient noise out in the waves, and many surfers are hard of hearing anyway, so yelling is just part of the deal—kind of like when car drivers honk their horns in traffic. Sometimes in the past (and even the present), the yelling has turned racist and/or sexist, and the shouts are especially nasty if surfers who live near a surf spot feel like outsiders are getting in their way, a phenomenon known as localism. None of that is cool. But beyond jerks abusing the system, the shouts are a fairly efficient means of self-governance.

When outlining surf etiquette for Olson’s legal team, Tomson included the rule: “Wear a surf leash to control your surfboard in the event you lose control of it.” You generally won’t see that one posted on signs at California beaches, and that’s because it’s debatable. Some longboarders like to ride leashless so they can more easily walk around on their boards, working their way up to the front and hanging 10 toes over the edge. Saville’s lawyers brought in their own former pro, Ian Cairns, who said, “Many longboard surfers particularly enjoy the challenge and freedom of surfing without a leash, because the leash can interfere with a surfer’s longboard style, such as footwork and speed.” Cairns agreed there are rules when it comes to right of way, but he said the “etiquette is fluid depending on a variety of factors.” The defendant took it even further: “I would say surfing etiquette is as infinite and as moveable as the quantity of waves that Mother Nature dishes out.”

Among the surfers I interviewed for this story (including my own surfing buddies), the consensus is that this should not have been a case at all. Olson was in his 50s and Saville in his 60s at the time of the accident, and they both had decades of surfing experience. When Saville dropped in on Olson, he was acting like a kook, no doubt, but it happens all the time. Montecito is a bougie town—home to Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle—so it’s difficult for us surfing plebes to see this case as anything but gratuitous litigiousness. But now that there’s been a ruling, it might encourage some surfers to abandon the etiquette altogether.

“The ruling may have the unintended consequence of emboldening the practice of kooks who ‘shoulder-hop’ and ‘burn’ other generally more experienced surfers who have the right of way on a wave,” writes Los Angeles attorney Vic Otten in an email to Slate. “People who follow the rules of the sport may be denied access to the courts when they are injured by someone who can only catch a wave by dropping in on a surfer who has the right of way—or, as in the case of localism, a person who feels that outsiders should not surf at a local spot.”

A former surfboard shaper, Otten has been practicing environmental law for more than 30 years. Along with attorney Kurt Franklin, he recently won a landmark case against the city of Palos Verdes Estates, arguing that local surfers’ decadeslong practice of harassing outsiders at Lunada Bay was a violation of the California Coastal Act, a law that encourages public access to beaches. Trying to keep all the waves for themselves, surfers who lived near Lunada Bay had been making threats, blocking trails, vandalizing vehicles, and throwing rocks and punches. Out in the water, they intimidated nonlocals by dropping in on every wave they could.

Some aggressive surfers, such as Malibu legend Miki Dora, have been known to kick their boards at other people in the water, a move that is outright sociopathic. The ruling in Olson v. Saville does not give surfers the right to harm each other intentionally; the judge made sure to note that surfers could be held liable if they engaged “in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.” That would include aiming a surfboard straight for someone else’s body.

As for regular kooks, they’re going to drop in because that’s what kooks do. The ocean is unpredictable, and there are often many surfers going for the same wave. It’s sloppy and crowded out there, and most of us get in the way sometimes. We’ll just keep yelling at each other when it happens and try not to get hurt.