09/02/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT
Tim Banas was just looking for a mellow afternoon of surfing. Knowing conditions were ripe for some epic swells, the Hermosa Beach, Calif., housepainter quit work early last Jan. 4 and invited his son and sometime coworker Tommy, 19, to join him at a choice spot off nearby Palos Verdes. But as the pair toted their boards and wet suits down the path to the beach, says Banas, 43, a group of locals demanded to know where they lived. The answer allegedly brought a barrage of stones. Recalls Banas: "I yelled up at them, 'You guys are trying to kill us because we're surfing here?' "
The confrontation, which left Banas with a knee injury so severe that he missed months of work, was the veteran wave rider's first encounter with the coast-to-coast rash of violence authorities call "surf rage." In a sport long known for laid-back vibes, local surfers have been known to use force to defend their special stretch of sea. "They're there all day, every day," says Joe Wooden, who grapples with the problem as deputy chief of the Volusia County, Fla., beach patrol. "They don't take kindly to people coming onto their turf."
One Port Hueneme, Calif., 19-year-old learned that lesson in June 2000 when he was surfing in nearby Ventura and tried to "drop in" on a wave already claimed by local Allen Slade, 32. Slade grabbed the visitor's board and speared him in the face with the tip, opening a gash under his eye. Last year Slade was sentenced to 245 days in jail and banned from his favorite surfing spot for three years.
Last March Adam Browning, 31, a Berkeley, Calif., toxic specialist with the EPA, was paddling under San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge when, police say, a surfer snatched his board and tried to break off its fin. Two others allegedly grabbed Browning and pummeled him, leaving him with a broken nose. (A trial date has yet to be set.)
Competition for choice waves is nothing new. "I know guys who quit surfing in California in 1963 because it was too crowded," says Sam George, editor of Surfer magazine. But it has been aggravated by burgeoning numbers of surfers—now over 1.5 million, says George—and by technological developments, such as long-range wave' forecasts and Web sites providing up-to-the-second surf conditions. "It's like too many rats and not enough cheese," says San Diego deputy district attorney Steve Anear, 52, a surfer himself, who in 1981 won California's first conviction for the use of a surfboard as a deadly weapon. "There's just this constant infusion of bodies into the sport."
To Tim Banas, the crowds have seldom overshadowed surfing's solitary joys. "Whenever my life is screwed up, I can paddle out into the water and it puts me in harmony," says Banas, a Southern California native who has surfed since 1972. But harmony was not in store that January afternoon when Banas and Tommy, the oldest of his three sons with wife Linda, 44, showed up at the Palos Verdes spot known as Indicator. "Before I even knew what was happening," he recalls, "this guy started screaming at me, 'What the f— are you doing here? Go back up the hill!' " The volley of stones, he says, was followed by a shoving match, and Banas tumbled eight feet into a rock pile, pulling several ligaments. "The next thing I knew, a couple of guys were whaling on me," says Banas. "I truly feared for my life."
Tommy hurled a rock at one of the alleged assailants, drawing blood from his forehead, then ran for help. Meanwhile, pretending to be an undercover cop, Banas talked them into retreating. But later, when he told the real police he wanted to file charges, they refused. "Who attacked who is certainly a question," says Palos Verdes police chief Tim Brown. "There was a fight. What preceded that altercation, I don't know." Indeed, one defendant, who asked not to be identified, claims Banas swung first and that "no one [in the group] ever throws rocks." Nonetheless, Banas filed suit in February against the city and the seven men who he says attacked him. (The litigation is in the pretrial stage.) Before he can get back on his board, he says, he'll need knee surgery. "The main thing Tommy and I have in common is surfing," says Banas. "Now that's been taken away."
Some law enforcement officials are seeking new ways to curb such conflicts. After the Banas incident, Brown enlisted the help of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group that protects beaches. The group and local police have started a program in which surfers call to inform cops where they plan to catch a wave—and even carry cameras to record hostile encounters. "We train surfers on what's illegal and how to get the police involved as soon as a problem flares up," says Surfrider's Jim Light.
It may seem ironic that the freedom-loving heroes of a thousand Beach Boys songs would consider relying on such measures to protect themselves from one another. But Banas, for one, is willing to pay the price. "I never went looking for trouble," he says. "But I guess I found it."
Johnny Dodd in Palos Verdes and Jeff Truesdell in Daytona Beach