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Banning Leashes Targets the Wrong Issue

This author doesn’t want to see laws that could needlessly damage surfing’s culture. Photo: Unsplash

The Inertia

Former pro surfer Matthew Cassidy was surfing Wategos Beach in Byron Bay last Wednesday when another surfer’s board hit him, severing arteries in his arm and leading him to conclude that “most of the guys who don’t wear leg ropes are posers.” The dialogue surrounding the incident led to the Byron Shire Council passing a motion mandating leashes and heavily fining those who do not comply.

While this new law passed unanimously, I’d argue that criminalizing leashless surfing is a very bad call for a number of reasons. While Cassidy claims that his injury shows “the risks associated with a hipster trend to ditch leg ropes,” the fact of the matter is that surfing leashless is not a hipster trend. Leashless surfing is classic and promotes better etiquette. Mandating leashes in no way guarantees safety in the water and sets the wrong values going forward in an ever-growing community of surfers. Plus, this motion is not actually addressing the issue responsible for Cassidy’s incident.

But let’s start with the positive. We all have the same goal here: no matter whether you subscribe to the leash-on or leash-off party, no one wants to get hit in the face with a heavily-glassed log. Even the single-fin “hipster” longboarders. I promise. But, in all seriousness, the difference between the two parties comes down to the approaches in minimizing this risk.

But what is the risk, exactly? Cassidy points to surfers not wearing a leash. But The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the surfer who hit Cassidy was in fact wearing a leash, and it snapped at the time of the incident.

And, either way, wearing a leash poses risks just like not wearing a leash does. Consulting the Encyclopedia of Surfing for the definition of “surf leash,” Matt Warshaw notes that in the early years, “Jack O’Neill permanently lost the sight in his left eye in 1971, after his leashed board snapped back and hit his face.” Yes, leashes have become safer since their initial invention in 1970, but accidents can still happen.

And in 2014, when this article about leashless surfing in Byron Bay claimed: “they are the new breed of surfers — the ‘hipsters’ who refuse to wear leg ropes,” Alexander Haro wrote a counter piece for The Inertia explaining that not only is leashless surfing not a hipster thing, it’s necessary for logging.

Haro writes, “Walking is a pretty big part of riding a longboard. Ever taken a dog for a walk? You know that moment when the leash gets underneath his front leg, but he’s too excited about the walk to slow down?” And if leashes cause people to wipe out, leashes increase risk.

Then there’s the issue of leashes actually causing fatalities. Warshaw writes that “a small number of surfers have drowned after their leashes became tangled on an underwater rock or reef (including, in all likelihood, big-wave surfer Mark Foo, at Maverick’s in 1994), and leash-recoil is estimated to be the cause of over 10 percent of surf-related injuries.”

Warshaw follows this statement by adding that, of course, leashes have saved many surfers and reduced injuries due to loose board collisions. My point in bringing this up is that leashes on their own are neither good nor bad. They’re a piece of equipment. Their presence alone does not determine how safe a surfer is to themselves or others – that comes down to etiquette.

This brings up the root of the matter: self-awareness and proper etiquette. Everyone knows their own skill level, and it’s ultimately up to the individual to decide if they need a leash. For example, if you’re going to be cross stepping, it’s less of a liability to surf leashless. But if you’re still working on your pop-up, maybe best to leave the leg rope on.

Accidents can largely be avoided if every surfer considers their own skill level and that there is a time and place to learn new tricks. Maybe it’s not wise to full-on, Dewey Weber hotdog your way to the sand at a crowded wave. But, if you’re in a place where you have perfect little peelers to yourself… it’s safer not to wear a leash if you’re going to be spinning and hanging heels!

Then, there’s the issue of overcrowding and the dangers related to the sheer number of surfers at any given break. Lineups are becoming more crowded by the day, and leashes only accelerate that. Before leashes, surfers had to control their boards. There was an art to choosing waves carefully, taking off on waves you could make, exercising board control, and being able to swim. If you couldn’t, you paid the price… literally. Lose your board, and you’re looking at dings, a long swim to shore, and embarrassment from your fellow surfers.

In the History of Surfing chapter titled “Kook Straps, Cadillacs, and Sex Wax,” Warshaw embellishes on this idea, writing, that purists were upset by leashes because, “skill and experience got you access to breaks that were rocky or hard to ride. But now, any squidlip dork with a goon cord (or kook strap, or ding string) could paddle into the lineup, eat his lunch on every takeoff, bail out on every set, and reap no consequences.”

Surfing without a leash forces surfers to learn etiquette, seriously consider their own ability before paddling out, and, ultimately, thins lineups. All of this improves safety for everyone in the water. Requiring people to wear leashes is counterintuitive if the goal is to improve safety, as it disincentivizes people to learn these vital skills.

The Inertia’s Will Sileo noted in an opinion piece in 2021 that, ‘Surfing Leashless Is Less Dumb Than You Might Think.” His “main complaint with leashes is that they teach you that it’s ok to mostly lose control of your board.”

Moreover, if laws start being assigned to keep people safe, why stop, then, at requiring leashes? In a debate over a similar topic in 2019, Rory Parker argued that pointy fins are a hazard! Comp leashes break! Maneuvers can go wrong! Only “if everyone agreed to ride Wavestorms, use big wave leashes, and never do a turn, we could finally create a perfectly safe ocean environment.” Does that sound fun to you?

And while surfing may not be the most dangerous activity on the planet, engaging in any sort of outdoor activity comes with certain risks. Heck, driving a car carries risk! You can die doing pretty much anything, so it’s always a good idea to keep statistics in mind when thinking about potentially creating rules that govern everyone. Is a situation common enough it warrants creating a policy around it? Or is it a fluke, something that happened, and is unfortunate, but not the norm?

In Cassidy’s situation, I would argue that the accident falls more into the second category. Surf collisions happen all the time (watch the First Point Malibu cam for about 5 seconds and you’ll probably catch one on tape!) but few of these actually result in serious physical injuries.

Governing all surfers of all abilities because of an accident that happened due to a surfer with a leash does not make sense. For some surfers, wearing a leash is a good idea. For others, it’s not. But surfers deserve the right to choose for themselves.

Corky Carroll probably said it best in 1972 with his Surfing magazine article titled “To Leash or Not To Leash,” writing “as for the danger, well, there is a certain chance of being hit with your board. I don’t really care, it’s worth an occasional clouting. However, I wouldn’t recommend the leash to a beginner, as without the proper reflexes it could really be dangerous. As a matter of fact, I don’t recommend the leash to anyone. It’s totally up to you. If you dig it then use it, if you don’t then don’t use it.”

Corky’s still right, all these decades later: wearing a leash should remain up to the surfer. Because by promoting proper surf etiquette, self-awareness, and respect for others, future accidents like Cassidy’s can hopefully be avoided without the disappointing expense of style and culture.


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