I was surfing inside The Pass with my five-year-old last summer on a glorious mid-week day with few other folks in the water, light offshores and peeling little one-to-two footers, head-high for my little guy.
It was a momentous occasion – not just because the crowd was mellow – but it was the first time where he was in control of his own paddling and (most of) his own wave catching. We talked a lot about crowds and keeping a wide berth from other surfers, because lots of people who surf out there don’t know how to control their boards yet.
It’s the reason we rarely take him to surf The Pass, because as a family we weigh the risk as (often) higher than necessary because of the density of humans: learners, boats, SUPs and the general chaos of that particular lineup.
Still, I love the wave. It’s one of the great wonders of the surfing world – so user friendly, just the right speed and tempo for a heavy longboard. Despite the chaos and with a sense of humour, it is a beautiful place to ride waves – the sweeping bay, mountain silhouettes, and the kind of lovely runners that I still dream about.
It was high noon; the water was summer-turquoise and we were out wide and far down the point. When he caught his fifth or sixth wave, my son dropped in, ate it somewhere down the line, and when he popped up, his leggie had snapped.
It took me 10 or 15 paddle stokes to get to him through calm water, as the waves were lully and spacious. We paddled my longboard together and had to ride a wave on our bellies to rescue his foamie from the inside.
I couldn’t believe a 22kg surfer and a one-footer could snap a legrope. Neither could he. It was all fun and funny in those conditions, but he had questions: why did that happen? What is the point of a legrope if they just break when you need them most?
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I grew up on a little island in the Atlantic, where you had to search for other people to surf with on the 23kms of open beachies. Mostly the waves are under waist-high and soft, so I never wore a legrope with my longboard.
I wasn’t trying to, as one recent article put it, live out some “retro-nostalgia dream,” I was just trying to work out how to cross-step and a leggie makes that harder. You end up tripping over them and they get stuck between your toes. If you’ve ever walked a dog, you know the second-hand annoyance of ankle-tangle.
Of course ease is not worth the risk of someone else’s safety, but when you’re surfing with a couple of mates, not wearing a legrope can simply be a decision based on function, not an aesthetic one. Not some “hipster fad” situation.
Learning to surf without a legrope made my risk assessment more precise – if I thought I was going to fall and lose my board, I wouldn’t go. For better or worse, it made me a more conservative wave rider and I’m grateful to have had that option. It was valuable.
I’m not implying that my experience is the same as surfing crowded pointbreaks here in Australia. I grew up with different circumstances. I’m NOT implying that legropes don’t play a role in the order of a lineup. But I also don’t think it should be against the law to surf without one, if you are also surfing with awareness of set and setting.
There is nuance to this conversation that isn’t captured by the polarised, loudest voices in the meagre public assertions. As with all issues, media favours the extremities, where we end up pitted against one another and common sense is squashed by hyperbole.
My anecdotal experience over the last 22 surfing years is that (of course) legropes are very helpful at times, but they are a secondary line of safety, not a primary safety device. They aren’t meant to be used that way.
Even their packaging makes this clear. Many (not all), legropes are wrapped with a warning:
“This leash is for convenience only and should not replace surfing ability, ocean knowledge or common sense.”
“This leash must be used at your own risk. This product is used in conjunction with a sport that is considered dangerous.”
How can a local council enforce leashes as “safety devices,” when manufacturers of said devices are adamant that “safety” is not their purpose? According to makers, their purpose is convenience, even if they do a good job at keeping boards close to the user most of the time.
And sometimes too close. I know of at least two very experienced surfers whose eyes were gouged by the slingshot return of board by a legrope. One of them, local Pass surfer and former pro Derek Hynd. “I’m one of the few legitimate conscientious objectors to legropes there can be,” he said in an interview last year. “Lost an eye from one in competition in 1980.”
Still, for most of us, hypothetically injuring oneself just feels less bad than hurting someone else.
At five, my little guy isn’t yet capable of maintaining adequate control of his own craft, so we mostly surf away from others. His snapped leggie became a conversation about the importance of capability in the water.
We talked about how it’s unwise to rely 100 per cent on a legrope not snapping, even in little waves. Our first line of safety should always be our capabilities and sensitivities: the ability to read waves and water, to abide by lineup etiquette, and to be able to hang onto our crafts. Legrope, or not, still, accidents happen.
Byron Bay’s recent “Legrope Law,” which theoretically carries an $1,100 fine for non-compliance, is a knee jerk reaction to a horrible accident – the near fatal encounter Matt Cassidy had with a longboard whose leash had also snapped. I’m sorry that happened to him, and glad that he’s made a full recovery.
His unfortunate accident was not a singular event. Loose longboards roll through The Pass semi-regularly, as they do at the points in Noosa, Malibu, Rincon etc., and people do get hurt. Most people in the water are paying enough attention to be able to manoeuvre around an oncoming board, in the same way we are regularly required to manoeuvre around oncoming wave riders. Being in the ocean is fundamentally about paying attention.
Sometimes loose boards, or out of control surfers, can’t be avoided. That is part the agreement when you paddle into a crowded lineup. You will be dropped in on. You will likely have to surf slalom through packs of buoy-people on the inside. The Pass is increasingly hectic. Most surfers know this and still choose to surf there.
Those who know The Pass agree: surfers ditching their leashed boards is the most consistently dangerous element of surfing there. Emboldened by the perceived safety of a legrope, folks audaciously paddle out beyond their capability and rely on “ditching” to move around the lineup.
“For every lost log I’ve seen at The Pass, and I’ve seen a few – about 20 in a year – I’ve seen a thousand instances of this more dangerous move of jumping out the back of a wave without thought for the third party,” said Derek Hynd.
The accepted pedagogy from surf schools remains – get as far away from your board as possible. In other words, ditch to keep yourself safe, never mind the dozen people paddling out behind you. Even leashed, that’s something like 20ft of projectile surfboard.
To the list of other real and present Pass dangers please also add: dive boat propellers speeding though the line-up, the 25-foot-plus radius and considerable mass of stand-up paddleboards being flung around, and the newest danger of flying foilboard blades slicing through the crowd.
Not to mention people doing any number of irresponsible things: parents pushing their kids in front of other surfers, surf school instructors pushing beginners in front of other surfers, overripe shred lords attempting fin blows right next to others’ heads.