Surfing and violence have been inseparable from the very beginning. I had to laugh when I read a recent report in a British newspaper that "surf rage" first began "about five years ago". The semi-legendary oral histories of Hawaii, some of them going back a millennium, tell of rival surfers regularly bumping one another off, and of losers in surf contests being sacrificed to the gods, and of big wave surf-offs designed specifically in order to eliminate the chief - the equivalent of a small coup d'etat. The beach is a jungle.
All surfers aspire to the condition of sociopath. "Localism" is the term for wave-side hooliganism, an exercise in herd instinct and territoriality. In California, the problem has become so bad that the state wants to bring in an "Open Waves Act", which will include localism under "hate-crime" legislation.
The Hawaiian living legend Johnny Boy Gomes is one of the elite pro-surfers, earning himself a decent living by putting himself about on waves all over the planet and gaining exposure for his sponsors, the surfwear company Friends of Da Hui. He is also the Mike Tyson of surfing.
My first encounter with the myth took place one winter on the North Shore of the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
"Move your fucking car out of my drive."
He was a broad-shouldered, unshaven hombre, a little lacking in the aloha spirit.
"I'm looking for Kristin and Sabine," I said.
"You want the next house up the street," he said.
"Thanks," I said.
"And move your fucking car out of my drive."
I decided to let it slide: I was planning to move my car out of his drive anyway.
"What house was this?" asked a friend later.
"Third house up Kekui," I said.
"Jesus!" he gasped. "That's Johnny Boy's house! Lucky you kept your mouth shut. He would have dismembered you."
My beach credibility shot up when the story got out. I was either miraculously lucky or completely fearless: a haole (a non-local) had entered the ultimate no-go zone and lived to tell the tale.
"The meanest, heaviest, baddest dude on the whole of the North Shore," was one description I'd heard, although there was a certain amount of competition for the title. But in truth, I didn't take all this too seriously. Mythification is rife in surfing. I reasoned that Johnny Boy was probably not as bad as he was made out to be. Times I ran into him on the beach he'd say things like, "Hey, brah!" and "How's it?"
I ascribed his reputation for violent behaviour to a metonymic association with Pipeline, where he had long been the leader of the pack. Pipeline is an archetype among waves: vertical, tubular, up to 15ft of roaring, spinning vortex. This was the spot where I used to watch Johnny Boy picking up barrels. He was no reedy Zen surfer, communing with the collective unconscious or going with the flow. He was a massive incarnation of those verbs like "rip", "carve" and "slash" that are used to characterise the art of surfing. Take-off, down the face, bottom turn, stall, pull in to the tube: it was a simple and impossible strategy of domination over the most fiendish wave in the world. I wouldn't touch Pipeline with a bargepole, but that had nothing to do with Johnny Boy. "Slam", "drill", "hammer" and "nail" were some of the other verbs that tended to go with the phenomenon of wiping out with a billion or so tons of water poised over your head and an awful lot of razor-sharp reef at your feet. And Johnny Boy Gomes seemed to have become a walking allegory of all the potential for pain and suffering at Pipeline.
All that was before I saw Jodie Cooper, a hot young Australian surfer who was challenging for a spot in the top six of the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) rankings. When she dropped by my house I saw that her previously chiselled, attractive face was now puffed up and the colour of an aubergine. I knew she'd been out at big Pipe.
"Reef?" I asked.
"Johnny Boy," she said.
Johnny Boy had a possessive attitude towards Pipeline, as though it were his driveway, and he took the view that Jodie had parked her board on his property. So when Jodie took off on a classic left, Johnny decided she was trespassing, or "dropping in" (strictly taboo). He paddled over to her and said, "If you're going to surf like a man, I'm going to treat you like a man." Then he laid into her. It's difficult laying into anyone while you're bobbing about in the water, but Johnny Boy had had a lot of practice.
Apologists for JBG, as they called him, argued that some passing surf photographer had got in Johnny's way in the middle of a crucial manoeuvre. He had been beating the living daylights out of the guy, and only started on Jodie when she had had the cheek to plead with him to stop whacking this hapless offender. She was, they said, asking for it.
Last winter was par for the course for Johnny. On the Dr Jekyll side, he took a glorious third (and the wave of the day) in what may be the most challenging sports contest in the world, the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay, surfing out in 20 to 25ft waves. In Mr Hyde mode, he appeared at the Honolulu courthouse charged with assault after busting another surfer's nose. He was put on probation for a year.
Now I was back in Hawaii and determined to subject him to some serious interrogation. There were various conflicting schools of thought on the North Shore as to the wisdom of this undertaking. (A) Don't. Stop picking on him, he's just a scapegoat, Johnny "Whipping Boy" Gomes. A poor kid (a mix of Hawaiian, Portuguese and Puerto Rican) from the West Side (Hawaii's Bronx); the victim of childhood neglect and youthful delinquency, he'd had to struggle all his life. (B) Do. He'll appreciate being asked some awkward questions. He'd like to get it all off his chest. (C) Go ahead, write your article, so long as you don't mind posthumous.
Before I went to Hawaii a helpful American journalist ("Joe") e-mailed me a transcript of a recent telephone conversation he had had with Johnny Boy. It went something like this:
JOE: I heard a story that you told Peter X he'd better not come back to Hawaii.
JOHN: Hey, Joe, listen. You going to talk about the contest or are you going to write some shit?
JOE: Um, well, I'd like to work it in if it's not bad.
JOE: OK, I won't mention it.
JOHN: Focus on the positive and not on the negative, you know what I mean, brah? I get sick and tired of fucking idiots focusing on the negative. That makes me want to slap some fucking head. You understand?
JOE: Uh huh.
JOHN: This kind of shit pisses me off, Joe.
JOE: OK, I shouldn't have brought it up.
JOHN: Serious brah. I don't like it at all, brah
JOHN: Now you starting to get on my nerves.
JOE: Whoops, whoops. I didn't mean to.
JOHN: Hey, listen, Joe, I'm getting tired of talking to you.
JOHN: Stop fucking around. Don't fuck with me, brah, OK? This year I'm not going to put up with no bullshit. If I hear any bullshit I'm personally going to fly up there and see you personally.
JOE: OK. No bullshit.
JOHN: Serious, brah, this year I'm not going to put up with nothing, man. I have tickets, brah. I'll come up there and take care of business myself, personally. You understand?
Joe understood all right. Interviewing Johnny was the journalistic equivalent of tackling Pipeline. But someone had to. Everybody knew Johnny Boy could behave like a thug and nobody mentioned it. There were excellent reasons for omitting these details, and a lot of them were demonstrated the day Johnny Boy caught up with an Australian surfing writer who was guilty of hinting at some critique. The writer found a screwdriver at his throat and Johnny Boy threatening to carry out some DIY on parts of his anatomy he felt didn't really need to be fixed. Why Johnny Boy should be carrying a screwdriver around in his shorts in the first place was a mystery, unless it was that he had a screw loose. It was an effective deterrent to further negative reviews.
But there was no backing down now. I had my pen in my pocket, a BBC producer with a microphone in her hand, and a secret strategy. Normally, I would expect to walk out of a searching interview with JBG on crutches, if I was lucky. In this case, following a brutal footballing tackle, I was already down to just the one functioning leg. If I went in there already on crutches, it might put him off his stroke. And I would have something to whack him with in emergencies.
I was back on the North Shore, and the only problem was Johnny Boy had taken off for Brazil or Tahiti. Then he was back but AWOL. I spent days trailing around after him. It began to seem as if word had got out that some helluva tough BBC guy on crutches was limping after him, and he was lying low. I sought him at the offices of the Friends of Da Hui. The "Hui" - short for "hui o he'enalu" ("wave-riding club"), also known as the Black Shorts and Water Patrol - trade on Johnny's ambiguous image. Their ads for beach gear feature not a dude on a wave or a chick on the beach, but a handful of beetle-browed, pumped-up heavies, lounging about in a mood of brooding, simmering violence with a caption like "Expect a welcome in the Islands". The Hui head office was populated by a cast of bad guys in shades and shorts, packing mobile phones, mingling with devastating women in bikinis the size of punctuation marks. But no Johnny Boy.
I ended up speaking to him from the relatively safe distance of 10,000 miles, after I'd flown back to England. Even so, I was still expecting a huge fist to come looping out of the phone cartoon-style and swat me.
He was in an expansive mood. He told me about his first surfboard, which a kindly tourist had bought him when he was eight, and he owned up to various misdemeanours, claiming he had mellowed out. The judge who sentenced him to teach kids non-violent behaviour told him he had to "be sincere", and he sounded it. Equally, he said he was "the same, I'm always the same, and people don't like that they can just stick it up their ass". So long as he was treated with "respect", he would always treat others with respect. It was just when they were disrespectful - like Jodie, Joe, the Australian writer, and countless others - that a red mist descended. "I just want to point out one thing," Johnny Boy objected when I mentioned the Jodie Cooper incident. "No matter how much positive I do, people always want to focus on the little bit of negative. And anyway, my finger just touched her."
Johnny Boy's story was that he had undergone a metamorphosis. It wasn't pure propaganda, but it was an old song. Yet Johnny Boy is not only the continuation of a grand tradition; he is also the likely shape of the future. The supply of surfable waves is a constant, but the demand keeps on going up. Result: an increment in crowds, competition and conflict.
Johnny Boy perpetuates a habit which is as much a part of surfing as sunblock. I first encountered it in his driveway. If you're not part of the pack, you can run right into it anywhere you paddle out, from Newquay to Bells' Beach, from Rincon to Jaws: it's the Gomes syndrome, the mad-dog impulse to snap and snarl and repel the outsider. In a way I feel sorry for Johnny Boy. I have this feeling that those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make into surfers.
'A View From Abroad: Walking on Water', a report by Andy Martin, will be broadcast on Radio 4 on 29 August at 12.30pmReuse content