Boys from Brazil stir up a surf war

Tensions between Hawaiian surfers and energetic newcomers from South America have reached boiling point on Oahu's famous beaches

You only have to watch Edison de Paula carve his way across one of the spectacular waves that wallop Oahu's north shore each winter to realise that surfing isn't exactly what you might call a laid-back sport. When the swells hit 20 or 30 feet, one wrong move can send you straight to a watery grave. At Pipeline, a break famous for its perfect "tubes," there have been 70 deaths since the 1960s. At nearby Sunset Beach, a man went missing, presumed dead, only last week.

From time to time, surfers also encounter serious danger on dry land. Especially if – like de Paula – they were neither born nor raised in Hawaii, but instead grew up roughly 8,000 miles away on the beaches of Brazil.

The curse of "localism", a universal feature of the surfing world, has reached one of its occasional boiling points on the North Shore, a small but spectacular piece of ocean-front regarded as the sport's Mecca due to its ability to hold large, beautifully-formed waves.

Friction between territorial locals and outsiders is keenly felt at the best of times. But in recent winters, the arrival of tribes of energetic young surfers from Brazil has sparked something approaching a racial war.

De Paula has seen Brazilians beaten to a pulp by Hawaiians for both relatively minor misdemeanours, such as "disrespecting" the wrong person, and more dangerous breaches of etiquette, such as attempting to catch the wrong wave. In ensuing disputes, their cars have been vandalised, valuable surfboards snapped in two, and noses and teeth broken. "A Brazilian guy might have made a mistake in the water, or been too aggressive. He may not, strictly, have done anything wrong, but it doesn't matter: he will get punished," de Paula said. "Some Hawaiians, if they see someone take a wave their friend wanted, they'll run him on to the beach and beat him down. Then they'll tell him to leave the North Shore and never come back. They mean it, too."

The wider surfing community first became aware of the tensions between Hawaiians and their Latin-American counterparts at the 2007 Pipeline Masters, a professional contest held annually, when Brazil's Neco Padaratz became involved in a fight with North Shore regular Sunny Garcia. Fisticuffs began in the water. When they moved to dry land, scores of locals joined in. Order was restored when the police gave the Brazilians a safe escort from the beach.

No one knows exactly how many fights have broken out since. Police don't keep a record and the locals have lost count. But, as another big wave season gets underway, dozens of YouTube videos and scores of eye-witness accounts bear witness to a creeping xenophobia invading paradise.

"The problem Brazilians have is that our culture is very different to American culture," adds de Paula, who despite having now lived in Hawaii for two decades says he still has no chance of being accepted as a true "local". "By that, I mean Brazilians are naturally happy people. We express that in the way we behave and talk, and sometimes in the way we are aggressive in the ocean, and often it gets misinterpreted. Because we are naturally loud and expressive, that upsets some people."

Many Hawaiians, for their part, accuse over-eager Brazilians of habitually "dropping in," or stealing waves from other surfers who have right of way. People who do that risk causing a collision or a "wipeout" place others in peril, in what is potentially, a life-threatening environment.

Ken Bradshaw, an acclaimed North Shore resident who was for many years believed to have ridden the biggest wave ever surfed, told The Independent that Brazilians are as unpopular in Hawaii now as Australians were in the 1970s. "Our problem with Brazilians is a bit like the issue we had in the 70s with Australians," he said. "They come here with an attitude. But it's not their home. They are a guest, coming into our house, but they don't show respect."

As the surf documentary, Bustin' Down the Door recalled, several Antipodean surfers of the era Bradshaw recalls were subjected to death threats.

Today, emotions run equally high. "I hate to sound racist, but the reality is that in any culture, groups who come in affect the security of people who are already there," added Bradshaw. "The Brazilians here are like Asian immigrants to the mainland: they create little Chinatowns. By that, I mean that they surf together in packs, eight or 10 of them." Another problem is their "attitude," he says. "They want to dominate, want to be the most aggressive group in the water. They are self-absorbed, and the way they conduct themselves can seem offensive."

Behind the big talk and endless fights is a time-honoured fact: surfing is, and always will be, a straightforward struggle for the valuable piece of finite real estate that is a top-class wave.

The mechanics of the sport mean that each wave can usually only hold one person; and there can be 10 or even 15 minutes between a "set" of three or four rideable waves. That makes for a lot of competition when they come along. Meanwhile the exploding popularity of the sport brings ever-increasing numbers of surfers to top breaks, further ratcheting up the pressure.

On a good day at Pipeline, Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay and other top North Shore spots, it's not uncommon to see a hundred people jostling for position in a "take off zone" no bigger than a football pitch. The atmosphere during a big swell becomes even more competitive thanks to the presence of the world's top surf photographers. Surfers know that if a shot of them catching a large wave finds its way into print, sponsorship dollars may soon follow.

"Everyone comes here because this is considered a proving ground," said Rick Williams, a Sunset Beach surfer. "Guys come here from overseas expecting to go head to head with the local guys. The waves are very, very big and it's extremely macho and competitive."

Long-term population growth on Oahu has only increased the overcrowding, added Carol Phillips, a local surf instructor and pro bodyboarder, while economic development means that more and more Brazilians can these days afford to visit. "The North Shore is known as the seven-mile miracle because there's so much fabulous surf in such a short space," she says. "But more people live on the island than ever, and people who visit tend to come back year after year. So it just keeps on getting more crowded." Demographic changes have also produced spiralling house prices, clogged roads, and a sense that the island culture is under threat.

Leading the pushback is The Wolfpak, a vigilante group formed roughly a decade ago by angry young locals which has recently been blamed for attacks on Brazilian surfers. Its leader is Kala Alexander, a pro surfer whose notoriety led to cameos in the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the television series Hawaii-5-O.

Asked how he might deal with "foreigners" who annoy him in the water, Alexander said recently: "Maybe I'd paddle up to you, tell you to go in, or take off your leash [a cord used to attach a board to a surfer]. Later I'd find you, or a few of the other guys would, and you'd be taught a lesson."

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Science Teacher - South Es...

NQT Secondary Teachers

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is actively r...

A Level Chemistry Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: A Level Chemistry Teacher - Humb...

RE Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Teacher of Religious Education ...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering