Surfing: Beach Blanket Bango

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Surfing: Beach Blanket Bango

Is assault and battery the next big thing on the waves?
By Ken McAlpine

Lacerated liver, broken ribs, broken pelvis, contusions all over his body, three bite marks, and internal bleeding," says Geoff Allard, a deputy DA with the San Diego County district attorney's office. "His doctor said he could have died if he'd stayed out there longer."

These injuries, good for six days of intensive care, were sustained last September 17 by 48-year-old Robert Greene, a sixth-grade teacher from Encinitas, California, allegedly at the hands of Kevin Tiffin, a 27-year-old welder from Spring Valley. Prosecutors handle similar assaults all the time. What makes this case unusual is that it involved surfers fighting over waves. The level of violence was unprecedented and came amid a small but disturbing flare-up of beach brawls that has some people wondering if California's surf is spiked with venom. Just ten days after Greene's thrashing on the beach at Del Mar, up the coast at the Oxbow World Longboard Championships in Malibu, surfers Lance Hookano and Joseph Tudor allegedly beat up fellow surfer Richard Ernsdorf, sending him to the emergency room with a separated shoulder, head trauma, and facial cuts. Last March, during the Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival at Steamer Lane, territorial tensions erupted into a neoprene melee that saw nearly a dozen surfers and kayakers shoving, punching, and swinging paddles.

Despite the stereotype of surfers-as-goons pushed in movies like 1991's Point Break, matters have rarely escalated beyond minor scuffles. (Allard says his office has handled just one other surfing assault in five years.) Longtime surfing observers say the latest incidents were freak exceptions. Meanwhile, surfers acknowledge that the major source of friction is not likely to improve: California has a finite number of surf spots, and they're often packed tighter than the Tokyo subway. "Put more rats in a cage," says Allard, "and they're going to fight."

Contradicting several witnesses, Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival organizer Dennis Judson insists, "There was no brawl... It was just a dog-bark thing." He allows that a kayaker "accidentally" rammed a surfer and admits that he's had problems in the past with "a small group" of local surfers. As he's done in the past, he'll hire police and security people for this year's contest, slated for March 24 - 26. If problems return, Judson may bag future events. "I can't let a few thugs make the decisions," he says, "but I can't bring people out here to get bludgeoned."

Of the three incidents, the assault against Greene was particularly bizarre. As Greene, Tiffin, and several other surfers scrambled for position among the mediocre one- to two-foot waves, Greene reportedly cut in front of Tiffin. Words were exchanged, and the two men took it to the beach. According to Allard, Greene approached Tiffin to "discuss the problem," but Tiffin jumped him. Tiffin slammed Greene to the sand and started kicking -- all in front of Greene's 12-year-old son. The severity of Greene's injuries prompted the DA's office to bring felony assault charges against Tiffin and his uncle Michael Empey, who allegedly egged him on. Both men could go to prison for several years; at press time no trial date had been set.

The fight involving Hookano, Tudor, and Ernsdorf, which occurred on the final day of the Oxbow World Longboard Championships, escalated just as inexplicably. Ernsdorf, a 44-year-old contractor, was riding waves on his kneeboard. Not a participant in the contest, he says he got nowhere near it; others say he was in the contest area. Joseph Tudor, whose 18-year-old son Joel was competing, paddled out to talk to Ernsdorf, and a fight broke out. Lawyers for both sides disagree on who started the fight, but it allegedly ended when Hookano, a 34-year-old competitor from Hawaii, paddled out and mopped up. Hookano and Tudor are charged with felony assault. "These guys tried to kill me," insists Ernsdorf, who may press civil charges. "It wasn't just a couple punches at the beach. They didn't want to stop."

Whether these were weird exceptions or portents of a weirder future, no one can say. But Jeff Sweet, a surfer involved in last year's Kayak Surf Festival scrap, isn't optimistic. "I can see it happening again," he says, "Probably on a bigger scale."

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