When it comes to the surf gang, it remains unclear whether or not notoriety is something to shoot for. On one hand, surf gangs are a product of an ever-increasing amount of surfers around the globe, and are often locals of a certain spot that seek to protect them from overcrowding. On the other, they often resort to acts of serious intimidation and violence in order to achieve their goals. The result is run-ins with the law, and a bad reputation among the surf community at large. For better or for worse, and in no particular order, the following is a list of the surf world’s most infamous surf gangs.
1. Da Hui (Black Shorts)
The Hui O He’e Nalu—Hawaiian for Club of Wave Riders—originally formed in 1976 in response to tensions between natives of Oahu’s famous North Shore, and non-natives seeking to propel the sport of surfing by capitalizing on the region’s high-quality waves. The Black Shorts, as they were more commonly called for their uniform surf attire, emphasized the necessity to protect popular breaks from outsiders. At the time, many locals were frustrated with the growing influx of non-Hawaiian surfers to the North Shore, as well as surf competitions that monopolized spots and made money while excluding Hawaiians.
In their heyday, Da Hui built a reputation for abrasively getting their point across. During contests, for example, club members would paddle out in protest and refuse to leave. They also beat up on Australians and South Africans who lacked respect either in the water or on land. Although Da Hui is currently more focused on community outreach and building their clothing brand, the Black Shorts are often recognized as one of the first groups to enforce the unwritten rules of surf breaks in Hawaii. They also set the stage for many similar groups that followed.
2. Bra Boys
Formed in the town of Maroubra, New South Wales, in the 1990’s, the Bra Boys are no strangers to the spotlight for their violent antics. In an interview, high-profile gang member Koby Abberton explained that ‘Bra’ is a reference to Maroubra, where the gang is from, but also slang for brother. Other prominent members include Koby’s brothers Sunny, Jai, and Dakota Abberton, as well as Rugby Leaguers Reni Maitua and John Sutton.
Like most surf gangs, the Bra Boys’ violence and intimidation is centered around a particular surf break: in this case a reef named “Cape Solander,” which they renamed “Ours.” Their reputation for brawling, however, is not limited to surf-related incidents. In 2002, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that 160 Bra Boys members were in attendance each for a birthday party at the Coogee-Randwick RSL Club, while 80 off-duty police officers were also throwing a Christmas party. At some point, tensions escalated into an all-out brawl with nearly, “120 combatants spotlit by police helicopters buzzing overhead.”
In 2005, member Jai Abberton was acquitted for the murder of former member Tony Hines, but his brother Koby received a suspended nine-month sentence for perversion of justice. This trial and the legal proceedings are represented in the documentary Bra Boys: Blood is Thicker than Water.
When Kala Alexander moved from Kauai to the North Shore of Oahu in 2001, he found that respect and structure throughout the lineups of the seven-mile miracle—especially at Pipeline—was seriously lacking. He and other surfers including Andy Irons, Bruce Irons, and Sunny Garcia found that acts of disrespect, like dropping in on others and even not recognizing your own surfing limits, were hazardous at Pipeline and put people in danger. In response, the Wolfpak was formed.
Kala Alexander explains the reason for the name “Wolfpak” is because, “we run in a pack, working together. When you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” The Wolfpak’s violent means of enforcing respect in the water, though, has gained the group notoriety even outside of the surfing world. Various clips found on the Internet depict brawls in and out of the water. In the 2007 Billabong Pipe Masters, Sunny Garcia chased fellow competitor and opening round opponent Neco Padaratz across the beach after the two collided. The incident showcased how violence at Pipeline is not simply restricted to acts of disrespect during free surfs, but can also occur during contests.
4. Birdrock Bandits
The Birdrock Bandits are not so much a gang of continued importance, as one that became infamous for one specific incident. In May of 2007, professional surfer Emery Kauanui found himself in an altercation with four individuals after a drink had been spilled at a local bar in La Jolla, California. Kauanui was left with a fractured skull, and died in the hospital four days later. The culprits: Seth Cravens, Eric House, Orlando Osuna, and Matthew Yanke, were identified as part of a crew that identified themselves as the “Birdrock Bandits,” a reference to the small community in southern La Jolla.
The case quickly garnered the attention of national media outlets due primarily to the unanswerable questions throughout the community about how such violence could affect one of the most affluent communities in the country. Seth Cravens was later convicted of second-degree murder for delivering the final punch, and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. House, Osuna, and Yanke, however plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, and were sentenced to 210, 349, and 210 days in jail respectively. In 2009, they were found to have violated their parole, and were each sentenced to 3 years in prison.
While those members involved, and presumably other members, weren’t so much known for being surfers, the Bandits were responsible for 15 reports of violence throughout the La Jolla area prior to their high-profile murder trial. Like other surf gangs, they operated in a specific territory, and utilized violence and intimidation, but they also represent an extreme in terms of senselessness.
The plight of the Westsiders is one that has been documented most recognizably in Josh Pomer’s 2012 film “The Westsiders.” Jason “Ratboy” Collins, Shawn “Barney” Barron, and Darryl “Flea” Virostko guide outsiders through the difficulties of growing up as a surfer in Santa Cruz—not least of which: gaining acceptance among the Westsiders at spots like Steamer Lane. The film explores the lives of the three surfers, but to a lesser extent provides insight into the workings of the gang, and particularly its militant leader Vince “the Godfather” Collier.
In recent history, however, the Westside/Eastside rivalry has become something more as the surf and gang cultures have become intertwined. In an interview, Flea explained that Westside/Eastside rivalry used to be more tongue-in-cheek, and was just, “fun and games.” Now, however, the symbols associated with Westside/Eastside pride among surfers are being interpreted as challenges among true Norteño and Sureño gang members. In 2010, for example, Tyler Tenorio and several friends were driving past suspected gang members that yelled at them while passing by. One person in the car yelled “Westside” back at them, encouraging a fight. When the teens tried to flee, Tenorio tripped and was stabbed 16 times.
Ultimately, the situation in Santa Cruz represents the escalation of the surf gang, whose typical mode of violence is a beat down, to a bona fide street gang. No longer does representing where you live at most result in a fistfight, as it did years ago. Eastside and Westside surfers that claim their side now run the risk of embroiling themselves in much graver conflicts. It also, perhaps, serves as a warning to other surf gangs of how quickly things can take a turn for the worst.