Last winter, on the North Shore of Oahu, in Hawaii, the man who is believed to have ridden the biggest wave ever surfed, Ken Bradshaw, fell down the outside stairs of his self-built beach house while rushing to take the garbage out. The stairs do not have a handrail. The house does not seem to have been built to code. It looks like an assembly of beach shacks stacked three stories high. Bradshaw lives in parts of the second and third floors, and rents the rest out to other surfers, for income. He is 58, so no longer young, but he remains athletic and strong. This is obvious on first sight. He stands six feet tall and seems to be built of muscle and jaw. If you punched him hard enough you would break your hand. If you hit him with a bat you might break it too. History shows that he shrugs off greater punishment than that. It also suggests that having hit him you would be wise to step back. I don’t mean that Bradshaw is an especially vengeful or violent man. Actually, he is considerate, unpretentious, and polite. He does not drink. He does not eat meat. His neighbors like him a lot. But, after all, you’re the one who picked the fight. Your problem now is that Bradshaw has experience in these matters, because on the water there are rules he tries to apply.
The classic rule is the one-surfer-per-wave or, if that cannot be maintained, the no-coming-at-Bradshaw-from-the-side, the no-crowding-Bradshaw, or the no-cutting-off-Bradshaw-when-he’s-deep-into-a-ride. Afterward, he paddles up to the offender and warns him. If there is a need for a second warning he paddles up again and says, “O.K., that’s two. You will go in on the third one.” He means he’ll send the man to shore—usually by breaking the fins on his board. To me Bradshaw explained, “Sometimes then it gets ugly. They start into ‘Fuck you, asshole!’ If they say that to you, what are you going to do about it? A challenge like that. Are you going to back down, or go for it? I’ve sat on my board saying, ‘You get the first swing, dude. Swing away. But as soon as you hit me, I will take you down so hard you will not believe it.’ Some swing, some don’t.”