Why it's important to learn how to drop in when you're dropping out

The Times, August 15, 2006

The surfing boom seems to be unstoppable — more than 140,000 people watched the Rip Curl Boardmasters, a World Qualifying Series event at Fistral Beach, Newquay, recently, and the British Surfing Association (BSA) says that there are now a million people who have surfed in the UK.

But as beaches become more crowded with surfers of all abilities, how long before there is a claim for personal injury damages because of alleged negligence in the water? Karen Walton, national director of the BSA, believes that surfers accept a degree of risk, but says that she is actively working with the RNLI to promote awareness of safety issues. “We have developed a code of conduct covering etiquette and safety,” she says. She emphasises that anyone wishing to learn to surf should do so through BSA-accredited surf schools.

Dominique Kent, the British women’s longboard champion, teaches surfing on the North Cornwall coast. She says: “People need to understand rips, which can take the unwary out to sea, as well as aspects such as ‘the drop-in rule’.” “The surfer nearest the curl of a breaking wave has priority,” explains Dave Reed, chairman of the British Professional Surfing Association. “This means that a surfer ahead of him should not take off and drop in on his ride. If people avoid dropping in, potential accidents can be avoided.”

Like the BSA, Reed’s organisation — which runs surfing’s professional championship in the UK — offers its members third-party liability cover. He advises surfers to take out insurance: “Then you can learn to surf with peace of mind.” Jennie Walsh, of Thompsons solicitors, says: “If an injury is caused by the negligence of another person, and it was foreseeable and preventable, it may be possible to pursue a claim.”

Surfing is risky, but it is also rooted in a counter-cultural tradition that has had little to do with lawyers. It would be a shame if that were to change, and yet there seems little likelihood of UK surfing remaining litigation-free, given both an embedded compensation culture and the sport’s burgeoning popularity. What are the odds of us having our own equivalent of the Association of Surfing Lawyers, formed in 2002 in Santa Monica, California, within the next five years?