SUP Surfer Charged with ‘Assault with a Deadly Weapon’ in San Diego

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Local line ups always struggle between finding a respectful balance in sharing waves between surfers and stand up paddlers.  The argument is that SUPs are considered dangerous by folks that don’t know how to control them due to the sheer volume and mass of the board. Up until now however, no one has alleged that the paddle a SUP surfer carries is a ‘deadly weapon’.

In a recent case, a San Diego court found paddler Paul Konen guilty of assault with a deadly weapon after an incident where he struck a 56-year-old prone surfer in the head with his paddle.

‘Assault with a Deadly Weapon’ at Sunset Cliffs

On June 26th, 2018 34 -year-old Konen struck a well known surfer named Kevin Eslinger in the head with his paddle after an altercation in the line up at San Diego’s Sunset Cliffs.  Eslinger, a favored swim coach in the area and life long waterman, contended that Konen was acting aggressively and dangerously in the line up prior to the assault.

The prosecution reported that “Konen nearly ran into Eslinger out on the water – forcing Eslinger to duck his head in order to avoid being struck by Konen’s paddleboard – Eslinger objected to Konen’s flouting of proper surf etiquette,” the prosecution said.

“Konen remarked, ‘If I can catch a wave, it’s mine,’ the victim alleged.”

What happened next is a travesty for all surf breaks. The surfer, Eslinger, states that Konen next ran into Eslinger’s wife, knocking her off her board. When Eslinger then paddled over to confront Konen, he says Konen stuck him over the head with his paddle.

Although Eslinger paddled himself back to shore after the incident, he was later diagnosed with a fractured skull and was hospitalized for two days. His speech was impaired as a result of the brain injury.   It felt like, “someone had their hand over my mouth from the inside,” he said.

Although Konen’s defense included raising questions regarding whether the assault was intentional or a matter of self-defense, Konen was found guilty of “assault with a deadly weapon” by a San Diego jury.  He was released on a $30,000 bond and faces up to 7 years in prison.

“It’s a good day for the beach community in San Diego,” said District Anthony Matthew Greco. “The community will not tolerate assaultive behavior in the water.”

Konen’s sentencing will be held on May 16th, 2019.

What Happens Next? We’re Responsible for our Behavior in Line up

The verdict is the first of its kind regarding a SUP or a paddle being classified as a ‘deadly weapon’ and it brings to the surface the controversy between surfers and paddlers in any line up.

There is truth in the fact that stand up paddling puts people in the water – and out in the line up – that otherwise might not make it there. The sense of etiquette among surfers feels disrupted by paddlers who wait outside and pick off the largest waves due to the size of their boards and paddles. However, in this extreme case, Konen’s aggressive behavior toward Eslinger – a man 20 years his senior – is a matter of ‘it’s not the size of the board but the person riding the board’ that led to the outbreak of dangerous behavior.

The disturbing thing is Konen’s aggression prior to the attack where he almost ran over Eslinger “forcing him to duck his head to avoid being struck by Konen’s paddleboard,” as stated by the prosecution and Konen’s knocking another woman off her board. The concern is that this incident gives rise to the hostility simmering between surfers and paddleboarders, especially in crowded line ups.

Any surfer can be dangerous as well as any paddleboarder.  Surfers without leashes are a threat when a runaway board becomes a projectile in the line up. The recent appearance of foiling adds another dimension to safety when surfing around someone who’s riding a carbon wing. But this Eslinger v. Konen San Diego incident, so visible on the news, gives voice to surfers calling for all SUPs to be banned from the line up. It’s a concern each one of us who venture out into the ocean should take seriously.

SUP Surfing etiquette surfers line up
Blend in with respect and skill at any line up. Photo by: Sean Evans

Respect in the Line Up: An Ongoing Conversation

Respect, control and etiquette should be paramount as we head into the summer season and waves need be passed on in order to keep the peace out there on the water.  Our own behavior is critical in representing the sport as a whole. Each one of us has a responsibility to be of extra care every time we choose to paddle out to surf.

Beginners need to learn the etiquette of surfing before ever entering the water. Stay away from people until you learn to control your board, take a lesson from a qualified instructor and make sure your fitness is in line with your board management. Fatigue can cause accidents. Stay mindful.

Intermediates need to have patience when catching waves. We all know the frustration of missing waves when we’re learning, but the answer is not to power into something that someone else is already riding. That means EVER. Find a SUP Surf retreat to help you gain the skills you need to hold your own in any line up. For example, Sean Poynter & Ian Cairns SUP n’SURF Retreats in Punta Mita, Mexico give you tools for navigating a line up as well as excellent board skills to help you progress in your style of SUP surfing.

Everyone makes mistakes, surfers and stand up paddlers alike. When we do, it’s generally a good idea to immediately own it and apologize. Put yourself in the penalty box to prove your understanding of the mishap – paddle away or let several waves go by as an apology. Whatever you do, don’t get all aggro & ego-bound by defending yourself out there. It never works.

A stand up paddler earns his/her respect by successfully navigating the line up, trading waves with others, steering clear or mishaps and owning up to mistakes. We need all of us to participate in the ownership of our sport by having clear vision of your ability level, keeping the ego out of it, enjoying the surf and celebrating the surf culture by sharing, smiling and vibing with the good energy out there.

Surfing is – for most of us – a recreational sport and a natural way to connect with the ocean. When we’re in the proper frame of mind and relaxed in our surroundings, there is nothing that beats the high of sharing this experience with others on the water. Relax and let go. Find your tribe and, at the same time, be respectful of every other rider out there.

As Rell Sunn once said when her beloved Makaha began to get overrun by tourists and newbie surfers in the water, “We all just have to learn to hitch over. They are here because they are drawn to the beauty of this place. That’s why we’re all here. There is room for everyone.”

What are your thoughts on creating respect between surf crafts and tolerance in the line up?  Give us a shout in the comments below.