In California, Old School and Newbie Surfers Are Clashing

As the number of surfers seeking rideable waves steadily increases, so does tension.

There’s a battle afoot in Southern California. It’s being fought with insults, vandalism, sexual harassment, and outright violence. And the winners get to surf near a posh Los Angeles suburb.

A “gang” of local surfers, dubbed the Bay Boys, have been driving interlopers—fellow surfers, the general public, even the media—from their beach on Lunada Bay since the 1970s. Alleged to have committed a range of abuses, they’ve even constructed a makeshift stone “fort” along the only path down to the water to serve as a base of operations, sometimes monitoring outsiders with walkie-talkies and cell phones.

Based in Palos Verdes Estates—a city of 13,500 that boasts, at $167,344, the ninth highest median income in the Golden State—these overprotective townies aren’t your run-of-the-mill thugs. Surfer magazine editor-in-chief Steve Hawk described them as “trust fund babies” back in 1991. They’re men like Peter McCullom, who was living off an inheritance when he settled an assault case for $15,000 following an altercation at the Lunada Bay break in 1995.

“Most of these people have been to college. They all have good jobs. This is their hobby, just like fishing and swimming,” Sheila Papayans, who’s grandson is an alleged Bay Boy member, told the Daily Breezetold the Daily Breeze, noting that he and other locals were merely protecting the area from rude outsiders who did things like change clothing openly at the beach. “When I drive down the street, I see bare butts all the time,” Papayans is quoted as saying. “And they are not P.V. [Palos Verdes] bare butts. They are bare butts from God knows where.”

It’s Got a Name: Surf Localism

It’s not just territorial surfers who are said to be the problem. Complaints have come up again and again over the years of police turning a blind eye to this pattern of aggression, even condoning it, despite repeated promises to the contrary. Ultimately, it’s an example of surf localism—local riders defending their spot and the traditional surf hierarchy—run amok. But have the Bay Boys and their decades-long run as aggressors finally met their match?

Last month a federal class action lawsuit was filed by a pair of frustrated surfers—one of whom is an El Segundo police officer who finally “worked up the courage” to try and surf the spot in January, only to be rebuffed by locals—and the Coastal Protection Rangers, a nonprofit dedicated to “seeking out and prosecuting violators of coastal laws.” Naming seven alleged Bay Boys as well as Palos Verdes Estates police chief Jeff Kepley and city manager Tony Dahlerbruch, they’re asking a judge to use a gang injunction to bar Bay Boy members from going to Lunada Bay or surfing the break and to force local authorities to diligently investigate and prosecute their crimes. Additionally, they seek a $30,000 fine from each of the named defendants.

The Battle for Surfing’s Soul

Across the Internet, surfers have been cheering at the thought of one of the world’s most infamously localized breaks opening up for general use, with those who speak up against the suit being quickly shouted down in comments sections.

Some long-time surfers feel this widely publicized case against localism has come to represent more than a battle over a small break. It’s indicative of an ongoing battle between traditionalists and new school riders over surfing’s very soul.

“We’ve protected this beach for years,” McCullom told the LA Times in 1995, in one of many articles the paper has published about the town’s forbidden break. “This is why: so we can have driftwood on the beach rather than Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes. If this place was ever opened up, it would be packed with lowriders, guys in VW bugs; the rocks would be marked with graffiti, and the beach wouldn’t be safe at night.”

Many surfers are quick to note that he’s not without a point—even 21 years ago, neighboring beaches in Torrance and Long Beach were rife with overcrowding and litter, a stark contrast to the clean sands of their “protected” stretch of Lunada Bay. But it’s not just crowds that localism targets—it’s also a method of self-policing, enforcing respect among the ranks for each other and, especially, for the ocean. Localism has always been an undercurrent of the surf scene, an at times harsh punishment for infractions in an oftentimes harsh activity. Yet now, in many places, it’s being phased or, some will claim, gentrified out.

“Up until fairly recently you wouldn’t even dream of getting in the water if you weren’t from the neighborhood,” Jeff Johnson, a lifelong surfer and noted adventure photographer, explained in reference to a surf break near Ventura. “If you were an outsider you’d get hassled for even checking the waves. But now it’s a free-for-all.”

Plenty of Waves to Go Around?

The number of active surfers in the world has increased dramatically since 2001, from 26 to 35 million, and with an estimated 2.6 million residing in the United States. As the population seeking access to an arguably finite number of accessible, ridable waves surges, so does tension in overlong lineups, crowded parking lots, and, as with any activity suddenly injected with mass media attention, mega money and new participants flowing into its culture.

No longer the renegade activity it’s often still stereotyped as, surfing has grown into an international industry with sales forecast to swell to $13 billion by 2017, and it’s even slated for the 2020 Olympics. Top tier professional surfers make millions of dollars and enjoy celebrity status. With this mainstreaming, the average surfer’s perspective has been shifting away from a reverence for spots and history to entitlement—now premier breaks are treated like a commodity, a studio for creating imagery to sell and where careers can be made, rather than sacred spaces.

Note: This clip contains explicit language.

“Localism is a good thing,” Johnson noted, quickly adding that he doesn’t condone senseless violence. “It’s a way of preserving the natural hierarchy and pecking order and to teach people to respect one another. It’d be chaos without it.”

“You have to respect the locals, the guys who were born and raised there or who have lived there long enough that they’ve paid their dues and become members of the community,” Kala Alexander, a surfer, actor, and co-founder of the legendary surf gang Wolfpak, told Outsidetold Outside in 2008. “You drop in on someone at his home break, and he’s been working all week and just wants to surf, you have a fight on your hands.”

Chas Smith—a surfer, journalist, editor of surfing website Beach Grit, and author of the book Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell, which details the undercurrent of violence on Hawaii’s North Shore and how it has shaped professional surfing—doesn’t agree.

“Lots of the quotes you’ll get about localism will revolve around the fact that waves are a limited resource, and with more people surfing that resource becomes even more limited and must be protected, blah blah blah,” he scoffed. “It’s all bullsh**. There are plenty enough waves for the world’s tiny surf population to share. The best waves in the world are actually really hard to surf and so natural selection takes care of the interlopers. Take a wave like Pipeline, for example. It is a tough one. Tough to know right where to sit. Tough to be quick enough. Pipeline is the most famous wave in the entire world, I’d say, and crowded, yes, but if a surfer knows what he’s doing he can still go snag a few out there. If he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’ll get smashed by the reef, generally, before getting smashed by a local.”

His feelings are shared by photographer and native California surfer Keenan Newman.

“Localism, especially violence over a wave, are something you see less and less of,” he said. “There’s enough waves for everyone, as long as everyone has the respect to wait their turn.”

Yet even Surfer magazine has defended localism, or at least its end result, in an op-ed entitled “It Works” from their October 2013 issue.

“Over the years, there have been frequent brawls, arrests, and a handful of serious beatings,” senior writer Lewis Samuels wrote. “This helps keep the lineup more orderly than it otherwise might be. Locals know exactly which local will get which wave, and visitors are advised to be on their best behavior. Compared to many iconic surf spots, which have degraded into viper-pits of chaotic, dangerous collisions, things mostly run smoothly at Spot-X.”

No matter where in the world you learned to surf, until recently you’d have the basic laws of respect and order ingrained into you by the time you could competently get up on your board. Not so much anymore.

‘Do Not Take Pictures’

“The thing that changed everything is the surf schools,” Johnson said, citing a boom in these institutions in the early 2000s. “You started having people who could surf but weren’t socialized in any way. The schools are just pumping them out. It’s not like learning from your dad or an uncle or a family friend. It’s impersonal and without history. They paid the money, took the class, and now they feel entitled.”

Hawaii has always been both the spiritual and competitive mecca of surfing, and unless the waves are insane the beach-going, surfer-aspiring crowds can be impenetrable. Neighboring Kauai, however, has a fraction of the attention—with all of the waves—and has turned out plenty of surf legends. Yet there’s little footage or photos from many of its spots, and its not usually mentioned with the reverence of Pipeline or other famous North Shore breaks.

What keeps the haole (usually Caucasian, non-Hawaiian) masses and surf media at bay? Localism.

“To see the change on the North Shore of Oahu in the last 30 years, basically they threw people out so it could become the epicenter of surfing that it is today. We would never want to see that happen to our kids, and our elders didn’t want it to happen to us,” former pro surfer, mayoral candidate, farmer, and Kauai native Dustin Barca told Stab magazinetold Stab magazinetold Stab magazine. Coming from a long line of Kauai locals determined not just to defend their surf spots but also to drive off building developments and other proposals that don’t benefit their community, Barca and his fellow islanders have managed to maintain their cultural integrity through a combination of grassroots activism and, when necessary, a physical reminder that respect is due.

“People are more than welcome to visit, but you have to show some respect and respect our rules and traditions as an island,” he warned. “Do not take pictures, and you’re more than welcome with aloha, but with that aloha comes a mutual respect and love and humility within your presence and how you present yourself.”

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Search Trips

And are there really enough surf spots for millions of surfers to paddle into? Perhaps on a global scale, but most surfers can’t afford to beach hop their way around the world looking for epic breaks. They’re stuck dealing with the crowds at major population centers, or looking for— and protecting the location of—“secret” spots a driveable distance from home.

“There are a finite number of surfing spots in the world,” Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, told a Slate reporter last month for an article entitled “Hipsters Are Ruining Surfing.” “And they’re magical places—confluences of topography, tide, and wind sensitivity, water temperature, accessibility, and about 20 other things. Anything that causes any of those factors to change can kill a surf spot.”

No Chill

No matter which side of surfing’s split personality you’re on, bringing a class action lawsuit ostensibly in the name of all surf-kind’s benefit to gain access to a pristine break is a first. And it’s a precedent that makes normally laid-back Johnson angry.

“These people that brought on that lawsuit are an embarrassment,” Johnson said flatly. “Surfers are self-regulating and self-reliant—or so I thought. You should be able to take care of your own problems. Deal with it or go someplace else. Surfers don’t call cops and hire lawyers. That kind of behavior is for cowards.”

Johnson went on to say something echoed by many of surfing’s old guard, including, back in that 1995 LA Times article, the brash Peter McCullom: If you want to surf someone else’s spot, show some respect and humility.

“If you really, really, really want to surf a place like Lunada Bay, you got to play it cool, low key,” he explained. “Go alone. Don’t bring a car full of people. Park far away and walk in, or paddle. Don’t litter. Say hello to the locals, smile. Ease your way into the lineup and don’t expect to catch any good waves for a long time. Earn it. Maybe you need to move there. I did.”

Chas Smith had a different take, likening these territorial surfers to drug addicts chasing their next adrenaline fix rather than a tribe of spiritual, if testosterone-filled, modern-day warrior poets.

“I think surf localism exists because surfing makes people insane,” he said. “The longer a man surfs, the more insular and selfish he becomes. Paranoid like Gollum. He wants the preciouses all to himself. He can’t stand someone even looking at them … Talk of surfers being a ‘tribe’ or maintaining ‘chill vibes’ or anything like that is all lies. Surfers are decrepit addicts. Nothing more.”

Insane, cowardly, or justified, the case against the Bay Boys is thus far going forward. And, as happens in a litigious country like our own, countersuits are in the making. Meanwhile, millions of surfers take to the water, battling the weather, sharks, accessibility issues, pollution, climate change, and, it seems, each other.

“Chas is right. We are decrepit addicts … Maybe not decrepit. Addicts, yes,” Johnson agreed with a laugh, adding, “Don’t f*** with a junky.”

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