Letter From The Editor: Smokey, this isn't 'Nam. This is surfing.
Waiting for Friday traffic to thin, I loaded up Rocinante and headed north, for Santa Cruz first, then my second home of San Francisco, as fast her little six-cylinder American engine would muster up the Grapevine, carrying precious cargo in the truck bed, a piece of fiberglass art for local San Francisco charger (see the first few waves in the clip below) Matty Lopez’s new Sunset bar, White Cap. Damage the piece in transit, and I’d undo the years of work I’d put in earning a place in the good graces of Matty and the Ocean Beach boys.
I drove as far as I could before my eyes began to fail me, and pulled off into the Wild Horse diner around 2AM, caught a few winks with my feet on the dash until Pamela pulled the chord on the neon sign and put the first pot of coffee on, and the regulars shuffled in and bellied up at the bar.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two decades in little roadside diners like this, bouncing between coasts, east to west, north to south, chasing surf or women or some vague fleeting feeling that I needed to go. It’s been fifteen years now since I really called Florida home.
For the better part of two decades, I’ve enjoyed the hospitality and harsh treatment of Locals the world over, from Velzyland to Pavones, Portugal to Puerto Rico, “North of Point Conception” to “Somewhere South of San Miguel.” And while I’ve taken my tongue lashings for my impatient approach even in foreign lineups, it’s been fucking ages since I actually came to blows with someone over surfing.
The recent piece from Rory Parker—featuring a photographer of some variety being hassled and later “choked out” by the types of characters native to most any surf spot better than, say, Hermosa Beach—had me feeling bloody nostalgic.
As a grom in the early-’90s, even my little Gulf Coast outpost enjoyed aggressive territorialism and brazen violence in the water and up in the lot. As much as I enjoyed the caring guidance of countless gentle elder souls—who taught me much of empathy and understanding, tolerance and kindness and generosity and all those niceties—I also learned to scrap at the beach, and witnessed more gruesome, radical violence than I can recall. Torched boards. Smashed windshields. Cars broken into, cleaned out, and flipped on their side. Lineup clearing brawls. Sand-caked, beaten-bloody faces. It’s easy to say, Oh, those were the days. But, well… Those were the days.
But it wasn't all just petty, pointless violence. Formative and frightening, those incidents shaped my approach to dipping my toes in unfamiliar waters, introduced me to the territorialism and tribal language of signals and semantics spoken at surf spots the world over worth protecting, if possible, from the oncoming storm.
And like so many primitive tongues, it's more Mandarin than French - it ain't exactly romantic. But it says everything you need to know. Where to park and whether to leave the car empty, doors unlocked, to avoid break-ins and theft; where to suit up and stash your keys without attracting attention, and allowing for a quick and hurried exit, if necessary; whether to keep your head down within earshot of locals suiting up or calling it a day, or to offer a humble greeting, an up-nod meant to communicate respect. (Though even the most cold-hearted locals thaw to a hot thermos of coffee, or an iced sixer in the cooler.)
You know, The Rules.
The true, nihilistic joy of the Oregon clip was that you end up hating everyone in it, unconflicted, guilt-free. Everyone’s wrong. Everyone’s an asshole. Everyone sounds and looks stupid. It’s pure click-bait joy. Even the handy, hooded local that strolls up post-session and offers a few agitated, mildly abusive but otherwise insightful comments—”Get that thing out of my fucking face, I’m trying to talk to you! You’ve been transient in the bushes, leaving trash, talking shit to people, you’re the one causing the problem…”—loses our empathy when he instructs his friend to “smash his camera and fuck that guy up!”
As pathetic as the photographer’s pleas and protests were—”This is assault, sir! You're going to jail! You’re infringing on my 2nd Amendment right! I’m protecting my camera! You’re going to jail!”—it should have been no surprise that few took pity on the ignoramous.
“Whoever thinks the camera guy is a victim just don’t know what it feels to see a beautiful surf-spot get blowed over the years," writes @FakeHippie. "Localism is not only about waves, is about protecting the whole spot from kooks who just want to take advantage from the place without giving anything back. I’ve seen all the pro’s surfing at my local spot getting barreled, posing for mag pictures making tons of money but still don’t see any benefit back to the spot or the town nearby.”
“I condone violence, and quit trying to white-wash localism," @valiant scorn shouts while waxing windshields. "Deal with it, or play fucking tennis.”
Nothing speaks to the lines surfing’s respective camps draw in the sand than the subject of violent localism. While the conversations are ripe with pitfalls and contradictions, the fact stands that, as my pal in California’s cold, territorial North—a place I consider more home than home these days—Lewis Samuels so aptly put it: It works.
Most of the time, Ocean Beach does a fine job of regulating the lineup all on her own. Matty Lopez, doing what he's been doing every winter, for decades.
And nowhere as well as San Francisco. The City By The Bay's foggy, western fringes might not see the very same boldface beatings and dust ups it did when Matty and the boys were just little rats hanging outside Wise Surfshop, but there's no denying a certain attitude in the water towards outsiders. And while there's more bark than bite in the local pack these days, even on those sunny, warm late-fall afternoons—hot winds grooming west swell lines into so much smooth corduroy, Hypto Krypto's being pulled from Prius hatchbacks up and down the Great Highway, a venerable FutureFlex flotilla descending out of the avenues and over the dunes—order remains.
As Lewis says, at spots that have retained vigilant localism, “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…”
Yet localism is dead! The masses proclaim. And sure, after plenty of high profile lawsuits these last two decades—over clashes like those in Lunada Bay, Oxnard, Windansea—our savage little subculture has been beaten back, neutered, nearly sterilized.
So are we all living our surfing lives in the Post-Local Age? Is localism dead? I can’t recall a Southern California session in recent memory when someone wasn’t sent in, hassled, red-face bullied off their boards. It’s taken me years to get real waves at any of the reefs and slabs between Marin and Monterey. And I’m grateful for what I get.
With few exceptions, at the very foundation of a surf spot’s constituents, there are Locals and there are Transplants, I don’t care how long you’ve lived somewhere. Cold-feet-over-egg-shells, bobbing inside of Northern California’s eggiest, taking sets on the head, picking table scrap double-ups, and staying out of the way, I overheard:
“I’ve lived here sixteen years,” a shocked surfer protest, as he was being sent in somewhere north of Santa Cruz.
“Sixteen years, eh?" Someone chimed in from the pack. "I got fucking cats that are more local than you, tranny!”
Surfing one of San Francisco’s most protected corners—actually, the parking lot inhabited by the very real individual that inspired the Warchild character and the famous Point Break scene—the first couple years I lived there, you’d hear the term thrown around passive aggressively during sessions: “fucking trannies are everywhere.”
As I became more and more a regular presence around the 415, I chipped away at the stone cold local scowls, smiling my fucking head off during heavy sessions, taking beatings sitting inside the boys, but getting my waves, too. One particularly divine run, I wrote freelance out of my Sunset apartment and enjoyed a six-month fall and winter of remarkably consistent Ocean Beach. Eventually, I started to feel almost comfortable.
During one of those surprise sunny, mid-morning tide drop sessions, the crowd sparse and kook-filled during working weekday hours, few of the prominent Heads bobbing off Birdshit Rock, I might have gotten a little greedy, doing sprint laps back and forth, pinballing wedges providing a broad playing field and ample opportunity for a scrapper to pick off just way too many waves. After nabbing a good one from inside the small pack, a clean up set washed everyone out of position, but let me pass wide, back out to the peak, alone. A rogue teepe popped up just as the first stragglers were getting back in position, but not soon enough. I took an easy line on the wedge and snuck through a little chandelier, kicking out onto the shoulder. Paddling back out, a guy I’d come to know as—and I’m not kidding here—Big Dog barked at me.
“Right back to the peak, huh. Just can’t fucking help yourself.”
I recognized the tone, felt that familiar awkward chill come down my spine. I tried to play it off cool.
“Yeah, there’s some good ones sneaking through,” I said.
“I don’t know where you’re fucking from, but a lot of guys have put in a lot of time here. Listen, you’re a good surfer, but you didn’t get good surfing here.”
I hadn’t necessarily done anything wrong, but Big Dog was also right. And if I’ve learned anything in my quarter-century in the water, it's that there’s no point in arguing. As @odog_owen noted: "If you walk in to someone’s house and they say 'take your shoes off.' You take them off, you don’t argue..."
You can scream at the sun for all I care, it ain’t about right and wrong when it comes to etiquette in the lineup. There’s no judge and jury, no Democratic process governing, the lineup. Instead we enjoy a tolerable, complicated anarchy at best. The only thing I could do was pace myself the next session, and buy the guy a beer the next time I saw him bellied up at the local watering hole. (Three years later, we’re full on fucking buds. Imagine that. Cheers, Ian, you handsome goddamned beast.)
But honestly, is there a common Maritime Law for those of us forever dipping our toes in foreign waters?
Here’s a start:
Leave your camera at home. Knowing what we do now of the Oregon incident—that the guy filming might have been agitating people for a bit, that he was a bit of a transient, etc.—what I’m certain of is that he had no clue what he was walking into. Surf photography probably has more in common with war photography than whatever "nature" photography the guy claims to do. Blissfully unaware of the nuanced codes surf spots enjoy, the poor kid stumbled dumbly into it, wholly oblivious. As far as locals are concerned you’re all Instagram nobs geotagging their beloved.
Braving a spot that’s flexible with exposure? Save your Instagram stories for once the tide is filled in the winds come up, and buried that magic little Sandbar that you got a clip of standing in the lot. Same goes for sizzle reels and hero shots. Save them for flat day entertainment.
Shoot the locals. If it’s fair game to shoot, make sure to fix your scope on the natives. And not just the stars, get the old guys on their massive guns, the aging capable vets putting their best foot forward. A DM's capture on Insta will earn you recognition in the water quicker than just about anything besides a cold foamer or a joint. Vanity’s a chord that always rings local cherries.
Which leads me to:
Some cold foamers after a session go along way. Buy a good cooler and fill it with something cheap and Mexican, dole them out freely any chance you get. Works as well at Sandspit as it does at Snapper. On south swell afternoons, pick up a case on your way to Malibu, lug it down to the wall, let all the boys know that there's cold ones. If you’re lucky, by the time you get back from your first lap, there’ll be one beer left, but surely someone has sent a scout to pick up replenishments.
This should go without saying: Don’t burn the heavies. Don’t even bother gambling—as they bobble on a turn or look a little too deep on the ledge—whether they’re going to make it. Surfing First Point? Don’t burn Sarlo. (Or Andy or Farberow, Schaffer or Gross, Peto or Gamboa). Lowers? Snips, Yeomans, and the Gudangs are going. J Bay, Rocky Point, Ruggles, or Reunion: Know your Heads, and keep yours down if they’re barreling down the line.
Show up alone. Three’s a crowd, two’s company.
Know the play. Leashes cool? Not at certain San Diego reefs. In fact, best have a twin keel ready, something Lis-y, something Frye-d. Braving Lowers? Logs ain’t allowed (believe us, they’ve tried).
Pony up on a local steed. Rolling into Haleiwa, the Goldie, or Ericeira? Leave the quiver at home, and order some local sticks ahead of time. Nothing will earn you points faster than supporting the local foam mower. And you’ll be amazed what local knowledge, design-wise, can do for a visitor’s first crack. Heading to Southern California? Order a Mayhem, a Hamish, or a Patterson. Hawaii? Order a Pang, Rawson, Pyzel, or if you’re really feeling classy, a Chapman/Brewer to stick on the wall when you get home. Europe? PUKAS or Semente, no contest. Braving NorCal monsters? Have Stretch forge you a dragon slayer. Gold Coast? Don’t even get me started.
No one cares how good you surf, fuck off and go home. You might be the hottest kid to ever don your High School colors, the boys out the back care fuck-all about your Letterman jacket, nor your NSSA trophies and Instagram followers.
The ocean might belong to everyone, but surf spots belong to their rightful born rulers. This ain’t a game of stickball in the City Park. This is fucking surfing.
Reading through the countless comments Rory's piece received on all the various platforms surfers now have to Speak Truth To Power, it was hard not to chuckle at the naivety:
"Dude but the guys out there are crazy territorial I’ve had my friend threatened out there so he had to put his camera away to make them leave him alone."
And of course, the most hated of all lines to local's ears: "The ocean belongs to everyone, man!"
Civilization ends at the waterline, the famous Gonzo line goes. Beyond that, we all enter the foodchain. And not always right on top.
Keep it cutty, with a little class, Stab.
PS: And if you’re in San Francisco, stop by White Cap (see below) and buy Matty and the boys a beer. The place is gorgeous, and you’ll dig the sculpture on the wall, hanging like its anxiety-riddled courier, safe and sound.
What darling little watering hole in the Sunset!
Like it's absolutely adorbs! Go spend your money there.