Don Winslow's San Diego: Hitting the waves with the dawn patrol

 

The sun warms my neck as I paddle out to sea, though it doesn't quite blunt the sting of a cold Pacific which is being churned into four-to-six-foot waves (with occasional plus-size sets) by a midwinter swell. To my left is Crystal Pier, a prominent local attraction; to my right is Bird Rock, a peninsula that funnels the walls of breaking water into nicely rideable peaks.

I grab a spot in the middle of the line-up and glance at my watch. It's 6am in San Diego, time for what surfers call The Dawn Patrol.

Students of Don Winslow know all about this famous beach-break, where I'm sat astride a seven-foot Greg Griffin "thruster", in a 3.2 wetsuit. It is part of Pacific Beach (a suburb known locally as PB) and features in the opening chapters of what, for my money, is his most compelling book: a dark crime novel set against the seedy underbelly of Southern California's surfing community which, somewhat appropriately, is also called The Dawn Patrol.

Like many of the very best writers, Winslow, aged 57, knows exactly how to bring a place and its heritage alive. A former private investigator, who began to gain prominence as an author after he moved to San Diego in the mid-1990s, he writes – in a prose style that recalls Frederick Forsyth and James Ellroy – about the drug dealers, cops, surfers, hookers, gangsters and multimillionaires who shaped this city and its suburbs. His protagonists are very local heroes: shady characters, with a heart of gold.

To do Don Winslow's San Diego justice, the literary tourist must make certain sacrifices. The first is to forego the creature comforts of the many local luxury hotels. Instead, you are obliged to book cheap accommodation in PB, where motel rooms cost $100 a night, and come with paper-thin walls and TV remote controls screwed to the bedside table. The second sacrifice is to forget about nearby attractions Sea World or Lego Land. They are for another trip.

I resolved, during a weekend-long Winslow pilgrimage in mid-January, to follow a strict routine: surf morning and evening, for an hour or two at a time, then use the day to take in places with links to his 13 novels, the most recent of which, a brilliant, sprawling tale about Mexican drug cartels called Savages, is being made into a film by Oliver Stone.

My journey began at Crystal Pier, a magnificent structure in the heart of PB, where I hired a bicycle and meandered down the promenade next to the beach. This wide strip of bright yellow sand stretches for several miles south from Bird Rock, with its cliff-top McMansions, into Mission Beach, a marginally less salubrious area full of crab shacks, dive bars, beach houses let to partying holidaymakers, and a vast, gaudy funfair.

Here, as you pedal past beautiful people in swimwear playing endless games of beach volleyball, and try not to run over roller-bladers and joggers, you get a sense of the sun-dappled promise upon which San Diego was built. Though originally founded by Catholic missionaries in the 18th century, it can trace the growth which turned it into America's eighth-largest city to the Second World War, when a generation of young men passed through its port en route to the grizzly theatre of the Pacific.

When peace came, many of them headed back West, lured by the promise of endless summers and well-paying jobs in the huge local Navy facilities, or factories that supported the booming aerospace industry. Hard-working folk, from blue-collar backgrounds, could afford detached houses, two-car garages, and a swimming pool out back. It was San Diego rather than vulgar Los Angeles, which truly exemplified the post-war Californian Dream.

Yet dark shadows also fall across Winslow's sunny city. You can sense them in the whiff of marijuana smoke which sometimes catches on the breeze, and the tattooed tough guys who sit on Mission Beach park benches, patting pitbulls. Stop for a drink in a local dive bar, and you'll realise that this is no place to spill someone's pint. Drive past roadblocks on the freeway, where police check for drugs and illegal immigrants smuggled up from Tijuana, and you'll appreciate an edginess in common with almost every border town.

Surfing, the preferred pastime of both laid-back spiritual types and hard-knuckle street gangs, perfectly represents the light and darkness Winslow finds in San Diego. A short drive up the coast, in a town called Oceanside, I paid a visit to the California Surf Museum, which traces the sport from its ancient roots.

Two things have spurred surfing's progress, and both were born in Southern California. The first was fibreglass, invented by the aerospace industry. It meant that surfboards morphed from the 40-pound wooden behemoths to the five or six pound items we carry under our arms today. The second was Hollywood: the 1959 film Gidget sparked the dramatic surf "boom" of the subsequent decade.

Further north, in the foothills of Orange County, is the Richard Nixon Library. The former President's home, Casa Pacifica, is about an hour's north of San Diego, and crops up in Winslow's The Power of the Dog. Splendidly, the part of the Library dedicated to Watergate, the scandal for which Nixon is notorious, is confined to a tiny corridor, near the exit.

Back at Pacific Beach, I returned to the water for a final evening surf session. Fishermen tossed lines off Crystal Pier, reminding me of Frank the Bait Guy, the protagonist in Winslow's The Winter of Frankie Machine. A lifeguard strolled past, like Dave the Love God, The Dawn Patrol's resident lifesaver. An hour later, with arms like spaghetti, I headed back to dry land for beer and burgers. It was a cheap and cheerful dinner, so I hope Winslow would have approved.

San Diego: whales, wine bars & history

* If you can't face the crowds at either San Diego's Sea World or its exemplary zoo (set in the sprawling Balboa Park), nature lovers can take a whale watching tour during migration season (Dec-April); flagshipsd.com.

* In the 1800s, Coronado Island was one of the world's great tourism hubs, thanks to the Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian confection of spires and gables that's best-known for providing the beach scenes in Some Like It Hot; hoteldel.com.

* Hike from San Diego city limits, through the Torrey Pines State Park, down to the satellite beach town of La Jolla to get spectacular views of the city's 70 miles of sandy coastline, including some superb seal-spotting in La Jolla's pretty bay; torreypine.org.

* Explore upcoming North Park district. A little less polished than the much promoted "historic" Gas Lamp district, this collection of neighbourhoods north of Balboa Park are characterised by Craftsman cottages and have become a hub for rising-star chefs, decent dive bars and a lively music scene; sandiego.org.

* Stay at the new Andaz hotel; the quirky chain has joined the W and Hard Rock to up San Diego's cool hotel quota. Rooftop terrace with fire pit, self-service wine bar (bottles in cages accessed with credit card) and peakaboo bathrooms that demand double rooms are shared with nearest and dearest; andaz.com, visitcalifornia.co.uk.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
football
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering