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.

News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
  • Get to the point
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

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence