Everybody's surfin' now

... and the idyllic image of Malibu as the Californian way of life set to a Beach Boys soundtrack has been tarnished by overcrowding and pollution. Andrew Gumbel reports

Sunday 03 April 2016 20:32
A beach closed sign warns against contaminated water
A beach closed sign warns against contaminated water

Imagine a perfect surfing day in Malibu: long, curling, six-foot waves breaking with unhurried perfection at Surfrider Beach. This is one of the world's most famous surfing spots, a big part of the mystique of southern California. The bad news, though, is that everyone knows it. It has always been crowded - the Beach Boys made sure of that -- but the most recent global craze for surfing has made the crowds unruly and close to unmanageable. Paradise this may be, but it also risks being trampled out of existence.

Come to Surfrider on a summer weekend, or on one of those days of exceptional swells that are immediately transmitted to the surfing faithful via webcams posted on the beach, and you may well see as many as 150 boards in the water jostling for the same few breaks. The "one wave, one surfer" rule long since went out the window - partly because there are too many beginners who don't know the rules of etiquette, and partly because anyone waiting patiently in line is condemned to spend all day sitting there while everyone else barges ahead.

Instead, you will see four or five surfers or more on a single wave. If they know what they are doing, they will stay out of each other's way - just. But inevitably there are misunderstandings, and people deliberately cutting in, and collisions leading to bruises, gashes and broken bones.

Sometimes a board will "spear" someone. The lifeguards are never short of work, and frequently ferry the injured off to the nearest hospital for stitches and plaster casts. More frequently there will be arguments, and pushing and shoving.

"It's always been controlled mayhem," reflects Alan Reed, head of the Malibu chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. "The problem is, it's getting to be more mayhem than controlled."

The widespread fascination with surfing, in Britain and elsewhere, conjures up an image of Malibu very different from this reality. One thinks, perhaps, of pristine sandy beaches with a mountain backdrop, of movie stars' mansions kissing the sand, of solitude and communion with nature and a crucial distance from the urban dysfunctionality of Los Angeles, whose messy sprawl begins a half-hour drive away to the south-east.

Surfrider Beach, it must be said, has never quite lived up to that ideal. It is far from the prettiest beach in Malibu: it is too flat, and too close to the main road to have any pretensions to exclusivity. It is not unattractive, with the whitewashed Malibu pier to one side and the bird-filled Malibu lagoon just behind. Any communion with nature is tempered, however, by the view in both directions of straggly beach shacks, cars parked along the sides of the Pacific coast highway and the weekend hot-dog vending stalls.

And it has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted major surfing beach anywhere in the continental United States. Spillage from Malibu's septic tank-based waste system, along with "urban run-off" - car oil, pesticides, chemical effluent and other nasties - infest the lagoon, which in turn infests the ocean, especially when it rains and the narrow strip of sand separating the two bodies of water overflows.

None of that was previously a deterrent to regulars addicted to the sheer mind-blowing pleasure of the waves. When the breaks are at their best, Surfrider promises rides of a minute or more - an eternity in surfing terms. Now, however, the regulars are beginning to complain that they have reached breaking point.

Some say the answer is to make Malibu more exclusive and scare off the hordes of surf enthusiasts who come over the Santa Monica mountains from the hot and smoggy San Fernando Valley each weekend. Others say the problem is not the crowds per se, but the lack of discipline. That would explain why an Australian surf ambassador called Nat Young addressed a joint meeting of the Surfrider Foundation and the Malibu Surfing Association late last month and proposed a sign listing some basic rules of etiquette to be posted at Surfrider Beach.

Mr Reed, who intends to lobby the Malibu authorities to make the sign a reality, used another sporting analogy to explain the problem: "Imagine playing a golf course with no starter hole. You just have people hitting the ball around in no particular order. It would be anarchy. It's the same thing at the beach. There are too many people disregarding the rules of surfing. That not only detracts from the enjoyment. It's also very dangerous."

The rules are not that complicated. Surfing etiquette dictates that the person closest to the breaking end of a wave has the right of way, and that everyone else should keep paddling. It also says that you must hold on to your board, not the leash. "A lot of people, particularly beginners," says Mr Reed, "don't realise how dangerous boards flopping around in the water can be."

Things get a little more sophisticated when it comes to the "pecking order" - the respect traditionally accorded to the more accomplished, more experienced surfers who can be counted on to exploit a good wave to the full. But that, in itself, is way more than Surfrider is used to these days. Muscling in on someone else's wave is known as "dropping in", and dropping in has become little short of an epidemic.

That, in turn explains why some of the most accomplished names in surfing have all but given up on Surfrider. Some prefer to restrict their surfing to night-time, under the moonlight. Lance Carson, a prominent local longboarder, complains that all the fighting and yelling has taken the fun out of surfing in Malibu; these days he will make the two-hour drive to the remote beaches north of Santa Barbara, or head down to Mexico instead.

A similar disillusion has set in with Miles Feldman, a prominent Los Angeles business litigation lawyer who loves the sport too much to restrict his passion to his admittedly frequent trips to Hawaii and Fiji. "I used to go there all the time," he says of Surfrider, "but I just don't want to deal with the crowds and the frustration. In Hawaii, you follow the rules and you got to give respect. You don't ever think of taking advantage. In Malibu, if you don't cut in, you won't ever get a wave. You just have to go, and people will come in on top of you.

"I certainly wouldn't go on a Saturday - I'd head up there only if there was a particular swell and it fell in the middle of the week. The good news is, there are plenty of other places to get good waves if you are determined enough and you chase it enough."

Did Malibu ever enjoy a golden age? Its beauties were certainly untrammelled when the Chumash Indians set up the first settlement right next to Surfrider Beach and called it Humaliwu - meaning "when the surf sounds loudly". Then again, they didn't have surfboards.

The 27-mile stretch of coast did not become readily accessible until 1928, when the Malibu stretch of the Pacific coast highway was completed; even then, the movie stars who built the first houses there soon discovered another of Malibu's ever-present dangers: wildfires. Still, there must have been fewer places in southern California more magical, at least up to the 1950s.

A very young Marilyn Monroe went surfing in Malibu in the mid-1940s when she was dating a lifeguard and aspiring actor called Tommy Zahn. She later became friends with the British actor Peter Lawford, who squandered a perfectly promising Hollywood career on his all-consuming passion for the surf. (It was Lawford who, fatefully, introduced Marilyn to the Kennedys at his beachfront home and may have helped orchestrate the affairs she had with both John and Bobby.)

The turning point for Malibu came in 1959 with the release of one of the first surfing movies - the story of a tomboy determined to prove that girls, too, can surf. Gidget - based on the story of a real-life girl surfer who now works as a hostess at Duke's bar and restaurant on the beach -- became a huge hit and prompted the first big invasion of Surfrider by non-Malibuites. By the time the Beach Boys sang about "shooting" the Malibu pier and wishing they could all be California girls, any hopes of keeping the place a secret were drowned out by a nationwide jukebox whirr.

Video footage of Surfrider Beach taken in the 1950s and 1960s by a local enthusiast called Bruce Brown shows much the same overcrowding as today. His footage shows people frequently pushing each other off their boards - either for fun or because they didn't know the rules. Undisciplined property development soon followed, quickly filling up the coastal strip. The construction of a nearby shopping centre in the late 1970s led to a rapid deterioration in water quality. The surfing break known as First Point became little better than a lavatory as waste water flushed directly into the Pacific there. To make matters worse, the shopping centre's Texaco station was found to have leaking tanks that led to further contamination. By the early 1990s, dozens of Surfrider regulars were complaining each year of gastro-intestinal complaints from contact with the polluted water.

Malibu's reaction to these blights has been determined by two sometimes contradictory impulses. The first, cheered on by the Surfrider Foundation and other organisations, is to lobby for better environmental protection and clean up the dirty water. The second is to seek sanctuary behind high walls and in secluded beach spots that the great unwashed from the Valley and elsewhere cannot penetrate.

The contradiction arises because it is hard to make beaches clean and accessible to all and at the same try to scare away the masses. (Which might explain why Surfrider continues to have such a lousy pollution record.) There is an informal club of surfers, meanwhile, who have claimed for themselves a part of the Malibu coastline at the rocky promontory known as Point Dume. The only way to access their beach - short of doing a lot of paddling and scrambling over rocks - is through a locked gate to which only the anointed few have a key. Such self-appointed clubs are not always problem-free. The police on the Palos Verdes peninsula, at the other end of Santa Monica Bay from Malibu, recently installed a security camera at a "private" surfing spot known as Lunada Bay following widespread reports of cars being vandalised and fist-fights breaking out between newcomers and members of the regular surfing set. One man had his head cracked open with a rock.

Such problems have done nothing to dampen the growing enthusiasm for the sport. Displays of macho aggression are, perhaps, part of the attraction - think of the 1991 Hollywood surfing bank robber movie Point Break. That aside, Los Angeles continues to see its population grow, while the number of good surfing spots remains finite. The latest spike in the surfing craze has some of its origins in popular culture. Recent films like Blue Crush and North Shore, as well as a reality TV show called Boardhouse, have certainly played their part. The phenomenon has also been guided by the technology of surfboards themselves. For a while, in the 1970s and 1980s, the use of longboards - which are much easier to manoeuvre - was frowned upon as old-fashioned. Shortboards were the thing to aspire to, but were also out of the capability range of most would-be surfers.

The fashion changed again after two aggressive young surfers called Joel Tudor and Israel Paskowitz emerged in the late 1980s and proved that longboarding could be cool again. They were helped by technological advances that made it much easier than before to snap around in tight turns.

The new acceptability of longboards, in turn, opened the sport back up to beginners. Surfing still remains a major commitment for those who want to get serious about it - Mr Feldman, the surfing lawyer, estimates it takes at least a year of continual trips to the beach to become truly adept - and that, in turn, suggests the craze can only grow so big before it subsides again.

"It'll grow a lot, but this is about as fast as it can grow, because not everybody can just get up and go," Mr Feldman said. "Myself, I'm kinda looking forward to the time when it won't be as popular."

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