“Bring your switchblade,” I told my buddy via text message.
It was late February and El Nino was hurling its power in the direction of South Los Angeles. A swell was stomping in from due west, arriving the next morning. Not quite the right angle to line up for an undersea canyon in Malibu where we usually paddle out. I was at home watching the surf cams to see where the energy would land. In the evening light, overhead forerunners were already closing out El Porto.
My friend Dave threw out the suggestion: “Lunada?” It seemed like the right call, technically speaking anyway. This swell was too strong and too direct for the beachbreaks to handle. All that power needed to focus on a point.
Like most any surfer in L.A., we knew the quaint reputation of the goons who guard the Palos Verdes righthander, the Lunada Bay Boys. We knew about the fights, intimidation, vandalism, drop-ins and lawsuits. We’d read that locals had been known to use walkie-talkies to coordinate efforts to deface cars.
That didn’t sound like fun. But hey, it’s an El Nino year. The forecast was calling for 8-10 feet, peaking overnight, then holding through the morning with low wind and an incoming tide. Right on time, several feet of swell rocked Buoy 46222, off San Pedro. It was too good to pass up.
I was joking about the switchblade, but I did arm myself with a sharpened sense of zero-fuck-giving. (No surfer’s quiver is complete without it.) My thinking was this: Even though I’m a South Bay native, no, I’m not a Palos Verdes local. And what of it? I routinely share my home breaks with surfers from around the world. That’s the price of living in a wave-blessed place. And when I’ve paddled out far from home, in Indonesia, Costa Rica, New York and Puerto Rico, locals treated me with the same respect. So, I operate with an assumption of that basic human right of surfing.
What’s more, I refuse to be intimidated out of surfing my home city, state, or planet. Regardless what a bunch of privileged numbnutses might think, no one owns the ocean. Or any piece of it, including the bay next to their house.
When we pulled up at sunrise, it was macking. From the clifftop, we drooled as big, glassy sets unloaded off the point and reeled through the bay. We walked over to get a good look, passing a group of middle-aged folks, some probably surfers, others just greeting their neighbors. A woman who looked like a nice grandma shot me a pity-filled glance, as though she knew exactly what we were in for.
Even before we finished stepping into our wetsuits and waxing our guns, the vibe got very weird, very fast. It felt like every person that crossed our path was trying to start a fight. (If you’ve been watching a lot of MMA and can’t find a sparring partner, go to Lunada Bay).
Some sketchball parked directly in front of us, sat in his car and ice-grilled us in the rear-view. Another dude drove by us at slow speed, yelling, “You think it’s okay to change in front of people’s homes? It’s disrespectful!” Then gunned the engine of his truck aggressively. (Pro-tip: Local custom dictates suiting up at the very illegal clubhouse down on the point.) A couple of young guys crossed the street near us, heading to the cliff’s edge. They mockingly waved shakas and laughed. I smiled back and shook my hand in an exaggerated shaka, as if to say, “Tally-ho, broheems!”
It all seemed cartoonishly absurd, like we had stepped into a cheesy movie set in the ‘50s where bullies ruled the world. I expected some greaser to stride over, a pack of cigarettes rolled into his t-shirt sleeve.
My friend and I looked at each other somewhat uneasily, and tested each of the doorhandles to make sure they were locked. From that point on, I worried about my buddy’s car. Locals have been known to slash tires, rub wax on cars and otherwise mess with people’s rides. A slashed tire is harder to slough off than a few lame insults.
At one point, a local police cruiser rolled by. I wondered whether the cop was there to protect and serve or to enjoy the show. In a community like this, the authorities probably feel the same about non-locals as the surfers do. And you have to imagine what the surfers would do to the homes and cars of police who tried to stop the harassment of outsiders.
We grabbed our boards and picked our way down the cliff and along the rocky shore. Upon paddling out, the cordial vibes continued to flow. Each of the dozen or so guys had something to say. A couple took a very blunt approach with witticisms like: “You suck at surfing!” Thanks, coach!
I overheard a couple of them talking about “vultures.” “Last swell there were more vultures than locals here,” one said. We’d clearly picked a day when we were the only vultures. (It was a weekday.) One dude even stretched his brain to lob an insult that was almost — almost — clever. Something about my green-accented wetsuit and St. Patrick’s Day. “A” for effect, homeslice!
I figured it was best to avoid eye-contact with the local cave dwellers. It was easy enough to do, although one guy interrogated me about the GoPro mount stuck to the nose of my board. He obviously knew what it was; he was trying to pick a fight. Ignoring him, I paddled away. I didn’t have a GoPro with me, but I wished I did. It would’ve been fun to cut an edit of clownish insults and provocations. Then I’d be able to laugh about all this silly dickish-ness in a different way.
Despite nagging thoughts about my buddy’s car, and a couple of straight-up rude drop-ins, I rather enjoyed my session. Sets continued to pump, the sun warmed the lineup, and a seal kept an eye on us all. At the end, I caught a fun, mushy wave that ran to the shore. As I waited for my friend to find his last ride, some cro-magnon ambled up, semi-gun under arm.
“Did you just come here because of shit you read on the Internet? That’s not cool. I’d never do that, man.” I acknowledged his presence the way you would a mean little dog. As soon as he began to bark, I looked away and let him yap himself hoarse.
I didn’t have words for him, or anyone else that day. Partly, I wanted to concentrate on surfing, not crafting witty comebacks. But also, why let them spoil my sesh? I knew what I’d come for, and I’d gotten it: A couple long period bombs and a renewed sense of what’s important in life.
Back at the car, I felt relieved: No slashed tires, no wax.
On the way home, my buddy Dave said, “Fuck that place.” And was it even better than the offshore canyon we usually surf? Maybe not.
I don’t have an ounce of respect for the mindset at Lunada Bay. But surfing there did make me reflect on California’s shrinking list of good waves. After all, scarce resources make animals aggressive. Development killed Killer Dana. Twice, Trestles has narrowly survived being railroaded. Where I grew up, at the end of Culver Boulevard, a great wave — the Culver Curl — was sacrificed for the construction of Marina Del Rey.
That pisses me off as much as anyone. I just think we should get involved in beating coastal development, taking action, and educating ourselves. Obviously, others think harassing fellow surfers is the way to go. Each to his own, man!
The beauty of surfing at Lunada is it makes you realize that just being with your buddies and enjoying the ocean is enough. That no amount of waves would make that kind of hassle worthwhile…Right?
Actually, nevermind…it depends on the swell. I’ll do what’s necessary to surf where I want.