Is Localism Bad for Surfing?

“Get off my wave, bro.”  Photo: Brad Jacobson

The Inertia

When I tell other surfers that I lived in Brazil for six months, I’m often asked how I dealt with the localism. There seems to be some underlying assumption that all Brazilian surfers will kick your ass with Jiu Jitsu if you paddle out at their local breaks. And even when I arrived in Brazil, I admittedly subscribed to this preconceived notion. But after surfing all around the states of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo over the course of six months (including testing my luck at a certain secret spot in Rio), I can report back that I experienced virtually zero problems in Brazilian lineups. To the contrary, the Brazilian lineup vibes were typically pretty relaxed compared to what I am used to back home in California.

Then last week I was tasked with covering the latest update in the Lunada Bay localism lawsuit saga. Localism was fresh on my mind and it led me to ponder a paradox: Why do surfers from California, most of whom, to varying degrees, have grown accustomed to putting up with verbal abuse and the odd fist fight, tend to think that localism must be worse elsewhere? In my 18 years of surfing on every continent except Antarctica, my experience tells me the opposite. Localism, at least over a wide region and population of this size, is at its worst in my home state of California.

My worldview has been, of course, shaped by my experiences. Others might beg to differ. And there definitely are small pockets of places around the world with, on paper, worse localism issues. But I think that humans in general, including us surfers, are susceptible to bias that strengthens our perceived safety of the places that we live in and know intimately, while elevating the perceived risk of the places that are foreign to us, like in my example of surfing in Brazil.

I grew up and learned to surf in Santa Cruz. When I started in 2006, the infamous localism of the 1990s Santa Cruz scene was already fading, but even so, getting threatened by men twice my age came with the territory. I got used to it. 

I’d watch older guys chase out SUP surfers and longboarders from their shortboard-only breaks. Or a loud guy with a dad-bod would dictate who could and couldn’t surf near him at the top of the peak. And even my first time ever surfing, on a one-foot day, some idiots threw rocks at me and my friends from the cliffs. I guess my lime-green soft-top had a “hit me” sign on it.

Then I relocated from Santa Cruz to San Diego where I lived for 10 years. It was largely the same story down there: Angry locals at jetty waves who think they own the spot, intentional drop-ins at a reef accessed only by boat, a friend who got smacked in the head for wearing a GoPro, and a spot where a no-leash policy is enforced by a small group. 

The Lunada Bay story was the most well-publicized, and arguably the most severe, but it is definitely not unique along California’s expansive coast.

And it’s not that I haven’t experienced any of this behavior abroad. I have. I was kicked out of a lineup on the African isle of Mauritius – a spot notorious for its localism – simply for being a foreigner. Just a few months ago I was aggressively called a “f*%cking asshole” in Costa Rica for a minor disagreement on paddling etiquette. And one bad apple on Reunion Island decided that he would take all my waves because he “hadn’t seen me there before.” 

You might find some degree of localism anywhere you go, but my experiences of surfing abroad have led me to feel that wide-reaching localism, on average, is more pervasive at home in California. The locals in Panama and Sri Lanka gave me nothing but smiles. In Japan the local surfers rolled out the red carpet to us visitors. When I spent three months in mainland Mexico this year, the locals were happy to share their lineups. And even in crowded, chaotic, foreigner-filled lineups in Indonesia, things remained relatively cordial. 

I have not been everywhere in the world and I do understand the role measured localism plays in keeping a lineup safe. I’ve never been to Australia, the North Shore of Oahu, or the pay-to-play Mexican point breaks, for example. So, who knows, maybe my opinion could change. But from the localism data I’ve gathered, California takes the cake. Perhaps this is due to large swaths of California likely having the most surfers per square mile in the world over an area of that size. There are plenty of California surf spots, similar to Lunada Bay, some that I’ve surfed and some that I won’t bother, where you are all but guaranteed to run into trouble.

While my analysis of localism may seem dispiriting, it really isn’t. I’ve found most surfers, whether at home or around the world, are friendly folks and the common denominator of holding a surfboard creates a bridge that can easily connect you with others. But as I was writing about Lunada Bay last week, I couldn’t help but contemplate my global experiences with localism and how my fellow California surfers tend to downplay its impacts at home while they amplify the issue elsewhere.


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