Two groms from Sebastapol, Calif. recently hosted what is possibly the most punk surf competition that the California coast has ever seen. Despite steep State Parks requirements, agro locals, and several other obstacles, these 17-year-old Northern California surfers threw it back to the old days among the rugged coastlines that tend to breed fittingly rugged surfers.
Miles Miller and Gabe Pepper are seniors at Analy High School. They’re kinda like any other high school surfer kids. When they’re not in class, they can be found working in a surf shop or out playing in the ocean. But these guys hosted the first ever Sonoma County Open of Surfing. The boys are now planning on holding the event annually, bringing surfers from the Sonoma and Marin coast together for the event. There really isn’t much else like it on the Northern California coast.
Let’s back up a little: one year ago to be precise. The boys regularly held rag-tag surf competitions with their friends from school, mainly just for lunch-break bragging rights and a whole lot of fun. After a few of those, Miles and Gabe realized they might be able to replicate lunch sessions on a larger scale. In fact, they figured that they may have a shot at getting the whole Sonoma Coast surfing community involved. “We planned the whole thing in one night,” Miller told me. “We went to Pelican Plaza, grabbed a ton of food, went to my house til two or three in the morning, and planned out this whole contest in a notebook. We thought about who might want to compete, how many heats we would have, and what sponsors we wanted.”
There was nothing left to do but make it happen. That meant finding supporters, competitors, and setting up the event through the State Parks Department – way easier said than done. The boys remember their journey really beginning when they started emailing people, including the Surfrider Foundation and California Parks and Recreation.
After dealing with a slough of paperwork and permits, as well as jumping through a hoop or two, the boys figured they were well on their way to hosting the comp of their dreams at their home beach, down the street from the surf shop they work at – The Bodega Bay Surf Shack. Then reality struck them upside the head. The State Parks and Recreation Department presented the boys with a list of necessary services for the event, and most of these were not going to happen. They wanted the idealistic young chaps to pay for three lifeguards, medical services, trash services, port-a-potties, and a massive chunk of change for liability insurance. The boys even contacted local lifeguards who volunteered to help for free, but the parks department wasn’t having it.
The Man had pretty much rained on their parade. But they weren’t about to give up. They were going to make it twice as epic. They knew that it could possibly be the biggest middle finger to the strict regulations of the California Parks Department ever. “We had no idea how strong of a hold the state parks had on their beaches,” Pepper said. “It’s literally impossible for two good-hearted kids to hold a contest, or any event really, without the state parks just flipping out.”
They then began to brainstorm ways to sneak this event past parks and recreation. And that’s when it hit them: just South of Bodega Bay is a beach that can’t be touched by the state, due to its private ownership. In other words, the perfect place to hold the punkest surf comp that Northern California has ever seen. The boys ventured down to the beach a week prior to the event. “The surf was firing,” Miles said, “I thought if we hold the contest here, we’ll be so stoked. It was totally contestable.”
So it was decided. Their new location was perfect. Now the only thing left to do was contact the owner of the beach. A task that was eventually decided against by our rebellious young hosts, following several attempts. “The lady from Surfrider said we had to talk to the owner of the beach. We just got worked by the state parks, and now the last thing we wanted to do was to get worked by a private beach owner. We just wanted to be able to have this competition,” Miles said.
The boys somehow came to the conclusion that they were better off just going for it (or paying the trespassing fine). “We figured it was probably better to ask for forgiveness rather than ask for permission,” Pepper added, “After all, we didn’t make any profit. It was a fully nonprofit contest.”
Getting sponsors was a relative cake walk compared to the obstacles they’d faced as a variety of backers that any surf contest would be proud of signed on: Salty Crew, Pipe Cleaners, Headgear Plus, Guayaki Yerba Mate, to name a few, not to mention the Surfrider Foundation, and local support from Bodega Bay Surf Shack and Northern Light Surf Shop.
All this and then the surf went to shit: a day before the Sonoma Coast Open of Surfing, they have a full roster of competitors, multiple divisions and heats, an array of surf jerseys, homemade trophies, event t-shirts, tons of sponsors, hand-picked judges, and a tight-knit community of surfers who are beyond stoked for the competition. But the conditions looked like Lake Tahoe on an August day.They checked some reports and were relieved to see that a swell was predicted to move in, bringing three- to four-foot waves. So they postponed.
And then there’s the local surfer issue: Hell yes, they were pissed. Miller and Pepper handled this issue as diplomatically as possible. They were approached a few times by old school locals who had been surfing that particular beach for years. The boys gave them the respect they deserved, but they sure as heck didn’t let that keep them from having their contest.
October 9th rolled around. The day of the First Annual Sonoma County Open of Surfing. Everything was going smoothly until one final bump in the road. The management of the beach wasn’t exactly thrilled with this unexpected surf tournament at their beach. Luckily, the duo knew just how to handle that. After all the obstacles, they were ready to sway anyone who opposed them. “They claimed that they were going to shut it down, but they never did,” Miller said, “But if they did come, we had a full barbeque there. We were just going to say ‘Hey, here’s a hamburger. Here’s a Yerba Mate. Here’s some cookies with whipped-cream. If you want to watch this heat with us, we’ll let you take the mic for a second.’ But he never came.”
The remainder of the competition was even better than the boys expected. Barbeques were full of burgers, everyone was smiling, dogs and groms alike were running wild on the beach, competitors were making the best out of the two-footers, and the winner was even welcomed into the beach with the cliched bottle of champagne. They’d pulled their small surfing community together. “The beach doesn’t require leashes on dogs, so there were probably more dogs than humans,” Miller said, “We couldn’t have asked for a better day. It was sunny and hot. No wind all day long. It was picture perfect.”
As the boys packed up their gear after the contest, they realized they’d somehow made $30 in profit. They pondered what to do with it and decided to donate it: The California Department of Parks and Recreation received a check in the mail later that week.