Surfer/Writer/Burrito Enthusiast
Southern California: Surfing's Paddle Battle Capital

“My wave!” Photo: JP Van Swae

The Inertia

Surfing etiquette is real. I’ve seen it – human decency does exist! Many surfers follow these particular parameters in part to keep each other safe, but mainly to avoid ripping one another’s heads off. And, for the most part, they succeed in maintaining the peace and keeping noggins firmly attached to necks.

But not in Southern California. Here, we like to place rules under a magnifying glass and set them ablaze with our scorching sun.

SoCal loves to parade around on land with laissez-faire, “just chillin’ brah!” attitudes. But once you add water, we become half-wit seagulls willing to murder one another over a French fry. When a wave appears on the horizon, it signals the entire flock to start scraping towards it – each sincerely believing the wave is theirs, squawking “MINE” in between strokes.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are surfing a crowded San Diego beach break. You’ve been patient, waiting your turn around a particular peak. When the next set wave appears, you should be in a perfect position.

But once that set starts to build, the flock springs to life. A nearby older gentleman who was just lamenting how many beers he had last night transforms into Michael Phelps, sprinting en route to your position. The group of groms hanging out a peak away begin paddling as fast as their neon-clad bodies can go. The SUPs in the lineup, blissfully unaware of the rules, begin furiously sweeping in your direction.

Looking over your shoulder, it appears a horde is descending upon you. Your silhouette against the mounting sea is just another obstacle between the flock and a potential meal. Human emotion extracted and order erased, they surround you. As you begin to taste the warm breakfast burrito on the breath of the guy next to you, there’s only one thought that remains: survival. It’s eat or be eaten; snake or be snaked. Every man, woman, and Steven Seagal – er – seagull for themselves. A paddle battle has begun.

Wanting to escape the flock, you too begin swimming frantically, refusing to cede the priority you’ve worked so hard for. Whether this scene is more Hitchcockian or sweet 1980s jam is up to you.

This storyline seems to repeat itself at nearly every Southern California break. It’s almost impossible to catch a wave without being pursued by a half dozen others. But it’s not this way everywhere. I grew up surfing on the East Coast (shoutout to Delaware), and while jockeying for position waiting for a set was very much a thing, once the wave arrived, a natural order took over. Respect was given to the one wisest, or luckiest, to know where the wave was going to break. There was no ludicrous mass scamper from three miles away to attempt to claim a wave you have no right to. One would think these same rules would easily apply in wave-rich Southern California.

They do not.

Surfing is a constant struggle. The clash is generally human versus nature. But it is much more human against human in California’s southernmost region. One glance at any popular surf cam – and this one in particular – will confirm this. Our overcrowded seas have created overaggressive tendencies, forcing this senseless dance to maintain priority.

Do you remember the Tweedle Beetles from Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Sox? The Tweedle Beetles get shoved inside a bottle with other Tweedle Beetles. The bottle contains a head high, clean puddle. The Beetles are given paddles and proceed to paddle battle it out over who gets puddle priority. Rhyming hilarity ensues. Surfing here is a lot like that, because:

When SoCal surfers fight, it’s called an aggro paddle battle

And when they battle you for a wave, you could get rattled in your saddle

And when you get rattled in your saddle during an aggro paddle battle, you might skedaddle

And when you skedaddle rattled to the shore to watch the addled bros battle in their saddles during their aggro paddle battles over flatter waves that looked battered from wind that comes in scatters

You realize it’s fucked up and this doesn’t matter


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