Look at surfing as a sport, and consider what it would be like if tennis was similar to surfing. You and I could be beginners just starting to volley when two hot-shot pros could show up and simply muscle us off a public court with taunts and threats while aiming powerful serves at us until we leave. Seen as an art, surfing fares no better. Surfers with bad attitudes are like graffiti vandals with overloaded minds aggressively chasing their fix of identity and recognition. In both versions, the surfing lifestyle is twisted into a joy-less, anxiety-driven fear of outsiders. Based on numerous personal experiences, that's what I've seen happen on the beach and in the water time and again.
My first confrontation with die-hard locals came at Topanga in the late 60s. I worked for Natural Progression in Santa Monica, and since they all rode our boards, they had to tolerate me. But I still got the "Out! Out!" when they saw me walking up the beach. I ignored the warning and got away with it. But when it came to unknown trespassers who didn't pay attention, the warning was followed by rocks and taunts and more rocks. And if an intruder ruined the wave of a local, things got really ugly. Of course, the boys' excuse was that they were defending a good wave from hordes of LA and Valley surfers. But in the end the Topanga locals lost, since all their houses were torn down to make way for a public parking lot and lifeguard station.
The Ranch was a similar situation. Being a boater or a guest, my tenuous connections smoothed the waters to a certain extent. Although the vibe was still in the air, it did not ruin the place for me. Not so for some friends of mine, including Angie Reno, one of surfing's great talents, who in 1971 had to fend off a machete attack from Jeff Kruthers, long time Ranch local who now, ironically, sells Ranch parcels. So I guess if you have the cash, you're in. When I was up there just last year with Rick Vogel and Yvon Chouinard, both parcel owners who have surfed the Ranch for decades, we couldn't surf Rights and Lefts. Seems that given who was out at R&Ls that day, showing up with even one guest was verboten. Yvon put it bluntly, "I don't want my tires flattened again." So we had to settle for surfing in thick kelp at an empty spot a mile away.
The Ranch brand of localism continues to be defined by wealthy owners and their doberman surf bro's. This is in contrast to Oxnard, a working-class town with poverty-driven gang problems and high unemployment. As opposed to the privileged sniffiness of Ranch mossbacks, the worst locals at Silverstrand were usually unemployed construction workers or cholos who didn't even surf. In fact, we quickly learned that surfers in the water were often the least of our problems.
Today it is nowhere near as bad as when we wrote the book on surfing the place by avoiding locals who jacked up the unsuspecting and the innocent. Being "southers" from Santa Monica, we'd park on side streets and chat up residents into watching our cars. In fact, we pioneered the peaks in the middle of the beach because the north jetty parking lot was just too risky. Unfortunately, former Malibu great George Szigeti learned that lesson the hard way. After a great session, he got out of the water only to find four slashed tires and every window of his new VW bus smashed - and a group of thugs waiting for him! So we had to be alert, and although we still had to deal with some real losers, when the waves got big we'd have the place to ourselves.
The Ranch and Oxnard have earned bad reps for localism, but Hazard Canyon, in central California's Montana De Oro State Park, was during the late 80s the worst cesspool of selfishness I ever experienced. Best on cold winter mornings with freezing winds whistling down the canyon, the place is hostile to begin with. With a small take- off zone and a thick, peeling barrel that made drop-ins extremely dangerous, the prevailing atmosphere was intimidating and tense. And since Park authorities were usually miles away, the Canyon was a set up that really stacked the deck against visitors. The regulars were no nonsense tough-guys who could surf the place so well that you wouldn't dare look at a wave they wanted. But even if a local couldn't surf that well, he would still be a factor thanks to his longevity at the place, thick arms from pounding nails, or just plain shitty attitude driven by his own personal failings.
Lead by Whitey and JG, it was a crew that reveled in its reputation for being violent assholes. Bradley Jordan, the best surfer ever to ride the place, took five years and several fights to break into the lineup. I lucked out: I knew Bradley when he was a grommet hanging around the NP shop in the Santa Monica days, so I gained entry through him. No one ever got in my face, although what I saw and heard directed at innocent strangers made me cringe more than once in the three years I surfed the place.
As it turns out, I went back a few years ago, and things had changed to a certain extent. Whitey was still whining, the takeoff zone was tight with carpenters and roofers with attitude to spare and the waves were merciless if you made a mistake. Yet, the threat of violence did not hang heavy in the air, as if the crew had finally wised up a little bit.
But unfortunately, the primal instinct of localism rarely goes away on its own. Consider the Rockside boys of Port Hueneme. Their surfing traditions came from a tainted gene pool where localism was handed down from a generation of has-been longboarders to young high school dropouts turned wanna-be surf stars. These guys were real jerks - until one of their homies was convicted on assault charges when he attacked a teacher from Santa Monica surfing an empty peak west of the pier. The guy got probation that prevented him from surfing the place for three years. But genius that he was, he was right back in the water a few weeks later, only to have a cop pulled up as he was getting out of the water who took him straight to jail to do his time for the assault and violating probation. It was poetic justice that a Rockside rockhead did time for being not only violent, but stupid, too.
The fact that a surfer was put behind bars for being violent says that the worst of the localism as I've known it is on the retreat. One reason that things are changing is California Penal Code sections 243 and 245 dealing with aggravated assault. Victims are now calling the police, and in recent years the law has stepped in to protect the innocent and charge the guilty. Witness what happened in Palos Verdes or the assault in San Diego two years ago. Guys got arrested and convicted, and newcomers were able to surf without threats from mossbacks giving 'em stink-eye and worse.
Another reason that "surf rage" is abating somewhat is the fact that yesterday's surf hoodlums have grown up and now have kids, and if there's one thing that's going to change the life of an OG (LA slang for 'original gangster'), it is having to be a father. A third reason for localism's overall decline is that, over the past five years or so, dilution has been the solution to the pollution of localism. There are now so many surfers everywhere that, as when Topanga was turned into a public beach, who is or isn't a local is now a moot point. Like King Canute ordering the tide to stop, the hard-core locals of yesterday are being sweep into submission by a constant tide of recreational surfers spreading around the world.