As vast as the ocean is — and with more than 70 miles of coastline in San Diego County, alone — surfers return to the same surf breaks over and over again.
David, a tall middle-aged surfer from Los Angeles County, has been surfing in Ocean Beach for more than ten years.
OB is a free-spirited, grunge, surf and skate town unlike any other beach city in San Diego.
You’ll find people of all ages and all ethnicities skating Newport Avenue, the main strip in OB, and barefoot surfers walking along the sidewalk toward OB Pier to get ready for a surf.
The OB pier itself is old and rundown but it’s something of an iconic landmark to the city. The crowd that the beach attracts near the pier is a diverse group. There are kids taking surf lessons nearby, riding the white wash on their foamies for the first time. There are seasoned surfers, whom beach goers watch from the shore in awe as they catch wave after wave.
And then there are most of us, somewhere in the middle, not a beginner but not advanced either.
“It’s less territorial here and friendlier than anywhere else. I mostly surf by the jetty and Tower 5,” David said.
Tower 5 sits to the left of Dog Beach, which is a prime spot for beginners or intermediate surfers. Depending on the surf conditions, waves are generally more mellow at Dog Beach than by the pier and the environment is laid back.
The countless breeds of dogs chasing one another and splashing in the water as surfers step foot in the water are an obvious contributor to the relaxed vibe this beach embodies. The crowd at Dog Beach ranges from kids to adults, both young and old
The other side of the jetty is the Mission Beach side, which in David’s experience gets very territorial.
He said he prefers surfing in OB to other beaches. At this point in his life it’s more about having fun in the water.
“I’d rather surf with a friendly group with less quality waves rather than duking it out in more of the popular spots,” he said.
David has been surfing since age 16 and said his perspective on surfing changed over the years.
“It’s much better now. When I was young, everyone in the water was about my age, 20s, 30s, and it was 99 percent men. It was very competitive, there was lots of testerone and lots of fights,” he said.
Sean, a San Diego State University student, employee at Ocean Beach Surf and Skate and a surf instructor, said he usually only surfs OB Pier when he gives surf lessons to younger kids.
The El Cajon native said he personally has never had experience with surf localism at OB Pier but he witnessed it happen in the water to younger surfers who will cut off a local’s wave, thus making the locals upset.
“That’s never happened to me because I’m super timid about it. I try not to get in their way,” he said.
Sean said there are two reasons why locals get defensive about outsiders visiting their surf spots: “The garbage that tourists leave behind on the beach and parking,” he said. “A couple locals have told me they hate having to search an hour for a spot because of people who don’t even live here that take up all the parking.”
Despite this, in Sean’s 13 years experience in surfing, he said surfers are generally nice in the water.
“You definitely meet way more cool people than the stern dudes who freak out,” he said.
Trevor Eubank, a sophomore at Point Loma Nazarene University and an officer of Loma Surf Club has been surfing OB for a year without any experiences with localism in the water.
“In terms of the range of surf spots, OB isn’t the most localized or hostile place to surf, especially if you’re new. I’m more of an intermediate to advanced surfer, so for me, as long as I’m not getting in people’s way and respecting the rest of the line up, I have no issues surfing in OB,” Trevor said.
Trevor said the jetty on bigger days gets a little more localized because that’s the best wave on those days where the surf conditions get really good. The OB pier and Dog Beach seem to be more mellow according to Trevor in terms of the hostile nature localism can have.
“OB is recognized in the surf community as being not really an exclusive place to surf,” he said. “But on bigger days, it does attract a more local crowd. So it weeds out the people who don’t really know what they’re doing compared to those who have been doing it longer.”
Growing up in Santa Barbara, Trevor’s father started teaching him how to surf at age seven. Trevor learned there is an unspoken code in the water.
“There’s a conduct of how you should act and how you should respect the surfers around you. There’s a hierarchy that exists within every lineup that you paddle out in,” he said. “Being able to paddle out and read that lineup and to be respectful is probably the most critical way to avoid localism, especially hostile localism, in a place you’re new to. Or even if you’re frequently there, you should still be mindful in respecting that code.”
Of course, surf localism isn’t exclusive to San Diego County. Up the coast is a surf city called Dana Point in Orange County.
Cal McDonough, a Dana Point native and dental student at University of Southern California, said surf localism in Dana Point varies on which specific beach you’re at.
As a surfer for the last four years, Cal said beaches like Salt Creek and Strands with good surf breaks is where he encountered localism, but it also occurs at beginner breaks like Doheny.
“It’s unfortunate to encounter it at a beginner beach, but you’ll often see a surfer who takes themselves seriously will collide with a beginner and an altercation could occur,” Cal said.
According to Cal, some factors of localism are time of year, the beach you’re at and the part of the beach you’re at. If the break or swell is really good, better surfers might have that “locals only” attitude, he explained.
He added that the crowds are one of the worst parts of surfing.
“When you’re dealing with crowds like that where people are highly competitive and territorial, where they yell or glare at you or have a general attitude toward you with body language. That type of attitude makes me not even want to be out there,” Cal said.
Due to all this, Cal surfs at Trails, a farther beach to get to, and also a beach that is known to have the occasional shark appear.
“I’d rather deal with sharks than angry surfers,” he said.
If Cal does surf in Dana Point, he’ll go to Strands or Doheny and during sunset when it’s less crowded.
“I’ll take the worst wave or a semi-okay wave as opposed to trying to take the best wave of the day so I don’t have to deal with the aggression of someone who’s maybe a better surfer than I am. Or someone who has ten buddies out there who’d be happy to fight me if I cut him off,” Cal said.
A factor to consider concerning territorial behavior is that surfing can awaken a sort of primal attitude in a person, said Cal. For example, he said people will see a wave and think “I gotta catch that, I wanna hunt that.”
Lastly, Cal said people who aren’t locals are sometimes disrespectful.
“The more seasoned surfers might be upset about being cut off on a wave that they would do something amazing on, but instead they’re cut off by someone who doesn’t even know how to surf,” Cal said.
Cal said huge crowds of people who don’t surf and who are disrespectful to the locals can perpetuate the “locals only” attitude. This is why Cal said there are sometimes good reasons for locals to feel like they own a spot.
“At the same time, the ocean belongs to everyone,” he said. “It’s the wild and we all have to share it.”
In the summertime in Orange County and in other places, inland city residents flock to the beach cities. Cal, who’s lived in Dana Point his whole life, said he’s happy to share with everybody.
“I don’t want ‘locals only’ to be a vibe around [Dana Point] because I want everyone to feel comfortable in the ocean and enjoy it as much as I do,” McDonough said. “Some surfers create a hospitable atmosphere and that’s something to be encouraged by and I always try to work on that when I’m out there — just be friendly to people,” he said.
The question is asked once again, why do surfers become territorial over a spot?
According to Trevor, surfing used to be a less popular sport 60 years ago.
“It’s something people are starting to get more into and it’s very accessible. Whereas before, it was more exclusive,” Trevor said.
Trevor said the crowd has become a problem for surfers all over the world.
“There are places that used to have maybe only a handful of guys and now there are spots that are broadcasted all over surf magazines or social media, and that takes a lot of the secrecy and inside knowledge away from surfers,” Trevor said.
If you’ve grown up loving a particular spot, it threatens the relationship that you have with that spot, according to Trevor.
“It’s a mostly selfishly motivated relationship and we fully recognize that but there’s also a kind of spiritual inside knowledge of having your go-to spot and having this special relationship of knowing that the spot is known by only a couple people,” Trevor said.
On the contrary, there are surfers, Trevor said, that are too overzealous. He said it can cause a lot of problems for people who are surfing with good intent and who aren’t trying to get in anyone’s way.
“A local crowd can become a huge deterrent, and they start to cultivate this unhealthy culture. It’s almost like a gang mentality, and as a result of this unhealthy nature that localism can have, it becomes a problem when people feel like they have this obligation to their hometown surf spot,” Trevor said.
However, Trevor said he sympathizes with the people who surfed these spots for years when it becomes crowded and they feel disrespected. He thinks the people who aren’t as justified to have that anger are those who feel obligated to make somebody else’s experience worse just because they aren’t having a good time in the lineup when it becomes an issue.
“I don’t respect that behavior when it takes the fun out of the sport we all should be enjoying,” Trevor said.
Another reason that has been attributed to surf localism is the coronavirus. Beaches were closed across the globe in the beginning of the pandemic of March 2020, and when beaches reopened, it seemed like local surfers from all communities began increasing their territorialism, according to a report by Surfer magazine.
An Australian Sydney-based surfer and longtime surf writer Nick Carroll said in the report, “So many people are working from home, etc., plus every kid is homeschooling. That meant a lot of people in the lineups.”
According to the report, Sydney surfers posted signs near the beach saying things like “If you don’t live here, don’t surf here.”
However, Carroll said in the report that surfers who carry these attitudes don’t represent the majority of surfers.
“If anything, I actually think maybe there’s a new sense of bonding in many local surf communities,” Carroll wrote. “Everyone’s surfing a lot together and enjoying the companionship in the water. The flip side of territorialism, perhaps.”
In a video interview for The Stab magazine, professional surfer Dane Reynolds from Ventura, California, addresses the surf hierarchy that exists in professional surfing. He references surfing in South Africa and calls professional surfers Mick Fanning and Jordy Smith “warriors” in the lineup.
“Think about it like medieval times, the guys that would arrive in a city and just take over and take everything they wanted. That’s how they surf,” Reynolds laughed.
According to Reynolds in the interview, in his experience pro surfing in Ventura in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, surfers were protective over their spots. Reynolds said his approach to surfing other people’s lineups is to be respectful of the locals, because that’s how he grew up.
Reynolds also notes that surf hierarchy opens up the conversation of whether any surfer is superior to another.
“Why does he deserve a better wave? It’s the same experience, everybody’s just riding waves,” Reynolds said in the interview.
James Wicks, a professor of literature and film studies at PLNU, a surfer and a parent, said he can see why people would have a bad experience with locals in the water.
“Sometimes that’s because it’s like parents who don’t skate, who bring their kids who scooter to skateparks, and then get upset because they don’t understand the park dynamics when their scooter kid is in everyone’s way,” Wicks said in an email.
Wicks said he’s not a local of OB, but he’s had overall positive experiences surfing in OB at just about every spot, and at every time of day.
“I’ve taught my kids how to boogie board with fins and longboard at Dog Beach…and surfed the pier during six to eight foot summer swells,” Wicks said.
Wicks suggested that if you paddle out with a few friends, go right at dawn. Otherwise, he said, go by yourself, don’t drop in on people and you’ll have a great time.
“Especially if you’re patient — there’s going to be people all around you in the water more than likely. And you might even get a hoot if you get a good one,” Wicks said.
By: Ashlee Owings