Surfing Guidebooks: Do They Honor Localism?

On my bookshelf I have several guidebooks to surfing in California. After attempting to distract myself with something from my homework, I started to flip through one of the books. This particular one was gifted to me by my dad when I moved to California; it was “Surfer Magazine’s Guide to Southern California Surf Spots.” I thumbed through the pages until I found Sunset Cliffs at the back end of the book. 

I read through the descriptions of each break, ones that I surf regularly like Ab, Sub and Garbage. I skimmed through the descriptions of the spots and chuckled to myself at the description of Point Loma Nazarene University students: “this is the primary battle zone for the locals vs. the Nazbos, so try not to look like either.” 

As I moved through the different descriptions I was surprised to find a localized break south of campus that I will even refuse to name. It’s not like this break is any secret— it’s well known within the San Diego and PLNU surf community but something doesn’t sit right with me when I see it on a widely accessible surfing guidebook. 

Surfer Mag’s guidebook addresses the localism and even says that if one does decide to paddle out there, expect nasty looks and even verbal harassment. As I put the guidebook back on my bookshelf, the question weighed heavily in my mind— who was in the right, the locals that have surfed that break for years or someone like me, a college student reading a guidebook who wants to surf the best wave at the cliffs? 

On one hand the locals have every right to protect their spots. Most of the guys there have surfed it their whole lives and with the popularity and accessibility of surfing today, some good waves should be reserved for the best surfers. With its slow rolling waves, California is a hub for learning how to surf. So I think in a sense localism keeps the crowds down to a minimum, which is something we could use especially in the overcrowded California. 

On the other hand, some of those surfing those breaks aren’t even the best surfers, it’s just the people who have surfed the spot their whole lives. So I think surfers who are capable of surfing good local spots should be welcome and allowed to as they please. 

Even Surfer Mag addresses this issue in the introduction of the guidebook, “Thou shalt not surf waves that are clearly beyond thine abilities.” A lot of localized good breaks operate like this— if you blow more than three waves you have to paddle in, local or not. They also operate on the no-leash rule, meaning if someone is surfing a spot, they should be good enough to surf without the worry of losing their board in a wipeout. 

I also believe that one must put in their time to become a regular at a break. No one should be paddling out to the main peak because they read all about a break in a guidebook. One should analyze the pecking order and maybe sit farther inside their first time at a break. 

However, I draw the line with violence and harassment. No one reserves any right to slash someone’s tires, cut someone’s leash, or get beat up for surfing. Everyone is in search of the euphoric rush surfing brings and just because someone may not understand proper etiquette yet doesn’t mean they should be barred from pursuing that rush. 

Then finally, I don’t believe surfing guide books should be addressing heavily localized spots. If a surfer wants to learn about a spot, they should do so on the basis of immersing themselves in the local surf community and putting in time at a spot. I know plenty of surfers at PLNU who have put in proper time at a spot and have earned a basic level of respect from the locals, so it isn’t impossible. Surfing guidebooks are a great place to start, but nobody should be putting all their faith in a paragraph description of a spot. 

Written By: Steve Anderson