Beach Town With No Surf : Becalmed Cult Exists on Long Beach's Peninsula; They Walk a Mile for a Wave

Times Staff Writer

This beach city is no surfing mecca. A nine-mile-long breakwater sees to that.

Surfing did thrive here once, however. In the 1930s city beaches hosted several world championship events.

Now, finding good waves here is more of a challenge than riding them. Southern swells sometimes slip around the seven-story deep sea wall, but you can count the number of times in a year that happens and still have a free hand for waxing a surfboard.

Locals can surf the mouth of the nearby San Gabriel River where it dumps into the Pacific Ocean. But getting there across a boat channel and two jetties is no easy chore.

Remnants of Baja Storm

Last weekend, though, the swell pumped into Long Beach waters. Remnants of a hurricane off Baja California pushed into the area at 72nd Place. It was not large, but locals here don't need much of an excuse to break out the boards. They just don't get many opportunities to do it.

"It wasn't good, but the kids were out there doing it," said former world champion surfer Jericho Poppler Bartlow, who grew up on the Boardwalk at 64th Place. She estimated that the swell brought "some four-footers."

Completion of the world's largest man-made breakwater in 1949 caused some residents to joke that the town should have been renamed Long Bay. Built at a cost of $25 million and stretching 75 feet up from the ocean floor, the sea wall turned one of the West Coast's purest south-facing beaches into a docile pond.

Consequently, southern swells here are things that surfing legends are made of.

"It's incredible when it's up at 62nd Place," said Bruce Jones, a well-known Sunset Beach surfboard manufacturer who has lived on the peninsula section of town since 1969. "I've ridden there when it was too big to go out anywhere else like Huntington Beach."

It's Hard to Get There

The San Gabriel River mouth is another alternative. But "going over the jetty," as Bartlow calls it, can be treacherous.

The river marks the boundary between Seal Beach and Long Beach, in Orange and Los Angeles counties respectively. There are two long jetties, each 3,300 feet, on the Long Beach side and a shorter one in Seal Beach.

To reach the surf line from Long Beach means tiptoeing over huge rocks on the first craggy jetty, then an illegal paddle across a busy boat channel that serves the Long Beach Marina, dodging cabin cruisers and sailboats along the way to reach the second jetty. Once up the slippery rocks, there is another half-mile walk over barnacled boulders that finally takes you to the unfettered mouth of the river.

It is a dangerous traverse made even more difficult by the awkwardness of carrying a surfboard. Near the water's edge are sharp, jagged rocks and a plethora of crabs, sea urchins and star fish. There are man-made dangers like broken beer bottles and slimy bait left to rot on the rocks by fishermen.

"Sometimes you get cut on the foot, but you (can't do anything about it) until you get home," said 16-year-old Ricky Bates.

Hidden Sand Bar

Surfing at the river presents its own set of challenges. During high tide on a south swell, breakers sometimes crash to the top of the jetties. At low tide, a silt-laden sand bar rests below the face of the waves.

"It's blocked off in the river, so it never really gets blown out," said Warren Smitheran, 17, a Wilson High School student who surfs the mouth because it is protected from afternoon winds by the jetties.

An occasional fish leaps from the water and re-enters with nary a splash. Surfers say the water is "extra warm" in the river because a series of power plants upstream release hot water that warms cold ocean currents.

Long Beach locals often have complained that the jetties, which were commissioned in 1956, have restricted interaction between the beach communities they separate. From the Long Beach side of the jetties, a look toward Seal Beach gives the eerie impression of a far-off world. From the Seal Beach side, entering the river is like entering a mine field. Signs warn of dangerous "underwater hazards" and surfers are told to enter at their own risk.

Still, in Seal Beach, surfing the river mouth is popular because it is just a simple paddle around a short jetty to get there. The Seal Beach entrance also attracts land-locked surfers, called "flatlanders," although it costs $4 to park near the beach.

"You get the longest rides here," said 14-year-old flatlander Mike Wong of Cerritos as he paddled into the mouth from the Seal Beach side clad in a blue wet suit.

Jones, the perfectionist, does not agree. He called the mouth "temperamental."

"It's mush burgers. If you don't want to get much (surf) it's OK."

But for young becalmed surfers with no transportation, the river offers a diversion from a quiet game of paddle ball at Alamitos Bay.

Free Parking Spot

"When I didn't have any wheels (the river) was the place to go," said Brad Thompson, 18, a peninsula resident whose red and black Mustang now sports a surf rack and a pair of surfboards. He says he drives to hot spots like the Huntington Beach Pier these days.

In the early morning, flatlanders park free behind the Windrose Restaurant at Seaport Village. From there they walk a distance of more than half a mile along the rugged second jetty to get to the mouth.

Said Jim Rohrenbach, 28, of Anaheim, a regular river surfer for 15 years who always parks behind the restaurant: "It's free here. You got to pay in Seal Beach."

Bartlow said the parking lot behind the restaurant is a favorite local spot to do "surf checks" for river waves because surfers have a clear view of the mouth from there. The second jetty is fenced from the restaurant parking lot, but a three-foot gash in the chain-link allows access.

An Air of Dignity

Most of the Long Beach surf cult exists along Ocean Boulevard east of Bayshore Avenue to 72nd Place. The locals simply refer to the area as the peninsula, a quaint neighborhood with Cape-Cod style houses and a wooden boardwalk. Access is by boat from Alamitos Bay or by the four-lane palm tree-lined boulevard. The area has always had an air of dignity in Long Beach circles.

"It's not hip here," Jones said about the peninsula. "It's yacht-clubbish, traditional and quiet."

"Surf Nazis," as Bartlow refers to the young, boisterous surfing set, do not hang out here. There are no surfboard factories or the obligatory T-shirt shops on the peninsula. This tiny finger of sand could have developed like Balboa in Newport Beach, or the Strand in Manhattan Beach if there was surf.

Ironically, the same wall that humbled the Pacific Ocean has become a curious drawing card for ardent surfers who live here in quiet seclusion.

Said Bartlow: "We don't have loud cars, wimps and ho-dads, loud music and drugs on the beach. How nice that is. This is a unique seaside community."

Surfers Are Older

The peninsula, with its lake-like conditions, is home to many mature surfers who prefer the quiet surroundings of a placid body of water. They surf less frequently now, but take on the peninsula on the rare occasions when it is up. Otherwise they take their youngsters and drive to another surfing spot.

"There is an entire group of professionals (workers) here, all over 40 years old, that really are into surfing," Jones said.

Bartlow's mother, Bobbie Poppler, raised five children in her beach-front home at the foot of 64th Place. Jericho, now 35, became one of the top female professional surfers in the world in the 1970s. Married with one child, Jericho has given surfing lessons to many of the teen-agers in the area. Her 2-year-old son, Rolf, took his first ride on a surfboard two weeks ago at a peninsula beach.

As for Bobbie, she remembers how each of her children took up the sport in the 1960s and why all of them are still surfing today. They learned on the strip of beach in front of her house.

"In those days they could surf some spots at 72nd Place," she said. "But then eventually the kids crawled over the jetty and began surfin' the river."

Things have not changed much on the peninsula.

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