Turf Wars Spoil Sanctity of Southland Surf Beaches : Violence: Popularity leads to crowding. Charges that one group attacked outsiders highlight the problem.
Peter McCullom, a member of the feared Bay Boys of Palos Verdes Estates, stood beside one of the best surfing spots in Southern California and explained the law of Lunada Bay.
The law is as simple as a smack in the face: If you don’t live here, don’t surf here. Not if you know what’s good for you.
“Everybody knows to stay away from Lunada Bay because they’ll get hassled,” said McCullom, 34, a Palo Verdes “local” who lives on an inheritance and spends his days surfing and traveling.
Last month, Los Angeles prosecutors slapped McCullom with a criminal charge after he and several friends confronted a group of surfers from Torrance who dared to venture to Lunada Bay. The Torrance surfers have filed a $6-million claim against the city of Palos Verdes Estates for allegedly looking the other way for years while the Bay Boys intimidated outsiders from surfing at Lunada Bay.
Incidents at Lunada Bay, where locals have long had the reputation of being the most hostile in Southern California to outsiders, are not the only cases of surf strife now headed for the criminal courts.
The number of arrests for surfer-on-surfer violence is still small. But the level of hostility appears to be growing, and each case is the object of much discussion on the beaches and in the surf shops of Southern California, possibly because violence runs counter to the surf mystique of a shared brotherhood among wave riders forever searching for the perfect wave.
At the Oxbow World Longboard Championships, held at Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, a competitor and a competitor’s father allegedly beat a non-competitor who refused to give up his wave. The 45-year-old victim suffered a separated shoulder and cuts that required 15 stitches.
The felony trial of ace longboarder Lance Hookano and Joseph Tudor, father of world-ranked surfer Joel Tudor, is set for late June. Hookano has not returned from Hawaii for court appearances, and a $100,000 warrant has been issued for his arrest.
In Del Mar, two surfers, one of whom was a martial arts expert, allegedly beat up a Chula Vista sixth-grade teacher, resulting in his being hospitalized with a broken pelvis, lacerated liver and damaged ribs after a dispute over who had priority on a wave. Amid disagreement over who threw the first punch, a trial is set for this summer.
Surfers and observers of surf culture say two factors are turning up the heat at the beach and in the water: the proliferation of surfing contests that require non-contestants to abandon the waves and increasing numbers of surfers chasing the same waves.
And then there is the decades-old phenomenon known as “localism,” where surfers at a particular beach, or “break,” do their best to scare outsiders into leaving.
Intimidation can begin as verbal harassment and escalate to threats to break the windows, slash the tires and snap the antennas of non-locals’ cars. In some cases, localism leads to fistfights and spearing (diving off your surfboard in the water and aiming it at someone like a weapon).
Just how much intimidation goes on in the name of localism is unclear, but at least one veteran surfer, Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego), thinks it is getting out of hand and needs to be stopped.
“As a local in Imperial Beach, we’d joke about guys from Chula Vista surfing I.B.,” said Bilbray, just before leaving on a surf vacation in Baja California with champion Mike Doyle. “But what is really frustrating is when you see what’s going on now. It’s fascism on the water.”
Bilbray would like to see police with surfing experience go undercover to catch “some of these localism punks” in action.
“The good thing about being on the water is that you leave all the uptight attitudes on the shore,” he said. “What we’ve got now is the aquatic version of gangs and their territorial battles.”
In Palos Verdes Estates, Police Chief Gary Johansen thinks that a half a dozen arrests and convictions would break the back of localism at Lunada Bay. Although he does not advocate it, he also thinks that it might help if somebody really stood up to the Bay Boys.
“These kids grow up in a very, very sheltered environment,” he said. “They don’t know what a bad guy really is.”
If localism has an anthem, it might be “Locals Only” by the Surf Punks, a rock band from the late 1970s and early 1980s that did whimsical, satiric takes on the Southern California surf lifestyle:
“We went down to Diego
for the big waves for to see
When I got into the water
those boys threw rocks at me
and screamed ‘Locals Only!”’
In “The Surfin’ary: A Dictionary of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak,” surfer Trevor Cralle defines localism as “territorial defiance in defense of a surf spot.” His secondary definition of localism is even more direct: “when surfers who frequently ride the same surf break are jerks to those who don’t.”
“The Surfin’ary,” only slightly tongue in cheek, notes that the first example of localism may have occurred in 1779 when angry Hawaiians killed Capt. James Cook at Kealakekua Bay.
Tom Wolfe’s “The Pump House Gang,” published in 1966, captured localism at Windansea Beach in La Jolla. Wolfe’s story begins with a description of locals harassing a middle-aged couple into leaving by making menacing comments behind their backs:
“Nobody says it to the two old crocks directly. God, they must be practically 50 years old. Naturally, they’re carrying every piece of garbage imaginable: the folding aluminum chairs, the newspapers. . . .”
Three decades later, Windansea still has a reputation for “heavy localism,” where surfers have an exaggerated sense of entitlement to the waves.
Other surf breaks in San Diego County known for localism are Bird Rock in La Jolla and Swami’s at Cardiff-by-the-Sea. In Orange County, the Huntington Beach Pier has periodic outbreaks of localism; and in Los Angeles County, the areas mentioned most frequently besides Lunada Bay are Haggerty’s, the Redondo Beach breakwater and Point Dume.
Ventura County has several beaches with reputations for localism: Hollywood-by-the-Sea, Silver Strand, Oxnard and Port Hueneme. Just across the line in Santa Barbara County, The (Hollister) Ranch is known as unfriendly to outsiders.
At Windansea, woe to the novice, or “gremmie,” who paddles out and thinks all he has to do is wait his turn and take a wave.
“Soon as you paddle out, you can feel the vibes are not good and that you’re not wanted,” said James Accardi, 27, who owns Bird Rock Surf & Snow shop. He has been surfing Windansea for six years and only recently has begun to get grudging acceptance from the locals.
He has avoided problems by being deferential, by letting locals who are lower in the pecking order take a wave, and by never bringing other outsiders with him.
“The problems start when you get a guy who is clueless that a break is massively localized and he brings a crowd,” Accardi said. “A guy like that is asking for trouble.”
The same is true for other beaches with strong local followings.
“Trouble starts when there hasn’t been much surf and then there is a good surf and suddenly a guy shows up with 15 other guys in a Suburban,” said Stan Fujii, owner of Ventura Surfshop. “Even the mellowest local will begin using the ‘stink eye,’ ” a surfing term for a particularly contemptuous glare.
Blaine Roberts, 46, a San Diego business consultant and venture capitalist, has been surfing San Diego beaches since he was a kid and has learned to be mindful of territorial locals. He got challenged twice recently at Del Mar but decided the wisest response was to back off.
“When localism erupts into violence or shouting, it’s usually when a local has been shoulder-hopped or snaked by a non-local or a guy who doesn’t surf that break very often,” Roberts said.
Shoulder-hopping, snaking and dropping-in are terms to describe taking a wave that someone else is already riding. Not only does this violate the one-surfer, one-wave rule, it sets up the potential for collision and conflict.
The Rev. Rick Yeomans, 38, a founding pastor at San Clemente Christian Center and former director of Surfers For Missions, a missionary project, said he had a tough-talking surfer “go off on me” at Salt Creek north of Dana Point.
“As a surfer, I can understand that surfers do not want outsiders at their break,” he said. “But as a Christian and a pastor, I think it’s too bad that people are that way. I just told the guy: ‘Hey, what’s your problem?’ ”
Peter Navarro, a bodysurfer who is an associate professor in the graduate school of management at UC Irvine and a onetime San Diego mayoral candidate, has seen hassles at several San Diego breaks, including Ocean Beach, Torrey Pines, Del Mar and Trestles. He said the problem comes from overcrowding.
“It has to do with the waves being overpopulated, like much of San Diego,” said Navarro, 45, who ran for mayor in 1992 on a slow-growth platform. “The violence isn’t just locals versus outsiders. It’s local versus local, surfer versus bodyboarder, expert versus novice, longboarder versus shortboarder.”
In the surf shops north of San Diego, the word is that if you’re not a local, do not stop if you see a certain purple van parked in the lot at Cardiff Beach. The van belongs to a particularly hostile local.
A letter in the June edition of Surfer magazine from a 15-year-old Ventura boy decried localism at Solimar beach. The letter writer, Mike Dixon, told of a tumble in the water when he and a longboarder accidentally collided:
“He came up and started cussing at me and telling me to get the hell out of here and surf somewhere else. I told him I was sorry. He didn’t even look at me. I think many surfers are getting way too territorial.”
At Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, surfer and actor Vincent Klyn, 30, puts an environmental spin on localism. Non-locals, said Klyn, who played the murderous villain in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movie “Cyborg,” often show a lack of respect for the beach.
“If I see you dropping trash on the beach, I’m going to kick your ass,” Klyn said. “If you’re not happy, then move to another break because I’m going to be here every time.”
Klyn also claims that non-locals are prone to show disrespect toward women surfers, such as Klyn’s actress-friends, Blueberry Blervaque, 27, and Charlene Henryson, 30, by dropping in on their waves without waiting their turn. This too requires Klyn’s intervention.
“I just throw (the non-locals) around the water and they get the message,” he said.
Surf journalist Chris Ahrens, 46, abhors localism and notes that only a few surfers engage in it. He suggests that far more punches are thrown on basketball courts than at the beach.
At the same time, Ahrens admits to past indiscretions.
“When I was in my early 20s, I went through a period where I was very localistic,” he said. “My tactic was to pretend I was out of control and get loud and aggressive. But I realized it was a foolish, regressive way to be, and I was embarrassed.”
Lunada Bay has several elements conducive to ferocious localism.
For openers, the neighborhood is one of the most exclusive in Southern California, with a sense of superiority infusing the air like sea spray. A fixer-upper home can cost half a million dollars.
Many of the most dedicated surfers at Lunada Bay are, in the words of Surfer magazine editor Steve Hawk, “trust-fund babies.”
The bay is a gorgeous horseshoe of deep green, popular with seals and lobsters. In the winter, the surf is as good as any in Southern California, with waves off the north point up to 20 feet high and offering a long and demanding ride.
And there is only one trail down the 200-foot cliff, a twisting series of switchbacks that can be treacherous to the unwary.
The lone trail allows the Bay Boys to pinch off access, harassing surfers as they attempt to descend to the beach, or, as was the case with the confrontation between McCullom and the Torrance contingent, allows them to approach outsiders as they reach the top of the cliff and head for their cars.
“Localism is way out of hand at Lunada Bay, and it’s been like that as long as there has been surfing,” said Eric Cooperman, manager of Natural Progression surf shop in Malibu.
“Localism is very bad in Hawaii, and there are lots of reasons for the locals there to resent the outsiders, but it’s not nearly as bad as Lunada Bay,” said Nick Carroll, editor-in-chief of Surfing magazine.
McCullom sees himself as heroically guarding Lunada Bay against outsiders who would ruin it. By his own admission, he yelled at the Torrance surfers never to return to Lunada Bay, pounded his fist in his palm just short of one surfer’s nose, and spewed “Budweiser breath” in his face.
“Those guys at Lunada Bay remind me of the early stages of guys who would become Nazis,” Geoff Hagins, 39, a plumber and surfer whose effort to “take back Lunada Bay” led to the confrontation. “They just seem to hate anyone who isn’t part of their small group.”
Hagins says the police have done nothing to thwart the Bay Boys because it suits the wishes of the residents to uphold the community’s exclusivity.
But the police deny the allegation and say that they are equally sick of the Bay Boys’ intimidation of outsiders and that they welcomed the opportunity to arrest McCullom on a charge of misdemeanor assault.
In January, police arrested another member of the Bay Boys for assault after a skirmish with a Brazilian surfer who had heard of the gorgeous winter swells at Lunada Bay. Threats to trash the Brazilian’s car escalated when he paddled out to catch a wave, police say.
McCullom is aware that the law of Lunada Bay does not square with the law of the California Penal Code. But, he says, it is necessary to keep Lunada Bay free of the graffiti, pollution, trash, crowding and unruliness found at other surf beaches where a come-one, come-all attitude is allowed to exist.
“We’ve protected this beach for years,” said McCullom, as he picked up a piece of driftwood. “This is why: so we can have driftwood on the beach rather than Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes. If this place was ever opened up, it would be packed with lowriders, guys in VW bugs; the rocks would be marked with graffiti, and the beach wouldn’t be safe at night.”
He likens Lunada Bay to a fraternity, a fraternity of local surfers who have inherited a tradition from their fathers and older brothers. If someone from outside shows up and is respectful and accepts some hazing, ultimately, possibly in a few years, he might be accepted as a new member, McCullom said.
But the police in this tiny enclave of affluence--4 1/2 square miles, 14,000 people--find this pose a cover for illegally usurping a public beach into a private club.
They wish that more surfers who are hassled would drop the surfer code of silence and file complaints against the Bay Boys, a name that McCullom hates but acknowledges is used by outsiders to describe him and several dozen other like-minded local surfers.
“It is really frustrating for us,” said police Lt. Ed Jaakola. “You can’t talk to those guys. There is no reasoning with them. They honestly believe it’s their birthright to restrict access to Lunada Bay to only a few (surfers) chosen by the Bay Boys.”
Meanwhile, Hagins, whose nephew, Hagan Kelly, is a world-class surfer, vows to see the criminal case against McCullom to the end and also to file a lawsuit if the Palos Verdes Estates City Council rejects the $6-million claim, which is based on an assertion that the Bay Boys are violating the civil rights of non-local surfers.
“There is no way they should be able to push people off a (surf) break,” Hagins said. “That is not surfing.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Bloody clashes among surfers from Del Mar to Malibu and arrests at Lunada Bay off Palos Verdes Estates contradict the Southern California myth that the sport is untouched by discord. In fact, a phenomenon called localism leads surfers at several popular breaks to use intimidation to repel outsiders.