Surfers find ways to get to the waves in a world of shut-downs and social distancing

Surfers and boogie boarders view the break at the Wedge in Newport Beach on Thursday.
Surfers and boogie boarders view the break at the Wedge in Newport Beach on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The waves are still a playground for surfers in Orange County even as closures have made accessing the water more difficult.

A few beaches in the county have been closed, including all of Laguna Beach’s and, as of Friday, the Wedge in Newport Beach, to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Parking lots and parks adjacent to area beaches are off limits as well.

Beaches that remain open are subject to the stay-at-home rules enacted throughout the state including remaining 6 feet apart.

But for many surfers, it will take more than some restrictions and a pandemic to keep them off their boards.

Brett Simpson, a two-time U.S. Surf Open winner and Huntington Beach resident, said he’s been surfing every morning at Huntington State Beach, but avoids the pier where it tends to be more crowded.

He said his practice has been to go down alone, put on his wetsuit, surf and then go home. He says it’s his way to exercise.

A surfer walks to the waters edge on a nearly deserted beach near the Huntington Beach Pier on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“The beauty of our beach is we’ve got four to five miles of beach and the waves are somewhat similar,” Simpson said. “I’ve been surfing [farther] down the beach more. I’ve seen maybe when I surf about five to 10 people scattered and spread around.”

“There’s a lot of us where it’s our job to surf. It’s an amazing job. [Surfing’s] affected in ways, where you’re not going to a lot of spots up north in Los Angeles and in South [Orange County],” he said.

Simpson said he felt the majority of surfers were not traveling to surf.

“Stay local, surf local. If you live in Huntington Beach, surf there. If you’re having to drive on the freeway to go surf somewhere that’s not your local break, it’s probably not the right idea, you know?” he said.

Luke Sydnor, a surfer who lives in Laguna Beach, said he started going elsewhere after the beaches in his city closed. He said he lives just two blocks away from Brooks Street Beach where he normally surfs, but the closures have forced him to travel south to find a new spot.

Surfers and boogie boarders angle for position at the Wedge in Newport Beach on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Past experiences, however, have left him unsure that the travel is worth it. While he said he doesn’t go more than five miles out of town, he said that he felt the closures have caused people to leave their residential areas to find places to surf.

“You got people from L.A. County coming to Newport and Huntington Beach, and maybe San Clemente. You got people from San Diego County coming up to Trestles,” Sydnor said. “You’ve got all these congregations of people that aren’t trying to be together, but end up in the same spot.”

Sydnor said he was conscious about social distancing guidelines, but said he has been met with large crowds every time.

“When the surf gets really good, [surfers] get kind of crazy. We might try to find a way to get in the water, but at this point, I’m judging if it’s worth it or not,” Sydnor said. “If it’s average or bad, why go out and jump the barriers [to go surfing]? Might as well sit inside like everyone else.”

Sydnor said he felt the problem was that there wasn’t a statewide shutdown, rather than the decision being left up to each county to decide.

“The only thing is that there’s all the people coming from various areas trying to surf together. You’re not really congregating. You’re passing people on the sidewalk,” he added. “You’re not fully in the clear. Even if you are super safe, you can’t avoid it.”

In beach cities, authorities have been attempting to educate residents more than trying to cite or arrest them for violating social distancing rules.

A handful of people watch surfers and boogie boarders at the Wedge on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Eric Blaska, a Huntington Beach spokesman, said that the city still recommends that people stay home as their first option, but that police and marine safety officers are making sure people maintain social distancing and are actively patrolling both bike paths and beaches for visitors not complying but have not issued citations.

Blaska said marine safety officers stated that even with great surf, they have seen a significant decrease in surfers and people in the water.

The city announced Thursday afternoon that it would be closing beachside metered parking on Pacific Coast Highway until further notice.

John Pope, a Newport Beach spokesman, said that the number of beach visitors was down by at least 95% on Sunday and that lifeguards, park patrol and police officers have been monitoring to ensure that beachgoers are maintaining distance.

Lifeguards reported only 5,000 visitors on April 3; 10,000 on April 4; and 1,500 on April 5. On a regular April weekend with good weather there will usually be anywhere from 35,000 to 40,000 visitors, city staff said.

“The initial challenge with the social distancing measures was with the spots where people typically congregate, like the boardwalk,” Pope said. “We are continuing to monitor and look for areas where social distancing is not being practiced ... [such as] West Jetty Park ... [and] we have taken similar steps with grassy areas of Corona del Mar that overlook the ocean.”

A surfer catches a wave near the Huntington Beach Pier on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

In Laguna Beach where all the beaches have been closed, Marine Safety Capt. Kai Bond said there are a large number of access points where people can get to the beach, but that the department was working on educating the public about the closures before anyone is cited.

As of Thursday afternoon, the county has made no indications it plans to close complete beach access to the public, but Simpson said that he feels the surf community is aware of recommendations and wants to keep their waters open.

In an escalated effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the city of Laguna Beach directed staff to close city beaches at 5 p.m. Monday. Meanwhile, Huntington Beach announced that is closing its iconic pier beginning Tuesday until further notice and is shutting down many recreational amenities, though the beaches remain open. Newport Beach also has closed many recreational amenities but kept beaches open. Costa Mesa is closing all city parks.

He said he takes the recommendations seriously and that he doesn’t spend time searching for the perfect wave, adding that this was the time to abide by protocols.

“Suit up, keep your distance, surf. We have so much beach here. A lot of us, this is our saltwater therapy,” Simpson said. “They still haven’t closed our waters, our beaches, so I’m going to take advantage of that and get my exercise.”

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