Commentary: Give Newport surfers a place of their own

Just before Halloween, I met with TK Brimer, owner of the Newport Beach surf shop the Frog House, on a truly spooky subject: the surfing blackball.

My goal was to get a better perspective on the issues facing water lovers: surfers, body boarders, skim boarders, swimmers, body surfers and people who, like me, just want to flop around in the shallows.

The blackball is a flag flown by lifeguards to show surfers that it is not OK to surf in a particular spot. It is a means of letting body surfers and others have their time in the water without having to dodge surfboards. Needless to say, there are few things that irritate surfers more than a blackball.

As all surfers know, even if the Wedge wasn't blackballed, the vast majority of them would be surfing elsewhere. That is not to say that the Wedge, the site of massive walls of water reaching 20 to 30 feet, isn't a valuable issue to discuss, but we need to look at places where we can maximize the benefit for everyone in the community.

It seems that any time there is an issue with something, the surfers are the ones told to leave. It's just the way it works, but it shouldn't be.

As U.S. House Rep. Dana Rohrabacher told the Newport Surf Council in 1995: Newport Beach is the only city in California not to have an area set aside for all-day surfing.

The body surfers have a total lockdown on the Wedge for what is arguably the best part of the year. Why not create a dedicated surfing area for these guys and give them a home?

It won't be easy.

In 1995, this same Newport Surf Council commission — set up much like the Blackball Working Group — proposed to the City Council that we create a whopping three dedicated surf spots, but the city voted down that idea.

The city had a right to be concerned at the time because lifeguards can't be everywhere. For those who have seen lifeguards try to enforce a border, you know how resource-intensive that can be.

So how do we stop this inequity? Let's give them their own surf space — and let's make it easy to enforce. The burning questions are: How much space and where?

First, it needs to be somewhat large because "good surf" changes all the time. A large south swell or a few changing currents can turn a hit surf spot into a dead zone in just a couple of days, and vice versa. Second, it also needs to have clear demarcation to ease enforcement.

This could be either from a lifeguard stand or — more easily — a jetty. There are two jetties between 56th and 52nd streets. If we set up a dedicated surf spot from 52nd to the Huntington Beach border, we would have a wide surf area dedicated to the hundreds of surfers who use the water in Newport on a regular basis. This would be an easily enforceable line for the lifeguards — with only a single line to enforce — and a highly visible line for the surfers, which would maximize enforcement and minimize friction.

This would also play well with the long-standing permanent blackball already in place from 40th to 44th streets, allowing dozens of body surfers a dedicated place of their own, year-round.

Finally, this plays into the real value of property in the area. Newport Beach is a beautiful area built on the water. People rent here in the summertime with the explicit intent of surfing. TK has told me several stories of people renting boards from him — paying top dollar for weekly rentals during the summer — only to return them a few days later because they keep hitting blackball events.

He said these people explained that it simply wasn't worth the money and that in the future they would be renting in Huntington or Laguna Beach — cities with areas dedicated to surfers. That's not good for business.

So while I'm in favor of alternating days at the Wedge (say, odds for hard boards and evens for soft boards and body surfers), I think we should be looking to address a much more important issue: Instead of forcing surfers to choose between areas where they aren't blackballed, how giving them a place to call their own?

MICHAEL GLENN is a Newport Beach City Council candidate in District 1.

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