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San Diego surfing spots open up to everyone

But not everyone's happy about it

“The surfing community is pretty open and inclusive now and it’s heading in the right direction,” says Jana Beresford, noting there are still “lingering stereotypes.”
“The surfing community is pretty open and inclusive now and it’s heading in the right direction,” says Jana Beresford, noting there are still “lingering stereotypes.”
Video:

COVER: Kooks & Chaos; revisiting Tom Wolfe's The Pump House Gang on La Jolla Shores


In 1965, the writer Tom Wolfe visited a beach in La Jolla, looking to shine a light on The Youth of Today. He found his subject in a bunch of Windansea locals, many of them surfers, who liked to hang out near the sewage pump house and cast aspersions on The Olds. And he immortalized them in his 1968 essay The Pump House Gang, spinning a story which, whatever its embellishments, also gave the world a glimpse of California surf culture as it was coming of age in the mid-‘60s: a sport, but also a lifestyle, a cultural phenomenon. The community Wolfe portrayed was suspicious of authority and disdainful of outsiders — including the author himself, adults, tourists and anyone from east of I-5. The account provided a gritty counterpoint to the sunny, sanitized world of films like 1965’s Beach Blanket Bingo and the cheerful harmonies of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA.”

Encinitas surfer Titus Santucci was recently selected as a member of the prestigious 2023/24 USA Surfing Junior National Team, along with 11 other surfers from across the country.

Wolfe is gone now, and so is the closed community he portrayed. Today, surfing in San Diego is for teenage girls and their mothers, middle-age guys, prosperous golfers, and the IT guy and the friends he surfs with after work. It’s open to soft-toppers, boogie-boarders, foil boarders, kneeboarders, longboarders, and short-board surfers. It’s open to everyone, which, depending on who you talk to, either marks the end of what was great about surfing to begin with or the beginning of a more inclusive and democratic era. As the 47-year-old longtime surf journalist and critic Charles “Chas” Smith puts it, “The doors are wide open. Anyone can go basically anywhere.”

Today, all you have to do is check out a professional surfing contest to see how surfing marketers have pulled a nifty 180 on the gang at the pump house. The edginess and cool indifference and even the bikini contests are gone. The World Surf League’s brand seems to be all about sustainability and paying homage to indigenous cultures, while the International Surf League’s message is that the simple act of riding a wave can bridge divides and heal the world. Nice sentiments, just vastly different from how Smith and other surfers who came of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s felt and were perceived: as members of an exclusive club of mostly guys, engaged in an activity that most people would never understand or experience themselves. There used be an ad that ran in Surfer Magazine: “Only a Surfer Knows the Feeling.” Today, the promise is that everyone can know the feeling, as long as they spend a hundred bucks at Costco on a soft-top surfboard.

Smith isn’t thrilled with the changes he’s seen, and the co-creator of the satirical, sometimes serious Beach Grit blog and co-host of The Grit podcast isn’t shy about saying so. For starters, he’d like the newer crop of surfers to not feel so damn comfortable from the get-go; a little trepidation at the outset isn’t such a bad thing. “Going to a surf shop as a kid, I would always feel intimidated,” he says. “You’d go inside and right away get vibed by the shop owner and the kids working the checkout desk, who looked right out of central casting.” Smith views the experience as an important rite of passage, just like getting thrown over the falls for the first time. Today, he says, “Surf shops are rarer and rarer. You can go into a surf shop and they’re just happy to have your business.”

Surf journalist and critic Charles “Chas” Smith says “Surfing’s not for everyone. It’s for a select few.”

It’s worse on the water, where there’s less shaming of “kooks” — new, clueless surfers who don’t realize they’re clueless. They enter the water like they own the place. “All of the kook-jumping you once had to do to feel like, ‘Okay, I got this,’ has disappeared,” Smith says. The sport has been sullied by an “anything goes” attitude in the water, where order and hierarchy have been replaced by chaos, anarchy, and selfishness. “If you just start something you shouldn’t be expected to know all the rules right away,” Smith concedes. What baffles him is the kooks’ indifference; they don’t seem to care about learning. Recently, he was out surfing “and the water was choked with kooks like it is now all the time.” For a long moment, he just watched them flailing around on their soft-tops, not taking it seriously. It was almost an epiphany for Smith: “Surfing was just an activity for them,” he explains, right up there with playing racquetball or hitting the gym or playing golf. Nothing against having fun and keeping in shape, but the passion and commitment to surfing — to being a surfer — seemed to be missing.

If saying all this means coming across as a surfing elitist or purist, that’s okay with him, because as he sees it, he’s looking out for the larger surfing community. For Smith, the rise in blissfully unaware kooks is making surfing less enjoyable and less safe for the surfers who have paid their dues. “I don’t know if it was a magic time or if it can ever be recreated, but I feel surfing needs it again. Surfing’s not for everyone. It’s for a select few.”

But Jana Beresford, a 20-year-old SDSU student, isn’t buying Smith’s old-school ideas. “The surfing community is pretty open and inclusive now and it’s heading in the right direction,” she says, noting there are still “lingering stereotypes.” Her father Jack Beresford, a kneeboarder and standup surfer who’s been a Blacks local for over 40 years, is also accepting: “There’s certainly more people surfing and many have different abilities, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s enough waves for everyone.” Well, maybe. Whatever your opinion on kook-shaming, the fact is that they aren’t making any more coast, and a more open surf culture means more people in the water. Overcrowding is a real concern, and everyone I interviewed for this story attributed it, at least in part, to the Covid cohort — or what Smith terms “the late adopters.” (More cheekily, this particular brand of newbie is sometimes called a VAL — Vulnerable Adult Learner).

Back in the day. Bill Fitzmaurice in the middle, leaning against the pump.

Bill Fitzmaurice, 69, who recently ended a five-year stint as president of the Windansea Surf Club, puts it this way: “During Covid, I think a lot of people, when they were kind of ordered to stay home and not go to work, said, ‘You know what? I’m doing nothing. I’ve always wanted to try surfing.’” This new wave of surfers, one that included many middle-aged men, flocked to Windansea in droves — many of them unaware of the spot’s prestige, mythology, and unwritten code of conduct.

Rising pro Titus Santucci was recently selected as a member of the prestigious 2023-24 USA Surfing Junior National Team, along with 11 other surfers from across the country. Even as a nine-year-old “grom,” or young surfer, Santucci understood the importance of etiquette, and of using good judgment. When the Encinitas surfer, now 18, started out, “There were breaks that I would surf and feel comfortable at, and there were breaks I wouldn’t dare go near because I thought I wasn’t good enough to surf there.” Even if he had tried, he says, “The locals wouldn’t have let me catch waves.”

Smith says another part of the current trouble comes from the newbies’ grabby attitude. “Like, ‘I’m out here, I’m gonna get every wave I can get.’ What kind of world is this? If you took your one or two waves and did it properly, there’s enough to go around,” he says. Smith concedes that surfing “is an essentially selfish pursuit.” But the difference now is that at most spots, surfing is unregulated by “a grumpy local,” an enforcer who can keep rogue surfers in line.

As Fitzmaurice puts it, “You know, if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re paddling for waves that you shouldn’t be paddling into, somebody politely is going to come up to you and say, ‘Listen, you know, congrats, you’re trying to surf. That’s great. You know, I wish you weren’t, because it makes the water more crowded. But since you are, let me suggest you find a different place to surf. You’ve got to be a solid surfer to be out here. You’re gonna get hurt, or you’re gonna hurt somebody else.’”

Jack Beresford, a kneeboarder and standup surfer, who’s been a Blacks local for over 40 years, says “There’s certainly more people surfing and many have different abilities, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s enough waves for everyone.”

Example: Smith enjoys surfing with his wife Circe and their daughter but worries about the kooks who can’t control their boards. He describes a scenario where his daughter will be “on the inside, catching a little bowl. And there’ll be people on big boards dropping in on her. They’re not doing it necessarily on purpose. They’re just so unaware that they don’t see her coming down the line.”

Jack Beresford, who’s the director of public relations and communications for the San Diego Community College District, and also an 8-time kneeboard champion and a founder of Kneeboard Surfing USA, isn’t anybody’s grumpy enforcer. “You know, it’s funny, I hear a lot of grumbling about crowds,” he says, “but it’s always been crowded. I mean, at least since the ‘80s. It’s like anywhere else. You have busy days and light days.” Even at a relatively remote spot like Blacks, “when it’s on and people know it’s on, it’s a busy place.” And people know when it’s on, thanks to “the technology and information that people have at their disposal. I mean, we’ve got cameras, we’ve got surf forecasting. People know days in advance when it’s going to be on. There’s no real surprises anymore.”

And if everybody knows when it’s on, you can end up with a lot of bodies in the water — some would say too many bodies. In 1980, the Surf Punks released “My Wave.” It was a parody, sort of: This is my wave baby/Don’t cut me off/Dropping down left/Eat the rocks/Gonna break your face/Go back to the Valley/And don’t come back. Most spots today, even Windansea, Swamis, and Sunset Cliffs, are nothing like that caricature. And yet, part of that unwritten code is that a given surfer on a given wave at a given time does own it, such that other surfers should stay off said wave and not interfere with their right of way. Bill Fitzmaurice is used to hearing the refrain, “It’s not your ocean, it’s everyone’s.” Well, yes and no. “Legally, yes,” he says, “you have the right to be out in the water. The waves belong to everybody. This is the United States of America and you have the right to paddle out anywhere you want to. But do you have the right to paddle into a wave that somebody’s already on?” No, not really.

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Jack Beresford thinks that most often, wave-dropping is just a mistake on the part of the clueless. “It does happen that people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but more frequently, they’re gonna bend over backwards to apologize.” But at a certain point, says Chas Smith, who views the Covid cohort of surfers as some of the most selfish he’s seen, the cluelessness is cultivated. “Dropping in on someone else’s wave is the entitlement of ‘I don’t care and nobody’s gonna say anything about it, because nobody does anymore.’” And when someone finally does say something, they’re usually pretty upset. “Yelling matches definitely happen” at Encinitas’ Seaside Reef and D Street, says Titus Santucci — even if they are pretty rare. And it’s always because a newbie put a surfer in harm’s way.

Jack Beresford’s daughter Jana surfs with her sister and friends, but there’s nothing like the surfing ritual she shares with her dad. “There’s a fun little routine we’ve gotten into, besides the actual surfing,” she tells me.

“I don’t see arguments, conflicts, fights, things like that” at Blacks, says Beresford. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a fight in the water. It has definitely changed since the ‘70s and ‘80s. I think it was a different attitude, a different vibe, back then,” he says. “Thankfully, I think it’s much better now.” (Technology may deserve part of the credit here. As Fitzmaurice puts it, “It’s not worth it to start a fight. You can snap a picture or take a video. You’ve got lifeguards watching. I mean, you can’t even raise your voice without somebody starting to film or video it.”)

But that’s Blacks, one of the most challenging spots in San Diego, if not Southern California. Not exactly a newbie magnet. In August 2022, a highly publicized incident at Windansea put Surf Punks-style localism back in the headlines. As reported by CBS 8, “A surfer got into an argument with other surfers in the water, punches were thrown, and the one surfer claimed to be held underwater for 30 seconds.” According to Fitzmaurice, who knows the kids who were involved and the lifeguards on the scene (“they saw the whole incident”), this story “got so blown out of proportion” and is not a case study on the dangers of extreme localism. Rather, it should serve as a warning about poor etiquette in general, and specifically, what not to do when you paddle out at Windansea.

Fitzmaurice’s version is that “some kid from North County” came to Windansea and wanted to make it clear he was The Man, even though he was “just a decent surfer.” He paddled out “right to the lineup and started taking off on waves, cutting a couple kids off, and started yelling at the locals,” who Fitzmaurice describes as being between 14 and 18 years old. When one of the local kids paddled up to the cocky newcomer and said, “You just cut me off,” the troublemaker “started spitting and splashing water at him.” Then a yelling match ensued. What didn’t happen? According to Fitzmaurice, there was no fight: no one ever touched the kid and no one held him under water. He says the kid essentially lied to the cops and to the media.

Bill Fitzmaurice, who recently ended a five-year stint as president of the WindanSea Surf Club, says, “During Covid I think a lot of people, when they were kind of ordered to stay home and not go to work, said, ‘You know what? I’m doing nothing. I’ve always wanted to try surfing.”


So maybe that grumpy enforcer isn’t such a bad thing after all? “Localism is 100 percent a good thing,” says Santucci. “When a spot becomes overcrowded and has nobody to enforce surfing etiquette within the lineup, it gets out of control.” Smith seconds the young pro. “I’ve always been on the record of being a fan of localism. I think that you need to have order in the water. I know it’s not cool to have gatekeepers, but I think surfing needs gatekeepers. It’s no fun for anybody when everybody’s dropping in on a wave.”

Swamis in Encinitas, says Santucci, is the perfect example. “When the wave is good, it gets very overcrowded and there is often no one in the lineup to call people out when they do dangerous things.” He says that anytime the waves are good at Swamis, he sees a bunch of party fouls that could have landed someone in the hospital — for example, surfers bailing on their boards in heavy traffic. “I try to keep a positive atmosphere in the lineup, but there are definitely times when an enforcer needs to step in to keep a surfer in check. Whether they are being dangerous in the lineup or not being respectful, it’s nice to have someone at a spot that will remind them that they are ruining other people’s sessions.”

Enforcers are not random goons. A true enforcer is a trusted local who has the respect of the other locals — and the authority, unofficial though it may be, to deal with rude surfers who transgress the unwritten but inviolable rules of the wave. When Bill Fitzmaurice moved with his family to La Jolla in the early ‘70s, a friend picked him up at the airport and took him straight to La Jolla Shores for a candid conversation. “Bill, if you’re going to survive here, you got to know a couple of things,” his friend told him. “You’d better think of La Jolla like it’s an insane asylum, and the walls fell down and nobody left. And if you can get your brain wrapped around that, you just might survive here.”

The inmates who didn’t leave were a group of hardcore local surfers who didn’t want anything to do with Tom Wolfe. They made a lot of trouble and had a lot of fun, going so far as to create, as an inside joke, the infamous Mac Meda Destruction Company. They were also the gatekeepers at Windansea. “You had to be at least a really solid surfer to paddle out,” explains Fitzmaurice, who spent 12 years on the board of the Windansea Surf Club. “A guy we called ‘Brud’ had to give you permission to paddle out.” Brud kept things safe and sane.

Brud is gone now, but as Fitzmaurice noted, there are still those who will take up his part. “Say there’s a scenario where somebody is just being very disrespectful, a jerk, cutting people off, disrespecting the locals —then he shouldn’t be out in the water,” he says. “A couple guys might paddle over to him and say, ‘Hey, dude, you know, maybe split, go to the Shores, don’t surf,’” he says. And they might up the ante if the troublemaker doesn’t comply. “‘I strongly suggest you listen. This is not a beginner wave. You’re gonna hurt yourself or you’re gonna hurt one of us, and we really prefer you get out of the water. Come back a year or two from now when you’re a lot better.’” If that doesn’t work, there’s a few people Fitzmaurice knows that would paddle up and say, “‘Listen, this has gone past the point where we’re asking you nicely. Get out. All right? Or maybe you might get dragged out of the water.’”

Fitzmaurice doesn’t want to overstate things or engage in hyperbole. He says for the most part, surfers can come to Windansea, even for the first time, and have a good session and not get hassled — as long as they’re decent surfers who conduct themselves respectfully. It’s true that, on a visit to the notorious Lunada Bay in Palos Verdes, Fitzmaurice was preparing to paddle out when “I got hit in the head with a rock.” But a lawsuit currently making its way through the courts is expected to return Lunada Bay to the people. This isn’t Hollywood, which is currently producing a Nicolas Cage revenge pic about an outsider who gets pushed too far by the locals.

Even as a “grom,” a young surfer, rising pro Titus Santucci understood the importance of not only etiquette but using good judgment. When the Encinitas surfer, now 18, started surfing, “There were breaks that I would surf and feel comfortable at and there were breaks I wouldn’t dare go near because I thought I wasn’t good enough to surf there.”

In the real world. If you get barked at by a grumpy local, Beresford advises that “you learn from the experience. It’s not the end of the world. Hopefully they do it in a constructive way.” That’s what happened to him. When he was a grom, he was surfing Scripps and paddling back out after taking a wave. As he tried to get to the shoulder and over the wave before it broke on him, he saw a guy take off, heading his way. “He pulls me aside afterwards and he’s like, ‘Dude, you got to take your lumps, man, you got to take your lumps.’ And maybe it was a little hard to hear at the time, but he was right, and I learned that lesson right then – you know, when you’re in that position, you paddle for the whitewater, you take your lumps. I always remember that.”

And he remembers the more experienced surfer’s blunt but unhostile manner. “There’s a way to deal with less experienced surfers in a friendly, helpful way that encourages them. Because we’re all out there for the same reason.”

So, where to begin? The vast majority of new surfers — and many seasoned ones, too — prefer a beach break like La Jolla Shores, Scripps, or Pacific Beach. There’s usually less localism at these spots — and at beach breaks in general — and less experienced surfers can usually find a section that’s less crowded. Take the Shores, for example. “It’s a kook fest down there,” says Jack’s daughter, Jana. “So, you got to know that going into it. Normally, the only guys out there that get on my nerves are the middle school boys or the middle-aged men who think they run the place” — wannabe kings of the two-footers.

If you really want to avoid the crowds and practice your craft, there’s a wave pool in Palm Springs and another one expected to open in Oceanside in 2026. But wave pools lack what Jana Beresford describes as “the kind of healing and restorative energy that any surfer craves, whether you’re competing or just hanging with the seals and dolphins.”

Or with your fellow surfers Says Jack, “I think the real story is how there’s a family out there, people who see each other and get to know each other over the years. Depending on the time of day that you surf, you’ll see the same guys every day or every couple of days.”

For her part, daughter Jana surfs with her sister and friends, but says there’s nothing like the surfing ritual she shares with her dad. “There’s a fun little routine we’ve gotten into, besides the actual surfing,” she tells me. “We have our pre-surf tunes and post-surf tunes, and enough water in the jug to rinse off after a long session. And there’s normally some kind of snack to chase the salty taste on the ride home. It’s honestly some of the purest moments of stoke, and it’s so cool that we can share those moments together. He catches a lot of the waves that I want, but it’s okay, cuz he’s my dad.”

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“The surfing community is pretty open and inclusive now and it’s heading in the right direction,” says Jana Beresford, noting there are still “lingering stereotypes.”
“The surfing community is pretty open and inclusive now and it’s heading in the right direction,” says Jana Beresford, noting there are still “lingering stereotypes.”
Video:

COVER: Kooks & Chaos; revisiting Tom Wolfe's The Pump House Gang on La Jolla Shores


In 1965, the writer Tom Wolfe visited a beach in La Jolla, looking to shine a light on The Youth of Today. He found his subject in a bunch of Windansea locals, many of them surfers, who liked to hang out near the sewage pump house and cast aspersions on The Olds. And he immortalized them in his 1968 essay The Pump House Gang, spinning a story which, whatever its embellishments, also gave the world a glimpse of California surf culture as it was coming of age in the mid-‘60s: a sport, but also a lifestyle, a cultural phenomenon. The community Wolfe portrayed was suspicious of authority and disdainful of outsiders — including the author himself, adults, tourists and anyone from east of I-5. The account provided a gritty counterpoint to the sunny, sanitized world of films like 1965’s Beach Blanket Bingo and the cheerful harmonies of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA.”

Encinitas surfer Titus Santucci was recently selected as a member of the prestigious 2023/24 USA Surfing Junior National Team, along with 11 other surfers from across the country.

Wolfe is gone now, and so is the closed community he portrayed. Today, surfing in San Diego is for teenage girls and their mothers, middle-age guys, prosperous golfers, and the IT guy and the friends he surfs with after work. It’s open to soft-toppers, boogie-boarders, foil boarders, kneeboarders, longboarders, and short-board surfers. It’s open to everyone, which, depending on who you talk to, either marks the end of what was great about surfing to begin with or the beginning of a more inclusive and democratic era. As the 47-year-old longtime surf journalist and critic Charles “Chas” Smith puts it, “The doors are wide open. Anyone can go basically anywhere.”

Today, all you have to do is check out a professional surfing contest to see how surfing marketers have pulled a nifty 180 on the gang at the pump house. The edginess and cool indifference and even the bikini contests are gone. The World Surf League’s brand seems to be all about sustainability and paying homage to indigenous cultures, while the International Surf League’s message is that the simple act of riding a wave can bridge divides and heal the world. Nice sentiments, just vastly different from how Smith and other surfers who came of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s felt and were perceived: as members of an exclusive club of mostly guys, engaged in an activity that most people would never understand or experience themselves. There used be an ad that ran in Surfer Magazine: “Only a Surfer Knows the Feeling.” Today, the promise is that everyone can know the feeling, as long as they spend a hundred bucks at Costco on a soft-top surfboard.

Smith isn’t thrilled with the changes he’s seen, and the co-creator of the satirical, sometimes serious Beach Grit blog and co-host of The Grit podcast isn’t shy about saying so. For starters, he’d like the newer crop of surfers to not feel so damn comfortable from the get-go; a little trepidation at the outset isn’t such a bad thing. “Going to a surf shop as a kid, I would always feel intimidated,” he says. “You’d go inside and right away get vibed by the shop owner and the kids working the checkout desk, who looked right out of central casting.” Smith views the experience as an important rite of passage, just like getting thrown over the falls for the first time. Today, he says, “Surf shops are rarer and rarer. You can go into a surf shop and they’re just happy to have your business.”

Surf journalist and critic Charles “Chas” Smith says “Surfing’s not for everyone. It’s for a select few.”

It’s worse on the water, where there’s less shaming of “kooks” — new, clueless surfers who don’t realize they’re clueless. They enter the water like they own the place. “All of the kook-jumping you once had to do to feel like, ‘Okay, I got this,’ has disappeared,” Smith says. The sport has been sullied by an “anything goes” attitude in the water, where order and hierarchy have been replaced by chaos, anarchy, and selfishness. “If you just start something you shouldn’t be expected to know all the rules right away,” Smith concedes. What baffles him is the kooks’ indifference; they don’t seem to care about learning. Recently, he was out surfing “and the water was choked with kooks like it is now all the time.” For a long moment, he just watched them flailing around on their soft-tops, not taking it seriously. It was almost an epiphany for Smith: “Surfing was just an activity for them,” he explains, right up there with playing racquetball or hitting the gym or playing golf. Nothing against having fun and keeping in shape, but the passion and commitment to surfing — to being a surfer — seemed to be missing.

If saying all this means coming across as a surfing elitist or purist, that’s okay with him, because as he sees it, he’s looking out for the larger surfing community. For Smith, the rise in blissfully unaware kooks is making surfing less enjoyable and less safe for the surfers who have paid their dues. “I don’t know if it was a magic time or if it can ever be recreated, but I feel surfing needs it again. Surfing’s not for everyone. It’s for a select few.”

But Jana Beresford, a 20-year-old SDSU student, isn’t buying Smith’s old-school ideas. “The surfing community is pretty open and inclusive now and it’s heading in the right direction,” she says, noting there are still “lingering stereotypes.” Her father Jack Beresford, a kneeboarder and standup surfer who’s been a Blacks local for over 40 years, is also accepting: “There’s certainly more people surfing and many have different abilities, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s enough waves for everyone.” Well, maybe. Whatever your opinion on kook-shaming, the fact is that they aren’t making any more coast, and a more open surf culture means more people in the water. Overcrowding is a real concern, and everyone I interviewed for this story attributed it, at least in part, to the Covid cohort — or what Smith terms “the late adopters.” (More cheekily, this particular brand of newbie is sometimes called a VAL — Vulnerable Adult Learner).

Back in the day. Bill Fitzmaurice in the middle, leaning against the pump.

Bill Fitzmaurice, 69, who recently ended a five-year stint as president of the Windansea Surf Club, puts it this way: “During Covid, I think a lot of people, when they were kind of ordered to stay home and not go to work, said, ‘You know what? I’m doing nothing. I’ve always wanted to try surfing.’” This new wave of surfers, one that included many middle-aged men, flocked to Windansea in droves — many of them unaware of the spot’s prestige, mythology, and unwritten code of conduct.

Rising pro Titus Santucci was recently selected as a member of the prestigious 2023-24 USA Surfing Junior National Team, along with 11 other surfers from across the country. Even as a nine-year-old “grom,” or young surfer, Santucci understood the importance of etiquette, and of using good judgment. When the Encinitas surfer, now 18, started out, “There were breaks that I would surf and feel comfortable at, and there were breaks I wouldn’t dare go near because I thought I wasn’t good enough to surf there.” Even if he had tried, he says, “The locals wouldn’t have let me catch waves.”

Smith says another part of the current trouble comes from the newbies’ grabby attitude. “Like, ‘I’m out here, I’m gonna get every wave I can get.’ What kind of world is this? If you took your one or two waves and did it properly, there’s enough to go around,” he says. Smith concedes that surfing “is an essentially selfish pursuit.” But the difference now is that at most spots, surfing is unregulated by “a grumpy local,” an enforcer who can keep rogue surfers in line.

As Fitzmaurice puts it, “You know, if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re paddling for waves that you shouldn’t be paddling into, somebody politely is going to come up to you and say, ‘Listen, you know, congrats, you’re trying to surf. That’s great. You know, I wish you weren’t, because it makes the water more crowded. But since you are, let me suggest you find a different place to surf. You’ve got to be a solid surfer to be out here. You’re gonna get hurt, or you’re gonna hurt somebody else.’”

Jack Beresford, a kneeboarder and standup surfer, who’s been a Blacks local for over 40 years, says “There’s certainly more people surfing and many have different abilities, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s enough waves for everyone.”

Example: Smith enjoys surfing with his wife Circe and their daughter but worries about the kooks who can’t control their boards. He describes a scenario where his daughter will be “on the inside, catching a little bowl. And there’ll be people on big boards dropping in on her. They’re not doing it necessarily on purpose. They’re just so unaware that they don’t see her coming down the line.”

Jack Beresford, who’s the director of public relations and communications for the San Diego Community College District, and also an 8-time kneeboard champion and a founder of Kneeboard Surfing USA, isn’t anybody’s grumpy enforcer. “You know, it’s funny, I hear a lot of grumbling about crowds,” he says, “but it’s always been crowded. I mean, at least since the ‘80s. It’s like anywhere else. You have busy days and light days.” Even at a relatively remote spot like Blacks, “when it’s on and people know it’s on, it’s a busy place.” And people know when it’s on, thanks to “the technology and information that people have at their disposal. I mean, we’ve got cameras, we’ve got surf forecasting. People know days in advance when it’s going to be on. There’s no real surprises anymore.”

And if everybody knows when it’s on, you can end up with a lot of bodies in the water — some would say too many bodies. In 1980, the Surf Punks released “My Wave.” It was a parody, sort of: This is my wave baby/Don’t cut me off/Dropping down left/Eat the rocks/Gonna break your face/Go back to the Valley/And don’t come back. Most spots today, even Windansea, Swamis, and Sunset Cliffs, are nothing like that caricature. And yet, part of that unwritten code is that a given surfer on a given wave at a given time does own it, such that other surfers should stay off said wave and not interfere with their right of way. Bill Fitzmaurice is used to hearing the refrain, “It’s not your ocean, it’s everyone’s.” Well, yes and no. “Legally, yes,” he says, “you have the right to be out in the water. The waves belong to everybody. This is the United States of America and you have the right to paddle out anywhere you want to. But do you have the right to paddle into a wave that somebody’s already on?” No, not really.

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Jack Beresford thinks that most often, wave-dropping is just a mistake on the part of the clueless. “It does happen that people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but more frequently, they’re gonna bend over backwards to apologize.” But at a certain point, says Chas Smith, who views the Covid cohort of surfers as some of the most selfish he’s seen, the cluelessness is cultivated. “Dropping in on someone else’s wave is the entitlement of ‘I don’t care and nobody’s gonna say anything about it, because nobody does anymore.’” And when someone finally does say something, they’re usually pretty upset. “Yelling matches definitely happen” at Encinitas’ Seaside Reef and D Street, says Titus Santucci — even if they are pretty rare. And it’s always because a newbie put a surfer in harm’s way.

Jack Beresford’s daughter Jana surfs with her sister and friends, but there’s nothing like the surfing ritual she shares with her dad. “There’s a fun little routine we’ve gotten into, besides the actual surfing,” she tells me.

“I don’t see arguments, conflicts, fights, things like that” at Blacks, says Beresford. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a fight in the water. It has definitely changed since the ‘70s and ‘80s. I think it was a different attitude, a different vibe, back then,” he says. “Thankfully, I think it’s much better now.” (Technology may deserve part of the credit here. As Fitzmaurice puts it, “It’s not worth it to start a fight. You can snap a picture or take a video. You’ve got lifeguards watching. I mean, you can’t even raise your voice without somebody starting to film or video it.”)

But that’s Blacks, one of the most challenging spots in San Diego, if not Southern California. Not exactly a newbie magnet. In August 2022, a highly publicized incident at Windansea put Surf Punks-style localism back in the headlines. As reported by CBS 8, “A surfer got into an argument with other surfers in the water, punches were thrown, and the one surfer claimed to be held underwater for 30 seconds.” According to Fitzmaurice, who knows the kids who were involved and the lifeguards on the scene (“they saw the whole incident”), this story “got so blown out of proportion” and is not a case study on the dangers of extreme localism. Rather, it should serve as a warning about poor etiquette in general, and specifically, what not to do when you paddle out at Windansea.

Fitzmaurice’s version is that “some kid from North County” came to Windansea and wanted to make it clear he was The Man, even though he was “just a decent surfer.” He paddled out “right to the lineup and started taking off on waves, cutting a couple kids off, and started yelling at the locals,” who Fitzmaurice describes as being between 14 and 18 years old. When one of the local kids paddled up to the cocky newcomer and said, “You just cut me off,” the troublemaker “started spitting and splashing water at him.” Then a yelling match ensued. What didn’t happen? According to Fitzmaurice, there was no fight: no one ever touched the kid and no one held him under water. He says the kid essentially lied to the cops and to the media.

Bill Fitzmaurice, who recently ended a five-year stint as president of the WindanSea Surf Club, says, “During Covid I think a lot of people, when they were kind of ordered to stay home and not go to work, said, ‘You know what? I’m doing nothing. I’ve always wanted to try surfing.”


So maybe that grumpy enforcer isn’t such a bad thing after all? “Localism is 100 percent a good thing,” says Santucci. “When a spot becomes overcrowded and has nobody to enforce surfing etiquette within the lineup, it gets out of control.” Smith seconds the young pro. “I’ve always been on the record of being a fan of localism. I think that you need to have order in the water. I know it’s not cool to have gatekeepers, but I think surfing needs gatekeepers. It’s no fun for anybody when everybody’s dropping in on a wave.”

Swamis in Encinitas, says Santucci, is the perfect example. “When the wave is good, it gets very overcrowded and there is often no one in the lineup to call people out when they do dangerous things.” He says that anytime the waves are good at Swamis, he sees a bunch of party fouls that could have landed someone in the hospital — for example, surfers bailing on their boards in heavy traffic. “I try to keep a positive atmosphere in the lineup, but there are definitely times when an enforcer needs to step in to keep a surfer in check. Whether they are being dangerous in the lineup or not being respectful, it’s nice to have someone at a spot that will remind them that they are ruining other people’s sessions.”

Enforcers are not random goons. A true enforcer is a trusted local who has the respect of the other locals — and the authority, unofficial though it may be, to deal with rude surfers who transgress the unwritten but inviolable rules of the wave. When Bill Fitzmaurice moved with his family to La Jolla in the early ‘70s, a friend picked him up at the airport and took him straight to La Jolla Shores for a candid conversation. “Bill, if you’re going to survive here, you got to know a couple of things,” his friend told him. “You’d better think of La Jolla like it’s an insane asylum, and the walls fell down and nobody left. And if you can get your brain wrapped around that, you just might survive here.”

The inmates who didn’t leave were a group of hardcore local surfers who didn’t want anything to do with Tom Wolfe. They made a lot of trouble and had a lot of fun, going so far as to create, as an inside joke, the infamous Mac Meda Destruction Company. They were also the gatekeepers at Windansea. “You had to be at least a really solid surfer to paddle out,” explains Fitzmaurice, who spent 12 years on the board of the Windansea Surf Club. “A guy we called ‘Brud’ had to give you permission to paddle out.” Brud kept things safe and sane.

Brud is gone now, but as Fitzmaurice noted, there are still those who will take up his part. “Say there’s a scenario where somebody is just being very disrespectful, a jerk, cutting people off, disrespecting the locals —then he shouldn’t be out in the water,” he says. “A couple guys might paddle over to him and say, ‘Hey, dude, you know, maybe split, go to the Shores, don’t surf,’” he says. And they might up the ante if the troublemaker doesn’t comply. “‘I strongly suggest you listen. This is not a beginner wave. You’re gonna hurt yourself or you’re gonna hurt one of us, and we really prefer you get out of the water. Come back a year or two from now when you’re a lot better.’” If that doesn’t work, there’s a few people Fitzmaurice knows that would paddle up and say, “‘Listen, this has gone past the point where we’re asking you nicely. Get out. All right? Or maybe you might get dragged out of the water.’”

Fitzmaurice doesn’t want to overstate things or engage in hyperbole. He says for the most part, surfers can come to Windansea, even for the first time, and have a good session and not get hassled — as long as they’re decent surfers who conduct themselves respectfully. It’s true that, on a visit to the notorious Lunada Bay in Palos Verdes, Fitzmaurice was preparing to paddle out when “I got hit in the head with a rock.” But a lawsuit currently making its way through the courts is expected to return Lunada Bay to the people. This isn’t Hollywood, which is currently producing a Nicolas Cage revenge pic about an outsider who gets pushed too far by the locals.

Even as a “grom,” a young surfer, rising pro Titus Santucci understood the importance of not only etiquette but using good judgment. When the Encinitas surfer, now 18, started surfing, “There were breaks that I would surf and feel comfortable at and there were breaks I wouldn’t dare go near because I thought I wasn’t good enough to surf there.”

In the real world. If you get barked at by a grumpy local, Beresford advises that “you learn from the experience. It’s not the end of the world. Hopefully they do it in a constructive way.” That’s what happened to him. When he was a grom, he was surfing Scripps and paddling back out after taking a wave. As he tried to get to the shoulder and over the wave before it broke on him, he saw a guy take off, heading his way. “He pulls me aside afterwards and he’s like, ‘Dude, you got to take your lumps, man, you got to take your lumps.’ And maybe it was a little hard to hear at the time, but he was right, and I learned that lesson right then – you know, when you’re in that position, you paddle for the whitewater, you take your lumps. I always remember that.”

And he remembers the more experienced surfer’s blunt but unhostile manner. “There’s a way to deal with less experienced surfers in a friendly, helpful way that encourages them. Because we’re all out there for the same reason.”

So, where to begin? The vast majority of new surfers — and many seasoned ones, too — prefer a beach break like La Jolla Shores, Scripps, or Pacific Beach. There’s usually less localism at these spots — and at beach breaks in general — and less experienced surfers can usually find a section that’s less crowded. Take the Shores, for example. “It’s a kook fest down there,” says Jack’s daughter, Jana. “So, you got to know that going into it. Normally, the only guys out there that get on my nerves are the middle school boys or the middle-aged men who think they run the place” — wannabe kings of the two-footers.

If you really want to avoid the crowds and practice your craft, there’s a wave pool in Palm Springs and another one expected to open in Oceanside in 2026. But wave pools lack what Jana Beresford describes as “the kind of healing and restorative energy that any surfer craves, whether you’re competing or just hanging with the seals and dolphins.”

Or with your fellow surfers Says Jack, “I think the real story is how there’s a family out there, people who see each other and get to know each other over the years. Depending on the time of day that you surf, you’ll see the same guys every day or every couple of days.”

For her part, daughter Jana surfs with her sister and friends, but says there’s nothing like the surfing ritual she shares with her dad. “There’s a fun little routine we’ve gotten into, besides the actual surfing,” she tells me. “We have our pre-surf tunes and post-surf tunes, and enough water in the jug to rinse off after a long session. And there’s normally some kind of snack to chase the salty taste on the ride home. It’s honestly some of the purest moments of stoke, and it’s so cool that we can share those moments together. He catches a lot of the waves that I want, but it’s okay, cuz he’s my dad.”

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