For hundreds of thousands of San Diegans, the Pacific Ocean is a pulsing, vibrant backdrop for our lives. It’s our watery backyard. The progenitor of cool sea breezes. A seemingly limitless source of our seafood. And an unconscious inspiration for our thoughts and dreams.
Some of us are lucky enough to live at its shore. We awaken each morning to its rushing, crashing waves and slumber each eve to its lapping tide lullaby. Others work near its sandy beaches. And many more commune with this oldest of oceans when we swim, surf, scuba, or simply walk hand-in-hand along its shoreline to watch the grunion spawn by the light of the full moon.
Because the Pacific is so ubiquitous in our lives, we often forget that most Americans do not share our great kismet. They are miles inland, perhaps cuddled between mountains, nestled in mega-urban high-rises, or feeling inconsequential amid acres of look-alike desert plains.
We may go about our lives not quite understanding our own instinctual draw — an ancient, embryonic connection — with this ocean. John F. Kennedy once said in a speech to the America’s Cup crews, “…all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean.… We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.”
The Way We — and Our Beach — Were
Palmer Hughes had the enviable fortune to live in an oceanfront home on La Jolla’s Marine Street for nearly three decades. While he has fond memories of beach life, he notes that beach living in La Jolla has changed.
“I grew up in a beachside home. September was always the best month because all the tourists would be gone, and you’d have the beach to yourself. In the ’60s, there were only about 10,000 to 12,000 people in La Jolla. Everybody knew each other. You didn’t have to lock your doors. People were a lot friendlier. Scuba divers would leave their gear at the side of our house. And when they’d retrieve it, they’d leave us abalone and lobster as a thank-you payment.
“Back then, you didn’t have to be extremely wealthy to live there. It was extremely middle class. La Jolla had small markets instead of the chichi shops. There was money, but it wasn’t flaunted like it is now.
“You could go out to the beach on any day and see only maybe 10 to 20 people there. Today, you might see 50 to 100 people. And where the seals are now, there weren’t any seals — it was a children’s beach. The water was very shallow and crystal clear. Parents would take their young children there.
“Further [south], where the old Scripps Hospital was on Prospect Street, there was a great diving beach. South of there, the Marine Street beach had only two accesses: one on Marine Street and one on Sea Lane. Understand that there weren’t any apartment buildings back then, only sand dunes, cliffs, and shale. It was much nicer then.
“La Jolla Shores, that’s where the kids had to go. We’d grab a hamburger, then do some rafting. Back then, Scripps would let us fish off the pier. You could even be a junior oceanographer and attend the meetings.
“I lived at the house until about four years ago. I could take my kayak down to the beach or after work I could swim in the ocean. The beach changed all the time. One day it would be all sand, the next day it would be all rock. I’d watch the waves rear up and crash on the beach. The power of the ocean is wild.
“From the Marine Street beach, I saw lots of small boats get crashed on the rocks. I saw sailboats go down. I saw people drown, and I saw people get pulled out of the water with broken arms and legs.
“There’s no slope at this beach, like in L.A. Here, you walk out ten feet and you’re over your head.
“There were drawbacks about living there too. People would come to the beach at 3:00 a.m. drunk, and they’d want to build a fire by your house. You’d tell them to be quiet and they’d want to throw a bottle at your window. When the grunion ran at 4:00 a.m., you’d hear people yelling, ‘Hey, I got one!’
“The lots for those [beachside] houses are very small too. The houses along Camino de la Costa take up their whole lots. Today, there’s not a house there that’s under $2 million. I know a guy, he bought a house there after he saw it in Town & Country magazine. He’s really wealthy. Now ceos buy their houses there.
“About 15 years ago with El Niño, the waves were taking rocks the size of typewriters and putting them on our deck. We just threw a chain-link fence over the rocks and paved over it to make an instant seawall.
“In more recent years, there were gangs coming to the beach. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of money in La Jolla, and some people without money are going to want to steal it. You could get shot on the beach and no one might hear it because it’s so noisy. About seven years ago, by my house, about 200 kids were there, having fights, and someone would get knifed. There are a lot more burglar alarms, walls, and fences installed in the area over the last ten years, and more police patrolling now. Things have improved since they put lifeguards on the beach and banned alcohol. It’s more of a family scene now.
“When you live on the beach, it’s like living on a sailboat, because everything rusts in a year. Your place needs more maintenance than you’d believe. Just about any metal will rust. Even aluminum. Unless you’ve got brass. But hinges, nails, screws — you have to galvanize everything. If you keep your car out, it’ll rust too. If you put varnish on a handrail, in about two years it’ll be gone.
“Wind carries the salt. So if you don’t clean your windows every week, they get caked with it. There are only certain plants that’ll grow in that salt air — ice plants, geraniums, bougainvillea, and some succulents. The guy who lived across the street could have a rose garden because it was sheltered. Otherwise it wouldn’t have grown. And sand’s a problem. It gets into the carpeting and stuck in the vacuum.
“I think it wasn’t until I moved away from there that I realized how horrible the traffic was — with the tourists and the old ladies driving. [Because of the crowds], practically nobody in La Jolla goes to lie on the beach anymore. They go to La Jolla Shores, maybe, to run on that beach. North of there is Black’s Beach, and that’s where I used to surf and raft as a kid. Now it’s a nude beach.”
For Sale: Beachside Shack W/Vu. $2 Million
Coldwell Banker’s Kate Adams is waxing eloquent about the staggering view of San Diego Bay’s sailboats that can be seen from a $2.95 million Point Loma home that’s also got an old Spanish-style dock for your boat. She describes in vivid detail the small-lotted but valuable properties along Del Mar’s oceanfront that you can snap up for between $2.2 and $5.4 million. Want something with more bang? How about the six-bedroom home on Camino del Mar that’s available for a mere $10.8 million? Great ocean view.
She spends her days, evenings, and weekends selling San Diego oceanfront property. She knows La Jolla’s shoreline homes best. Ocean living doesn’t come cheap there, she says. The lowest-priced property recently available on Camino de la Costa just sold for $2 million, she notes. A “cute-as-a-button” house at Cove Beach — with no yard, mind you — is up for $4.9 million. And a 13-bedroom — yeah, you read that right — on La Jolla Farms Road was bought in March “by a guy from L.A.” for $15.9 million. A summer home, maybe?
Could Father Junípero Serra ever have imagined that his peregrinations would come to this? We think not.
Kate Adams took me for a spin in her Infiniti Q45 to view houses for sale along La Jolla’s coastline:
“Yes, people will pay a lot of money for oceanfront property. Last year, two lots, each about 35 feet wide in the Del Mar Colony, sold for $10 million total. They had about 100 linear feet of beachfront. That’s $100,000 a linear foot. And I don’t think those lots were on the market for even a month.
“Right now, there’s not that much beachside for sale. The inventory’s very low. If you want a lot of land, and you want an oceanfront property, you’re gonna run into problems. Two million dollars in Rancho Santa Fe will get you four acres and a nice house. But here, you don’t get the land. You’ll also be frustrated in La Jolla if you have a boat, because there are no harbors near here. The water’s too rough. So you either go to the Coronado Cays or Point Loma if you want to keep a boat.
“What holds value are three things: oceanfront; a view — usually of the ocean; and land, lots of land. But finding that combination here is impossible. You have to justify the value over and over to people who come from other parts of the country. They get California sticker shock when they hear the prices for these oceanfront homes. But if someone wants waterfront, there’s only so much of it. Because inventory’s limited, prices are high. In La Jolla, beachfront makes up a very small percentage of homes, but those tend to be the most expensive.
“In La Jolla, which I know best, there are two types of waterfront neighborhoods: permanent and beach neighborhoods. People live all year round in the permanent beachfront neighborhoods, while people just stay in the beach neighborhoods for the summer. But there’s a trend right now — the beach houses in the beach neighborhoods are being torn down and being replaced by bigger, permanent houses — that is, unless the historical society grabs you. So some neighborhoods are in transition.
“This all is La Jolla Farms. It was originally university-owned and has a history of slides. The whole area from Del Mar south has had that problem.” She points to a series of large, low-slung estates overlooking the ocean. “Tony Robbins lives here… That house belongs to a TV guy from L.A.… And that one over there belongs to a physician from Colorado. I don’t know what his specialty is.
“People are building Fairbanks Ranch stuff here in La Jolla Farms. In other parts of La Jolla, there aren’t estates like this [she points to a house that looks like a Best Western International hotel]. But in La Jolla Farms, you’ll see quite a few of them.
“That’s La Jolla Shores. Those little condos over there with their old sinks and bathrooms go for in the 7s and 8s [$700,000 to $800,000].
“Now we’re passing Windansea, with all the surfers in your face. You can see all the multiple-unit dwellings. They’re really narrow, about one room wide, and they’re long like shoe boxes. They go for about $1.7 million — $3000 a square foot.”
She guides the Infiniti toward a huge stucco mansion. “Okay, this is Camino de la Costa, also called the Gold Coast. Except for La Jolla Farms, this is the highest-priced oceanfront property in La Jolla. Here you get lots of privacy. Take a look at that piece of dirt [a vacant lot] — it just went for under $4 million. There was one house here recently on the market for over $5 [million] that was a dump. But here’s a great mansion for $9 [million]. And that one over there is $12.5 [million].
“This last place we’re visiting is Bird Rock. It’s a beachy neighborhood. Very mixed. See that house over there? The guy just broke variance by building it too high. I think he’s going to have to take some of the top off.”
The Ocean, It Makes Me Wax Poetic
Seaside living brings out the bard in some people. This is evidenced by the (regretfully abridged) message left on the Reader’s voice mail by an enthusiastic ex–Mission Beach resident who, for some reason, failed to leave his name. He shares his unbridled rapture with us about beach living:
“Yeah. I used to live by the beach at Mission Beach. Yeah, it was pretty great, seeing the waves crash and everything. Except it got #$%& crowded and noisy, and there were these guys taking their girlfriends there and &%$#@ them at night. And yeah, sometimes you had gangs getting into all kinds of @&^ and there were fights breaking out all the time. The teenagers would drink and leave their %$&%[email protected] beer bottles all over the place. But yeah, mostly it was cool to live there. Thanks. That’s all I have to say.”
My Multimillion-Dollar Bungalow by the Sea
“Joe Jones” is an intensely private man who recently moved into a 3000-square-foot, meticulously kept home overlooking the ocean in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. No, he said, the Reader can’t print his name. Or his occupation. Or anything about the house’s other residents. But he permitted me to walk through his unusual concrete-and-glass house, gaze out its 21-foot windows to the waves below, and imagine what daily life is like for a man such as “Joe Jones.”
“I love this area. I’ve been in San Diego all my life, and I’m a beach person. I have to say, this is the best place for a good beach lifestyle. I was looking for something in North County, and I wanted a white-water view, but most of the lots available were small lots. This lot sold the day it went on the market.
“It’s like Hawaii here. There are no sidewalks. We ride our bikes everywhere. Most beach communities are congested, but this isn’t at all. It’s really a laid-back place, kind of spiritual, and still has agricultural zoning in some parts, so it’s got a country ambiance. It’s also pretty diverse — you’ve got million-dollar homes amid one-story beach bungalows. The neighbors wave when they pass by.
“From these windows overlooking the ocean, and from the roof deck, I can see from La Jolla to Dana Point. I surf in the mornings, so I just walk right down to the beach. There’s a four-acre retreat — a white-water surfing area — called Swami’s, which is pretty well known.
“Concrete offers a lot of benefits over other building materials — security, fire, pests, seismic, and maintenance. Ocean salt plays real havoc on other materials, but concrete is stable against salt.
“I have no insulation in these walls. On the beach you don’t have to worry about temperature. And as for sound, this neighborhood is quiet. Really quiet. We go to sleep with the sound of the ocean every night.”
Getting Design Review Board Approval for a Waterfront Home…Can Be a Beach
Architect Lou Dominy had a dream, a goal, a desire. He wanted to build a second home — a beach house — on a teeny, oddly shaped lot at Camino del Mar and 23rd Street in Del Mar that some people mistook for a traffic island. Why pursue such an unusual construction?
For Dominy, the lure of the sea was strong, but the repellent high prices of more normal-sized seaside homes in Del Mar were stronger. So Dominy chose to construct a small house on an affordable piece of turf. But he had not anticipated the glowering disapproval of Del Mar’s Design Review Board. It was less than thrilled with his proposal.
Created in the 1970s to protect Del Mar residents’ property values, privacy, and the area’s aesthetic character, the board (whose machinations another architect called “a form of torture”) rejected Dominy’s proposed stucco exterior, roof deck, and sidewalk. Then it demanded that Dominy change the house’s proposed shape, color, floor plan, and landscaping, and eliminate stairs. He did. But still the board would not bless Dominy’s residential creation.
Finally, however, Dominy’s perseverance paid off. He received a green light to build and joined the elite ranks of San Diego’s beachside property owners.
“The piece of land this house is on is shaped like a piece of pizza. Some people call the house the Triangle House because both the house and the lot are triangle-shaped.
“The prices in Del Mar are rather high, and I thought that this was the only way I could live by the beach there. To me, that’s what California is about — the beach. It took four years to get the house approved. The city did all they could to stop it. They said it was too much house on too little lot. The lot is 1200 feet, and the house is 700 feet. It’s a one-bedroom, two-bath. In the bedroom there’s a queen-sized bed that you can walk around.
“It took about a year to build. We were trying to make it not seem small. There is very little furniture. It’s very boatlike. My plan was to make it efficient, just like living on a yacht. I love the sound of the ocean and the cool breeze. We did a whole lot of soundproofing, so there’s not any traffic noise. I love to get up in the morning and walk or jog on the beach. We’re just 100 yards away from it. We can watch the waves from the kitchen, dining room, and roof deck.
“When you look at the house, you’ll see that there’s very little metal on the house. The only metal you’ll see is roof flashing, which is copper, and two portholes, which are bronze. A true fact about living near the beach is that you can’t have metals that’ll rust.
“I’ve gotten a bunch of referrals from people seeing this house. Some are beachside projects and some are very difficult sites. This house, you know, is on a site 90 feet long, and it goes from a point — 0 feet wide to 26 feet wide. It really is shaped like a piece of pizza.”
And Speaking of Pizza…
Tracy Bringas (“My name’s pronounced like ‘Bring us’ some more pizza”) is a full-time mom and country-music composer. From 1981 to 1991, she penned tunes from her home by the ocean in North Mission Beach. The ocean constantly inspired her, she says. She misses being by it.
“What I liked best was to look out my window and not see any buildings, just the ocean. It represented unlimited space to me. The ocean was like liquid Valium, because it was so soothing, so calming. And the air was so fresh and clean. It didn’t smell like car exhaust.
“I used to collect shells. After the storm in 1988, there were so many big, beautiful shells. I also used to go surf fishing a lot. I’d stand in the water up to my shins and fish. Sometimes lobsters would take a bite out of your line.
“Mostly I caught surf perch, but once in a while I caught a bass, and sometimes even a sand shark. When the water gets warm, some people catch stingrays. Once, a whale washed up on the beach. But it wasn’t monstrous, so they didn’t have to blow it up. I think they just hauled it away. Another year, a body washed up about eight courts down from us. I didn’t see it, though.
“There were certain people that walked by every day. There was one guy who walked to the jetty and back every day, and he was always reading a book. He was like clockwork. One time, I was sitting on my deck and a couple of girls skated by. They looked like they were really loaded. They stopped in front of my house. A guy skated up to them and put his arms around them. He looked like he was trying to put the moves on them. They pulled his pants down to his ankles and skated away. It was really funny.
“Biff and Skippy from San Diego at Large were filmed in our house. Our house was their home. We’d sit and watch the show. I was in it several times.
“Once, our band [the Fliers] got a noise permit and began playing on Cinco de Mayo, on our deck. But the police closed us down at 4:00 p.m. because people apparently were digging our music and causing a bottleneck on the boardwalk. But it was great.
“During that storm of ’88, I watched half of somebody’s house float into the ocean. Barbecues were floating away. My neighbor’s motorcycle floated away. We had sandbagged the night before. We were drinking Tequila Gold and watching the storm. After it was over, I walked around looking at the damage. I found a mackerel on somebody’s window sill.
“Anyone who lives by the ocean knows about its risks. The smart ones who know about the high tides go out and buy about 100 sandbags the night before a storm.
“I’m still adjusting to being away from the ocean. I live on one-third of an acre in Lemon Grove. It’s another sort of big expanse, but this time it’s land.”
Invasion of the Beach-Snatchers
Pat Dahlberg is president of the La Jolla Historical Society.
“There are 12 lots right on the beach, north of Kellogg Park. These used to be for residents of La Jolla. Now they are becoming residences for rich Texans. The rich Texans are coming in and building vacation houses. One was 10,000 square feet. And another [mansion] is coming in on a big scale too. I suppose the Texans are coming here because it’s hot there in the summer. But they don’t have any ties to the community.
“I think about half the Shores’ beach is for surfers. To me, as a long-term resident of La Jolla, the beaches are getting more crowded. These days, in the winter, the beach is as crowded as in the summer. There are so many people in San Diego now. All the beaches are getting more crowded. You used to be able to go down to the beach in winter and see it relatively empty. The locals used to go by Marine Street and Sea Lane. They have a strong organization there and make sure that the laws are enforced. They were the ones who instituted a drinking ban [on the beach]. But that beach has changed too.
“In the old days, Marine Street and Sea Lane and Windansea were where La Jollans really started the surfing movement. They used to punch the lights out of El Cajoners who tried to surf there. But I think things have started to calm down.
“As for Children’s Beach, I think there are people who believe it’s wonderful that seals are there. I also think there are people who wish it was like it had first been envisioned — as a beach for children. But with the city’s benign neglect, it’s not really a safe beach for children. It has a sharp slope. The erosion has increased over the past 10 to 20 years through city neglect.
“The Cove was where everything started in La Jolla. Up until the ’40s, every kid who grew up in La Jolla swam there. That’s changed too.
“I’ve noticed when I walk along the Shores that those houses used to have ladders extending down to the beach, but now they have them either pulled up or have gotten rid of them altogether. I think that’s because people are worried about security now.
“But regarding the Texans, they’ve been here a long time. And the Arizonans are coming here to summer at the Beach and Tennis Club and at a hotel on Torrey Pines Road. Some of these people come back every summer and have a party that La Jollans would kill to be invited to. That’s what’s happening. There’s big, big money coming in. The few [Texans] that I’ve met have been bankers.
“People here are unhappy that a lot of money is being spent to build on [the bluff] and to encroach on public right-of-way to the beach. The beach is really being impacted by all this building, but they’re saying that it isn’t.”
“I’d Like to Be…Under the Sea…In an Octopus’s Garden…In the Shade…”
Ocean Enterprises president Werner Kurn doesn’t live by the ocean, but his life revolves around it. Kurn manages Southern California’s largest full-service scuba-diving center, which is based on Balboa Avenue. A skilled diver himself, Kurn would be delighted if all San Diegans discovered the joys of underwater exploration.
Next May, Kurn will participate in the sinking of a 366-foot-long Canadian destroyer escort named the Yukon in 100 feet of water off Mission Beach. He and members of the nonprofit San Diego Oceans Foundation expect the ship will be transformed into an artificial reef for scuba divers to explore.
“In the early days, [scuba] had a bad name. It attracted only macho guys. Most of the [scuba shops] were holes in the wall. Women started getting involved about 15 years ago, but the first ones were pretty macho too. Today, there are a lot of families in San Diego diving together.
“The people who dive in San Diego are more sophisticated, I think, than people diving in other places. They tend to be of two types: there are divers who get committed here to diving but then only dive in the Caymans, etc., and then there are the others who dive in San Diego.
“Everybody learns at La Jolla Shores. It’s the perfect training beach. La Jolla Cove has a steep drop five or six feet in. For a diver, that’s good.
“I can’t tell you how enjoyable [scuba diving] is. We have kelp forests here, and some of the kelp grows six feet a day. You swim through it, and all the marine life is hiding in there, so no shark or big fish can get at them. When you dive, you might see lobsters, abalone, sea urchins, the state marine fish — the garibaldi — halibut, stingrays, and then you have all the different rockfish.
“Sunlight comes through the water and gives it color and warmth. In San Diego’s waters, sometimes the visibility is only 5 feet because of runoff — the water from the streets. But if it doesn’t rain in the summer, it gets quite nice. If you go out to San Clemente or Catalina Island, though, you might have visibility of 150 feet.
“When you’re down there, it’s so relaxing. It’s awesome. It’s great exercise, but it’s not boring, like running. It’s an incredible feeling to do flips and stand on your finger. Or to just lie somewhere and watch a worm crawling or look at hundreds of animals on a head of coral. There’s nobody talking to you, bugging you. There’s no noise, no phones. All you hear is the bubbles.”
Bill Gates Read the Wall Street Journal on My Boat
Warren Allan of the Harbor Island Yacht Club — San Diego’s only rental yacht club — is about to give the signals, a flag wave and a sharp horn blast, to start a sailing race in San Diego Bay. No, Dennis Conner isn’t in the running. Three small sailboats containing employees of a tech company will compete today. The boats will be captained by Coast Guard–certified sailors. They’ll maneuver over a triangular course laid out by Allan.
As the race begins, the employees, most of them first-time sailors, are stiffly seated, unlike the frantic professional crews in competitions such as America’s Cup. Allan stands astern in his command vessel, photographing the “racing” employees. They remain frozen like smiling ballast, while their captains trim sails and man the helms. Twenty minutes later, one of the boats lags way behind. But no shrill shouts of concern or orders to back the jib are heard.
That’s because this race is all in fun, to stimulate teamwork and competition, says Allan. I ponder this as the boatloads of silent, sedentary employees sail by.
“There’s always a good breeze here.
“San Diego and San Francisco have bays to sail on, but pretty much from here to there, there’s no other great place to sail in comfort and ease, with light conditions. It’s a very pretty place here, and you’ll find that transient sailors tend to stop and stay a bit longer here.
“San Francisco’s bay is much bigger, but it also has much greater tidal influence, and more clouds, and more winds. San Diego Bay is 25 square miles. Here, tide and wind have little influence on day-to-day sailing.
“The [Harbor Island] marina has been here for only 12 years. San Diego Bay is much bigger than Mission Bay, and you’ll see bigger boats here, because they can’t get into Mission Bay, because of its shallowness and bridges.
“Kids learn to sail in Mission Bay. It’s more sheltered, but in recent years it’s gotten a bit crowded with jet skis, sailboats, and powerboats.
“Here, there’s more interesting things to see. You’ll see the Beer Can Regatta on Wednesday nights. You’ll see Dennis Conner, Roy Disney on his 75-foot boat, and people in their 22-foot boats, all enjoying themselves. You’ll see aircraft carriers come and go, container ships, C–137 transport planes, which look like two 747s strung together, and helicopters. When the helicopters land over there, they get a steam bath. Just last weekend there was a bay-to-bay kayak competition. Guys kayaked from Mission Bay to here.
“Our [yacht club] boats go up to 42 feet. In 1996, we had Bill Gates and his family on that one [gesturing to a large sailboat] for an outing. His wife and her family stayed upstairs with the captain and had a great old time, but he sat by himself below deck for 3H hours with the Wall Street Journal.
“There’s a big sailboat, I think it’s called the Andromeda, that’s 130 feet long and has two great masts. It’s an immaculate ship. In the past nine months, I’ve seen it about four times. It has an elevator to take people to the top of the mast, and strung between the two masts is a giant net. There’s a Jacuzzi on the bow. Last time I saw it, it had a huge jazz band aboard, and those folks were having a party for about 50 people. The guys on board were swinging and dancing in midair.
“It’s amazing the sizes of boats people live on. Two men lived on one that was just 20 feet, in homeless conditions. I passed them once, and one guy was eating a can of baked beans. See that old boat over there? Some family lives on it with two little boys. They have a swing on deck. Sometimes you see them with their life jackets on, on the top deck.
“I wish there was more of an awareness that San Diego Bay is a great place to sail. We’ve taken about 10,000 people sailing in the last four years, and about 95 percent have never been on a sailboat before. Most of our members are middle class. The rich people own their own boats. Even 22-foot boats cost between $11,000 and $27,000, and then there’s the costs of keeping them at the dock.
“It’s sad, but the general public in San Diego doesn’t really know what’s available here today.”
Surf’s Up, Duuuude!
Encinitas veterinarian Bill Robertson is not your average San Diego surfin’ dude. He’s 54 years old and has been catching waves since he was 22. Today, he surfs with his three teenagers and plans to continue doing so “until someday I may never paddle out again or paddle in again.” Retirement from atop the waves, dude, is simply not an option.
“There are people of all ages surfing around here — a lot of them are in their teens or 20s, but there are a few people in their 80s doing it.
“Most older guys surf on longboards that are nine feet or longer. You can catch the wave sooner on them, before it breaks, and you get a faster, longer ride. Shortboards require a lot more gymnastics, and you play with the steepest part of the wave to get in the tube.
“In the winter, you have northern currents and the biggest swells. The water is colder and rougher. If you’re gonna have a scary swell, it’s going to be then. In the spring and summer, you have southern swells, which come up on southern beaches like Black’s and Windansea. In San Diego, the water’s crowded pretty much all year-round. Where there’s surf in San Diego, it’s gonna be crowded. There aren’t many [uncrowded] basking beaches here, and people have to do something, so they surf.
“Ideally you want a wave to not be windy. When it’s windy it’s a bouncy ride, like hitting moguls.
“There’s some dangers to the sport, like drowning, getting hit by your board and getting knocked out, being sucked down by a big wave, or hitting bottom. But in our area, these aren’t too common because we have a coastal break. The waves here aren’t as steep as in Hawaii, which has huge waves breaking in just a few feet of water. That makes a good ride but it’s very risky.
“To be at the top of this field, well, it’s just a gift. It hurts my back just to watch the positions these kids get into.
“There’s etiquette in surfing. The person with the highest position on the wave has the right-of-way, and everyone has to get out of his way. If you get in front of somebody who’s already caught the wave, it’s called ‘snaking’ and it’s bad etiquette. You could get beat up for it, or have somebody do it back to you. But most of the time those things don’t happen. The point of surfing is to have fun.
“I surf, I think, because I enjoy creation — that might be the dolphins coming around, or a pelican flying overhead, or a seal coming up and eating an octopus, or even a fish going by below you. It’s all a reminder to be thoughtful that you’re alive.”
Dog Day Afternoon
Some people, like Coronado resident John Hook, are forced to visit the beach each day by serious mandate. No, Hook doesn’t work at the beach. No, he’s not performing community service or ecological research. He has been commanded to spend an hour at Coronado’s Dog Beach every morning by his two canine housemates, Polly, a poodle–bichon frise mix, and Snickers, a toy poodle. Collectively the two dogs are called “The Power Poodles” by other Dog Beach regulars — the human regulars, that is.
Coronado’s Dog Beach is where Polly and Snickers begin each day and socialize with longtime associates. With Polly and Snickers’s permission, Hook shared the joys of Coronado’s Dog Beach with me.
“We’ve been going there every day for about two years. You can take your dogs there after they’re four months old and have had all their shots, so they don’t get sick.
“Dog Beach is at the north end of the beach here. The property belongs to the Navy, but they’ve opened it up to the dogs, so that they can run off-leash.
“On the weekends, there’s about 50 to 100 dogs here. Dogs have a higher emotional understanding of fun. They know how to have fun and they have more of it than anyone else on the beach. We take ours out at 6:00 a.m. on weekdays, and there’s a group of about 5 to 10 dogs that are there at that time every day. There’s Moly [named after molybdenum], who’s an Old English sheepdog, and Oscar the basset hound, and a few others.… There’s Alice, a collie mix who’s a great Frisbee dog. She chases planes when they come to land at the Navy base and chases birds and owls. And then there’s Sam, a poodle–Lhasa apso mix. Sam’s a manly dog.
“The dogs will usually play with just about anyone who shows up, but they definitely have their cliques. They know who’s in charge. Moly is 13, and she tends to be the boss when she’s there. She herds the group, and she’ll bark at them, and she’ll keep everybody moving along. She doesn’t like to dawdle. In our household, Polly’s in charge.
“I’ve seen a couple of dogs growl but never fight at the beach. It may happen, but I’ve never seen it.
“What’s nice about Coronado is that it’s such a small community and the dog people get to know each other. The dogs introduce you because they just run up and start playing together.
“We had a dog birthday party at the beach when Moly turned 13. I think that’s 84 in dog years. We had a barbecue, and the dogs wore hats and got to eat doggie ice cream. Six dogs came. We also had a Dog Beach baby shower two weekends ago [for John’s wife]. Snickers wore a tuxedo and Polly wore a baseball cap because she’s a bit of a tomboy. They’re getting a baby brother. We consider them family.
“You can never come back from Dog Beach without having a laugh. Once I saw a little dog running by with a life jacket on. There’s always somebody jumping in the sand, chasing their tail, taking a swim.
“The great thing about this is that it makes you go out to the beach every day. You have to — the dogs make you do it.”
Stop and Smell the (Oceanic) Roses
It is early morning at La Jolla’s Marine Room. Staff are setting tables, oblivious to the crashing waves, joggers, scuba divers, and middle-aged couples just outside the restaurant’s long windows.
The Marine Room has faced La Jolla’s pounding surf since 1941, when it first opened its doors to diners, offering them Fresh Lobster à la Newburg in a shell for $1.35 and martinis for 35 cents. Within a year, turbulent storms and violent seas had forced the restaurant to close during the winter. In 1948, the restaurant’s original glass windows were replaced with three-quarter-inch tempered glass, which withstood the ocean’s assault until 1982, when El Niño storm waters crashed through the Marine Room’s windows and flooded the restaurant.
New York transplant Sheridan Dowling, director of restaurants for La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, Inc., oversaw the Marine Room’s operations for several months this year. The former Helmsley Palace captain of à la carte dining found working just feet from the surf to be a surprising delight.
“This is one of the few private beaches remaining in this area. The original concept for the property was that it was going to be a yacht club. But the shelf goes out too far to [accommodate vessels], so they decided to put in a restaurant instead. We have the good fortune of three things: location, location, location. And there are two things we feel confident about: the breaker wall and our three-quarter-inch windows. We survived El Niño last year.
“We keep a high-tides calendar. During high tides, the waves will crash at [window] height and hit the roof. The months of November through February are when the Marine Room has the most profound wave-crashing experiences. At extremely high tides, we will open for breakfast buffet so people can watch the waves crashing. It can be rather dramatic.
“There is an attitude of high tides. They bring seals and dolphins just 50 feet from our windows. You can sometimes see the blowholes from whale migrations from here. This delights children, and even adults turn into children at these times.
“We often forget that [most] of the country is nowhere near the ocean. So for visitors, and even for residents here, there’s a special draw to the coast — the sea’s sky blue, deep green, and changing palette of colors, with the sky as its backdrop.
“In my humble opinion, every night has its own charm. And even the daytime hours are unique. On overcast blustery days, diners sit comfortably behind three-quarter-inch glass, watching the ocean churning. At night, when the grunion run, we’ll see them flopping around on the beach. They look like large silvery sardines.
“At sunsets, we get standing ovations throughout the restaurant when the green flash occurs as the sun sets over the horizon. It happens the moment the sun goes below the horizon and when it does, people are poised for it. They suddenly see what they call the green flash — a fluorescent-green illuminating flash, which puts a halo where the sun went down.
“I used to think it was an optical illusion, but it has to do with atmospheric conditions. When I first arrived [in San Diego], I was driving on the road, and I noticed a lot of people pulled over to the side of the road. I was concerned, thinking there might be an accident ahead, but then it dawned on me. They all had pulled over to watch the sunset. What a discovery, and how different from the East Coast. You can imagine in New York at 5:00 rush hour, whether people would pull over to watch a sunset. Forget about it. This was my introduction to San Diego. It was a place to stop and smell the roses. The sea here is the roses.”
The Living Beach — When Will the Sandman Come Again?
In Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches, New York Times science editor Cornelia Dean warns that our seashores are in trouble, as coastal urbanization continues to interfere with the natural removal and replenishment of sands. Wide beaches prevailed on our coasts until bustling urban settlements were established. The wide beaches lasted until the 19th Century, before becoming victims of quickened erosion.
How are San Diego’s beaches faring today? Reinhard Flick, oceanographer for the California Department of Boating and Waterways and a Scripps Institution of Oceanography research associate, responds.
“There have been remarkably small changes in the San Diego shoreline. Where you do see big changes is by the harbors where there was a lot of sand nourishment. Places like Oceanside are a lot wider. South Mission Beach is hundreds of feet wider than it was in the ’30s. And Coronado, those beaches were very narrow at the turn of the century, and in 1905, they almost lost that hotel because of huge storms from the south that just about ripped that beach to shreds. Today Coronado has one of the widest beaches in California. It’s only exceeded by the beaches in Venice and Santa Monica.
“Arguably, though, San Diego has some of the worst eroded beaches in California, particularly in North County. People are going to seek to build seawalls, and the seawalls are going to contribute to passive erosion. If the sand is retreating, the beach is going to get narrower. Cliffs can retreat and collapse due to wave attacks. There was a receding cliff that fell in Torrey Pines.…
“This may sound self-evident, but when a beach erodes and the sand disappears, all that remains is a rocky, cobbly beach with no sand on it. There’s no more sand to deplete, so the rocky beach stabilizes. But rocky beaches don’t have recreation potential, so the question arises about whether or not to widen them and how to provide sand nourishment. If they’re going to be made wider, the best way to do it is to bring sand in, so another question arises: who will pay for it? You’re talking $3 to $10 per cubic yard of sand. And big projects are 1 million cubic yards and up.
“It costs this much because the best sources of sand are offshore — about 40 to 100 feet deep. So you need big ships with big pipes to pump the sand onto the beach.
“We’ve dammed the rivers, and in doing so, we’ve cut off one of the main sources of natural sand by at least 50 percent. So where is the material going to come from, and, again, who’s going to pay for it?”