When a stranger showed up with his surfboard at the Windansea surf break last December, the locals knew he was a troublemaker.
“He was a biker-surfer type,” said Mark Dephilippis, a 43-year-old Windansea local who was watching the waves from the parking lot. “He had a bad attitude.”
Sitting in the lineup beyond the breakers, all that can be heard is the slap of the sea on the sides of the surf boards. On this day in December, the locals were watching the visitor and readying themselves for a fight. The visitor began harassing the local kids — “screaming at them and talking about their mothers,” said Dephilippis
“Enough is enough,” Dephilippis said. “We take care of our own.”
A local shot his board at the visitor, using the momentum from a wave to propel it toward his head. The board missed the man, and the visitor began to paddle to the shore.
But the locals followed him. On the beach, the man began to run. Four locals caught up with him and beat him. There was no contest. “I’d have ripped his head off,” said Dephilippis. By the end of the fight, the visitor was bloody and beaten, with part of his ear missing. It was bitten off in the rumble.
When the police arrived, neither the bloody visitor nor the bloody local pressed charges.
“He knew he was dead wrong,” said Dephilippis, adding, “we’re not backing down.”
This recent eruption of violence at Windansea is part of the tradition of surfing. Last summer, a group of locals yelled at and threatened young surfers who had entered a competition at the Ocean Beach Pier. “That was pretty bad,” said 13-year-old Josh Cormin, a Windansea surfer. Three years ago, a San Diego local held a visiting surfer submerged underwater for over 30 seconds, a maneuver known as dunking. Nearly six years ago, an off-duty lifeguard was beaten by a local at the Sunset Cliffs surf spot known as Garbage. Because these incidents occur out of the purview of city police, few are officially recorded. Word passes from mouth to mouth; surfers know which spots are “localized.”
Surfing websites, which offer information on surf spots around the world, rate the level of localism as they would other dangers. “Risk of rip currents: high. Risk of locals: high.” Beaconsbeach.com ,a web- site dedicated to the local Encinitas surf spot, says that the group of surfers known as the “Grandview Tribe” are “known for their fierce localism and protective nature of their beach.” The site says that the Grandview Tribe “specializes in stealth techniques to prevent exposure of their beach to the outside world.” Farther north, Wannasurf.com warns nonlocals away from 40th Street, a popular break in Orange County, by saying “localism is VERY heavy here...there isn’t a lot of respect, even between seasoned locals. Don’t even try to ride the left at the jetty unless you grew up here.”
“When I was a kid, I was taught to fight anyone,” said Ozstar DeJourday, La Jolla local and former president of the Windansea Surf Club. “That’s the way we were brought up — to fight. We were beat up at 11 years old by guys 18 or 19 years old.”
“These kids will do the same stuff,” said 32-year-old Gabe Jensen, a La Jolla resident and Windansea local. “When I was in my teens, I looked forward to that kind of stuff,” he said.
Now “it’s like a family,” Jensen said. “It takes a long time to get that.
Jensen is unapologetic about the occasional eruption of violence at the beaches. A surfer who does not respect his elders has to expect it, he said. It is part of the code of surfing. Should violent localism continue? “Absolutely,” Jensen said.
“If you don’t live here, don’t surf here,” declares one bold sign written on the boulders just south of Swami’s. “Locals only,” says another, also south of Swami’s, written as a welcome sign on the decaying concrete pilaster of what was once a lifeguard tower. Many of these signs are written in surf wax. The letters are yellow and faded, crusted with a layer of sand.
“If [local surfers] get together as a group, it becomes a frenzy,” said Dennis Kinzer, a 47-year-old Carlsbad resident and lifetime surfer.
If you surf long enough in one place, the locals will give you a name, a surf name — like Winter, Weasel, Red Dog, the Cave Man, and Silent Mike. After a day of surfing, locals will congregate in parking lots or on the beach.
“We are the council,” said one surfer standing with two of his friends in the parking lot above Swami’s, who identified himself only by his surf name, Durell. “We are like a family.... We don’t want anyone to surf here.”
Standing in the parking lot at Swami’s, their hair still wet from the ocean, the group watched every car closely as it pulled slowly round the drive. If they didn’t like the look of the car, or if they saw more than two people checking out the surf, they would start heckling and yelling at the car. It wasn’t hostile yelling, just a gentle reminder to the visitors that they were on “council” turf.
“If people pull in from Florida and try to take the same waves as you, it’s like, come on, we’ve been waiting for these,” Durell said.
“It wasn’t this crowded a couple of years ago,” said Weasel. “It’s getting more and more crowded every year. On a good day, you can see 100 or 150 people out there.”
On California’s 1100 miles of coastline, there are 648 well-known surf spots, according to the Surfrider’s annual “State of the Beach” report. There are 73 well- known breaks from Oceanside to Coronado — including Tamarack, Seaside Reef, Bird Rock, and Garbage — and dozens more unnamed “secret spots.”
There are estimated to be more than four million surfers worldwide and more than 800,000 in California alone. Seeing more than 100 people at any one break is an experience most surfers share.
Clint Warner, an Ocean Beach surfer who learned to deal with locals living in Hawaii, brings a screwdriver when he’s surfing a new spot. Before he paddles out, he slams the screwdriver into a wooden pole, or into the ground, to show the locals “I have an attitude.” Warner said that he’s never had a problem in San Diego.
The most heavily localized of all the San Diego surf spots are the breaks that have not become overcrowded. Once the number of surfers exceeds a certain level — say, an average of 30 on a big- surf day — localism fades away. There are simply too many new surfers to intimidate, too many people to chase away. Breaks like Black’s Beach and the Ocean Beach Jetty, though once heavily localized, are now open to anybody.
But spots like Windansea and the difficult-to-reach Newbreak south of Ocean Beach are still disputed. The locals still feel as if they need to protect their turf.
Locals are upset by more than just the crowds. Most violent localism “has to do with people who are in over their heads, and they are a danger to themselves and others,” said Jim Neri, a 43- year-old La Jolla resident and lifetime surfer. “They are being told, ‘Go surf somewhere you can learn.’”
“A lot of people paddle out and think they can just drop in because they can stand up,” said Chip, a Cardiff local and lifetime surfer. But beginners don’t know the rules of the wave — that a surfer must respect the elders and follow the wave etiquette. “There is a pecking order,” Chip said, “that beginners don’t understand.”
“The person closest to the peak has the wave,” said Jim Neri. “It should be common sense. The person in front should either pull back or kick out. And there should be respect out there. If you paddle out at a new place, you wait for the pack to catch their wave.” Surfers who don’t follow the rules are “a real danger to them- selves and to others.”
San Diego lifeguard lieutenant Brent Bass said that the lifeguards receive many more calls to treat surfing- related injuries than to respond to harassment by locals. “We see a lot of head in- juries and facial lacerations,” Bass said. “Usually what gets hit is what is sticking out of the water, and that is your head. The leash on the board acts like a big rubber band, and the board gets traveling really fast.”
As violent as it can sometimes be, “[localism] is also beneficial,” said Matt Walker, editor at Surfing magazine. Locals keep an eye on their own beach, using their trained aggression — the crowding, heckling, and intimidation — to make sure beginners don’t get in over their heads and saving them when they do.
“A lot of good things come out of [the localism at] Windansea,” said Dephilippis. “We organize surf contests for the kids...we sponsor beach cleanups,” he said. “I don’t want you to think that every time you come down to Windansea you’ll get beat up, because that’s not true.”
“The new localism is one of stewardship,” said Jim Neri. “Being aggressive is not cool anymore. I think [locals attracted to violence] are living in the past. And I think they are going to get left behind.