Light rain fell in intermittent showers across south LA as I motored north late in the evening on Cinco de Mayo. I’d spent the afternoon with my cousin and his wife and two kids in their Aliso Viejo, Orange County in their tract-house paradise, overlooking other tract houses and Laguna Canyon in the distance. Like so much of Southern California, the place would truly have been paradise not so long ago, historically speaking. Nearby, the bluffs of Dana Point tower above the Pacific where Whitey Harrison and Peanuts Larson rode their planks on thundering south swells and rowed skiffs and fished the reefs between surfs in the 1930s. An enormous breakwater now protects the harbor with mostly unused boats tied off and restaurants serving over-priced fish shipped in from the far corners of the planet.
I’d spent the weekend at the Boardroom Show in Del Mar, San Diego—a surfboard expo where shapers gather each year hoping to sell each other surfboards. It’s a great event though, a deep brain trust of surfing knowledge coming together, tightening the weave of our community. This year, the event was held in honor of the great Australian surfer/shaper Wayne Lynch (still surfing, still shaping, since the early 60s), who more than any other professional embodied a naturalists’ engagement with the remote regions he surfed, bringing a sense of stewardship and personal responsibility to the act of wave riding. Now, with a Norwegian company, Equinor, lobbying the Australian government to set up oil rigs in the Great Australian Bight, Wayne Lynch’s style of regional caretaking is more crucial than ever. But the Aussie surfers are rallying to protect their wild coast at the bottom of the continent—a place where the desert drops into a sparkling sea, and ferocious storms tear up from the Antarctic, and where the effects of an oil spill would be catastrophic and irreversible. It’s high time us Earthlings ease up on burning fuel, even if that means driving and flying less.
Of course, my participation in the Boardroom Show involved a proud display of the petrochemical products of foam and fiberglass that bring such surfing joy (not to mention the tank-and-a-half of gas I burned getting there and back). But I think the issue of resource use is as much about the amount that individuals consume, as it is about the overall systems that societies rely on for transportation, manufacturing and agriculture. In other words, the world is organized by governments, underpinned by militaries, on a fossil-fuel mode of doing business. And until that model changes, the science is irrefutable: we need to find new ways of moving, making and cultivating (and restoring and protecting the last undeveloped places), or life as we have known it for so many thousands of years is going to radically change.
So, these were my somewhat dark ruminations as I drove through the night towards home and my loving family. The rain spattered down and would clear again and the air felt tropical. I wanted to stand on the coast then, breathe in that wet night air on the edge of the Pacific, and I pictured the stretch to the north of Malibu all rocks and mountains and old California. I’d just missed Interstate 10 that would have whisked me off to Santa Monica in minutes, but I took the next exit needing a bathroom break anyway and made my way down Santa Monica Boulevard. Most places were closed but I passed a 50s-style diner and decided to stop for a cup of coffee. I used my travel mug because I am saving the planet and sidled-up to the counter. The nice waitress filled me up, and the place felt so good—a couple of old-timers jawing in a booth behind me, the stainless-steel malt cups and clean counters, the patty melts and fries coming off the line—that I decided to stay and order a slice of apple pie. “You want whipped cream on that?” the waitress asked.
With pie and coffee for sustenance, I continued on, finding the on-ramp for the I-10 a few blocks away then winding through the Santa Monica tunnel and out to PCH. Lots of RVs and camper vans were parked along the point where Sunset Boulevard meets the coast, and I imagined living that way—the vulnerability, the inconvenience, the boredom—and felt deep gratitude for the farm house we rent, for my kids getting to go to our great schools at Canalino and the Children’s Project, for this still-living paradise of Carpinteria. Having surfed that morning with friends in Oceanside, I knew there was some early-season south swell in the water and I thought to check Malibu. Virtually no one was on the road in this midnight hour, except for the chilling scene of a highway collision, sheriff’s lights flashing, the fire crew, crumpled vehicles mashed together and my slow-pass by the scene. Got to be careful out there.
Next thing, I’m at Malibu, parking the van under the glow of a streetlight and scurrying across the highway to check it. The iconic wall, with its opening to the beach and two capped pillars is some kind of portal—the cobblestone point and the even peelers so clean, so mechanical in the inky-dark of the night. Two younger guys were standing on the beach, blankets draped over their shoulders, and the bubbling whitewash of the surf moving across in that incomparable (except for Rincon, of course) point line was so inviting. The guys walked past me. “We gonna hit it, fellas?” I asked, with Gidget-infused enthusiasm. “Nah,” one of them replied as they wandered back to their van, “we’ll wait till morning.” Not me, not me at all. And it always feels like I’m getting away with something—and there’s a touch of being on a clandestine mission to it too—when I get an unexpected opportunity to surf. Particularly at midnight, at Malibu, with no one out. I wriggled into my suit and waxed up the 6’2” racing-striped Twinnie, locked up the van and hopped and skipped back across the highway.
Walking passed those pillars and down onto the sand and up to the lifeguard tower, then into the water and across the cobbled bottom before laying on my board and paddling out, I imagined the surfers that had come before me and made this place, and the sport of wave riding, what it is—Miki Dora, and before him Bob Simmons, Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg. I thought of my dad too, who wasn’t in their league as a surfer, but who told me stories of coming down to Malibu after his shift lifeguarding at Zuma Beach and seeing the point lit up at six- to eight-foot on a hot and glassy August evening in the early 1950s, his buddies Buzzy Trent, Peter Cole and Mickey Muñoz (another trio of surfing greats) streaking across and making the end of the Malibu pier. Somehow, with no one at all in the water but myself and whatever creatures might be passing in the night, I felt them—those surfing greats, and this great surfing spot. A wave cracked at the top of the point, the dancing whitewater racing down the line in the darkness and I spun my board, paddled and caught it—taken up then shooting through the night with the lights of the pier silvering the water before me.
Christian Beamish is an Editor at the Coastal View News. He is also the former Associate Editor of The Surfer’s Journal and author of “The Voyage of the Cormorant” (Patagonia Books 2012) about sailing into Baja aboard his self-built, 18-foot beach boat by sail and oar. He lives in Carpinteria with his wife and two young children.