How this Westsider reckoned with the call of the sea

By Matthew King

The beaches are closed, but miles of open ocean still tempt surfers

Matthew King is the former longtime Communications Director at Heal the Bay. He now writes and teaches about effective public engagement at www.may77.pro.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I spent two Thursdays ago hiding from the cops in Malibu.

Against my better judgment, I found myself squatting behind my Honda Element on Pacific Coast Highway, playing cat-and-mouse with sheriff deputies enforcing the state’s coronavirus-related beach-closure policy.

I’m a 56-year-old Santa Monica resident and intermediate-level surfer who tries to do the right thing. I wait my turn in line. I pay my fair share of taxes, on time. I’ve never been arrested. But there I was, absurdly crouching in the bushes alongside a fellow surfer parked in front of me — a skinny Gen Z dude with a mischievous grin and multiple neck tattoos.

Despite the police cruiser stationed nearby, my accomplice and I plotted how to snake through the heavy brush down to Latigo Point. After weeks of quarantine, the well-hidden point break beckoned with a few set waves and an hour’s reprieve from grinding self-isolation.

In these dark days, rational people rightly wonder why anyone would even think about sneaking out for a surf. After all, a leading U.S. atmospheric chemist made headlines the week before last alerting ocean lovers that shorelines could teem with harmful viruses. “I wouldn’t go in the water if you paid me $1 million right now,” warned the Scripps scientist Kim Prather. (Prather later back-tracked after the publication of a new study in the journal Nature and a wave of backlash among surfers, but still urged that “everyone [take] extra precautions” in a follow-up interview with the L.A. Times.)

But surfers aren’t rational. We do dumb things, selfish things. If there’s swell, we lie to our bosses.  We skip nieces’ kindergarten graduation ceremonies. We drag indignant spouses away from lively dinner parties because we have to get up at first light.

And that’s just in normal times. The virtual lockdown of the state’s 800-plus miles of coastline has left California’s multitudes of surfers in a state of confusion, fear and desperation. We’re like caged animals, jonesing with the rest of the state’s fanatical fitness culture. Beaches stretch for miles with no one on them, as windswept and forlorn as the Kalahari. Parking lots are taped off like crime scenes. Authorities patrol the best surf breaks in 4x4s.

Much of California is in dry-dock with us – climbers staring wistfully at padlocked national parks, gym-rats pacing in cramped living rooms. Sure, we can get our 10,000 steps by walking around the block, dodging exasperated young parents and their scooter-riding charges. But barred from the sea – or the boulders or the yoga studio – we’ve lost part of our identity, our essence.

I scratched the sea-air itch by walking to Venice Beach from my Sunset Park home. Authorities had largely buttoned up the shoreline. Ragged homeless encampments still dotted the boardwalk. Police largely looked away as a smattering of joggers and cyclists zig-zagged on the bike path. A lone foam-boarder lolled in blown-out surf at the breakwater, somehow avoiding detection.

And then a small south swell came in. After weeks of “Groundhog Day”-like isolation with my wife and stir-crazy son, I needed a break. I needed a surf, rules be damned!

On the drive up PCH, I felt the first pangs of guilt, like a Costco shopper deciding if he really needs 16 more rolls of Charmin.  I recalled the indignant face of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who accused those who ignore stay-at-home warnings of “spitting in the face of” health-care workers. Ick.

But many surfers do have a stubborn libertarian streak. We are inherently wary of regulation and organized structure. Sean Penn’s portrayal of burnout Valley surfer Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” has morphed into meme-ready caricature. But something in his defiant, anti-authoritarian proclamations ring true, especially after obedient weeks of sheltering in place.

Many surfers wonder why the ocean is off limits when other public spaces aren’t as tightly regulated? Sweaty teens play five-on-five basketball at Penmar Park. Foodies rub shoulders – literally – at Brentwood farmers market stalls. Not to mention the conflicting guidance across the nation. While drones fly over Hawaiian beaches to enforce that state’s stay-at-home order, the ocean is still technically open, with surfing deemed an “essential” activity. Georgia’s governor is even ordering his state’s mayors to keep the beaches open against their wishes!

Public-health edicts have been issued – you don’t need to wear a mask in public, you don’t need to be tested if you’re asymptomatic – only to be reversed. Such flip-flops make it hard to decide which rules to follow. A confused Venice surfer might naturally wonder if she is being a patriot or a patsy by abiding stay-at-home orders. It’s often hard to do the right thing in life, especially if you’re not sure it is the right thing.

Then the deputies spotted us in the dusty chaparral.

Conflicting thoughts ping-ponged as the officer approached. He can’t give us a ticket, I assured my co-conspirator. We hadn’t broken any laws … yet. The officer approached, sporting a crewcut and utterly flat expression. Strutting toward us, he exuded that cop swagger that can be off-putting. I tensed, girding for confrontation.

We looked like a pair of dumb teenagers who’ve been caught throwing dirt clods from a highway overpass. My Butthead to his Beavis.

“You guys know the beach is closed, right?” he asked in a soft, childlike voice. I felt myself soften. He stood benignly as we returned boards to SUVs. After a few minutes, he drove off.

Back by the car, I fumed. I looked down at three or so surfers who had snuck down and now bobbed at the point, waiting for waves I couldn’t ride. I felt aggrieved. It didn’t seem fair.

Then I thought about grief-stricken families who can’t hold burial rites for their loved ones at U.S. cemeteries. Or the millions of college seniors who will have to forego in-person graduation ceremonies this spring. Or the dozens of law-enforcement officers on the front line of COVID-19 response that have already been infected or died from the virus.

Or the desperate nurses who must craft face masks out of office supplies. Or local foodbanks turning away hungry families, many of them among the millions who have just lost their jobs.

It isn’t fair, is it?

After the cruiser pulled off, my new bud and I chatted a bit. He had spent the previous day in the O.C., riding uncrowded waves at Trestles. It had been “epic.” We watched the surfers at the point. With a glint in his eye, he asked me what I planned to do now that the deputy had left.

“I’m going home,” I said.

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