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structures of Identity

Wallace W. Zane

Department of Anthropology
McGill university, Montreal
March 1992

A Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and

Research in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the
degree of Master of Arts

(c) Wallace W. Zane 1992

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ISBN 0-315-74710-2

Surfers of Southern California: structures of identity
By Wallace W. Zane

This thesis analyzes the structure of identity among

surfers in Southern california, who constitute a subculture
of American society. Surfer identity is shown to be derived
from the act and the setting of surfing itself, from the
individual's personal background and motivation for surfing,
and from the social interaction among surfers on and off the
Influences on the identity of surfers as a group
include the surfers' own feeling of separateness from
American society, surfer communication via the surf economy,
the strong association of surfing with adolesence, and the
portrayal of surfer symbols in the national media. The
outward form of the "surf culture" changes in response to
these influences, but the basic identity of surfers remains
the same over time.

Les surfeurs du sud de la Californie: structures d'identit

Par Wallace W. Zane

Cette thse analyse la structure de l'identit parmi

les surfeurs du sud de la Californie, qui constituent une

subculture de la societ amricaine. L'identit des

surfeurs drive de l'activit elle-mme et du cadre dans

lequel elle prend place; elle drive aussi des

caractristiques sociales et de la motivation personelle,

ainsi que de l'interaction sociale entre surfeurs sur l'eau

et hors de l'eau.

Plusiers facteurs ont une influence sur l'identit des

surfeurs: le sentiment d'tre part de la societ

amricaine, les facteurs communicatifs de l'conomie du

surf, le lien marqu entre surf et adolescence, et les

rpresentations des symboles du surf dans les mdia. Les

caractristiques de la culture du surf changent en rponse

cettes influences, mais l'identit essentielle des surfeurs

reste stable


l would like to acknowledge the helpfulness of the

surfers with whom l interacted in the course of the
research. Additionally, my wife Julia cheerfully put up
with the odd hours and strange friends l kept. Most of aIl,
l must recognize the guidance of my advisors, Jrme
Rousseau, Colin Scott and Roger Keesing, who helped me
prepare for the research and corresponded with
me during the fieldwork. Many of their comments on the
developing text became part of the document. l am
especially grateful to Jrme who read some of the roughest
of the drafts and to Julia who read the roughest ones of

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction ............... 1

The problem, Theoretical approach, Research methods
Chapter 2: Historical and Physical Setting ......... 9
Definition of surfing, History of surfing, Physical
Chapter 3: Surfing at Point Breaks aDd at Beach Breaks 20
A description of surfing, Point breaks, Beach breaks
chapter 4: Surf Economy and Communication ...... 36
Surf magazines, Surf shops, Surf equipment, Surf
contests, Surf films, Surfer employment, Related
Chapter 5: Personal Identity ............... 44
Family background, Recruitment, Socialization, Thrill
seeking, Obsession
Chapter 6: Surfer Institutions ...... 55
Discovering institutions, sensation, Technical
expertise, Language, History, surf trips, The attitude,
The look, Change
Chapter 7: National Media 73
A stereotype, Entry of surfer symbols into mainstream
media, Surfer consumption, "Gidget ruined everything,"
Surfer response to national media
Chapter 8: Patterns of Social Behavior ... 81
Divisions, Hierarchy, OVercrowding and territorialism,
Masculinity, Non-surfers
Chapter 9: CencIusion 96
Review, Questions, Concluding Remarks
References ci ted 102


CHAPTER 1: Introduc~ion

This thesis examines the structure of surfer identity

in Southern California. By showing how surfers define
themse1ves and separate their identity from that of non-
surfers, l hope to add to the discussion of identity
creation and maintenance i~ anthropology.
My interest in the study of surfers was prompted by the
large number of surfing images l noticed in television shows
and in all forms of advertising while l was living in
Montreal. Montreal is quite far from the ocean and l
wondered why surfing images would be considered effective
tools of persuasion. In a single night's television
viewing, l was presented with symbols of surfing in
~ lertisements for automobiles, shoes, beer, and cologne.
Since then, l have noted surfing symbols in all manner of
print, music, video, and film media throughout North
America. That these symbols continue to be employed
suggests ~~ey are successful as recruiting agents for retail
customers and are thereby important symbols to the consumers
of national media.
The representations of surfers one sees in the national
media ar~ overwhelmingly those of Southern Californian
surfers. This has been so since the emergence of a
numerically significant surfing subculture in Southern
California in the late 1950's, the period when the famous
California surfer Mickey Munoz rode before the movie camera

in "Gidget." It is easy to see how the coincidence of the

worl~'s most important entertainment industry and the
largest concentration of surfers in the world would lead to
the transference of Southern Californian surfer images onto
the na~ional airwaves and cinema screens. But what of the
effect of this exposure on the surfers of Southern
California themselves?

The Problem
How is identity created and maintained in an activity-
based subculture symbolically important to its parent
culture? In short, what makes a surfer a surfer? How is
surfer identity affected by the larger American culture?
This thesis will examine the identity of surfers located in
Southern California and forming cohesive units of
communication in small and large groups. It will look at
identity derived from place and history, from association
with other surfers, and from participation in the surf
economy. It will look at the derivation of personal
identity as a surfer from a number of sources as well as
shared surfer identity in the form of surfer institutions.
The thesis will try to determine what the popularization of
surfer images by the national media means to local surfer
identity. Finally, the thesis will examine the social
structures associated with surfers, showing how identity is
derived from the structures.

Theoretical Approach
Implicit in the stated problem is the following
question: In the interaction between the two identities
(surf culture and the parent culture), how do the symbols
objectified and/or appropriated by the parent culture (and
thereby made different from other symbols in the subculture)
affect the identity of the subculture and individuals in the
Rousseau (1990), Keesin) (1974), Drummond (1980), and
others have warned of the difficulty of pinpointing a
specifie culture. The preferred method--and the only one
with consistent results in discussions based on
anthropological fieldwork--is to apply the classifications
used by the people under study.
Surfers refer to their collection of behavioral traits
sometimes as a culture and sometimes as a subculture.
While "surfing culture" is used by surfers more often than
"surfing subculture," both terms will be used in this
thesis. ("Surf culture" and/or "surfer culture" and/or
"lifestyle" are common variants.)
To refer to a community of interaction as a subculture
is at the same time to indicate both sameness and difference
with a presumed larger culture. (I will alternately use the
term "parent culture," although l am not sure it or the term

1 "larger culture" implies a correct relationship between the


two categories.) Differentiation is essential to maintain

the boundaries and separateness of both categories. Because
of the emphasis on difference inherent in the very concept
of subculture, we find that most discussions of subculture
in academic publications are concerned with deviation from
the norm--the larger (or parent) culture (Greely 1980;
Schwendinger and Schwendinger 1985; Tygart 1981;
additionally, almost every issue of the journal Deviant
Behavior contains articles which use the term "subculture").
We may make a distinction between ethnic-based and
activity-based subcultures. Ethnie subcultures derive
membership from a specifie ethnie identity, while activity
subcultures require involvement with a certain activity as
the basis for membership.
Surfing culture is different from ethnic-based
subcultures in a numhcr of ways. Ethnic-based subcultures
have a typical process of recruitment in that the child's
first culture (and sometimes only culture) will be that of
the ethnie community. Surfing culture requires recruitment
from within the parent culture. Surfers, therefore, always
have two (at least) cultural identities. Rather than being
taught that one set of behavior is more appropriate to their
culture from birth, surfers must make a choice (we will see
that surfer behavior and the acquisition of surfer identity
symbols is often given much thought by the surfers). Both
types of subculture, ethnic-based and activity-based (that
is a subculture centered around a set of behavior chosen by

its members rather than a set ~f behavior of first

socialization), share a large set of values, activities, and
symbols with the larger culture. The activity-based
subculture involves a moving away from one set of behavior
(sometimes for a specified amount of time or purpose).
The most well-documented of these activity-based
subcultures are gangs and prison society. Surfing is often
set within a discussion of criminology and delinquency
(Schwendinger and Schwendinger 1985; Pearson 1979; Raw1s
1988; Van Parijs 1991). As with gangs, entry into the
surfing subcu1ture requires specifie conscious behaviors.
And as with prisons, surfing involves a measure of physical
separation from the parent culture (in the case of surfing,
the space between the breaking waves and the beach).
A main difference between prison soci~ty and gangs on
one side and surf culture on the other, is that surfing has
become a positive image in many ways in popular culture, so
much so that it is used as a selling tool for a large number
of products. Surfing maintains an image of rebelliousness
and this is also used as a selling point for many of these
products. When an ad man uses a surfboard to sell a car to
an Iowan, he is playing on the plaineman's need to feel
unique from and thereby better than his fellows. The
surfboard may be a symbol of his difference.
Do the images represented in the media have any basis
in surfing reality? How do the symbols of surfing

1 represented in the media affect surfers' self-image? What


are sl~fers' own representations of themselves? Row has

surfer identity changed through the years and how has a
s~nse of continuity been maintained? These issues will be
Previous published research on surfers has taken them
as a whole, expressing surfing culture in broad strokes in
Australia, New Zealand (Pearson 1979), Hawaii (Finney 1959,
1960), and in a limited way, California (Schwendinger and
Schwendinger 1985) and the United states (stone 1970). The
present work looks at a very specifie group of surfers in
one location (the beaches of Los Angeles and Orange counties
in California, with special emphasis on the surfing
populations at Malibu and Venice Beach). The intent is to
focus on the surfers as individuals and as members of
various groups.
In the presentation of my findings, the focus will be
on the surfers l worked with and on the issues of importance
to their identity. So, although social and technical
developments in surfing style, lan~lage, tools, etc. in
places such as Santa Cruz (northern California) and
Australia make those locations very important to the world
of surfing as a whole, except where they make a conscious
intrusion into the local surfer psyche, they will not be

Research Methods
The thesis here presented is based on fieldwork in
Southern California from the end of May to November of 1991.
The main method of research was participant observation,
supplemented by a study of surf industry publications and
relevant national parant culture media (music, films,
television, some magazines and books).
For most of the six mon~'s of the research, l was
twenty-six years old--an age which gave me easier access to
some groups of surfers than others. Generally speaking,
those surfers in tneir mid-twenties and oider were eager to
speak with me whil~ those in their teens were often
suspicious of my inquiries.
l began to surf during the early part of the research
period and gaine sufficient skill and knowledge to be
accepted as a surfer by the second month of research. The
learning period was shortened by my previous experiences
with surfing in Maryland for several seasons, ending ten
years before this study. The limited surfing skill acquired
during my early teen years was met quickly and exceeded as
my expertise increased throughout the research period. By
the end of the fieldwork, l felt confident enough to compete
for waves with the best surfers (although l was far less
skilled than they). l surfed on the largest waves
available when the majority of surfers were kept out of the

1 water by fear of the danger of serious injury.


l was socialized into the surfing culture at two

surfing locations, Malibu and Venice Breakwater. l also
followed the regular surfer pattern of travelling to several
places in search of better waves. Watching how my status
changed with the increase in my skill level gave me a unique
perspective on surfer social structure.
Most of the time, l presented myself to those l studied
as a surfer who was also an anthropologist. In some cases,
fear of competition for waves at a wave location kept some
information from me. Yet, in those cases when l appeared to
my informants as a non-surfer, l noticed a barrier in
readiness to communicate. l was viewed as an outsider and
often not worthy of surfer attention. (This is a clue to one
of the most important issues which arose during the
research: the interaction between surfer culture and the
parent culture.)
During the initial stages of research, l frequently
approached surfers while wearing non-surf~~ clothes and
carrying a notebook. Some surfers thought l w~s a policeman
or other parent-culture authority figure (especially when l
started asking questions). Surfers' separation from the
parent culture makes many of them wary of parent-culture
intervention in their lives.
Eventually, l found it more effective to do away with
a notebook altogether and to carry several sheets of paper
and a pen in a pocket with which l could make notes after
being accepted as a non-threat. In most cases in my
.,lt .

;} research at new beaches l was welcome, although a few times

l did get an uncooperative reception.
Almost aIl of the data gathered from informants were
collected by way of observation and general conversation.
Only in a few cases were interviews conducted with questions
prepared beforehand.

CHAPTER 2: Historical and Physical Setting

The surfers of Southern California are encountered in

this study as part of a well-established system of
interaction which draws upon its history and its physical
setting for identity. Both the geography and the history of
the region have aided the development of a large and mobile
surfing population.

Definition of Surfing
Surfing is the act of using a wave of water for
propulsion in locomotion. The process is generally called
"riding the wave." The waves most commonly ridden are those
found at the meeting of shore and sea (ocean or inland sea).
Yet, surfing can be practiced wherever waves are located--in

1 the wake of a powerboat on a usually still lake or at a


water park with an artificial wave generator, for instance.

Surfing may be done by using one's body alone or with the
aid of various devices. When only one's body is used, the
process is called body surfing.
The most important device is the surfboard, a five-foot
(1.5m) to Il-foot (3.3m) shaped plank, originally of wood,
but recently of assorted plastics and fiberglass. It is
ridden in a standing position. One or more fixed fins at
the bottom rear of the board provide stability while the
surfer steers by shifting his body weight.
Some other devices used are: boogie (or body) board,
kneeboard, windsurfer, paddleboard, kayak, and outrigger
canoe. A boogie board or body board is a squarish foam
article of varying size usually around three feet (0.9m) in
length and two feet (0.6m) in width. It is ridden prone and
maneuvered with the aid of swim fins. A kneeboard is a
surfboard shorter than five feet (1.5m) ridden in a kneeling
position. A windsurfer (or sailboard) is a specialized
surfboard with a sail attached, ridden standing and holding
onto the sai.l. The paddleboard is a long, hollow surfboard
primarily used for open water exercise, ridden in a kneeling
position and usually propelled by paddling the hands and
only sometimes propelle'l by waves. A kayak is rarely used
for surfing, and then i , ridden with the aid of paddles.
outrigger canoes are used for surfing primarily in Hawaii,
but clubs in some California communities race them in the
open water beyond the waves.

Skimboards are also seen on Southern California

beaches. They are fIat, small (about 3 feet or 0.9 meter
long) boards made of wood and fiberglass which are ridden
from the shore towards the ocean, not from the ocean towards
the shore. They are thrown ante the shallow part of a
receding wave and leapt upon--the wave, the throw and the
leap aIl propelling the board in a skimming fashion into
small shore waves ~~suitable for other surfing. This ride
lasts about four seconds at the most. The shortest
completed ride by other means is seldom less than five
To the surfers in this study, "s ur fing" refers solely
to surfboard-riding. Use of other devices carries a lower
status for the surfboard users of Southern California. In
this paper, the word "surfing" without a modifier will refer
to surfboard riding. Surfboarding has an element of high
danger and a requirement of high skill for good surfing
which sets it apart from and above aIl other forms of wave
riding. possible dangers one faces when surfing include
shark attacks, injury from the sharp fin or nose of one's
own board, injury from loose boards in the surf, and
drowning from being held underwater by large waves or from
being knocked unconscious by a board or by rocks in the
water. Injuries are common and are a frequent topie of the
stories surfers relate to each other about their surfing


History of Surfing
Surfboarding originated independently in several parts
of the world. It is believed to have existed aboriginally
in West Africa (Finney in Pearson 1979:203), Western South
America during the Inca Empire (Holmes 1989:646), many parts
of Oceania (Finney 1959:327), and most importantly Tahiti
and Hawaii. Nowhere did it achieve the status it held in
In the Hawaii of pre-European contact, surfing was such
an important part of daily life that it could be said to be
a defining element il. hawaiian culture. Finney (1959:327)
describes this in terms of a cultural peak, a "unique
elaboration" on the sport. It was the high status and
development of surfing as an activity in Hawaii that led to
"the subsequent spread of the modern sport from Hawaii to
coastal areas throughout the world" (ibid:341).
A travelling Hawaiian prince is reported to have surfed
in Northern California in 1885 (Surfing 1991a:83). However,
the history of California surfing is generally marked from
1907 when George Freeth came from Hawaii to perform
exhibition rides at Redondo Beach. Redondo Beach, a
vacation community in Los Angeles, had recently become the
terminus of an electric rail line leading from downtown Los
Angeles. Hoping to boost flagging ticket sales, the
railroad company invited people to come watch "the man who
can walk on water" (stillman 1991a:G5). So began regular

Southern California surfing, its appreciation as a

t spectacle by non-surfing beachgoers, and its use as an
advertising draw.
From 1907 to 1941, surfing in Southern California
remained the province of a small number of individuals. The
sport at this time had few institutions (and these based on
historical continuity with Hawaiian surfing), the surfers
only gradually becoming a part of a larger surfing community
as more and more people began to surf. By the 1920s,
contests were being held in California.
In the 1930's, the skeg or fin was invented. Located
on the bottom of the board at the rear, this allowed the
surfer greater ability to turn the board. Surfers began to
travel up and down the coast in search of waves better
suited to the new design. Greater communication among local
groups of surfers developed; surf clubs patterned after
other local athletic clubs were formed. By the 1990s not
much of the organized surf clubs remained, these giving way
to loose groupings of local surfers and national bodies
organized for political action and contest sponsorship.
From 1910 to 1950, the population of Los Angeles County
gr~w from 800,000 to 4 million (Banham 1971:35). In 1991,
the metropolitan population is over 10 million. Banham, a
Los Angeles historian, believes that the draw of the movie
industry brought much of the growth (ibid:35). Indeed, the
oldest surfer I met first came to Los Angeles from New York

1 state in 1941 hoping to work in the film industry.


Along with the population growth of those engaged in

everything else, the number of surfers grew also. Older
surfers tell me that by the mid 1950s they were still very
few (this is supported by all of the available literature.)
In 1951--"You knew maybe twelve guys who surfed," one said.
They reco~t tales of ostracism from high-school society and
of living a bohemian lifestyle, often living on the beach
for months at a time. l am told that any surfer encountered
would be approached just to have contact with a like soul.
The great weight of the boards at that time, 75 to 100
pounds (35 to 40 ki10grams), was a factor in limiting early
surfers to main1y muscular men. The wooden boards often
would become waterlogged, further increasing their weight
and decreasing their maneuverability.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, a surfing lifestyle had
begun to take shape, characterized by moving in search of
waves, cheap living (vagrancy, foraging, petty theft),
individualism, freedom from the crowd, and the absence of a
steady job so that one could respond to the ocean when the
waves were at their best.
During the late fifties, several developments occurred
which began the current popularity of surfing. A
lightweight board was developed, first with balsa wood and
fiberglass then with increasing amounts of foam in place of
wood. This made surfing increasingly accessible. For the
first time, women began to surf in any numbers. The

increased ease of control of the board allowed the regular

surfing of wave locations with shorter rides.
In 1957, a novel, Gidget (Koehner 1957), about the
surfing lifestyle was published. This was made into a
popular film in 1959. The surfing population exploded, as
did the importance of surfing to national youth culture.
Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1985:102-103) report that all
phases of high school society in California were affected by
the popularity of surfing culture. Almost every surfer who
speaks of that time refers to the influence of the Gidget
movie and its sequels on the increase of surfers. surfing
locations became crowded. New dynamics entered surfer
interaction which persist to the present day.

Physical setting
The coastline of California and paths of communication
along it are very important to the surfers of this study.
Unlike much of the eastern coast of the united states,
California is characterized by a generally rocky coast,
alternating between sandy beaches backed by mountains or
wide river valleys and wave-eroded cliff faces. This
pattern extends south into Mexico.
The continental shelf in California is much shorter
than that an the Atlantic side of North America. The 100-
fathom (182m) depth of the ocean in the Atlantic is commonly

1 100 miles (160km) from shore, compared to the shelf in


California "less than 50 miles [80km] offshore, and at many

places less than 20 miles [32km]" (Atwood 1940:506). The
continental shelf affects wave generation.
"When a wave passes into shallow water, it becomes
higher and shorter and its front steeper and more deeply
concave until the crest arches forward, loses its support,
and collapses in a rush of water, forming a breaker"
(Longwell et al. 1948:225). While this process usually is
seen close to shore, the unbroken wave actually extends
farther than one can see longitudinally and as deep as the
ocean bottom vertically. The shorter continental shelf
helps produce larger waves in such places as Hawaii and
California than off the shores of America's Atlantic coast.
Surfers show amazing sophistication regarding the
meteorological and hydrological conditions affecting wave
formation. An explanation of wave conditions taken from a

college textbook--"the heights (of crests above troughs) and

lengths (from crest to crest) of waves increase with the
velocity of the wind, with its duration in a given
direction, and with the expanse of open water to windward"
{Longwell et al. 1948:225)--can be elaborated on by most
surfers when answering a simple question regarding the
origin of waves. While a general condition of waves can be
gathered from watching a regional weather report, most
surfers can predict wave conditions at a locality based on
tide heights, local temperature, air pressure and wind
conditions without reference to published weather reports.

High status is placed on the surfer who can predict the

very place and moment which the highest wave of any time
period will crest. At most wave locations, I have found at
least one individual who is believed to possess this talent.
One surfer told me that a crab could feel a wave coming for
a thousand miles and that with time surfers could develop
this sensitivity also.
The coastline of Southern California proceeds in a
southeast-northwest direction, with some local variation as
the coast winds from the united StatesjMexico border to
Point Conception. At Point Conception, the coastline curves
sharply northward. Culturally and geographically, the
coastal section of Southern California includes, from north
Lo south, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, orange, and
San Diego Counties (see Fig. 1).
Most of the surfers encountered in this study who
travel to different beaches have surfed in each of these
counties, but will more likely go out of the state than surf
in one of the ten other coastal counties of California.
Part of the reason for this behavior is the easier access to
surfing locations in Southern California. Highway One
(Pacifie Coast Highway), the coastal state highway, is a
metaphor to surfers of travelling in search of waves. In
many Southern California locations, the highway is built on
the beach. In Northern California, the highway is often
high on cliffs, the surfing locations far away down

dangerous trails.
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In these five southern coastal counties, one may find

beaches and points facing every direction, with the majority
facing west or south. From Malibu to La Jolla, the shore is
mostly a wide, accessible sandy beach (unlik~ the rest of
California). During the summer, south-facing beaches and
points have larger surf, while the winter winds favor west-
facing beaches. Waves which break off of coastal points
tend to be more consistent in form and size year-round than
do beach breaks. A wave location is called a "break." Most
surfing occurs in the summer and south facing beaches and
points, such as Malibu point, Huntington Beach, Newport
Beach, and Dana Point have a greater symbolic importance to
surfing culture than do the numerous west facing beaches
with less favorable surfing conditions.
The types of breaks one might find in Southern
California are point breaks, beach breaks, and reef breaks.
A point break is characterized by waves which break at an
angle to the shore, breaking on the sharp rise in the sea
bottom which extends from a point in the coastline (see Fig.
2). The waves at point breaks tend to be larger than those
at other breaks and afford a longer ride, since the breaking
face of the wave moves at an angle to the wave and not with
it as at beach breaks.
At a beach break, the breaking face of the wave extends
across the whole face of the wave, causing a shorter ride
(see Fig 3). The few reef breaks are caused by a sufficient

1 rise in the ocean bottom some point off shore to create a


.. ~ . ,."." " ", ~ .



4.- j~ J~ 1...

\ '.


. ,

$et. ...t- 1


break (see Fig.4). Many reef breaks only appear in very

1 large surf.
Most of the surfers studied live in Los Angeles County.
When searching for waves, they will most often travel
northward to the south-facing coast of Malibu if they live
in Venice or further north. If they live in Playa deI Rey
or south, they will travel to the south-facing coast beyond
the Palos Verdes peninsula. (Travelling surfers do not surf
on the Palos Verdes peninsula.) Between Topanga Beach (a
point break on the Malibu Coast) and the Palos Verdes
peninsula is a segment of wide sandy beach facing west with
less favorable surf conditions. Below the Palos Verdes
peninsula, lies a twenty mile stretch of mostly southwest
facing beaches stretching into Orange County which have a
moderate to high value to the surf culture. Close to San
Diego County and extending into San Diego County are a
series of important point breaks, the most important of

these being Trestles in San Clemente.

Although l travelled aIl along the coast in Los Angeles
and Orange Counties (the two most heavily surfed counties by
Los Angeles area surfers), the bulk of my reseJrch was
concentrated at symbolically important Malibu Point (almost
always referred to by surfers as Malibu, even though the
city of Malibu actually stretches 27 miles along the coast
and contains many important surfing locations) and Venice
Beach (a typical beach break in Los Angeles without national

t significance to the surfing culture).


Surfers in my study area always place a higher value on

larger waves than on smaller ones, even though they may not
ride on waves larger than a certain height. Most surfers
will not ride on waves below a certain height, even though
smaller waves may be surfable.
Surfers prefer the surf at point breaks rather than
that at beach breaks. More surfers can always be found at a
point break. However, beach breaks are more common than
point breaks, since virtually every spot on a beach is a
beach break. For this reason, most surfers surf at the less
desirable beach breaks in an effort to avoid the crowds at
every point break in Southern California.

CHAPTER 3: surfing at Point Breaks and at Beach Breaks

Activities at a beach break and at a point break in

Southern California are different in a number of ways.
However, l will start with the similarities of activity at
both types of break. (The generic surfer used for examples
will always be masculine. Female surfers in Southern
California are so rare as to be noteworthy when they are

A Description of Surfing
In order to ride a wave properly, a surfer must catch
it as it breaks. To begin the surfing session, the surfer
paddles out past the breakers to the place where contact
with the steeply rising ocean bottom forces the wave to lose
its shape as a sinuous body and to crest, forming a
distinctive wave face on its front, and to break, creating
the foam which is called surf.
Waves come in sets, almost always of three at a time,
the last one being the largest. A surfer ideally will ride
the largest wave of a set--for two reasons. The surfer
wants to maximize his enjoyment in the water by riding the
highest valued waves. He also wants to avoid paddling out
through large breakers. If he were to catch one of the
first waves in a set, he would have to paddle through the
larger breaking waves behind it to get back to the lineup
(the place where surfers wait for the waves to break).
The sets, too, come in sets. Each day, at each wave
break, the pattern of the sets is slightly different,
varying with the conditions affecting the waves themselves.
Usually a surfer can count on several sets of smaller waves
followed by one or two larger sets. The time between sets
is called the period. This is usually listed in seconds and
is given by the local media in weather forecasts.
When a surfer approaches the break, he will stand on
the shore or at some other vantage point for several

1 minutes, examining the pattern of the waves. Not only does


this allow him to know which waves in the pattern will be

the largest to ride, but it increases safety as the surfer
will be able to avoid large breakers when paddling out to
the lineup. The surfer can also determine if the break
under examination is worth surfing at that time.
After studying the waves, the surfer will ready himself
for the surfing session. This may include stretching
exercises, putting on a wetsuit (during cold weather),
waxing the deck of the board (so the surfer may bstter keep
his feet placed on the board while it is swiftly moving on
the wave) , and attaching a rubber leash from the board to
his ankle.
Checking the waves again, the surfer wades out into the
water and waits for the right place in the pattern before
paddling out. Between sets, when the surfer is waist deep,
he leaps upon the board, his chest near the center, and
paddles, alternating arms, in quick deep strokes towards the
lineup. Frequently, the paddling out will not be complete
before a set begins to break. When this occurs, the surfer
employs a number of strategies to minimize the effect of the
waves breaking upon him and of the breakers pushing him
towards shore. Any surfable wave which has turned into a
breaker will be higher than the prone surfer. The surfer
must go under the wave or through it or else be pushed back
towards the shore. with today's smaller boards, the most
common method is simply to push the nose of the board below
the water while thrusting one's body under the wave just as

it comes roaring over. If a wave is about to break on a

surfer (a very dangerous situation in large surf) a sudden
burst of powerful paddling with both arms at each stroke can
usually put him over the top of the cresting wave and out of
harm. Alternative methods are to paddle partway up the face
of the wave and to push the nose of the board through the
face or to abandon the board and dive for the bottom,
avoiding the tumult of the crashing wave.
Once in the lineup, the surfer waits for the best wave
in the best set in the pattern and then attempts to catch it
as it rushes past his location. When few other surfers are
in the water, much maneuvering takes place, paddling out to
avoid the smaller waves in a set, and then paddling back in
to catch the desired wave. When many surfers share the
lineup, quite a bit more positioning takes place as surfers
seek their place in the moment's spatial hierarchy. In
addition to the movement towards and away from the shore
there is also quite a bit of lateral movement as waves
rarely begin their break in exactly the same spot. Surfers
reposition themselves as they see sets coming in the
distance and judge where the waves are likely to begin
When a wave is selected for riding, the surfer will
move to catch the wave at the place where it first crests
and breaks. He will paddle paraIleI to the shore as far as
he can to reach that spot, but will turn the nose of the

1 board towards the shore and paddle with the wave as much and

as fast as needed to reach the appropriate speed. The board

must move fast enough for the surfer to slide down the face
of the wave as it breaks. When the surfer, as close to the
break (or curl) as possible (this is where the wave has the
most energy and speed) feels the board begin to slide down
the face of the wave, he stands up and commences the ride.
This is the "take-off." Standing is accomplished by
grasping both sides of the board with the hands and swinging
the legs under the body (a rapid action--the board falling
under the body as it slides down the face of the wave).
Once the surfer is erect, he has a number of options in
pursuing his ride, most of which are determined by his skill
level and the type of board he is using. On the newer,
shorter boards with three fins, the emphasis is on
maneuvering the board on the wave (the spectacular
acrobaties characteristic of televised surfing events are
commonplace on local waves). On the older, longer boards,
emphasis is placed on the surfer moving on the board
(walking back and forth on the board and tandem surfing are
familiar sights on a longboard). Moving on the board and
moving on the wave are essential actions with both types of
The ride ends when the wave loses its shape, when the
surfer performs a kickout (riding over the top of the wave
and onto its baek) , or when a surfer falls off the board
(usually unexpectedly and uncontrollably into the roiling
surf--hence the name "wipeout").

Before a wave breaks, surfers try to outpaddle each

other to get to the best take-off spot. The best spot on
the wave is where it first breaks. A number of advantages
are found here. Competition for the best riding positions
on the waves determines much surfer interaction on the
The prime surfer rule is "Do not begin to ride a wave
in the path of someone already riding that wave." This is
sometimes called the drop-in rule and the violation is
called a "drop in." If a surfer has already caught a wave,
all other surfers in his line of travel must give up the
wave. Although up to ten (or more) surfers may try to catch
a wave, it is usually only the surfer closest to the curl
who can keep it. If he wipes out, the other surfers may
continue with their ride, otherwise, they must pull out of
the wave.
Most conflicts in the water arise from violation of
this rule. If a surfer believes he is far enough away from
the inside surfer (who has the right of way) to be out of
the inside surfer's path if he were to catch the wave, the
&econd surfer may attempt to ride the wave. often, the
inside surfer will catch up with the second (or third, or
more) surfer on the wave, who must then cede right of way
and pull out of the wave. A surfer in the middle of a good
ride is often reluctant to give it up. Failure to cede

. right of way is another source of conflict in the water

This is sometimes called droppinq in, but has an ambiquous

status as a violation, and is done more often than an actual

drop in. At a point break like Malibu, there are always
large numbers of travelling surfers as weIl as locals. The
mix creates a sense of heightened tension. When friends
surf together in a small group at an uncrowded location,
drop ins and failure to cede right of way are more common,
but are done more as a playon the rules. Apologi.es as a
way to diffuse anger are common in both situations.

Point Breaks
The point break at which l spent the Most time was
Malibu Point. Malibu Point has three breaks: first,
second, and third (see Fig. 5). The waves are slightly
different at each of these, but are characteristic of point
breaks. The shore at Malibu is south facing and the point
takes advantage of the prevailing westerly winds in the
Action at Malibu begins before dawn. As soon as it is
light enough to see the waves (usually an hour or less
before dawn), individual surfers can be seen pulling their
cars off Pacifie Coast Highway to a vantage point beside the
road. Several will gather, leaning on and over the Metal
railing to discuss the condition of the waves and to make
comparisons with the waves of other days and other places.
If the waves are acceptable, Most of the observers will go
surfing at this time. They leave their cars parked beside
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the highway or move them into the parking lot. The numbers
of people at the railing watching and discussing the waves
will increase as the sun rises and decrease later in the
morning, but there is a flow as the surfers seldom stay
there for more than a half-hour. At aIl hours of the day,
some surfers are at the vantage point. When the waves are
very fIat, the surfers at the railing may number more than
the surfers in the water. Yet, even on the few days when
the waves are too small to surf, the draw of Malibu is so
strong that one or two surfers can be seen on their boards
paddling about in the still water.
One morning at six a.m., when the waves were only
moderate, l counted 30 surfers in the water. Already there
was heavy competition for the small number of waves.
Surfers were paddling, as they usually do, to outmaneuver
each other to reach the best spot on the wave.
As the day progresses at Malibu, more surfers will
arrive, people will come to occupy the beach and the three
breaks will become segregated.
The first break has the longest, slowest ride. It is
very weIl suited to longboard riding. Longboarders tend to
be older surfers (30 and older) who learned how to surf
before shortboards were perfected. "Balding longboarders,"
one informant called them. They often come with their
families (wives and children) who sit on the beach and watch
the surfing. Many of these men have organized their whole

1 lives around surfing. Some work in the surf industry (which


allows time off for good waves). Others are self-employed,

not working when the surf is high. A large number are
contractors and other tradesmen in Malibu. While l did not
conduct a survey on this matter, superficial evidence
suggests that a period of good waves dramatically decreases
the productivity of construction in the city of Malibu.
The beach which faces first break is mainly peopled
by Malibu insiders. These are people who have been coming
for a long time, or people who know the history of Malibu
and are attracted to it.
For instance, the wall is a historie place in Malibu
history. It is where famous surfers rested their boards and
their backs in the 1950s and 1960s. Even today, one can see
older surfers leaning their longboards against the wall and
sitting there (on lawnchairs) with their friends.
Sometimes, younger surfers will gather to hear stories of
the old days. These younger surfers are from elsewhere (a
group of six from Miami one day) and are treated with
obvious disdain by the older locals, but seem to be
tolerated and even talked to. Yo~~ger local surfers do not
have much conversation with the balding longboarders.
The younger surfers tend to congregate at points two
and three. The waves are larger and faster here--better
suited to the shorter, faster, more maneuverable boards.
Point three breaks best on the largest of days and then is
the largest break at Malibu.


Every day of the summer there are large numbers of

tourists on the beach at Malibu. Most of these, however are
at the Malibu Surfrider State Beach. This is in front of
point three and is where "grommets" also gather. The
typical grommet is twelve to fifteen years old, rides a
board shorter than five feet, actively seeks surfing
knowledge, and has parents willing to pay for his surf
During the weekdays, when school is in session, an
interesting transformation can be seen on the beach.
Grommets and other school-age surfers begin to arrive at
Malibu just as the balding longboarders are going home. The
mean age falls suddenly, yet at any time there is a
tremendous mix of ages at Malibu. The smaller-wave days
tend to have a higher mean age as longboards do better on
small waves than do shortboards. The shortboarders
typically will not surf on the smallest days, while some
longboarders can be seen floating in the most impossible
Malibu is a surfer's beach. It is called "Surfrider
Beach" and the county lifeguard forbids boogie-boards and
swimmers. Other people in the water are not much of a
concern for the surfers at Malibu. People on the beach are
not noticed much either. Most surfers told me they rarely
notice people on the beach, but they do notice when women
are watching them. A confident surfer told me, "Every

woman on the beach is a possible conquest I do my god-like

thing, and then hang out on the beach and pick up girls."
The flux of daily surfing population at Malibu is
typical of a point break. Unlike most point breaks, Malibu
has a wide attractive beach and a world-wide history to
attract tourists. Because of its consistently good waves
and importance to surfing history, surfers come from aIl
over the world to surf Malibu. Other point breaks have a
typically Southern California crowd and develop California
Two Southern California locations are not surfed by
non-locals. These are Pt. Dume and the various breaks of
the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Both of these places are
located in exclusive, wealthy neighborhoods. Both are
difficult to get to, access is off main roads and down steep
cliffs (Pt. Dume is behind a locked gate). Both offer very
attractive waves on big days. Near Pt. Dume, l saw a spray-
painted warning which read: "No Vals, pt. Dume Val Killers."
Vals are any surfers from the San Fernando Valley (some
miles fram the ocean) who surf at various beaches in Malibu,
but are especially noted for travelling in search of waVes,
and are spoken ill of at eVery break where l talked to
Palos Verdes, in spite of great natural beauty and very
nice waves has successfully prevented itself from being
photographed for surf magazines (an event which has the

1 effect of increasing the surfing population at any spot).


This has been accomplished by a campaign of terror.

Throughout my research, l heard stories of violence ascribed
to the territorialism at Palos Verdes. Tales of slashed
tires and rock-throwing were recounted to me by many
informants (although none had actually attempted to surf
there and many had never gone to observe the waves from
the cliffs).
Towards the end of my research, l paid a visit to a
Palos Verdes break on a very large wave day. The waves were
8 to 10 feet, with some faces of 15 feet or more in height.
After descending the tall cliff, down the very narrow and
steep trail, l reached the shore of the rocky bay. l had
attempted to look as non-surfer as possible and so non-
threatening to the local surfing resource. At the surfing
point at one side of the small bay (really a large cove), l
approached a group of surfers who were resting from the
waves and watching the other surfers in the water (shouting
out names, commentary, and words of encouragement to their
friends in the water). Two of the eight surfers there began
throwing firecrackers at me. The other surfers gave their
tacit approval, only half-noticing me. l stopped moving
towards them, but when the firecrackers continued to be
hurled, l decided to abandon any hopes for interviews,
considering that the aimed explosives were data enough. l
retreated as l am sure l was expected to, the reputation of
Palos Verdes intact


other Southern Califomia point breaks notable to Los

t Angeles County surfers are, from north to south, Rincon,
Ventura, Leo Carrillo and Trestles--places where they might
drive for a day's surfing. At Rincon and Ventura Point,
locals often complain about the number of Angelenos who surf
their spots, particularly on weekends. l have heard
numerous reports of fights breaking out over the local/non-
local issue--started by discourteous maneuvers in the water,
such as dropping in. At Leo Carrillo (a state park), there
are no local residents, only surfers who regularly surf
there. The waves are not often large and the water is often
filled with swimmers and boogie-boarders (both are
considered dangerous obstacles by most surfers).
Trestles, the next southem point to which Los Angeles
surfers are likely to travel, is nearly as important to
local surfing history as is Malibu. What is lacking here is
the importance that Malibu has to the rest of the world as a
symbol of wealth, Hollywood, and surfing. A typical day at
Trestles will find only surfers on the beach and in the
water (although boogie boarders are usually here also). The
mile-long walk from the parking lot is enough to deter most
tourists. Trestles consistently breaks weIl and is visited
by many surfers. Almost every older surfer has told me
stories about camping at Trestles. Surfers from the early
1950's tell me they used to eat the sea-life (abalones and
crawfish) found on the rocks and in the lagoon at this


location. It is relatively isolated and one gets the

feeling of being in a surfing world.
The name is derived from a set of short railroad
trestles (10 ft. or 3 m. high) which raise the railroad
tracks above the lagoon. On the trestles are many graffiti,
most of a humorous, sexual, or scatological nature, some
indicating origins of groups of surfers. Posted on agate
close to the path towards the break is a plea to aIl o~ the
Trestles surfers to band together to stop some proposed
freeway widening (which would lessen the isolation of
Trestles and possibly increase the use of the wave
resource) .

Beach Breaks
The entire coast of California which is not point break
is beach or shore break. The main factor affecting wave
conditions at a beach break is the direction the beach is
facing. small variations in the condition of the ocean
bottom at a beach break will cause some difference in wave
quality every one hundred yards (or meters) or so. Surfers
tend to move within a few hundred yards (or meters) of their
favored beach to get the best waves at their location. The
wave locations are given names, usually associated with a
landmark or the street which ends at that beach.
For part of the research period, l lived on Brooks
Avenue in Venice. The surfing location at the end of this

street is called Brooks (see Fig. 6). Rarely did l see

t anyone else surf there, but it was a known location, while
Breeze, the next street over, was not a recognized location.
Four streets North from Brooks is Rose Avenue. At Rose, a
group of about 10 surfers has formed. Cohesive groups of
surfers have formed at Ocean Park Boulevard (a few streets
up from Rose) and at Bay street, two streets up from Ocean
Park. While the wave conditions at these places are nearly
identical, what sets them apart from beaches at the end of
streets like Breeze is that they are located at main
streets (giving easier automobile access). Bay street is
not a main street, but at its end is a parking lot. Here we
see that access to a location is important for its
identification. The automobile and the beach conspire to
form the named identity.
Two blocks south of Brooks is the Venice breakwater.
The breakwater rocks create bottom conditions which slightly
enhance wave formation. On most days l would walk down the
beach from Brooks to take advantage of the better surfing
conditions at the breakwater. The beach at the breakwater
also has a parking lot.
Easy access coupled with the better waves has drawn
more people and more competition than at the neighboring
breaks. A gang has formed, the Venice Break Water Locals
(VBWL's) modelled on the non-surf gangs whose graffiti can
be seen throughout Los Angeles. They have placed gr~ffiti

1 near the breakwater warning non-locals to stay away. While

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l never witnessed any violence at the breakwater, the

t perception of violence is shared by other surfers in the
area. The surfers at Rose would not approach the
breakwater. They told me the name of the gang was
"Breakshore locals." And this was only a few hundred yards
away. At Ocean Park, a mile away, l was warned that l could
be "thumped" by the locals at the breakwater if l got in
their way. Instead, l was recognized by them as a part of
the crew (regular surfers in a lineup) at the breakwater.
This status did not make them friendly towards me, but it
gave me a rightful place in the lineup in their eyes
(otherwise, l am told, l would have been verbally abused by
Even though more surfers can be seen at any one time at
a point break, the majority of surfers in Los Angeles surf
at beach breaks. This is mainly out of avoidance of
competition at the point breaks. Most of these surfers are
of limited skill and surf seldom--a few times a year. They
are slipping out of the sport or just entering it. However,
they can be seen, mainly in the summer at odd spots off the
beach, away from other surfers, pursuing their source of

Surfer activity at beach breaks and at point breaks in

Southern California occur somewhat differently due to the
different surfing conditions found at these types of breaks.

1 At point breaks, the breaking waves are generally better in


form and consistency as weIl as more concentrated in area,

leading to competition for the best spots in the lineup.
Beach breaks are much less crowded than point breaks.
Competition at beach breaks, while generally less intense
than at point breaks, may also occur, based on accessibility
of wave sites and slight variations in ocean Dottom and in
the direction the beach is facing which make the waves
better at some beach breaks than at others.

CHAPTER 4: Surf Economy and Communication

Almost aIl communication between groups of surfers

is affected in some way by the surf economy. Surfers
learn about developments in the larger surfing world
through the surf magazines. Surf shops and films are
meeting places for surfers from a number of different
breaks. The items of surfer commerce themselves
(boards, wetsuits, clothing, etc.) become means of
communication among surfers.

Surf Magazines
Beyond the daily interaction with a local "crew,"
contact between surfers is mediated by symbols of the surf

economy. The most important of these are the surf

magazines, Surfer and Surfing. One older surfer (pre-1959)
credited the surf magazines with the great expansion in the
popularity of surfing and the decline (as he saw it) of the
Surfer was begun in 1964 by John Severson as a means to
advertise his surf films. The time was ripe for a surf
publication. Thousands and thousands of surfers had taken
up the sport encouraged by the numerous surfing-related
feature films released by Hollywood in the early 19605. Not
only was the magazine a voice for surfers, but was really
the only voice directed especially towards surfers. Several
years later, Surfing magazine was begun. It, too, was 50on
widely read. Now, the magazines are sold all over the world
and are readily available in beach towns and even inland
cities, such as Montreal.
All of the surfers with whom I regularly interacted
read both magazines, although some said they primarily
looked at the pictures. Actually, the photographs are the
strong point of both magazines, few pages having only print.
The effect of the magazines is enormous. One surfer told me
that he could identify breaks almost anywhere in the world,
just from reading the magazines over the past ten years.
All of the surf-related industries advertise in the
magazines. Letters to the editor as well as articles are
published in surfer argot. Technical information on topics
ranging from wave formation and surfing maneuvers to theory

of board construction and surfing equipment reviews can be

found in each issue.
The effect on the surfers in my study can be seen most
strongly with "grommets." These are surfers desperately and
energetically trying to gain legitimacy in a surfing
community (although sometimes, as at Malibu, they form a
group of their own). The magazines provide them with the
tools to become real surfers in the form of advertisements
for products which they can buy to look like real surfers
(in fact, grommets are often better equipped than many older
surfers) and equally importantly in the form of new surfer
Another important effect of the magazines can be seen
as a response to the powerful images they bring of various
breaks. When one magazine features photographs of a local
break, a noticeable increase in surfing visitors to that
break occurs for a period of time. (1 was told this by
informants, although Malibu is always so crowded, l could
not tell if increases in daily surfing population was due to
magazine coverage or better surf conditions.) Palos Verdes,
which l have indicated is notorious for violence against
outsiders, has not recently appeared in either surf
magazine. In fact, in a recent interview, a famed surf
photographer refused to have his face shown for fear of
violence against him at some wave locations.
As far as competition among magazines is concerned,

1 this has little effect on the surfers l knew as they never


bought just one of the magazines. Both are always bought,

when available. Both magazines provide the same services--
e.g., contest results, technical advice, the same
advertisements, reports on breaks around the world. Both
participate in television programs. Surfer magazine's show,
transmitted on the sports cable network ESPN, is sh~~ in 70
countries and receives fan mail from around the world, much
of it from landlocked sources (Wilkinson 1991:90).

Surf Shops
For the average surfer, the locus of the surf trade is
the surf shop. A surf shop is designed to meet aIl surfing
needs as a surfer. A typical shop will sell boards,
clothes, wax, magazines, leashes, wetsuits, surfboard
manufacturer's stickers, and other items hard to find
elsewhere. When one enters a surf shop, one is likely to
find several surfers loitering, especially if the surf is
not good. (This is one way for surfers to keep excitement
high during periods when they do not surf.) One surf shop
in a community will service several surfing groups, the surf
shop and its employees often serving as a conduit for
exchange of ideas between these groups. Ideas about
equipment performance, language, and suitability of waves
will be channeled through the surf shop.


Surf Equipment
The surfboard is the essential piece of surf equipment.
Whenever two surfers meet, a question answered is always,
"What do you ride?" The size and shape as weIl as the brand
of one's board can indicate riding style, general skill
level, and usual break. If one has a custom-made board, as
many dedicated surfers do, it indicates an advanced skill
level. The increase in price for a custom board will not be
undertaken unless the surfer can use the board effectively.
New boards "off-the-rack" are expensive enough, $300 to $600
during the time of my study.
The board-making industry is the core of the surf
industry. Almost aIl of the surf-clothing manufacturers
began by making boards, and most still do. It is considered
a step into the mainstream and thus out of surfing culture
for a surf clothing company to cease making boards.
While one's board is a means of communication among
surfers, to a lesser extent, aIl other surfing equipment
which a surfer may use says something about him to other
surfers. Communication via the surf equipment itself is
visual in nature (see Chapter 6).

Surf Contests
Surf contests are an integral part of the surf
economy. They are sponsored by companies who want to sell
products to surfers and to those who watch the sport.

Many contests are transmitted over cable television.

1 They are reported in the surf magazines. The professional
contests are surfed by professional surfers, each of whon
have their own sponsors (usually several, for boards,
wetsuits, clothing, and wax).
Interestingly, most dedicated surfers l knew did not go
out of their way to view a surf contest. They preferred to
be surfing themselves. However, because of the magazines,
they all knew the names and surfing styles of the top
professional surfers.

Surf Films
Surf films are ~istinct from Hollywood feature films
with a surfing sub-theme. They are often shown without
sound, a narrator, sometimes the cameraman, giving
commentary to the action. Typically, they are not shown in
movie theaters, but in rented halls and school auditoriums.
The films have no plot, but are a succession of waves and
rides at different spots in exotic locales. Interspersed
with the waves are always shots of girls in revealing
bikinis. These are often focussed on the buttocks and then
are called "butt shots."
The audience at these films is almost solely composed
of surfers, although surfers' girlfriends are sometimes
present. The surfers hoot and holler at every wave,

1 standing up and shouting various surfer language at the


screen on particularly good waves. The atmosphere in the

room at a surf film is one of high excitement. The
excitement is usually building for weeks in anticipation.
Posters advertising the film are plastered on telephone
poles near surf spots and beach communities. The day
after a surf film is shown in one location, one can expect a
crowded day at the local breaks. The "stoke" ('excitement')
from a surf film often carries on for weeks.
Only one surf film was shown during my research period.
It is a special occasion for surfers--a time to get
together, to generate stoke, and to celebrate surfing.
Every dedicated surfer I know attends surf films
Recently, surf films have been appearing on video.
Some are produced and released in video form only without
being shown in a public setting. I know a surfer who plays
one tape several times a week. I have seen him watching it
for perhaps the twentieth time with an intensity of
attention that I saw him exhibit in nothing else besides his

Surfer Employment
The great majority of surfers have a regular job like
everyone else, or they are unemployed minors living at home
or attending school. These are the surfers who mainly surf
on weekends or evenings. At most surf breaks, the daily

surfing population increases after 3 p.m. (when most schools

t let out) and again after 5 p.m. Truly dedicated surfers
pattern their lives around surfing. A great number of them
are self-employed and are able to take time off from their
jobs on big wave days.
Another large percentage of surfers work in the surf
industry. Every surf industry company which l had
opportunity to examine made allowance for its employees for
good surf. l am not sure how this affects productivity, but
l was able to observe one case. l visited the editorial
offices of a surf magazine during a big wave day. None of
the editors arrived before ten, most did not arrive until
after noon, and some did not arrive at ail. l noticed that,
while ail of the editors were men, the staffs of their
offices were almost entirely women who did not surf. Simply
put, the surfing men made the decisions while the non-
surfing women did the work. The absence of the editors did
not hait production.

Related Industries
Skateboarding, boogie boarding, windsurfing, and
snowboarding are ail derived from the surf culture. Ali of
them have more participation world-wide than does surfing.
Ali of them must carry some surfing symbolism to non-surfers
who participate in these sports. Many surfers l know do

1 work in these related industries and participate in some of


these sports, but the derivative sports always take second

pJ.ace to surfing in their hierarchy of preference.

Commerce and communication are closely related in the

local surfing culture, as elsewhere. However, there may be
a closer link in the surfing world. Because surfers are
usually mobile in their search for waves, there are numerous
encounters between surfers who do not know each other.
Surfers observe the products an unknown surfer displays in
order to find out more about him.
The very commerce of communication in the surfing world
is important to local surfers. outside of the surf culture,
they feel they can not recieve complete or accurate
information about surfers and surfing developments beyond
the local area.

CHAPTER 5: Personal Identity

Surfing is considered by the surfers l know to be a

very individualistic sport. In spite of the complex social
interaction associated with surfing, personal identity is
described by my informants as more important to them than
social identity. similarities in the personal identities of

1 the surfers form the basis for social interaction.


Family background
Not much inquiry is needed to find certain patterns of
surfer grouping based on larger class relations. My
findings compare with those of other observers (Schwendinger
and Schwendinger 1985; Wolfe 1968): surfing is mainly the
sport of children from weIl-off families. Even in a
community of ~iddle and lower-income people, such as Venice,
children from poor families do not surf.
A complete examination of the fac~ors involved in the
class makeup of surfers would require more space than l can
give here, but l believe some reasonable suggestions may be
made. Most surfers do not live within walking distance of
the beach and so must have parents with the time to drive
them, or have access to an automobile. Beachside
communities are (with some exceptions) higher-income
neighborhoods with the locations of point breaks adjacent to
the most expensive real estate in California. Malibu, for
instance, is world-famous for its high-priced homes. The
scenic beauty of these places drives up the priee and
eliminates a mix of levels of family income which is just
possible at a beach break such as Venice.
The problem of access to the beach is only one barrier
to lower classes. Equipment must be bought. Surfboards and
wetsuits are big investments on most surfers' incomes.
still, used boards and wetsuits are available. One may get

rides with schoolmates. But there is the question of

,, status. If a surfer has access to waves independent of his
friends, he need not worry about fitting in. If he must
ride with his friends, he will feel pressure to have new
equipment like theirs. Whenever l did find surfers of a
lower socio-economic class, they were either surfers who
mainly surfed alone (as do some surfers of all classes) or
they only associated with surfers of their own socio-
economic class (as at Rose). And yet, people of the
poorest backgrounds will not be found surfing.
l place the emphasis on a class distinction in
determining accesibility of surfing to people in Los Angeles
because ethnic background does not seem to be an inhibiting
factor as long as the financial resources exist. Surfers of
every ethnic background were interviewed by me. The one
thing which united them was the financial stability of their

Surfers gave me a wide variety of accounts regarding
the method of and reason for their recruitment into the
sport. l met people from their pre-teen years to the age of
42 who had been surfing for one year or less.
Younger surfers tend to enter into surfing with the
deliberate purpose of becoming a part of the surfing

1 culture. Surfing provides adolescents seeking an identity


1. apart from their families with a ready set of identity

symbols. Additionally, surfing is outside of the mainstream
culture, increasing its attractiveness te adolescents
wanting to distance themselves from the identity of their
middle-class and upper-class parents.
Beginning surfers in their mid-twenties or older have
already spent much time defining themselves. Surfers who
begin surfing after this age tend to see surfing as more of
a sport than a lifestyle. They may still pursue surfing
with the obsession of a grommet, but are less likely to be
concerned with possessing all the s~ols of ;~le surfing
While adolescents may have been skateboarding or
boogie-boarding for a few years before beginning to surf,
many take up surfing as their first regular sport. Older
beginners usually have been engaging in other sports for
some time. One surfer who was learning how to surf at the
age of 31, for instance, had been a hang-glider for a
number of years. Many others whom l met had been skie~s or
bieyclists or had been involved in other sports which
emphasized speed and physical skill.

Socialization into the sur~ing culture, as with aIl
socialization, requires interaction with those in the

II culture. For beginning older surfers, this interaction


takes place ~ainly at a wave location. For the grommet or

other adolescent surfer, socialization takes place every
waking moment. He interacts with other grommets he knows.
When not with other surfers, he will be reading aIl surf-
related material he can, looking at a single issue of a surf
magazine many times until the next issue arrives at
newsstands or in his mailbox. He may not have the
confidence to loiter at a surf shop (at least until one of
his friends secures employment at one), but he will visit
the surf shop often to acquire the material symbols of
surfing which the building of his identity requires.
Older beginning surfers also gain many symbols of
surfing identity from magazines and surf shops. Some avoid
contact with other surfers, preferring to ride unchallenged
waves in poorer conditions. These surfers are not fully
part of the surfing culture although by participation in the
surf economy they are connected with it. Surfers must at
some times surf with others in order to have interaction
with the surf culture.
Most communication in the water is silent and indicated
by the positioning of boards in relation ~o each other or by
meaningful glances. Among a local crew, a large part of
time in the water is spent in conversation--usually snatches
here and there between waves. And most of this conversation
is concerned with reviewing waves one has just ridden.
Advice, comment~ry, adulation, and bragging make up the

content of these sentences--sometimes stopped short by a mad

dash to connect with the next wave and win the ride.
Brief words may be exchanged with anyone in the water,
but outsiders frequently are not acknowledged. Even members
of a local crew will sometimes be ignored by the most
aggressive (and most obsessive) surfers in a lineup. I was
ignored on a number of occasions in different settings. I
must have seemed a truly green tyro to be approaching the
most dominant surfers for some pleasant talk. Usually they
gave some curt words and paddled away, concentrating on
positioning themselves for the next wave.
Surfers who have been surfing together for a long time
will take part in social activities with each other away
from the beach. The strongest bonds between surfers are
among those who progressed from grommet to full-fledged
surfer together. Other surfers usually do not meet off of
the beach. Apart from close friends, surfers mainly
communicate at a break. They will greet other members of a
local crew, even those who have been surfing at the spot for
only a few weeks. They will talk to other surfers who are
observing the waves even if they do not know them. If the
waves are large and the sets are coming in fast, surfers
will be especially uninhibited in approaching other surfers
to talk to. When the waves are smaller and fewer (and
therefore competition for the best ones is heavy) surfers
may be less friendly to others at a vantage point.


Social conditions of background and recruitment May

prepare people for entry into the surf culture. Dedication
to the sport, though, May be based on something more

Thrill Seeking
Every surfer speaks of the fun of the sport. None
refer solely to any of the other reasons one may pursue
surfing--such as exercise, aesthetics of the setting, or the
feel of warm sunshine on one'e back--as the reason they
surf. Every surfer surfs because it is fun. It is not just
fun, but so fun that most surfers cannot describe in words
how they feel after a good ride. Most let out one or more
joyful screams, hoots or a stream of surf words which border
on glossolalia.
John Kerr, a researcher in sports psychology, can
describe how they feel. He studied arousal-seeking in risk
sport participants (1991), one of the groups being
Australian surfers. He finds that those who participate in
dangerous sports (surfing is listed as very dangerous) are
"paratelic dominant," that is, they score low on tests for
serious-mindedness and arousal avoidance. He concludes
"that paratelic dominant individuals enjoy high arousal and
actively seek out situations where they can induce these
pleasant feelings" (ibid.:616).

l did not conduct psychological tests on local surfers

and do not know how closely Californian surfers compare to
Kerr's sample. Yet, arousal is a topic in many local surfer
conversations. Longboarders and shortboarders of aIl ages
constantly talk about the thrill of surfing. Some key
phrases in one issue of a surf magazine (Surfer 1991c)
reflect the arousal surfers seek in the danger of surfing:
"Push the limits;" "adrenaline pumping;" "Minutes of terror,
seconds of glory;" "no thrills for the cautious."
Severson and Kampion (formerly editors of Surfer
magazine) also describe the encounter with danger. They
write (1990:55): "Many surfers have come to regard the
sport as an aesthetic and spiritual experience, involving
the mind as well as the body. The individual operating
within a territory of danger feels the power of the wave.
The closer he can bring himself to the power, and therefore
the danger, the better he is at surfing. It is the same
with bullfighting."
That Severson and Kampion relate danger/thrill seeking
to aesthetics and spirituality is significant. Many
surfers describe surfing in terms of spirituality. Some
phrases l recorded are: "very spiritual experience;"
"commune with nature;" "one with the wave."
The spirituality takes several forms and seems to grow
out of ecstatic experience rather than be prompted by
existing religious philosophy. However, the philosophies

1 make their influence felt. Many older surfers relate to


Zen. Younger surfers may join one of the ten Christian

surfing associations in the United states and profess the
status of a born-again Christian (a more ecstatic form than
mainstream Christianity). These associations sponsor their
own contests which are then reported in the surf magazines.
Alternatively, surfing may serve to release one from
religion. One surfer l interviewed was raised as a
Christian Scientist. He says he attended church regularly
until he began to surf. Eventually, he no longer identified
himself as an adherent to Christian Scientism or to any
religion. He explained his apostasy to his mother this way:
"Nothing ever made me feel as much as l do when l'm
Peter Wilkinson gives a poetic description of the
physical/spiritual/aesthetic feeling derived from surfing.
He tells us, liA piece of foam, some wax, a pair of shorts
and you, too, can experience the salty six-second orgasm.
You, too, can join those who know what it's like to wait
with dolphins for the perfect set, who've felt their
synapses pop when they spit out of a hissing barrel into the
sunshine" (Wilkinson 1991:86).
The seeking out of arousal and of heightened states of
consciousness leads us to another notable condition in a
surfer's personal identity--his personal dedication to the

t Kerr has informed us that surfers who pursue their
activity regularly are paratelic dominant. Paratelic
dominance is also associated with delinquency, gambling
behavior and drug addiction (Kerr 1991:613). Surfing may
join gambling and drugs as an object of possible addiction.
Some surfers have used the word "addiction" in describing
their involvement with surfing to me. More common is the
word "obsession." In either case, it is clear from my
association with surfers that participation in the sport
takes precedence over most things which American culture
ascribes more importance than surfing. Most significant
among these is work.
A bumper sticker occasionally seen on surfers' cars
reads: "Work is for people who don't surf." AlI of the
dedicated surfers l know would rather surf than work. In
fact, many older former surfers with ~hom l talked listed
work as weIl as "growing up and getting serious" about life
and a family as a reason for leaving the sport and the
surfing lifestyle.
In 1962, a scenario was described which aIl current
surfers would find familiar:
There is one chronic danger to the
surfer which is rarely mentioned but should be
studiously watched, and that is the time it takes.
This may seem to be a truism, but it can turn into
the greatest accident of all--not because you
couldn't get by with an hour a day--you could--but
the chances are you won't, and surfing will take
hold of you like dope, dominoes or centrifugaI
1 bumble puppy, and you will become an addict with

Surfers' Anonymous as your last best hope for a

normal life.
I found that during the two years of my
more or less intensive surfing experience in
Hawaii my income grcund slowly but steadily to a
halt. My health however increased at least 200
percent, so there are apparent compensations for
those who end up poor but happy (Muirhead
I met six surfers who shared a two-bedroom apartment
close to the beach. They had wild parties several nights a
week. Only one had a steady job; the others had a knack for
being fired when they chose to surf rather than work.
Whichever of them paid their share of the rent got to sleep
on one of the three beds that month; the others shared the
Those surfers who have not been consumed at least sorne
time in their surfing life by the constant des ire to be
surfing know surfers who have. perhaps it is the varatelic
dominance, but surfing seems to have the ability to define
one's personal identity by relegating all other activity to
a very low priority in one's life.

The surfers I interviewed shared similar backgrounds

and patterns of recruitment. Socialization took place
mainly on the water, supported by actions off the water.
Personality traits common among the surfers in the study
included general thrill seeking and some level of obsession
with the sport. Those several I met who did not show these
traits were also those who did not surf with others on a

1 regular basis.

CHAPTER 6: Surfer Institutions

Surfer institutions are those points of identity with

which aIl surfers must have some personal articulation in
order to be fully a member of the surfing culture.
Institutions are historical points of shared identity,
repeated actions which define the society. A sociology text
explains, "the term institution is applied to those features
of social life which outlast biological generations or
survive drastic changes that might have been expected to
bring them to an end" (Hughes 1962:225). Individual surfers
connec', their personal identity with the larger identity of
the subculture by participation in the institutions of the

Discovering Institutions
Observation of the physical competition for waves led
me to believe that compliance with social rules in the water
1s the main surfer institution. A number of ~thers, though,
did emerge.
l made a list of the topics of conversation dwelt on by

i surfers and ranked these according to frequency of


appearance in talk among surfers. l divided these into

conversation on the water and conversation off the water as
these two occur differently. On the water, the conversation
time is quite variable and dictated by the appearance of
waves. Off the water, usually at the local vantage point
for waves, conversation time may take a leisurely course,
not physically interrupted by wave opportunities.
On the water, the words exchanged between surfers may
be divided into these categories and roughlv this order of
frequency: shouts of encouragement, condemnation, or
jubilation; present sensations; description of one's last
ride; other rides one has had (a good ride can be talked
about for days and weeks); technical criticism of others in
the water; current wave conditions; past wave conditions.
Off the water, surfers talk about current and past wave
conditions, other wave locations, boards, other surfers
(gossip and criticism of performance), surfing trips, surf
history, food an; women.

Starting with talk on the water, l must conclude that
the sensation of surfing is a major surfer institution.
Knowing what it feels like to be a surfer--as Wilkinson
(1991:86) writes, to be one of those "who've felt their
synapses pop when they spit out of a hissing barrel"--is
more important than aIl other things for acceptance into

surfer society. The shouts, yells, and ecstatic cries that

make up the overwhelming number of verbal communications
among surfers in the water can be heard from the beach at
every surfing location.
When surfers on the water speak in sentences, the most
common report is a description of how they felt during and
after a ride. Sensations of satisfaction, speed, joy,
exhaustion, and even terror are almost always related with a
wide grin on the surfer's face. Unless the surfer js in
acute physical pain or engaged in conflict with another
surfer in the water, the sentiments are given within an
atmosphere of elation.
l went surfing on the biggest wave day of the research
period at Venice. Venice is a beach break, requiring one to
paddle throuqh the breakers to get to the lineup. The force
of the huge waves that day kept forcing me back towards the
beach. l saw several surfers try to get out that day, but
abandon their attempt in face of the thunderous breakers. l
finally did make it out after about ten minutes, compared to
the normal one or less. After my thrilling and exhausting
surf session, l met some surfers who had watched me tryinq
to paddle out but had left the vantage point before l qot
past the break'Slrs. 'rhey recoqnized me (by my board and
wetsuit) and asked if l did get out. When l replied in the
affirmative they asked, "Did you get pounded?" 1'.11 l had to
do was nod and all present qrinned. Knowing what it was


like to get pounded by crashing waves was a point of shared

identity among us.
Surfers gathered at a vantage point observing the
surfers riding at some location participate in the
sensations with the riding surfers. Because sensation is a
shared experience among surfers, those observing rides
derive tremendous pleasure from the sensation which the
riding surfers experience. Surfers at a vantage point give
ecstatic shouts in response to surfers' rides or even in
response to a large wave without riders on it.
Conversation among surfers at a vantage point is always
secondary in importance to the appreciation of a good ride.
Conversations (and academic interviews) are constantly
interrupted on good days by great cries of appreciation.
AlI talk stops until the ride observed is finished. Often
the topic is forgotten and the conversation turns to other
A word about these cries. They are lexically
inconsistent and are given in full voice with great volume.
To the non-surfing world they are believed to consist of
words such as "Cowabunga." In spite of the portrayal of
surfers by the cartoon characters "Snoopy" and "The Teenage
Mutant Ninja Turtles" as using this word, no surfers l met
of any age could recall using the word as an exclamation,
although many were aware of its existence. l believe the
cries are backed by too much emotional sensation to gain
consistent form

Most of these exultant shouts are a definite form of

communication. l have often noted them to be coupled with
eye contact with nearby surfers. After a cry, other surfers
will respond with a grin or with a responsive cry. Many
shouts by surfers from the vantage point are intended to be
heard by surfers on the waves and are often responded to.
The word that surfers give to the collection of
sensations involved in surfing is "fun." If the waves are
not fun enough, surfing will be abandoned for the day.
Pursuit of fun is the object of surfing.

Technical Expertise
Shared intellectual experience of surfing is another
surfer institution. Next to sensations, the most common
topic of conversation for surfers on and off the water is
discussion of riding techniques. This includes critiques
of other surfers in the water, reports of one's ewn
progress on a wave, discussions of technical merits of
boards and wetsuits. Knowledge and discussion of wave
conditions alse falls under this category.
Surfers must have a great deal of technical knowl~dge

te be a part of surfer society. Feremost, if they are to

surf with other surfers, they must understand the process of
a wave and the dangers involved in being at specifie places
on a wave at specifie times. They must also understand how
their board works and their own limitations in relation to

it. If a surfer does not have an adequate knowledge of

these two things, he becomes a nuisance in the water and may
cause accidents.
Surfers spend much time out of the water discussing
technical matters of surfing. In fact, surfers were much
more comfortable talking about the physical processes of
surfing with me than they were talking about social
structure and rules of behavior.
Discussion of technical knowledge is also a part of
socialization. In spite of the risk of increased
competition for waves, l overheard many surfers of aIl
levels of experience sharing technical knowledge with
beginning surfers. Self-defence may be one reason for the
liberal sharing of expertise as inexperienced surfers in the
water are a danger to aIl around them.

Surfer language is often pointed to by non-surfers as
an identifying feature of surf culture. It is really a
jargon, but its lexicon is applied to non-surf experiences,
often leo.ing non-surfers in confusion amongst a group of
surfe <"s. Some words, like the identifier "dude," have
entered popular youth culture through the national media and
are used by the media and non-surfing youth in situations
far removed from the ocean.

Surfer lexicon tends to be unstable. New words are

invented and old ones discarded at a quick rate. Words are
made up on the beach, partly in an effort to describe
experiences which do not have adequate representation in
Standard English. So we get words like "gnarly" (an
adjective describing extremeness and derived from "gnarled")
and "stoke"/"stoked" (a noun/adjective of excitement about
surfing and derived from the verb "to stoke"). For
instance, a "gnarly wave" is an extremely large wave; a
"gnarly chick" is a woman exhibiting extremeness of beauty,
strength, ugliness, etc. ''l'm stoked" is usually said in
response to some excitement which may or may not be surfing
related. Both these words and most others in the surfer
lexicon begin in reference to a wave or surfing activity and
are gradually applied to something else.
Formation of new lexical entries may be conscious word
play. At some locations, surfers used what sounded to me to
be unique words and configurations of words. Other members
of the local crew indicated by smiles and laughter or
repetition of the word or phrase that they believed it to be
particularly clever. At one location, one surfer seemed to
be the main innovator. He called the waves "short stacks"
(a reference to a serving of pancakes--the waves from the
vantage point at that location did bear some resemblance to
stacks of pancakes) and a number of other terms l did not
hear elsewhere, among them "lines," "black stacks," and

1 "black monsters." He also commented on action in the water


(even though we could all see it) by saying such phrases as,
"He stood up for the curtain call" (meaning that the
surfer had stood up on his board only to be consumed by the
lip of the wave which could be described as a curtain of
water). In many places, l heard abbreviations which l could
not decipher. Although one which was probably not intended
to be secret was the verb "V.S.O.P." "1 got V.S.O.P.'ed
last night" referred to being drunk and l suspect was
derived from the letters displayed on matured cognac. l
should say that l only heard this verb among surfers who
were legally too young to drink alcohol and who may have had
some reason for hiding their drinking activities should an
outsider overhear their conversation.
New uses cf language are picked up by the magazines,
who print the language used in interviews and sent in
letters. l asked an editor of one of the magazines if he
thought the magazines were responsible for a standardization
of surf culture in any way. Without hesitation he referred
to language. "Gnarly" and "stoke" are words that will be
understood by any surfer in the world. They have been used
consistently in the magazines for a number of years.
In spite of some standardization of surf language,
local groups do develop their own words which must be
learned to be part of the society at that location. In
santa Cruz (northern California), it is reported (Bishop
1991:B1) that a sub-language built around the use of the
verb "haken" ('to surf') at one break excludes even other

Santa Cruz surfers from local society. When I first began

talking to the surfers at Ocean Park, I was at a loss to
understand most of the sentences. Even by the end of the
research when I was familiar with the standard lexical
arrangements used at places of high flux such as Malibu, I
could not understand much of what was said at Ocean Park.
Syntax in surfer language is identical to Standard
English in almost aIl respects. However, among some groups
of surfers, emulation of Hawaiian Creole is common. Use of
Hawaiian-inspired language points to the high saliency of
Hawaii to surfers and to the historie and present link to
Hawaii. One surfer told me he could not understand those
surfers who mix Creole syntax, intonation, and pronunciation
with local surf lexicon. Many non-surfers told me they
could not understand surfers at aIl, although I assumed they
were exaggerating.

An awareness of the history of surfing was found among
aIl of the surfers I met. History places surfers in time
and gives them a continuity "f identity. Most surfers are
aware of their historical connection with Hawaii as weIl as
the history of the development of the modern board. The
~ncreasing importance of surfers to the rest of America and
the world is noted within a historieal context by most

1 surfers.

Surf history was more often discussed by older surfers

than by younger surfers. However, history was more often
discussed by younger surfers at Malibu than by younger
surfers at other breaks. At Malibu, the balding
longboarders (many of whom were chanpion surfers in the
past) provide a tableau of surfing history. In aIl cases,
surfers were most familiar with the famous surfers of their
own generation.
Hawaii is seen as the birthplace of modern surfing
history and is a place Southern California surfers want to
go. Most dedicated surfers do.

Surf Trips
Surf trips are an important source of shared identity.
Surfers spend hours talking about past and proposed trips to
various surf locations throughout the world. Surfers may go
with friends to any place in the world, but surfers from
Southern California visit two places most often: Baja
California and Hawaii.
Baja is a place to which surfers may go on a whim.
They will fasten their boards to the racks on top of their
cars, calI their close friends and travel as far south on
the Baja California peninsula as is needed to find
unoccupied waves. The surfers l met from various breaks
share a feeling about Baja. For them, it has connotations
of freedom from crowds, of adventure, but also of closeness,

of safety, of being in one's neighborhood (even though Baja

is in another country). Surfers feel much more apprehensive
of the natives of Hawaii than of Mexican citizens.
Hawaiians are noted among my informants for despising
"haoles" ('white non-natives') and resenting the crowding of
their shores by non-natives. However, the importance of
Hawaii to surf culture (not least because the surf media
concentrates most of its reporting on Hawaii) is strong
enough to bring mainlanders there for a surfing adventure.
For a dedicated surfer it is almost obligatory. Hawaii is
an essential stop in his progress in building surf location

The Attitude
In so much of the surf and popular literature, one
reads about surfers as "free-spirited, natural, fun-Iovin'
clean-cut kids looking for a little summer romance" (George
1991:12; see also Muirhead 1962:130 and Koehner 1957). This
is assuredly how surfers in the main see themselves.
Fun is the key word. l believe surfers derive fun from
mischief in addition to their other fun-generating
activities. wilkinson (1991:89) notes of the 1960s that "an
outlaw ethic ruled the beaches." AlI law-breaking
activities which l observed were done as a group and
accompanied by smiles. They were fun for the surfers.

1 (These were minor offenses such as illegal parking, indecent


exposure, trespassing, drug use, and petty theft.) The

surfers l observed were not outlaws--at most they sometimes
went to the fringes of the law. Again, the work of John
Kerr has a parallel here. The high level of arousal-
seeking associated with surfers is also found among those
engaged in "delinquent activities" (Kerr 1991:613). If the
idea of arousal-seeking as a primary personal motivation for
surfing has relevance here, then it is possible surfers
would seek arousal in other activities as weIl (such as
In accordance with the outculture status of surfing,
some violation of parent-culture standards is expected of
surfers by other surfers. As mentioned, surfers often

trespass on private property in order to get to waves,

engage in petty theft, change on the beach or on the road
beside their cars in disregard of Indecent exposure laws. l
have noted the tacit approval given by aIl of the surfers at
Palos Verdes who were present at the firecracker throwing.
Drugs are commonly used (but l understand they are less
widely used now than in past years). A casual attitude
toward work is exemplified by many surfers, who have no
problem freeloading off their parents or friends. Surfers
feel they are different from the parent culture and need nat
abide by parent culture rules.
The delinquency/mischief l abserved may be an attribute
af yauth. Yauth as an attitude is a large part af the
surfer psyche. Even aIder surfers engage in mischief, and

surfers of all ages show behavior similar to that of parent-

It culture adolescents. One older beginning surfer told me,
"Surfing makes me feel like a teenager." Perhaps the
mischief done by surfers stems from family background.
Tygart (1981:483) found that college students from affluent
families were more willing to engage in illegal activity
than those from less affluent backgrounds. I cannot say if
this finding applies to surfers, but certainly surfers are
mainly from higher socio-economic levels and their casual
attitude towards the law is a source of amusement for
surfers and non-surfers alike.
The described attitudes are common to surfers old and
young, riders of longboards and shortboards. Beyond this,
there are two divergent attitudes shared by significant
numbers of surfers regarding the act of surfing. The
attitudes are exemplified by the difference in performance
one receives from longboards and shortboards.
stillman (1991b:36) describes the two attitudes:
longboarders-- II believe in going with the flow surf for
love show a grace and spiritual centeredness that make
surfing not so much a balancing act as a ballet;"
shortboarders--"believe a wave is there not only to be
ridden, but to be ripped, carved, shredded, and 'Mansoned'II
[in reference to murderer Charles Manson]. Although I did
not find the strict dichotomy that stillman implies, her
description illustrates the poles of attitude which surfers

recognize. Typically, longboarders are older, shortboarders

In Southern California, the shortboards are much more
common. They are faster, easier to maneuver, and lighter.
They can be used on a wider array of waves than the long
boards. In any group of longboarders, the aggressive styles
of the shortboarders were eventually brought up in
discussion with me as illustration of changes in surf
culture over the years. Regardless of the bloody metaphors
used by the shortboarders, their motivation for surfing is
still expressed as "fun."

The Look
A number of visual symbols are important in the surf
culture. These include boards, wetsuits, stickers, cars and
clothes. It is not surprising that the board, the one
essential tool in surfboarding has a lot of meaning for
surfers. Most surfers l talked to could give a detailed
history of the evolution of the surfboard. Every part of
the board's design affects its performance. Even a cursory
examination of a board will give fellow surfers clues to a
rider's style and attitudes towards the wave.
Wetsuits are given strong consideration by surfers
also. Brand will indicate one's sympathies (does the surfer
wear a locally manufactured, Hawaiian, or Australian suit?).
Color can indicate one's approach to surfing. Bright colors

tend to show an aggressive dominating approach, muted colors

or black show a more integrative approach. suitability to
current conditions gives clues to a surfer's dedication
and/or income. Many surfers, like myself, only own a full
suit (long sleeved, long legged) although suits come in many
lengths and thicknesses of neoprene rubber. If I wear my
suit on a day of only moderate coldness when a short-sleeved
suit would do, I tell fellow surfers that surfing is not
important enough for me to invest in the pr~~er suit or that
I cannot afford one. The same conditions apply if I do not
wear neoprene booties and a hood on very cold days.
Alternatively, lack of a suit on a cold day is sometimes
an act of bravado by surfers.
Stickers are also part of the surfer look. Ordinarily
they are small, about 3 to 4 inches, with a self-adhesive
back, and are often shaped around a logo. Surfers will use
stickers advertising their favorite brandes) of surf shops,
boards, wetsuits, wax, clothing or any number of other
items. These are placed on one's car, on every man-made
surface at surf locations (signs, windows of parking
attendant booths, poles, lifeguard stands, etc.), on one's
board (or built into custom-made boards) and on places
around homes, schools and other places where surfers are
likely to congregate. In Southern California it is common
to see surf stickers on automobiles of non-surfers (I have
even seen them on automobiles in Montreal). Some brands,


notably th~se of surf-clothing companies which sell nation-

wide are more often used by non-surfers.
l asked many surfers why stickers are so commonly used
by surfers. The best answer l received was, "Kids love
stickers." l believe stickers serve as a point of
recognition among surfers who have an outculture status even
in Los Angeles. As a means of communicatioll, stickers are
statements answered by other sticker statements.
Surfers' cars in Southern California are almost as
important as their boards. We have already seen how
automobile access contributes to break identity and the
identity of those who use a break. Gregg and Gamblin note
the visual importance of automobiles and surfboards as
"emblems of Southern California's culture" (Gregg and
Gamblin 1990). The typical surf car is one that i5 cheap,
is able carry boards and can be slept in. Many surfers
drive barely operable vehicles. stickers on the cars
communicate with other surfers.
One's clothes also communicate visually. l was at a
disadvantage in being accepted by surfers when l approached
them wearing non-surf wear. l did not have the surfer look.
A recent editorial in one of the surf magazines explains the
look weIl:

Lightweight shorts to keep you cool on the

beach and unhindered in the surf. Loose-fitting
shirts which are comfortable and--quite
importantly--easy on and off. BandaIs that offer
just enough protection from the hot sand, yet
allow you to stay in touch with your environment.
,r1t. AlI these surfer clothes make sense, each molded

to fit a special life along the ocean's edge.

It's no wonder the straight world became so
enamored with the way we dress . (George 1991:12)

The same editorial laments the fact that many surfers have
begun ~~ring biker (motorcycle) attire. Many surfers have
turned aWl1Y from the typical surf look because the surfer
look has become popular with the parent culture (or as
George says, the "straight world"). That some surfers today
would want to wear something other than the nationally
popular surf fashions is not a special occasion in the
history of surfing. In other words, most surfers
consciously choose not to wear surfer clothes which are
popular with non-surfers. change in surfing symbols,
including clothing, is a surfer institution.

Change of surfing symbols is an institution which aIl
surfers in my study perpetuate. Surfers are different and
are willing to work to stay that way. This is easily seen
in the case of surfers exchanging their sandals for hobnail
boots. In the same editorial on surfer fashion, George
(ibid.) writes, "Now that the nationwide surf fashion wave
has peaked--now that the great untold masses have decided to
put their underwear back on--it would follow that real
surfers would once again relax back into their casual
sartorial statement. But for many, it appears that the

reprieve has come too late; that there were just too IDany
Spuds MCKenzie-in-baggies [loose surfer shorts] shots and
Mervyn's [a department store chain] "Surfer Sales" to ever
go back. We're stuck in a fashion backlash "
This has happened before. Schwendinger and
Schwendinger (1985:410ff) tell us that in 1967, surfers
changed their clothing choice in response to popularization
of surfing styles. l witnessed it happen in the late
1970's. It is likely to happen again.
Language changes, too. Trevor Cralle (in Bishop
1991:B2) says that "As soon as 'tubular' appeared in the
Zappa song [the 1982 hit "Valley Girl" which inspired a
movie of the same title], l haven't heard a surfer utter
that word again." "Tubular" is just one surf word which has
been consciously dropped by surfers.
Sam George (in Stillman 1991b:42) explains, "people
have tried to sterilize surfing and sell it to the masses.
It won't happen. There's a defense mechanism. Surfing
protects itself." The defense mechanism is the institution
of change in surfer symbols. changes are in response to
surfers' percept.on of how their symbols are communicated by
the national media and used by non-surfers.

Surfers who do not have a connection with these

institutions--shared sensations in the water, tecbnical
expertise, surf language, sense of history, surf trips, surf
attitude, visual symbols of surfing, and change in external

surfing symbols--may still be participants in t+-:, :;;port of

surfing, but are not functioning members of surf society in
Southern California. The institutions give form to the
society. They also supply points of connection between
individual surfers and the surf culture.

CHAPTER 7: National Media

Surfer images in the national media appear frequently

even where geography makes large numbers of surfers
unlikely. Even in Southern California most youth do not
surf, but surfer images are perhaps higher here than
elsewhere. Surfers see their symbols appropriated by the
film, television, music, advertising, and clothing
industries and change or abandon those symbols which they
feel have been compromised and no longer serve to separate
surfers from the parent culture.

A Stereotype
The first point that should be made about the national
media is that its use of surf symbols is not necessarily
about or for surfers. According to informa~ts, only the

1 surf media are an adequate representation of surfer


identity. Use by the national media of surfer symbols (or

any images for that matter) is geared to revenue increase

from cinema tickets, or magazines, or recordings, or

clothin~s or whatever it is that is being sold. However,

for a surfer image to sell an item, an effective

stereotype must exploited. It is by the existence of this

stereotype that a men's cologne company can televise for

thirty seconds an image of a man with a surfboard and expect

non-surfers to be moved to purchase the cologne.

The best evidence l have for the widespread (even

international) presence of a stereotype of Southern

California surfers may come from academic literature. Two

economists (one in Massachusetts, one in Belgium), arguing

about the proper level of state welfare assistance to

individuals, cite Malibu surfers as the epitome of

freeloaders (Rawls 1988, Van Parijs 1991). According to

Rawls (in Van Parijs, p.10l), " .. those who surf all day off

Malibu must find a way to support themselves and would not

be entitled to public funds." Although the two articles

were printed in a journal meant to be read by academics

around the world, most of whom are not likely to visit

Malibu, never was an explanation given of the habits of

surfers or those of Malibu surfers. Familiarity with the

stereotype was assumed.

In the same way, the national media identified (feature

films, television, ~usic, print, clothing) must assume a

stereotype in order to use the shorthand of surfer symbols


to sell a product. The television advertiser, for example,

Il assumes that an image of a surfer will have a specifie
meaning shared by a large number of viewers in order for the
image to be thought to be a successful carrier of the
advertiser's message. An account of the development of the
stereotype may be interesting, but due to space
restrictions, l must limit my remarks to an explanation of
how the national media affects local surfer identity.

Entry of Surfer Symbols into Mainstream Media

Surfers have little to do with the use of surfer
symbols in the national media. Although many of the
hundreds of thousands of surfers in the Los Angeles area are
involved in the national media, few surfers are used in the
production of Hollywood films with a surfing subtheme or in
other national media items. Surfers are mainly used as
stunt doublp5 for non-surfing actors or as background
~hose media production personnel l met who were also
surfers seemed to separate their identity as surfers from
their professional life. One writer-director said that he
wrote some of the characters of his surf buddies into
scripts, but not as surfers. While many non-surfers embrace
surfing images, the surfers l met who worked in the national
media did not actively incorporate surfer images into their

1 work. Avoidance of mixing surf and professional identities


is not a rule. John Milius, the writer-director of the

Hollywood production "Big Wednesday" was a surfer. This

film is noted among surfers for showing some surfc~

reality. Yet none of the surfers l talked ta about the

national media ard few of the published accounts of the

relationship between surfers and the national media mention

"Big Wednesday" as having much effect on the communication

of surfing symbols ta the nation.

For a brief moment l was personally involved in the use

of surf symbols in the national media. As l was ending my

surf session one ~ay, l noticed a fashion shoot on the

beach. (I had already seen many of these on easily

accessible beaches throughout the study area). ~en l left

the water, the stylist ran after me and asked if she could

borrow my board for some pictures for the Spring catalogue

of the well-known national clothing company.

l asked questions while photographs were taken of my

board with some male models. Nobod~ on the crew surfed.

All of the models were flown in from New York. They were

going ta take photographs of real surfers the next Qy. l

was about ta offer myself, but the stylist told me they

wanted ta use some "really good-looking surfers . because we

want it ta look real." l saved myself the embarrassment and

went home and made my notes.

While amusing, this example gives an indication that

the visual symbols of surfing in the national media are


."''''; ..

chosen for an intended effect on a national audience, not

for personal meaning surfing may have to the media makers.

Surfer Consumption
l was surprised to find that the surfers in my study
were not very interested in non-surf media presentations of
surf images. l could find no surfers who claimed to watch
the current television series "Baywatch" even though it
regularly features surfer symbols and is in part recorded at
several popular breaks. (1 was surfing at one of the breaks
when "Baywatch" was being fi:'med in the water. l, along
with the other surfers in the lineup, found the film crew
and the actors to be more of a nuisance than a curiosity.)
A feature film with a surfing theme, "Point Break," was
released during the research period. After its run in local
theaters, I found very few surfers who had seen it although
aIl of the current surfers l knew had seen the real surf
film which was shown at the same time.
No surfers l knew preferred to listen to what is
popularly called surf music--by The Beach Boys, Jan and
Dean, Surf Punks, and other musicians whose lyrics have a
surfing theme. However, most surfers were familiar with it:
hits from the 1960s of The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean are
still regularly played on radio stations around the country.
l only found one surfer out of dozens l asked who had
read The PumP House Gang, a best-selling book by Tom Wolfe

(1968) which introduced the surfing 1ifesty1e to many

Surfers, however, do not entire1y over1ook surfing
symbo1s in the national media. Many surfers told me they
sometimes liked to watch one of the several Hollywood surf
films of the 1960s. "Mainly to laugh at what they got
wrong," one surfer said, reflecting the general sentiment of
current surfers regarding Hollywood films with a surfing
theme. Not aIl surfers are completely cynical about
Hollywood. Among those surfers who did see "Point Break"
were those who chose it be~ause it did feature surfing.
Surfers take notice of surfing images in national
advertisements (or wh. 'rever they are encountered), but l
believe the stereotype has less effect on surfers than on
the non-surf population. However, use of surf symbols has
the effect of encouraging non-surfers to take up surfing.
This happened in a large way the 1960s.

"Gidget Ruined Everything"

One cannot speak of the popular ~istory of surfing
without mentioning Gidget (Bishop 1991:B1; Lueras 1984:217;
Schwendinger and Schwendinger 1985:97; Stillman 1991b:23;
Wilkinson 1991:89; etc.). Gidget was the title character of
a film released in 1959. The film showed the laid-back
surfing lifes..:~' a in a realistic light. It also featured a
lot of surfing on the Malibu coast.

In the late 19505, two thousand people owned boards in

Southern California (Wilkinson 1991:89). The number
increased to 100,000 by 1964 (Schwendinger and Schwendinger
1985:98). Suddenly, suri locations were crowded.
Territorialism emerged.
, One old surfer of the time told me,
"Gidget ruined eve-rything."
The character "Gidget" was continued in other films. A
te1evision series of the 19605 ran for several seasons.
currently, a "New Gidget" series featuring surfing has
lasted for a number of years and may continue. Gidget has
become a part of American folklore.
since the 1960s, several successful Hollywood endeavors
have kept surfing in the national eye. Surfing language has
been popularized by "Big Wednesday," "Fast Times at
Ridgemont High," and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" to name
a few. l have noticed surfing language and surfing clothing
used by people in diverse situations across the United
Non-surfers seem to want to participate in some way in
the surf culture. Almost every time a non-surfer spoke to
me when l was carrying my surfboard to a break for a surfing
session, it was with some supposed surf lexicon. Usually,
the words were archaic. Seldom were they spoken with
fluency. Always, they were delivered with a humorous tone.
For example, some typical non-surfer attempts to communicate
were, "go for it, dude," "jump a curl," "cowabunga,"
"tubular, dude."

Surfer Response to National Media

The national media communicates surfer symbols to
surfers as weIl as to non-surfers. Surfer reaction has been
to change those symbols which have been popularized by the
parent culture and which no longer separate surfers from
The change may be slight. l understand that a greeting
among surfers in the 1950s was sometimes, "Ho, Dad!." Now,
the standard greeting is "Hey, Dude!" A national television
program with the title "Hey, Dude!" may be the cause of some
future change in the greeting.
Sometimes the change may be as drastic as the inversion
of meaning. Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1985:103) report
that in 1962 "Hodad" also referred to a type of dedicated
surfer. (Non-surfers sometimes called me a "hodad" when l
was carrying my board to the beach.) "Gremmie" referred to
someone who looked like a surfer, but who could not really
surf. Now, "hodad," although seldom used, would refer to
someone on the fringes of the surf culture and definitely
not a dedicated surfer. "Gremmie" (now usually "grommet")
refers to a young surfer who is a dedicated surfer and often
quite good.
The use of surfer language by the national media has
two results. It makes the language used by the media
archaic (since surfers will then change those words) and it

gives the non-surfer a collection of symbols which are by

their very use outmoded. The same thing happens with
fashion, some surfers going to the extreme of wearing
functionally inappropriate clothes to the beach (such as
motorcycle gear) in order not to look like the non-surfers
wearing supposed surfer clothes.

Surfers in Southern Califonria may be more aware of the

processes used by the national media than surfers elsewhere.
They are familiar with the beaches from which the media
takes its surf images; they know how reliable the media is
in reporting the actual conditions present at those
locations, as weIl as the conditions of surfer life
portrayed. Although the manifestations of its effects are
largely negative, the national media are one of the
strongest forces in the creation of surfer identity. The
national media set the standard which surfers avoid.

CHAPTER 8: Patterns of Social Behavior

Social behavior in the water at a break can be seen to

be directed by two factors: the competition for waves and
the rules which surfers obey for the sake of safety.

Secondary conditions arise from the very f~ct of the

surfers' interaction in groups.


It is possible to find in the surf literature and in

surfer conversation numerous references to named divisions

of surfers in Southern California. These include surf

nazis, surf punks, Vals, pros, long-boarders, shortboarders,

grommets, kooks, lccals of various places (e.g., Bay street

locals), Barneys, and others (many of these named are

alreadyarchaic). These namas are oppositional identities

more usually given to others than to oneself. One may have

several of these identities at once, changing with location

and situation, as well as others which are made up on the


How the relationships these named groups imply

translates into social behavior must be understood fro~ the

point of view of small group loyalty. Surfers of a named

jdentity are not likely to be attracted to others of the

same named identity at a wave location unless they are

already acquainted. Surfers stay with their friends, with

whom they are 2ikely to travel in search of waves and who

would take retaliatory action on behalf of each other in the

face of repeated drop ins by others not in their small


Regardless of the named division a surfer is assigned

Il to or even takes on himself, he will mainly interact with
his friends, for concerted action in punishing a
transgressor, in intimidating others to relinquish waves, or
in shouts of encouragement. If the small group is not
threatened, but some one else of a local crew is threatened,
the small group (also sometimes called a crew) will come to
the assistance of others recognized as locals.
The small group is also effective when surfing at a
different break than normal for the group. "strength in
nUEhers" usually prevents action against the small group and
also allows action to be taken by the small group towards
belligerent locals.
I observed much action by small groups and heard tales
of much more. I never saw violence (except the firecracker
assault at Palos Verdes) but was told a number of stories of
fist fights at different oreaks. The most common action I
noted was a small group of surfers crowding out others at a
break. The next most common action and the action most
talked about by surfers w:s retaliation against a surfer who
had dropped in on one of the ~LC'UP or one of its friends.
The members of the group would drop in on the offending
surfer or push him off his board.


Hierarchy at wave locations is different every day and
from moment to moment, but is a conscious construction in
the minds of surfers. Those ~t the top of the hierarchy
ride the most waves, while those at the bottom have fewer
and less desirable waves. We may see this hierarchy in a
spatial way at breaks. At the spot in the lineup where the
best waves break are the best surfers. Surfers less
accomplished will be seen at the edges of the group of
surfers or perhaps even far away. Usually, waves may be
ridden wherever there is a shore, so the surfers at the
fringes of the lineup (and also at the fringes of surfing
culture) are still able to catch waves, but of a definite
poorer quality. Recognition of a hierarchy (i.e. lower
status surfers giving up waves to higher statue surfers) is
also important for safety. The higher status surfers (most
skillful and most aggressive) are able to outpaddle the
lower status surfers in competition for. waves. When lower
status surfers acknowledge this difference, they are
better able to avoid collision. Never in a surf session
with many surfers have l observed a hierarchy completely
recognized by aIl of the surfers in an area, nor aIl of the
rules adhp.red to.
The hierarchy formed is based on skill, confidence and
reputation. Action i~ the water is more important -Chan
reputation, but a reputation may give one some advantage.

The most skilled surfers will not only be in the better

" position to catch the waves, but will have the respect of
fellow surfers who will then relinquish waves to them.
Higher status surfers may also share waves. I paddled
out to the best spot at a point break one day. The surfer
who was in the best position to catch the wave and who--as I
later found out--was the dominant surfer of the small crew
at the break said, "It's aIl yours, dude." I caught the
next wave, but surfed it poorly. By positioning of their
boards, the surfers present effectively excluded me from the
best waves, although I was allowed to catch smaller waves
which they did not choose. When my skill level (and status)
was unknown, the dominant surfer was willing to relinquish a
wave to me (especially since I behaved like a high status
surfer by immediately paddling to the best spot). When my
lower skill level was revealed, he and the others of the
local crew enforced their higher status by excluding me
from the prime take-off spot.
At times, I was the most highly skilled surfer at a
beach break and able to take my pi~k of the waves.
Sometimes, when my skill level was comparable or slightly
lower than others at a break, I was still the dominant
surfer. Without knowing the exact reasons, I can list two
possibilities. When the other surfers were adolescents, it
is possible that my age or size gave me a higher status.
When the other surfers included people my age or older, my


greater command of the rules of surfing (or confidence) may

have been a factor.
A flexible spatial hierarchy of each moment is
noticeable as surfers try to judge the coming sets and be
at the spot where they break, the surfer at the best spot
is the highest in the moment's hierarchy. There is also a
hierarchy of break, with the small group as weIl as proven
skilled surfers occupying the highest positions. Lesser
skilled surfers and those with less confidence in the
competition for waves are lowest in the hierarccy.
Position in this hierarchy is determined by the amount of
waves and the desirability of waves caught at any one
period of time. Hierarchy at wave locations is not limited
to Southern California. A magazine warns of parts of
Australia: "strong local hierarchies demand respect"
(Surfing 1991b:49).
Differences in hierarchies can be observed at
different breaks. l will briefly describe the social
organization at Malibu, Rose and Venice Breakwater.
Malibu has three points and three b=eaks. A hierarchy
forres at each of these in the manner just dascribed.
However, at Malibu, the spatial patterns of hierarchy also
extend to the beach. At the wall are the older surfers who
have a right to that desirable location (the shortest walk
from the parking lot) because they
, have been surfing Malibu
the longest. The oldest surfers aIse have the largest ~roup

of friends at Mal.; bu and are able to best apply sanct' ','lli to


those occupying their territory. The sanctions l observed

consisted of scowls, denigrating words, and semi-threatening
positions. In the words of one surfer, "They can make you
feel ~comfortable." l believe these sanctions are
effective by the fear that the posturing may turn into
action in the water, where surfers are dependent on others
to obey the rules. These signaIs of disapproval were not
sent to everyone. If one was perceived as a non-threat (an
anthropologist for instance) one may be invited to sit with
the balding longboarders by the wall. AIso, younger surfers
wanting to know the history of Malibu might be tolerated as
long as they were seen to hold the balding longboarders in
the proper esteem. Tourists near the wall are generally
In spite of the crowds at Malibu, longboarders tend to
be friendlier in the water. They are more mature in years,
but also the competition for rides at first point is less
intense. several longboarders can ride a wave at a time
with much less chance of injury than if several
shortboarders rode a wave. Additionally, the hierarchy is
weIl established and the longboarders as a whole are quite
The higher the surf at Malibu, the fiercer the
competition at the outside points, which become better in
higher surf. The spatial hierarchy spreads out with the
most skilled shortboarders surfing third point, the less

r skilled surfing second, and the longboarders remaining at


first point. Those less skilled surfers who may be on the

edge of the lineup on a small day would not paddle out on a
large day. The force of the waves and the crowds of skilled
surfers who come to Malibu only on large days present too
much of a challenge. On big days, the competition at
Malibu is more intense, the surfers more skilled as a whole
and more aggressive.
At Rose, the hierarchy is somewhat different. Rose is
a beach break that is surfable on only some days while
Malibu is surfable on almost aIl days. Few people surf at
Rose. When the waves are moderate to good, one can count up
to ten people at Rose, compared to the 60 or more at Malibu.
Although solitary surfers are usually found at Rose, a small
group has formed among some young surfers (18-25). They
have been together for at least five years. This group is
nameless, but is characterized by surfers who went to high
school together, or who have been surfing at Rose long
enough to be accepted by the others in the group.
Competition at a beach break is usually less intense than
at a point break because waves break along the whole length
of a beach break. The spot where the waves first break is
changing constantly due to the bottom, the tide and to a
number of other factors. Surfers are paddling laterally
back and forth to locate themselves at the best spot for
catching the wave.
However, Rose has good surf so seldom that any other

1 surfers are more competition than the small group there


desires. l am told this group used to give non-Iocals a

"hard time" in the water, even getting into fights at some
times. As the surfers have become adults, they have become
less belligerent (although l felt more uncomfortable here
than elsewhere as l paddled out).
At Venice Breakwater, the location is a combination
pointjbeach break. The surf is better here than at Rose (a
few streets away). In addition to normal surfer
interaction, matters are complicated at the breakwater by a
surfer gang. It uses the symbols of ganghood that the gangs
aIl over Los Angeles use: graffiti, gang-style clothing,
intimidation of non-gang members.
However, l believe that the Venice Break Water Locals
(using "ITBWL's" for graffiti) are not a true gang in the
manner of the other Los Angeles gangs from whom they borrow
symbols. At the vantage point for the breakwater, VBWL
graffiti warns non-VBWL's to stay out of the water.
However, next to the VBWL graffiti are graffiti from
neighboring gangs whose members do not surf. Gang
etiquette requires one to disfigure the graffiti of rival
gangs in one's own gang's territory. This has not been
done. Additionally, VBWL's do not follow through on the
defense of their territory as nearby gangs do (in often
bloody ways). l had a short conversation with a gang member
in the lineup without telling him l was a researcher. While
not overtly friendly, the tone was not hostile. The
violence which is the hallmark of other Los Angeles gangs is

not readily apparent among the VBWL's. One other surfer

told me the gang members told him to leave, but he ignored
them and no retribution was taken. One of the group at Rose
said, "They are just a bunch of kids with a name."
The appearance of a supposed gang at Venice Breakwater
may be related to the difference in predominant socio-
economic class between Venice and other beach locations.
Venice is the only beach community of those l visited with a
significant underclass. In spite of a growing affluent
White presence, three blocks from the beach the racial
makeup is mainly Hispanie and Black. Gang activity is
highly visible. Drive-by shootings and nightly police
helicopter overf1ights in search of fugitives are common.
In Southern California, with the exception of Venice,
aIl of the breaks are located within very affluent
communities. Poor children do not have the daily
opportunity to watch surfing that the children in beach
communities have. l have already made a suggestion that it
is this very affluence which has 1ed to common surfer
delinquency. In fact, in 1971, Banham (1971:144) warned
that the children of Palos Verdes were more in danger of
delinquency than adolescents in communities of a more
diverse economic orientation. (We may refer once again to
the firecracker attack l suffered at a Palos Verdes break.)
Although many surfers are poor (by prioritizing surfing
higher than work), very few are from poor backgrounds. Surf

gangs patterned after inner city gangs are not typica1 of

j surfing social structure.

Overcrowding and Territorialism

Conflicting philosophies operate in the water. One can
be called "Surfer Brotherhood" (a term sometimes used by
surfers) and the other some surfers call "Greed" (for
waves). Crowding of waves has caused the conflict.
Surfers have a history of helping other surfers.
Although competition for waves is always increasing as more
and more people learn to surf, surfers still have a feeling
of brotherhood for other surfers. l know two surfers who
hitchhike with their boards on Pacific Coast Highway just
after dawn because they know some surfer will give them a
ride. They hitchhike often and they always get a ride
In the water the kind surfer ethic says to wait your
turn and you will get a ride. Give others a turn also.
Greed demands one to take every wave and the best waves one
can regardless of how long others have been waiting.
The conflict between the two ethics is described by
Dave Parmenter:
Against my better judgement, l tried
surfing Lower Trestles on a warm Saturday. Being
a native Californian, it should be my birthright.
!'ve been surfing for seventeen years, am one of
the better surfers in the state, and have rarely
ever met my match when it comes to paddling. But
T ! have a code of honori wait my turn, and never
,~ drop in on anyone, even bodyboarders. There

wasn't a wave for me out there, unless l decided

t to physically intimidate the entire crowd, or howl
and bleat like an enraged bull. It was a lawless,
bewildering lineup, held hostage on the outside by
Barneys on flotation hulls wearing way too much
crap. They took off en masse in mini-log armadas,
and weren't even skilled enough to fall off. The
inside break was a writhing neon ant farm of
auditioning pro-wannabes, aIl with Bart Simpson
'tudes [ ]
l got out of the water, hiked up what
passes for wilderness in Southern California, and
drove straight to Disneyland. [ ] It was just
as claustrophobie and frantic, but if you waited
in line you eventually got a ride (Parmenter

In practice, some brotherhood is still found in and off

the water. Good will towards fellow surfers in the water is
much more common on days when there are fewer surfers. When
a break is so overcrowded that one may wait a half hour for
a wave (as is common at popular breaks during the summer) ,
one cannot be magnanimous in relinquishing waves, or even
adhering to a code of good will (as Dave Parmenter related),
or one will simply not surf. Others who feel they have
waited too long for waves will rush into any hole in the
lineup someone may have left for safety or courtesy.
Overcrowding is also blamed by surfers for the
phenomenon of "locals only" ("just us" instead of "aIl of
us"). Again this is a manifestation of the competition for
waves. If one can limit the consumers at a wave location to
those who live in the area (who may comprise one or several
small groups), competition will be reduced. Additionally,
at locations of the most exclusive real estate, housing lots
1 will be larger and the population smaller, yielding more

waves per surfing population. Keeping non-Iocals from

surfing one's break is only successful in conditions of the

strictest access and the heaviest control of that access (at
Palos Verdes and Point Dume, for example). AIso, when the

population at a spot is kept small, locals can recognize

immediately whe~~er or not an approaching surfer is a local.

Some older surfers say "Gidget" was responsible for

overcrowding. Others blame "the media." Dave Parmenter

(1991:122) blames the lightweight board, the wetsuit, and

the leash on removing the "Natural Selection" of heavy

boards and long cold swims to retrieve lost boards which

kept the surfing population limited to dedicated, strong

men. Personally, l believe it is the attractiveness and the

accessibility of the sport aided by the suggested factors.

There is also something compelling about surfing that makes

one want to share it with people one likes. l never met a

surfer who discouraged friends from learning how to surf.

In a surf magazine, a famous surfer was quoted as saying, "I

feel sorry for people who don't surf" (Surfer 1991a:40).


It is possible that territorialism is a function of the

machismo common at surf locations. Manliness, masculinity,

and machismo are very evident at aIl breaks in Southern


"The whole symbolism of surfing is domination of

r women," a surfer told me. The following gives a short
description of how thi.s is manifested. Surfers occasionally
refer to their boards with phallic metaphors (l heard these
at every wave location where l made more than one visit).
Waves are feminine, never masculine. Surfers today "rip,"
"shred," and "destroy" their waves. One of the most common
maneuvers is to "bust the lip." Perhaps these terms would
not be used if more women surfed, but women are not common
members of a local crew.
l asked a surf magazine editor why more women do not
surf. His first response was, "lt's a tough sport." He
went on to qualify the statement, but his initial reaction
is shared by most surfers with whom l talked. Most men
believe women do not make good surfers. The proper place of
women in the surfer world view is that of "surf betty" or
"beach bunny"--girls who adoringly watch the surfers from
the beach.
The women surfers l met were often tomboys as children.
l~lthough it can be assumed that professional women surfers
lire very dedicated, none of the very few women surfers l met
had the intensity of dedication that the average male surfer
axhibited. One woman surfer said she liked to be the only
l~oman in the lineup because she got "all the attention."
l:Iowever, the women surfers l knew were as enthusiastic in
their discussion of the fun derived from the sport as any of

1 the men.

The machismo extends to sexual orientation. l was

surprised to find no admittedly homosexual surfers in
Southern California. One surfer said, "There might be, but
they just don't admit it because they would get beat up."
In spite of the large homosexual community in Los Angeles
and the several "gay beaches," no surfer with whom l spoke
knew any homosexual surfer. No one even knew about a
homosexual surfer. l heard one rumor of an Australian
homosexual surfer, but that was aIl.
The exaggeration of some features of masculinity is
necessary for surfers to be fully socialized into the
culture. Perhaps it is also to be expected in a society
where women are poorly represented and powerless.

Non-surfers are given a low position in the surfer
world view. In the water, non-surfers are cursed and
sometimes yelled at to get out of the way. At Malibu, only
surfboarders are allowed in the water by the lifeguard. At
other locations l visited bodyboarders were resented.
Swimmers, the slowest moving people in the water, were the
most resented of aIl. Surfers consider non-surfers, who do
not know the surfer safety and courtesy rules, a safety
Non-surfers on the beach had no standing whatsoever.
It was as if they did not exist. However, if the non-

surfers on the beach happened to be women, then the surfers

would sometimes take notice and even show off in the water
to attract attention. On several occasions, l saw surfers
leave the water and try to seduce women on the beach.

Although hierarchies of male surfers form at breaks

with the most waves going to those with the highest status
in the hierarchies, the domination of the aggressive surfers
is made less harsh by the observation of safety rules made
necessary by the danger which confrcnts aIl surfers. The
relaxing of competition in the face. of these rules provides
a place for those surfers lower in the hierarchy to catch
waves and possibly increase their standing in the hierarchy.
Competition for waves ~an be seen to me~c a response in
territorialism and the formation of small groups of surfers
at breaks.

CHAPTER 9: Conclusion

l have tried t~ show surfer identity in California as

deriving from the ac'~ and setting ~f surfing itself, from
the individual's personal background and motivation for

1 surfing, and from the social interaction among surfers on


and off the water. There may be other ways of ~ssessing

surfer identity, but in my contact with surfers nothing

arose which did not appear to stem from one or more of these
three headings.
Little evidence has been presented of surfers'
activities outside the surfing milieu. In my observation,
the behavior of individual surfers interacting with non-
surfers loses many of its identifiable surfer features. For
example, surf lexicon is not used and the surf attitude is
altered to be more uniform with Californian culture.
If for some reason, a surfer wants to emphasize his
"surferness," he may continue to exhibit surter behavior,
but the result is usually alienation if no other surfers are
around, unless, of course, the non-surfers are attracted to
the "surferness" in some way. For instance, l was told by a
teenage female who had recently arrived in Los Angeles from
Denver that some adolescent males in Denver were successful
in attracting girls by claiming to be surfers and exhibiting
surfer behavior.
It is the nature of a subculture that traits are shared
with a larger culture. Among individual surfers, the shared
traits are dominant in interaction with non-surfers, the
traits which define surfer culture predominate in
interaction with other surfers. Many surfers are conscious
of this variability and reflect this understanding by
referring to surf culture at times as "surf subculture."
~ Yet, every surfer l met who spoke of surf society as a

subcultura also sometimes referred to it as "surf culture."

At times the opposition (to the parent culture) in identity
was stronger than ethers.

The main points of the thesis are four.
1) Surfing creates the basis for a separate society
which is referred to as a culture by surfers (which may or
may not have the same meaning as "culture" used by the
parent society, but neverthE".ess implies a separation of
identity). The aspects of surfing which form this basis are
surfing history, the physical setting of surfing, the shared
points of personal identity among surfers, and the
development and maintenance of social institutions.
2) The surf economy supports a separate surfer identity
by advertising and satisfying the surfer's need, not only
for eesential surfing equipment, but also for items to help
the surfer fit into surf culture (e.g., clothes, stickers).
The surf economy a:.';, has an effect on the parent culture in
that symbols (especially clothing) are drawn from the surf
economy into the larger culture. Communication between
widely separated groups of surfers is mediated by the surf
economy (especially by surf magazines and surf films).
3) Surfing has a strong association with adolescence
which affects surfers of every age and contributes to the

1 stereotype of surfers which the parent culture holds.


Casual attitudes towards work and the law and preoccupation

with sensatlon derive from the carefree adolescence of the

higher socio-economic classes from which surfing draws its


4) The national media have an effect on the specifie

symbols differentiating surf culture from the parent

culture. The parent culture is perceived by surfers to

deprive the surfing subculture of its distinguishing symbols

and the subculture responds by creating new distinguishing

symbols. The communication of the supposedly compromised

surf symbols to the nation as weIl as to surfers is by the

national media. The result is a symbolic dialogue between

the two identities. Surfers respond to non-surfer use of

their symbols by abandoning or avoiding the use of those

s~~ols which non-surfers use. Individuals in the parent

culture take on the symbols of surfing in order to

symbolically take on the attributes of surfing. However

surfer symbols change without surfers changing. While the

parent culture can duplicate surfer symbols they cannot

share surfer experience.


I have described surfer identity in California in broad

strokes. Some questions remain which time and space did not

allow me to explore, but which deserve some mention for

their possible importance beyond the surfing world.


Homophobia is not essential to the act of surfing and l

never heard homosexuality discussed except when l brought up
the subject. Why, in a city with a very strong and
effective gay rights movement, are there no openly gay
Surfers sometimes talk about women's physical
inferiority when explaining why women are seldom seen in the
lineup. Why, when technology has made surfing easier than
ever, are women rarely seen surfing in Southern California?
If men consciously keep women out of the water, why have
they been successful?
Answers to these and other questions would have
implications not only for surfing, but for other activities
in which a broad measure of machismo is rlisplayed.
Additionally, a further examination of the relationship
of surfing to mass culture '~ould help explain how mass
culture is created and how it adjusts to new input.

Concl.uding Remarks
Anthropology, which has a tendency to describe
normative traits in the activity of a group of people (as
does this ethnography), seldom deals with subcultures,
which ~re necessarily departures from a larger normative
culture. When attention is directed to subcultures,
ethnic-based rather than activity-based subcultures are

, usually the concern, with some exceptions, e.g., corporate

culture (Morrill 1991).

The driving question of this thesis has been: how is

identity created and maintained in an activity-based

subculture symbolically important to its parent culture? l

hope l have shown that surfers as individuals have a dualism

of identity (surfer and Southern Californian) but as a group

actively seek to maintain a separation between the two

identities. At least in the case of Southern Californian

surfers, where the subculture is an important source of

symbols for the parent culture, perception by surfers of how

those symbols are appropriated affects the form of the

actual symbols of surfer identity, but not necessarily the

structure of that identity.



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