Among Piers

Whether world-renowned or mere beachside tourist attractions, these simple landings breed virulent surf cultures.

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Things were edging into late fall when the pier suddenly revealed its secret to me, a vision I keep chasing, even now, every time I scratch into its peak. 

Summer had come and gone, and I’d moved farther inland—away from the sandstone cliffs and soft reefs. I calculated the pier as my straight shot for surf, a dalliance to keep me going until I could get back. Totally unaware of its influence and unexpected allure—how it ultimately would pull me right in.

The waves were average that day, barely pushing chest-high. Just outside the rip, where gold- and black-flecked silt churned and tumbled the water into sandy soup, I witnessed a takeoff by some unknown on the pier’s north side. The right spot. The right time. A tail-stomp drop. The lean figure ducked low and disappeared into a tube with a pinched front end. No way he was making it out. For a moment, time slowed to the crawl it takes on when things slide into the unbelievable. I searched for him in the trough, certain he would pop up smacking the water in frustration. But as the wave continued toward me, he burst through and passed by, rail locked in all the way down the beach.

Every pier has its story—myriad narratives swimming in the back channels of time, serving as mainstay lookouts to witness the edge of land and sea, standing with a suspect future as climate change and its byproducts threaten to banish them to underwater artifacts. They’ve been battered to pieces by storms and swells. They’ve been burnt to ash and cinder. They’ve been left to dereliction. They’ve been rebuilt and reconstructed to weather whatever’s coming next. They’ve been the definition of grit and gentrification, sometimes even straddling the two. Like in Oceanside, where hardscrabble pier life acts as some last vestige of a holdout era on Southern California’s coast, a feeling made palpable amidst the staid military presence of Camp Pendleton and the growing couture of hotels, mixed-use developments, endless places to eat and drink, and Porsches and Teslas parked along the shore. Where there’s the feeling that in five years everything will be different, just like it is everywhere else. 

An industrial creation, the pier became an obvious leisure-based point of attraction in the mid to late nineteenth century. As a surf resource, however, the benefits have been there since the first pilings were set. Oceanside Pier in 1904, with day-strollers oblivious. Photo courtesy of Oceanside Historical Society.

The pier shapes our sense of place along the water’s edge, where we fit into it and find meaning. From the long play of Santa Cruz Wharf (the West Coast’s longest still-accessible pier) to Redondo Beach’s askew horseshoe. From the dazzling lights of Santa Monica to the bedlam of Huntington Beach. From the patchouli streets of Ocean Beach to Imperial Beach’s final sentry that buttresses the US-Mexico border. Up, down, out, and beyond, the pier beats on much like we do, changing with the times. 

The pier’s nascence was calloused by early capitalism, our Industrial Revolution phases in America and Britain. Working piers were built to support the exchange of steamship passengers landing on new shores, and for the importing and exporting of cargo for economies being built on the fly and at scale. Later innovations in container shipping, and larger handling spaces such as ports, made these working piers mostly obsolete, though some relics remain, like the 4-mile pier in Progreso, Yucatán. 

As industry settled away from working piers, those of pleasure became the focus. The oldest, the Ryde Pier on the Isle of Wight, off England’s south coast, was built in 1813 to save traveling coastal patrons a half-mile slog through low tide. It’s a fitting era for their start—Victorian grandeur proving that humans could control anything, nature’s forces be damned. In Southern California, piers date back to the 1870s, when they were built as necessities for development and growth. Before Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf was built in 1872, for instance, Pacific Northwest lumber was dropped from ships straight into the ocean to roll in with the tide so they could be collected and distributed. And there it still sits today, only as a structure of delight. Stearns Wharf, like so many other piers, is a place of leisure and play recycled from working piers of the past, fashioned anew as focal points for resorts, communities, attractions, restaurants, retail—all manner of general beach life.      

The home of surfing as spectacle: the Huntington Beach Pier. Tom Curren, wiggling past Cheyne Horan at the OP Pro, 1984. Photo by Mike Balzer.

Surfing piers add further nuance to this perspective. So much of their intrigue harbors contradiction. For example, when it’s really firing or the swell is too big, you may be better served going to that reef or point, where it isn’t lurching and death bombing. Or, take their notoriously strong rips: a danger to the general public, a conveyor belt of convenience for surfers. Piers can feel more temperamental, too, because their placement along the coast is often so exposed. All that liquid tonnage hurts more when the tide drops, while the wind can absolutely break your best-laid plans on whichever side’s working.

Around the globe, there are more surf spots without piers than with them. And so much about seeking and riding waves beyond the confines of the urban bustle deals with open landscapes and unobstructed views. In many ways, it’s unnatural to see so much activity sidled up and overhead while in the lineup. All walks of life perched along the railing—the gallery easing into morning coffees and conversations about last night. Everybody up there, spread out and watching or doing, reveling in those brief moments of clarity that the pier and sea provoke. It can feel overwhelming at times, until that peak spurs our motion to act.

Whether it’s a long, reeling drainer away from the pier or a sketchy drop-in toward its barnacled boots, the consensus among its faithful is that, ultimately, wave shape is what sets it apart. Specifically, it forces a mindset for precision surfing. The reason relies on the unique sandbars that the pier creates, shifting and unpredictable in nature. While no two waves anywhere are ever the same, there’s a doubling-down effect that piers create because of what’s going on along the seafloor, which conjures surprises from its sandbars as they bend and move. 

“The pilings of its structure make it easier for the sand to settle and accumulate in a more uniform pattern,” says Matt Kibby, a Surfline forecaster, whose offices sit just above the Huntington Beach Pier, “compared to more-horizontal sandbars that form farther away from the pier and up along the beach. You get more of a vertical angle to the sandbar formed by the pier, which gives swell something to feel as it comes in that puts more of a corner on it. It hits a little faster, too. The surrounding bathymetry also plays a role and helps you out in terms of what defines the wave’s shape and how it holds a swell—or not.”

Andy Irons, free-falling into the maw of a thumping south at the US Open, 2009. Photo by Robert Beck.

The pier can have a tendency to toss you around, displace and disorient you more than other setups, as the facets of its unique sand formations shift with the tide and new rips or longshore currents emerge. A session can suddenly become a fight to get back to the spot that’s working. And once you make it back, the wave might have morphed into a volatile suck-out breaking directly onto the bar, making you question everything about how you’ll commit, what the drop will reveal, and if it’s time to call it a session and head in. It can also have the opposite effect, lining everything up for brief perfection. 

Like when I watched a kid take off on a fast left on the north side of Oceanside Pier, slashing his way to a 10-point ride in hurricane swell to win the final of a contest. I bobbed on the shoulder, out of bounds, cursing myself for not checking to see if a contest was in play before I left home. Forced to look for scraps. Wanting that wave so badly. And when the event finally wrapped, the peak became a closeout.

Indeed, these lessons in surprise and subtlety render piers an important destination for the array of surf competitions that take place next to them. One of surfing’s most popular mainstream events has taken center stage on Huntington Beach Pier’s south side since 1959. While it’s gone through several naming and brand iterations, what is now the US Open of Surfing draws more than 500,000 spectators each summer to revel in its always electric, sometimes riotous, effect. More than just a contest, the annual event doubles as celebration canon for surf notables, adding them to the Surfing Walk of Fame and Surfers’ Hall of Fame across the street.

“You can always count on there being a wave at the pier,” says Andrea Swayne, chief operating officer of USA Surfing, who’s organized and run surf competitions for years. “Even when conditions aren’t great, you can always find something. There’s certainly an advantage for judging events from the pier in terms of your vantage point. And they almost have a stadium-like feel. [Piers are] woven into the fabric of competition, and serve as a cultural beacon for surfing. Surf culture grows around [piers].”

It’s true. The pier is where our luminaries so often cut their teeth, cementing and advancing surf culture and wave riding’s principles of style and swagger. Herbie Fletcher, patriarch to the Fletcher clan—a family who has hurled us forward with sheer balls-to-the-wall skill by charging hard, hanging ten, and airing high, all done with a uniquely charming irreverence—looks back on his formative years at Huntington Beach Pier and understands its indelible import on both his life and surfing career. Fletcher’s half-century of creativity and culture-shifting was most assuredly shaped as he came of age under the pier in the late 1960s. When the view of Huntington from the water consisted of oil derricks and tomato patches. When contests required their participants to don awkward helmets, in case they collided with the immovable. When the cliques were “heavy” and you were labeled a “surf bum.” When, and where, his sure-footedness in waves of consequence was honed as he danced across the south swells rapping to and from the pier.  

Where else might we all end up on the same stretch of concrete and wood? Holiday makers to lifelong locals, gutter dwellers to higher-power fanatics—and everybody in between—there are perhaps no other coastal spaces that offer such breadth in lifestyle cross-pollination. And, as a result, nonstop live entertainment. Photos by Ed Templeton.

“Huntington Beach picks up every swell,” Fletcher says, sitting amidst a colorful sprawl of his découpage paintings, surf and skate artifacts, and family keepsakes in the corner office at Astrodeck headquarters in San Clemente. “It always has waves, and it gets big. When it gets big, it’s powerful. And when it’s hitting the bottom of the pier, you don’t see too many people out. You got the object there, the pier—you’re going to go through it. There’s a lot of current. A lot of chop. A lot of water moving. You’ve got to flow with [it all]. And that really helped me a lot going to Sunset, Pipeline, Honolua Bay—wherever I went. I was used to it.”

Built into its firmaments is the unseen, innate, and youthful verve that has long defined surfing and the ocean. Simultaneously, it acts as extension to the muck and grime of its surrounding municipalities—and their eventual ends. The pier is the long plank of everything that precedes it, supporting everything to come. It’s a riverside bike ride through Babylon, board slung under the arm and sweating through the dawn just to get there and look. It’s dog shit smeared on the sidewalk leading to the sand. It’s vomit puddled on the promenade. It’s where militant vegans gather in Guy Fawkes masks to unveil their statement video on the horrors of poultry processing, standing shoulder to shoulder amidst a tangle of extension cords leading from nearby public outlets and plugged into shattered flat-screen televisions. The pier is shards of green glass on neighboring liquor-store driveways, whose tired and poor are sprawled out in sleeping-bag corners and barking madness at themselves. The pier is a witching-hour tagging strike on the broad side of a multimillion-dollar shack. And when the cop arrives, he’s confronted by a morning mob of rich men from the neighborhood—a solid mix of designer jeans and athleisure—shaking their fists at the malfeasance. The pier is where the eses still cruise in donked-out ice-cream classics—rims spinning while the switches get hit for the bump and dip, blasting music on a Sunday with “Suavecito” playing. The pier is a 3 a.m. selfie gone wrong after a full night out. It’s a soul hanging on for dear life—crying for help where there is none—and a body expelled below it upon the shore weeks later, when the pier is finally ready to let go. The pier is the romance of first loves and relationships in decay. When you surf the pier, you wear these environmental appropriations. The weight of its history and meaning push against your chest. 

It goes wider than surfing, wider than beach life. Its association with nostalgia, its quiet strength within our collective unconscious, has inspired a variety of pop-culture throughlines. 

The pier, and its constituents—docks, jetties, breakwaters—mark our songs of innocence and experience. From “Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters to Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” Blondie’s “Love at the Pier” to Morrissey’s “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” even Bradley Nowell lamenting about not wanting to shoot the pier and instead lie in bed all day in Sublime’s “Burritos,” the sentiment of its structure lingers. 

From the low-key to the boisterous, nearly every surfing pier finds in common a pack of devotees that know its every mood. Structure-specific advantages in Central California. Photos by Chris Burkard.

In film, is there any other pier scene more iconic than what Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson displayed in Indecent Proposal, when they finally break down the wall constructed between them by a million-dollar opportunist? Moore, dressed in a white evening gown and matching chiffon cardigan, exits an early morning bus in Malibu—her character’s monied tryst with Robert Redford’s now faded in the rearview—hoping to reclaim an abandoned love once solidified on bended knee all those years ago at the Pier at Paradise Cove, shrouded in marine layer. Harrelson’s character, seated alone at the pier’s edge. Defeated. Waiting. Totally gut-wrenched, still. Both of them wanting to go back to the way things were before the sex and the windfall, desperately wishing for some past version of themselves in union, but knowing there’s nowhere to go but forward as hands reach for one another.

Its elegance and power has inspired countless depictions in art: paintings of them in repose by the ocean, prints where their ends lead off into foggy lakes. For 16 days in the summer of 2016, the venerable Christo and Jeanne-Claude unveiled The Floating Piers, a temporary installation that featured tangerine-fabric-covered piers held in place by 200 concrete dead-weight anchors weighing 5.5 tons each, wending over a mile and a half across Italy’s Lake Iseo and along its nearby pedestrian streets. More than 1,200,000 people visited and trekked it, finding and rediscovering the lake’s intrinsic, often underestimated, beauty.

The pier has served as setting in some of the best contemporary fiction and other defining works of literature. Kem Nunn’s 1984 novel, Tapping the Source, details its challenge and payoff in old Huntington Beach, as his protagonist, Ike, learns the hard lessons of falling in line with the local crew while hoping to uncover what happened to his runaway sister:

The waves came in long, pumping lines. Hollow grinders that hit like trucks…He guessed he was ready for it, but he was wrong.…The old pier, for which he had developed a certain affection, was suddenly an ominous presence. He was close enough to see the hairline cracks, the pigeon shit and moss—and the sound of white water sweeping back through the concrete corridor formed by the pilings was like a barrage of cannon fire.…He popped out on the north side just in time to get caught in the lip of the second wave and sucked over the falls, driven down with such force he felt like his balls had been kicked up inside him, but he had escaped the pier.

Consider Sal Paradise’s holy fireworks crescendo that closes Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars will be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be dropping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

Guy “Grundy” Spagnoli, deftly positioned in HB, 1977. Photo by Mike Moir.

Surfing commands a charged awareness that the present is all there is, despite our tendencies to look too far behind and too far ahead for meaning amidst so much randomness. The beauty of the pier and its paradigm pushes this concept further in our search for what it might unveil.

There have been more sessions at the pier than I ever could count. And here I am, still trying to find the one hollow gourd. There’ve been many fine moments in it. The best day of winter: making a late drop, fanning the fade-out, and pulling in—only to have the lip hurl a heaving wet jab in the face. The early summer juice of a south swell: a fast right that wedges toward a transition and quickly ends. The in-between of oh-so-much groveling. 

At night sometimes, driving home, I see its amber bells alight in the distance, gleaming in the dark above the surf. I see the pier and wonder if next time is it.

[Feature artwork: Ed Templeton, HUNTINGTON BEACH PIER #1, 2015, acrylic on panel diptych, 48 x 96 inches]