Sometimes I Wonder How I Keep From Going Under

Coming to grips with the new Malibu surfer.

Light / Dark

On a recent morning at my beloved Malibu, I made way up the point, 7-foot semi-finless soft top underarm, 54 years of small triumphs and giant failures in my head and heart. A set of waist-high waves peeled across First Point, high tide making the shape soft and easy. The lack of crowd sent me into a trot. I paddled out joyously.

On my first wave, a large, barrel-shaped man on a SUP-size board dropped in. I could tell by his pop-up and stance that he was not a great surfer. But he gave me plenty of room, and we trimmed along in a way that almost invited whistling. 

A couple of waves later, there he was again. His determined paddle paid no mind that there was a rider—me—already on the wave. “Can’t look left at Kirra, I’ve got a crook neck” joked Rabbit about his famous drop-ins. Still he gave me room, and we rode along without malice.

Then again, on a third wave. I felt like shouting a “Hey, hey,” but a “Hey, hey” would have disrupted the congenial mood of the morning. Rarely do you get First Point with a couple dozen folks out.

There was a fourth drop-in. His entry was slow, forcing me to stall, and in my stall my rear foot slipped off the tail. I was leashless and had to swim for my board.

By this time the crowd had filled in, and I decided to get out and walk to the top of Third Point. Along the way, I stewed. Who was that asshole? Four times! 

Cynicism and bitterness are the cruel byproducts of the surfing life. We frolic like dolphins across those fleeting mirages. And then we turn angry? That’s never sat well with me. I’ve worked hard to maintain my joie de vivre. But I was in a great mood when I paddled out. And this fucker had stolen it.

I rode a couple of waves at Third, then seethe-surfed my way back down to First. I wasn’t going to confront this guy verbally, but I was going to make a point of dropping in on him. I was mid-conversation with my pal Todd when he paddled past us, whipped around on a small one, and took off. Todd and I were talking Queen Anne Victorian homes in Angelino Heights, a topic perhaps more interesting than the piddly wave, but I had to seize the moment. I paddled as hard as I could and hopped up. The wave was so small it could barely carry me, and my slow pace forced the guy to stall. Then he caught a rail and toppled over. He wasn’t wearing a leash, and his board trailed me. When the wave died, it was right there. I grabbed it.

“You’ve got to move fast,” he said, smiling, though I heard something more like, “Why did you drop in?”

I shoved him his board. “Well, after you dropped in on me four times, I thought it was my duty to drop in on you.”

“Take any wave you want,” he said. “Just give me room.”

I was struck by his libertine attitude. I suddenly felt guilty for reacting so predictably. Two minutes later I watched him drop in on a guy, and a guy drop in on him, and a guy drop in on that guy, all with smiles. There was no male propriety, no “My wave!” 

It’s like a Berlin sex club out here, I thought. All is fair game. The only crime is getting angry.

In March 2020 a good portion of the world’s surf breaks were shut down due to the pandemic, including beaches in Southern California. When they opened back up, they did so with a vengeance.

“It’s like the surf population doubled,” said my friend Danny, a Malibu regular. “The malls were shut down. You couldn’t go to Disneyland, you couldn’t go to Six Flags. So everyone came to the beach to take up surfing.”

“The industry wasn’t ready for the influx,” said Chad Marshall, who runs the Boardriders shop at Topanga. “Everything was just flying off the shelves. We’d get a batch of four soft tops and they’d be gone within an hour. And kids’ wetsuits. I’d get, no joke, 30 to 40 calls a day about kids’ wetsuits.”

We were experiencing something like what had happened in the 1960s as a result of Gidget, Frankie and Annette, the Beach Boys, et al. “Malibu is summer,” said Miki Dora in reference to the surf boom. “Summer is ruined.” 

In the Berlin sex club, this is where we get security and say that someone’s getting creepy in the fetish room.

What is it about surfing that gives us this arrogance? How is it that we can be, say, thriving professionals, good parents, honest taxpayers—yet also be of the mindset: Drop in on my wave, motherfucker, and I will happily fight you to the death?

I mentioned it to my friend Christian, a lifelong surfer and a taekwondo black belt. He said, “On crowded summer days, I’ll stake my board into the sand and go into a series of roundhouse and axe kicks, with loud ‘Kiya!’s, before paddling out. It’s prison rules. It’s Muhammad Ali shit. It’s a way of saying”—he made a parting-of-the-seas gesture with his hands—“spread the fuck out.”

“I was out at Zuma in the thick of a COVID summer’s day,” said another friend, Charlie. “And all of a sudden I realized I was in the middle of a surf school. Inside of me there were four or five surf instructors, and each instructor had about a half-dozen students. Every time I caught a wave, there was not one beginner dropping in on me, but about three or four. And here’s the deal: They didn’t even know they were dropping in. It was their instructors that pushed them in and said, ‘Go, go, go,’ to my wave. So I paddled down the beach. But there was another surf school, and same thing.”

Charlie and I were drinking coffee in the Malibu Country Mart. Teslas, Range Rovers, and vintage Land Cruisers suggesting carefully crafted rough-luxe lifestyles surrounded us. We were ideologically opposed to the entitlement that demanded unsweetened oat milk in coffee, yet it was precisely unsweetened oat milk that swirled in our coffee. 

“It’s done. It’s over. It’s fucking roadkill,” said Charlie with animated hand gestures, droplets flying from his mouth. “I mean, here’s my solution: For graduation from the surf schools, the students are issued jerseys with the surf instructor’s name emblazoned in loud, bold type across front and back. They have to wear it for the next two years. Any infraction in the lineup—drop-ins, stealing of a parking spot, hopping the queue at the showers, not sharing wax, whatever—points back to the instructor. If these new surfers drop in on me or you, the monster-creating surf coaches owe us money. It’s the only way forward, man.”

Charlie laughed at his own absurdity, and so did I.

I brought it up with my therapist, told her I was losing sleep over how insanely crowded it’s gotten. “You’re running from relationship stuff, childhood trauma, all the recent bad news with COVID,” said Roberta, cradling a mug of Bengal Spice tea. “Surfing is your sacred space. Unfortunately, you’re bringing all the stuff you’re not dealing with out into the water with you.”

Her thoughts were echoed by Andrew, a curmudgeon whose hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his puff jacket and who spoke out the side of his mouth. “Crowds just mirror back our own horribleness. I was in a shitty relationship for nine years and I never noticed crowds, but I sure did a lot of bitching about the relationship. Now I’m no longer in the relationship—and all I do is bitch about the crowds.”

We were checking the waves at the Malibu Wall, where complaining about crowds is often more fun than surfing amid those crowds. We stood in the footsteps of giants. In the palimpsest of graffiti on the actual wall, I could almost see “Valley cowboys go home,” circa the 1960s. Perhaps it’s inevitable, I thought. 

Regardless of which epoch in history, you surf for 25 years or more and the crowds grow and your alpha status in the lineup diminishes—a recipe for bitterness. Do we retire and take up golf? Or do we persist and have our egos handed to us by unskilled surfers on SUP-size boards who should never, ever drop in on us? Or do we just, like, laugh?

A set marched in, and on what was clearly the best wave of the bunch, Allen Sarlo took off, his style unmistakable. Thing was, there was a surfer behind him. Sixty-three years old, still cracking the lip vertically, still riding big Sunset every winter, a longtime Malibu resident: No one deserves seniority more than Sarlo. But this guy didn’t kick out. In fact, he hovered real tight, forcing Allen to draw far more lateral lines than he normally would. And though there was no shouting or throwing up arms in exasperation, I knew that this guy’s presence was heavily raining on Allen’s up-down, up-down parade. In the Berlin sex club, this is where we get security and say that someone’s getting creepy in the fetish room.

“That’s the whole story right there,” said Andrew. “You’ve got Sarlo, out at First Point every day there’s waves for, what, the last 40 years? Then you’ve got the guy behind him. I don’t recognize him. Did he drive up from Huntington? Yes, he’s on the inside, and technically Sarlo dropped in on him. But there’s 80 fuckin’ guys in the water. Who can keep track of the rotation? So who’s in the right here? If you’ve been surfing for 25 years or more, you’d probably say Sarlo. But if you’re 21, freshly enrolled at Pepperdine, uber-woke, and all the rest of it, you’d probably say the guy in back. And you’ve got the newbies who will see this and go, ‘I guess it’s okay to drop in,’ or not even ‘drop in’—it’s ‘sharing waves.’ That’s the thing about this new emphasis on inclusivity: great on land, but in the water, inclusivity is the last thing I want. It’s not about skin color or where you live or whatever. I surf to get away from people, and that’s becoming more and more impossible.”I related. On one hand. On the other: Malibu, today? I couldn’t suppress my laughter.

[Illustration by Matthieu Cossé for The Surfer’s Journal]