*Addendum: Palm Beach

Cased jetties, conspicuous opulence, and illegal parking.

Light / Dark

I parked below a remodeled motel. It was January, and with the foul weather and so few cars around, the lot felt like I could get away with occupying a sliver of it. Walking toward the beach and looking onto the inlet—the ocean churning with white wisps from the wind—I noticed a giant machine continuously pumping wet sand out onto the southern jetty, the slurry dropping into the bright blue and whitewater. I’d guessed why the spot was called Pumphouse, but no longer had to wonder. Three guys were out, but the heavy wind was trashing it. I only paddled out because it took me so long to drive down the island to get there. 

On the way back to my car, I looked across the inlet again—the easternmost point in Florida. It’d cost me maybe an extra hour to drive across the Intracoastal, down south, and then I’d need to cross back and drive north, but I figured it’d be worth scoping out.

Royal Palm Way, the main road into Palm Beach, is lined on both sides and in the median with massive 80-foot palms and looks as though it’s swept at night by hand. Driving by, I passed banks with signs that conspicuously read things like “Private Banking” or “Private Wealth Management,” the implications of which you can figure out for yourself. 

Peter Mendia, Pumphouse, 2012. This was late in the evening on the second day of the Hurricane Sandy swell. I love this shot because of the background. It really gives you some context.
Grassy Lots, 2018.

I got into the lane to turn north and up Palm Beach Island, and a moment later a car I recognized immediately as a Porsche 356 pulled up to the light to my right. It was driven by a frail old man with venous, liver-spotted hands who held onto the oak steering wheel at 10 and 2. He wore a grin that didn’t move. I muted my radio and cracked my window to hear the engine. Like a sewing machine. 

The rain had let up, and the orange, purple, and red of sunset spilled onto the street as I pulled north and passed the last few storefronts—stucco, white, terra-cotta roofed. I continued into a neighborhood, shaded by banyan and oak trees shrouding the wealth in the houses behind them. The road turned east briefly around the Palm Beach Country Club, then north again, where I caught a good look at the water: deeper blue than the paler, greener teal in Miami, but not yet the mystery brown soup farther north. This was the last stretch of road with public parking meters.

I came to a wrought-iron gate interrupting a hip-high white stucco wall and got out to investigate. Just past the barrier, I could make out a set of stairs leading down to the dunes and the shore. The rich blue water teemed in the distance, teasing the energy in the sea, the eastern horizon a blur of blue to gray, a partial rainbow in the sky from rainband.

North Ocean Boulevard was lined to my left with mostly 1920s-style Mediterranean revival homes—classic Florida. The occasional McMansion stood out with harsh geometry, fighting against its neighbors and the landscape, practically screaming to let everyone know about the Teslas in its garage. 

I reminded myself that Jeffrey Epstein’s house was somewhere in the vicinity, along with a clown car of properties belonging to various bankers, celebrities, and politicians. I got back into the car and passed Reef Road. Ocean Boulevard turned west, then north again, the road tightening, the shoulder just inches wide. I looked at my GPS, saw that I was very close to the inlet, and began looking for a parking spot.

There were a few houses and lots in various stages of construction around the trailhead leading to the beach, something I’d noted by studying Google Maps. The rain started up again and the sun had just set. I walked the trail, which quickly opened up to a sea-oat-crested dune and onto a beach with a jetty greeting the ocean, creating a clean, breaking line—a peeling right. Crimson light was giving way to purple. I had to come back, I decided. It was getting too dark. 

As I left, I took my time to take in the area. The streets had no sidewalk, no curb, basically making parking outside of one of the gated homes impossible. I circled around the trailhead and found something that might work: a lot with a chain-link fence, a dumpster, a house in some stage of construction without a roof. 

Palm Beach Inlet, 2020.
Also from Sandy. You can see how big the whitewash was next to those 8,000-square-foot mansions.

I wouldn’t be in the way parked where the trucks have already trashed the grass.…They can’t scan my plates if I’m backed in…near the dumpster.…I can borrow my buddy JC’s magnetic sign…his construction company…that would look like I was just here banging nails. 

I was doing a good job of convincing myself. When I got back on the road to 95, the rain had let up, and twilight had given up too. 

More rain the next morning seemed to have called off the construction. I dropped my gear near the trailhead, pulled my key from the gas cap, moved my little diesel Merc right next to the dumpster, hidden from the road, and slapped on the magnet. The rain picked up as I was heading down the trail to the water. I jogged, anticipating the surf. This whole car thing, though, I thought. Why am I still worrying about it? Why do I gotta sneak?

“I don’t belong here,” I finally said out loud. “I’m a parasite enjoying the tranquility of distance that wealth can bring. There’s no one out here to enjoy these lines with. I’m like a stowaway, an abscess in a corner of the ocean’s gut. How can you hide this for yourself? How is that okay?”

The horizon was brighter, but still fuzzed by the drizzle between blue and gray. As I sat in the dunes, just a few feet from shore, a flock of pelicans skimmed the surface, cruising by on the wind out of the north. Using the birds’ size as a reference, the fast-peeling rights looked maybe shoulder-high, with clean faces. The only other person around was someone in a raincoat, out walking what looked like a Labrador. It was midmorning. I paddled out and surfed for maybe two hours. The sun never broke the clouds. 

Toward the end of the session, I saw the windshield of a boat slide quickly behind the jetty—a VanDutch with several boards loaded on the gunwale. After clearing the rocks, it pulled to starboard and backed into the calm water on the south side of the jetty. The engine was cut. I think Diplo was playing on its sound system.

Jason Prince, Pumphouse, Hurricane Sandy, 2012. Jason lives on Singer Island. He knows the wave really well. He was surfing excellently that session, along with guys like Peter [Mendia] and Chris Ward. I was on a boat and waves were breaking in the inlet. It was pretty freaky, but we had two days of truly incredible surf.

My proximity off the rocks meant that it would have been hard to avoid conversation. The boards they pulled were beautiful and suspiciously new-looking. I caught a glimpse of a Rolex on a conspicuous time check. The compliment on my “vintage” Sunrise board could have been genuine, but nothing from them felt this way to me.

When they asked where I lived, I told them Miami, and about how I’d cased the beach the night before. I trailed off before I got into any more detail. The time I had there was up anyway. I paddled in, hopping off the board a few feet from shore into shin-deep, coarse, shelly sand. I climbed up onto the beach. Usually I take a moment to drink some water after a session, catch my breath, dry off, and enjoy the scenery. Usually. 

I grabbed my bag, threw the leash over my shoulder, and did my best to disappear back up the trail.

[Feature image: Breakers Hotel, 2007]