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Rights of Passage

When it comes to beach access, let’s just agree to disagree with ourselves.

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Illustration by Pieter Van Eenoge

UPON GRADUATING from Westmont College, a prestigious private institution perched in the hills above Montecito, my friend Phil took a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s. It wasn’t a typical career path for someone who finished at the top of his class with a degree in economics. But that specific location of the Golden Arches was strategically targeted, lying within the gates of the Point Mugu Naval Air Station. That meant that Phil, a rabid wave rider, had  24/7 admission to one of California’s best, and most exclusive, surf spots.

Although the California Coastal Act of 1976 ensures public access rights to the entire seaboard up to the mean high-tide line, military bases (being federally operated) are excluded from this statute. Imagine all the nooks and crannies scattered between Oceanside and Lompoc. Sure, waves are ridden at certain service beaches like DMJs, Mugu, and even up around the northern hook at Vandenberg. But sans boat or a connection, these shorelines remain largely off-limits to civilians like Phil.

We’ve all heard the tales about how even the Marines couldn’t keep surfers out of Trestles, eventually prompting Tricky Dicky Nixon to convert part of Camp Pendleton into a state park. Saltwater rebels risked arrest and an M-16 escort just for a few waves. But what sparks the drive to seek out surf spots that require difficult or restricted access? 

Perhaps it’s the lack of crowds, or serving FOMO to others. Maybe it’s the sense of achievement that comes from “earning it.” Dig deeper into the human psyche and, maybe, it’s simply a case of wanting what we cannot have. 

Armchair psychology aside, it’s safe to say that gorging ourselves with quality, uncrowded waves is an escapade all surfers crave. When it does happen, those few landmark sessions are remembered for eternity. They become almost sacred—high points in a lifelong pursuit of oceanic pulsations. Yet when we’re denied ingress we bitch, break laws, protest, conjure schemes, and become downright envious bastards. This is a fundamental hypocrisy. But we, as surfers, are generally able to look ourselves in the mirror and be OK with that.

According to the Surfrider Foundation—which champions coastal land access in addition to protecting and preserving beaches—there are currently over 600 access violations of the Coastal Act in the Golden State, with many of the culprits being homeowners in Malibu. The California Coastal Commission often lacks the resources necessary to enforce the act, prompting Surfrider to intervene when appropriate.

Still, with a little effort, time, and ingenuity, most highly coveted spots are, in fact, accessible—even when they break within a stone’s throw of private land. And there was one in particular that I had in my sights. Though without a gate key or an ally who had one, it seemed a tough task. 

But on a late fall day last year, my rudimentary forecasting calculations for this gem seemed to come together. I decided to pull the trigger, finally mustering the courage to attempt to access a mythical wave shrouded in exclusivity. I packed a bag and immediately broke the law. My charge? Trespassing.

It wasn’t my first offense. In pursuit of waves with limited human saturation, I’ve hopped barbed-wire fences, dodged manure mines through cow fields, and skirted aggressive elephant seals. I’ve scaled cliffs, dashed across freeways, trampled poison oak, and been attacked by dogs while sniffing around for fairy-tale breaks, all based on rumors and hunches. I once paddled over a mile to reach an outer sandbar that resembled Lance’s Right. To an outsider, all this might seem, well, a little loco. But for a surfer, it’s just part of the fun.

In my latest conquest, I’d been advised to put my wetsuit on at the car, before the hour-long slog. I have a palpable distaste for walking long distances in neoprene, however, and so I shunned those warnings. I scooted down a nearly unrecognizable dirt trail and scrambled across railroad tracks to the edge of the bluff. Zig-zagging down a switchback with loose gravel put me out at a 20-foot sheer rock face. Now what? I thought. Three minutes removed from the car and I was already stuck. Second thoughts swept through my mind. Then I noticed a sketchy traverse down the sandstone, no wider than my sneakers, and I pussyfooted myself brineward.

Sure, a well-paved road and parking lot—maybe even a public shower—would’ve made my mission less toilsome, but also less significant. So, does the inaccessibility of a break make it a more fulfilling ride? Absolutely.

I skipped along in the direction of my destination only to be confronted by a thumping shorebreak and an impassable headland, and I realized I probably should’ve suited up at the car. After some serious deliberation, I slithered into my wetsuit and booties, stashed my bag in the chaparral behind a rotten thorn bush, and slid down the wet rocks into the Pacific. I managed to paddle past the outcropping without a duck dive, and beached myself on the next stretch of sand around the corner. That’s where the real journey began.

For the next 45 minutes, I alternated between dodging sets in the shorepound and scaling slimy, decrepit seawalls—thus trespassing above the mean high-tide line, it should be noted—while sweating through my 4/3. Eventually, I got my first glimpse at the setup I had built to mythic proportions in my mind. Overhead, reeling, pointbreak rights marched through a craggy cove in the distance. The afternoon sky burned orange as a lazy breath of wind exhaled a ransom of diamonds seaward off the well-tapered lip-lines. My trot turned into an outright sprint until I was close enough to observe a few locals taking turns in the new, pulsing swell. 

Suddenly, insecurity halted me in my tracks. These guys drove here, legally. I hiked, illegally. Would I get vibed, punched, or escorted out by police? The feeling of “earning it” filled me with false confidence. Screw ’em, I thought. And without looking toward the two guys suiting up on the beach, I prowled into the surf with my eyes down and blended in with the five already out. 

The session was marvelous, one that’ll stay with me forever. Even though I didn’t get my pick of the sets, it felt sacred. And illegal. Nobody cared to acknowledge my presence, as often happens to outsiders in sensitive lineups, except for a few scowling side-eyes. I bagged a handful of quality rides before the lineup ballooned to over 20 surfers. They all knew each other and paddled around me, continuously, with a boastful sense of privilege. 

Was it worth it? Breaking the law for a few B- waves on an A+ day? Without a doubt. I’d done it the hard way and I felt damn proud about it. But would it have been as special if anyone could just drive right up? If this spot didn’t hold that mystical enticement? Probably not. Sure, a well-paved road and parking lot—maybe even a public shower—would’ve made my mission less toilsome, but also less significant. So, does the inaccessibility of a break make it a more fulfilling ride? Absolutely.

Remember when Slater’s wave pool was first unveiled? Cool kids only. Then the rich kids followed. Like most objects of desire in this modern age, if you’re affluent enough you can eventually get what you’re after. And if the day comes when you find yourself with those metaphorical keys, a sense of entitlement may come right along with them. As the world fills in with an abundance of in-mall wave pools, will the thrill of freshwater scores fade? Most certainly.

But what if you’re a regular Joe and your daily surf-check route becomes gentrified to the point of denying you the access you’ve had your entire life? Last summer Duck, North Carolina, local Bob Hovey was arrested for checking his home break. He’d sauntered down the same path he’d taken for decades when an irate vacation homeowner in town for Memorial Day weekend called the cops on him. Hovey was locked up for trying to access the beach through a private community.

On the other hand, if that was your multimillion-dollar beach house and a carload of donkeys trampled through your yard to crowd your clandestine sandbar, how would you feel? We all want access to our oceans’ playgrounds. But once that admission is granted, it quickly teeters on the tipping point. The Hawaiians have done a great job enforcing head counts at certain breaks. The Balinese? Maybe not so much, but they’re learning.

Throughout all this backwash and bureaucracy, one thing remains clear: surfers talk. We share stories about scoring, but are always told not to tell anyone else. And that’s usually how every secret spot eventually becomes unearthed. But what if some never do? Those tight-lipped unicorns probably chuckle to themselves, because the rest of us will never know what we’re missing.

Beach access remains a thorny conundrum for us surfers. We all want it. We even deserve it at times. But maybe just for ourselves and a few good friends. I’m not saying I’m going to put in an application at the Point Mugu McDonald’s. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m a hypocrite. And so should you.