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Surf Rats

When we see clips of people surfing in California, the sun is out, reggae is in the air, and life is hunky-dory. The reality is kind of like that but the exact opposite.

Today, there are so many people in the water that surfing is one part recreation and nine parts opposition. Unlike a ski slope, there is room for only one person per wave; and like it or not, you must fight to be that person. I try to avoid the headache by paddling out before sunrise, but even then there are guys in the water. So it goes.

Case in Point Dume

I was surfing at a beach near Malibu. Friends have always told me to keep a tight lip about this spot because the waves are flawless and it's hard to access from the main roads. I respect that. I'm always up for protecting nature from humans.

However, given my run-in with one of the locals, I've decided to break my code of silence and tell you all about Little Dume.

Little Dume is a beautiful beach north of Malibu. Because you have to check the waves from the cliff, it never looks as big as it really is. Once you get down there, you are compensated in full for the hike. Little Dume breaks in both directions and often gets hollow on the inside. It has one of the most workable shoulders in California.

Last week, I was enjoying a soulful predawn session at Little Dume during a surprise south swell. Sometimes I'd kick out of waves simply because my legs were too tired to go on (the sign of a magical morning). I dropped in on everything that came my way and knew, if only for the moment, that God exists. Between sets, I sat with a smile on my face that sex could never put there.

As the sun perked up, people crawled out of the rocks and into the water, hungry for a taste. Surf hunger is different from food hunger in that it makes you a little more aggressive, a little less reasonable. It will keep you up at night if you don't take care of it. It was disappointing to see so many people at Little Dume. I guess the secret isn't what it used to be.

Then they showed up: the locals.

Locals are an unfortunate reality of surfing. You don't see them in the tourist videos, but they are always there policing the beach with bad vibes and intimidation. Occasionally, they slash a tire or break a nose to maintain their rep. I understand the need for locals and have gotten along by showing respect and keeping my mouth shut (even I can keep my mouth shut when properly motivated).

The six locals paddled out within arms length of each other, giving us the stink-eye. I moved off the point as a gesture of good will. I was almost done anyway. My arms felt like two soggy strands of fettuccini.

A peak swelled up before me, a gift from Neptune himself. I had to go for it. I dropped in on the wave and cut a high line to the right, where I passed one of the locals. He quickly dropped in behind me, a breach of etiquette but nothing that bothered me.

Then I heard him holler for me to get off the wave. Imagine a kid walk into Wendy's and order you away from the front of the line because he is extra hungry. You don't care if he's Wendy's older brother -- that's bad form. So I ignored him. He swooped in behind me and pushed me off the top of the wave. My body was fine, but my ego had taken in some water.

I paddled in to see if the punk wanted to talk about it. When we squared off, he laughed like the fat kid who stole your lunch money in third grade. I turned around and saw that his posse had followed me in to see if I wanted to talk about it. The plot thickened. Twenty minutes earlier, I was having the time of my life. Now, I was on the cusp of a moment.

The kid tweaked his eyes and said, "Why don't you get the BLEEP home before I put a cap in your ass."

Did this guy just threaten to shoot me? Are guns water-proof? Why my ass and not my heart or my head?

"As soon as I'm done surfing," I said.

The kid gave me a sucker-punch, which I foolishly defended. His friends laughed like so many third graders. They paddled back out to the lineup as one.

I finished my session but only out of spite. I couldn't enjoy myself as I chewed the injustice. Me! A guy who keeps his mouth shut because he understands the need for goons to protect a beach. What do you do when the police are tyrants? What do they do in L.A.?

I fantasized about beating them all over the head with my board, but even in my fantasies I walked away bloody. I had to sit there in a spill of my own testosterone, waiting long enough to prove that I was leaving of my own volition. You'd think that I was above that sort of thing. Not so.

In Palos Verdes, a bodyboarder was beaten to death for paddling out to the wrong point. When I saw that story on the news, I wondered how such a thing could happen. Now that I've stared into the eyes of the beast, I understand. It's the same error we make with the polygraph test, presuming that everyone has a conscience. The locals at Little Dume were hostile enough to kill me and get a good night's sleep afterward.

The beaches of California have been overcrowded since Gidget, but surfers haven't been armed until recently. Maybe kids have grown more violent because the X-Box gives them bonus points for killing everything in sight, operant conditioning gone bad. Maybe the ocean is a lab experiment in which we are too many rats vying for the same piece of cheese. Maybe that kid was talking about a bottle cap.

Whatever the case, let me just say that Little Dume is a free beach and one of the best breaks on the Pacific coast. You can get there by taking the PCH to Dume Road, turning left beside the gas station, taking your first left again and following it to the cliffs...


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