Pure Stroke: Approval to Paddle

Photo: Chris Bishow
Photo: Chris Bishow

Pure Stroke: Approval to Paddle

Not that I needed the affirmation, but there are two small white signs, mounted on dusty metal poles on the sandstone bluffs behind the parking lot at San Onofre State Beach, reassuring me that when riding my standup paddle board I was OK.

The signs, one with a black ‘O’, the other with a black ‘K’, are cleverly configured so that from the water they eventually align to read “OK”. This trick of the eye occurs as a surfer (or paddler) moves north from the southern end of the San Onofre parking lot, a section of the beach known colloquially as “Dogpatch.” Paddle too far north and the signs, with their congenial ‘OK,’ quickly transforms to read ‘KO,’ whose meaning could be interpreted a number of ways, none of them particularly welcoming.

This instant expression of disapproval occurs because the signs were placed on the bluff several years back at the behest of San Onofre’s more numerous LDS (lay down surfers) who, feeling threatened by the growing number of standup paddlers in their midst, convinced the State Parks people that SUP surfing should be restricted to the southern end of the parking lot. Regard for the new surfing discipline was made very clear, considering that Dogpatch has traditionally been the area where San’O regulars walked their dogs (sans little plastic bags, if you catch my drift … and whiff) and is located adjacent to the often-problematic San Onofre Nuclear Plant. Previous battles had been fought to assign presumptuous wave-ski riders to this dusty outland; pitchforks and torches were readily at hand to deal with SUP’s new threat.

The only thing is the LDS’s whole divisive scheme has completely backfired. Far from marginalizing standup paddlers—which, with the erection of the ‘O’ and ‘K’ signs, was their very publicly expressed intention—they have, as a result, empowered this new breed of boardriders. By corralling SUP surfers into this formerly derided beach and lineup, they inadvertently created a benevolent ‘bad-vibe free’ zone, bereft of the territorialism, prejudice, hierarchal delusion and general unpleasantness rigorously maintained—and apparently beloved, judging by its continued proliferation—at virtually all other well-attended surf spots.

The Dogpatch SUP surfers, on the other hand, have been given the opportunity to create their own surfing world. A better world, I believe. Because when you’re out there on a standup board, regardless of who you are or where you went to high school, of how long your board is or what color, of whether you’re boy or girl, man or woman, young or old, hot or not, the signs say it all: you’re OK. When viewed from this perspective it’s easy to see that when properly aligned the signs actually indicate that the rest of San Onofre is “not okay.” Especially not if any form of wave riding has been institutionally banned there with a fellow surfer’s support.

Here’s what I’ve experienced not only at Dogpatch but every other surf spot where SUP is openly accommodated: a return to surfing’s original state. Conventional surfers love to point to tradition when lamenting the sport’s ever-changing aesthetic. Funny, then, how they selectively choose a certain time period in surfing history, then idealize its perceived ethics. One thing, however, has remained consistent: surfing was always better before. Before crowds, before foam, before shortboards, before leashes, before colored wetsuits, before pro surfing, before bodyboards, before modern longboards, before the surfwear industry, before wave forecasting, before surf schools, before the Internet, before Instagram … before standup paddling.

But few surfers ever take the time to learn anything about what the real ‘before’ was actually like. To do this one needs only access accounts of the first Europeans—explorers, traders, whalers and missionaries—to witness history’s seminal surf culture at its point of development in 18th century Hawaii. This I have done numerous times, and have been known to bore audiences with passages from such early observers as the missionary William Ellis, who in his volume Polynesian Researches during a residence of nearly eight years in the Society and Sandwich Islands, describes the islanders favorite sport of “swimming in the surf” as being enjoyed by all ages and both sexes, riding the waves both standing (he’e nalu), prone (kaha nalu) bodysurfing (pae po’o) and in outrigger canoes (pakaka nalu).

In Hawaiian Antiquities, noted 18th century historian Nathaniel Emerson translated that “… surfriding was practiced equally by king, chief and commoner …” and that it was “… not uncommon for a whole community, including both sexes and all ages, to sport and frolic in the ocean the livelong day.”
It’s clear that even a precursory glance at surfing history—surfing’s real history, not merely idealized remembrances of our lost childhood—reveals that surfing was once something to be enjoyed and shared by all, regardless of who you were, where you lived or on what craft you chose to ride the waves with. And where does surfing’s proto-ethic live today? Not at the north end of San Onofre State Beach where, despite being free of dog crap, it’s hardly free from the degraded surfing aesthetic that asserts there is a single, ‘proper’ way to ride waves. Certainly not a few hundred yards further north at Lower Trestles, where the longboards ‘allowed’ at Old Mans are in turn rigorously resisted.

But it does exist down at Dogpatch. Here SUP’s New Surfing World Order of open-mindedness and inclusion has not only been fostered by its own happy participants, but unwittingly sanctioned with two little signs that, when board, paddle and attitude are properly aligned, assure the suitably inspired that SUP is OK.
Sam George

This article originally ran in our Summer 2013 issue.

For more From the Mag, click here.