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.

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  • Jon Kinley

    i understand where Sam is going with this but, and im probably in the minority here, but i disagree with the ban, and with the tone of the article.
    The OK signs were erected long before sup, due mainly in part to several buttboarders who still ride dpatch frequently, being very un-sportsmanlike in their demeanor shall we say. Most know the individual and hes actually very friendly, albeit extremely aggressive on his craft.
    Its unfortunate because the main dpatch break is pretty bad wave wise-sure its fun and most play nice and its all flowers and puppies, although that is changing as well, but the real tragedy is that sups are not allowed on the much better wave that is Old Mans-4 Doors and Point.
    Everyone knows the “Aloha” filled sano surf club is responsible for colluding with the state lifies and instituting the same bogus border for sups as was established for the butt boarders. Which is quite ironic when part of their mission statements says that the club exists to “Foster all phases of the sport of surfing..” oops!
    Anyway its now quite fashionable for all other sufers including short-long-boogie boarders-fun boarders-single fin purists et al to go out of their way to vent their hatred of us standos. Oh well, i personally dont mind a little mixing it up in the lineup-ala Cardiff, or other places where the both standos and proners are at least allowed by state law to co-exist. The point is that all areas should be open, legally, to sups. Self regulation is always better than forced. It works fine at Cardiff (Also San Diego County but ruled by the SD lifies and not the OC section), and even at C-Street in Ventura, and myriad other locations. If i can handle my craft and myself and prove to be no more of a threat in the lineup than a 10 longboarder with no leash, than i should have the right to push though a little stink eye and a few choice words, to surf where i want. Being relegated to a crappy section of beach by a club, and them being aided by a State agency seems down right fascist, ok that was a little strong buy you get the point.
    And there in lies my frustration-a club being given the power to force out other wave riders based solely on the use of a paddle, at a state beach that i pay taxes to keep open and my annual pass.
    So im sorry Sam but i dont get the same fuzzy feeling you do, although as i get older i certainly take less umbrage than i used to, but the whole thing really galls me.
    In the meantime much better waves break at the Promised Land just north of those OK signs and i often cheat the border to pick off a few scraps from time to time.
    My hope is one day the ban is lifted, same thing for Doho, and everyone is given equal access to all lineups and breaks.

  • Dylan Peters

    I can’t actually believe that you are regulated so heavily… that has truly boggled my mind and changed my perception of our beaches, I live in Australia on the Gold Coast, home of the Rip Curl Pro held at Kirra Beach where I supsurf regularly alongside prone & belly surfers, throw in a few out riggers and the occasional surf boat in the lineup and you have the mix that makes up any Saturday morning. Being told that we were not allowed to paddle there anymore because we are using paddles and not our hands is hard for me to grasp…?

  • Jon Kinley

    Yes Dylan its true-must be a california thing- i envy you Aussies and your open minded attitude toward SUP surfing. Even in Hawaii where one might think things could get out of hand it appears for the most part its not a problem. But then again Hawaii is probably ground zero for self regulation and always has been.
    Hopefully this will change.
    Hope your New Year has been filled with waves..

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  • Sean Callahan

    Sam George is one of the great writers and thinkers in surfing. Right up there with Drew Kampion. I fully agree with your recognition of the value of a good-vibe spot. Those other attitudes are really a joke when the waves have no real consequence. And maybe even when they do. My bad back (courtesy of the Mav’s ragdoll-washing machine) forced me to try SUP’ing. My love for waves outweighed my ego (come on… no 50 y.o. will be busting basic airs with the kids at our local beachbreak without some ego driving him). I’m just getting started on an SUP. My first week, actually. Just made the jump. I ride all kinds of “normal” boards. From a 5′ 5″ Lost Rocket to longboards. Over-regulation of everything is why I moved to Mex. and am never coming back. There are downsides to this free-for-all where I live, but I’ll take it any day over hyper-legislated California life. Unless I walk a ways, I usually surf alone. While tiny, low-volume shortboards have a unique purpose for the top 1/2 % of the surfing population, most of the surfing world is kidding theirselves about their talent level. I’ve never landed a 360° air. On my best days I can land a reverse. My carving 360’s aren’t really carving. So my shortest boards are almost 20 inches wide. I can see that most of the time, SUP’s are better utilizing the ocean than regular surfboards. Now it’s time to follow these great watermen, young and old, Kalama, Hamilton, Lenny, Clark, Carroll and all the others and do what we pretty-good watermen do. Emulate and sometimes innovate a little ourselves. And screw what anyone else thinks or says.

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