Matt Griffin deciphers surfing’s brutal, unwritten code. Neophyte surfers beware.
The morning wreaks of urgency. Outside, it is overcast and gloomy. The Encinitas air, a cool 63 degrees. The wind, gusting. Another perfect mid-winter’s day—the kind of day I pray for. All I know is that I need to be there before anyone else; to claim my spot and prove my worth. Surfing is a sport of respect, danger and fun. It is my passion.
I learned about the surfing world from my elders. My grandfather, who built his first surfboard from a backyard Redwood tree in 1923, and father were among the original Huntington Beach surfers. My father started ripping the waves in the early 1960s, and he still is elder statesman of the swell. Their teachings have played a major part in how I act in the water.
Water protocol is a whole different world. You don’t speak to those around you because actions speak louder than words. To surf with the best you must prove yourself. Anyone can buy the most expensive board and the best wetsuit, but putting them to use is defining. Many call over-geared newcomers, “grimmies,” including my father, who said they look the part but will only get in the way. These are the people who experienced surfers prey on.
When learning to surf with the best, one needs to be willing to take shots from the best. There is no sympathy past the breaking point. Out there, you are free game to be challenged in an an unfair game of street ball—it is two on one, but, in this case, you are fighting both man and sea. I learned this when I was 12 years old.
On my first trip to “Swamis” in Encinitas, I paddled out and found myself surrounded by veterans. If I had an inkling about what was to unfold, I blocked it. I pulled up on a wave and looked around. I saw a guy on my left and asked, “Do you want to go left or right?”
“Just don’t get in my way,” he shouted above the surf. So, as a “regular” footed surfer—left foot forward—(as opposed to “goofy” footed), I went to my backside and rode the wave for a few seconds when a push came from behind. I flipped over my board and looked up in time to see the guy come back up over the wave. After I recovered, he passed by me, saying, “I told you not to get in my way.” I was really distraught. My first instinct was to paddle in and go home. I then saw my father on the beach and decided to take another wave. My wave soon came and, instead of asking, I took off to my left, pumping as fast as I could.
When the wave started to close out I went with it. I noticed the others watching me; they did not say much the rest of the day. From that point on, I surfed in that spot every chance I got. I had passed the “locals’” initiation. After all, I was a guy from the other side of the sand. My family owned an Encinitas beach house, and this was my ticket in.
This experience made me a stronger surfer in high school. It wouldn’t be the last time I would see trouble in the water, but instead of challenging these guys, my friends and I would find alternate ways to get even with them. If a guy would drop in on me, he would get pushed. If they yelled, we would block them from getting a wave. Sometimes, a beach meeting would end in a fight—either verbal or fists. Though I never acted upon these things, some surfers would take it to the extreme, usually ending in property damage.
Locals could smell outsiders in their territory—an unfamiliar car unloading six surfers was a good indicator of strangers on the sand. When these so-called surfers would cause problems, their cars suffered broken windows, scratched paint or slashed tires—sometimes without a trigger word being exchanged. Once, after being cut off by an arrogant inlander, my surfing partner put a rock through the 18-year-old’s Honda Civic windshield. I was amazed by his actions. For the grimmy, it was a tough lesson to learn.
Every California beach has surfers who reside on the other side of the sand. These guys and gals get the right-of-way, or else—because it is their backyard. While surfing in Oceanside, an advanced surfer was pushed from behind and had to be airlifted to the nearest hospital—the culmination of an earlier altercation with one of the locals. Maliciously, when he was close to the pier, the local pushed him head first into the pylon. The surfer who pushed him then shot the pier and continued on as if nothing had happened. After a quick rescue made by the lifeguards, my friends and I watched from the water as the battered surfer was put into the helicopter. When the local who caused the accident got out of the water, lifeguards immediately surrounded him, but there were no reprimands. The lifeguards were his friends, and they greeted him with handshakes. This was a harsh realization in my education on surfing culture. That day, I learned that surfers are more vicious than any shark in the water.
Finding enough time to surf was frustrating during high school. Preparing for college and playing two sports, football and baseball, year round will do this to you. It wasn’t that I didn’t surf; I just wasn’t in my spot as much, Friday through Sunday. I went as often as I could, but there was a slow point in my journey. When high school started to close, I shifted my focus to college, looking for an opportunity to extend my football career to the collegiate level that would also allow me to continue my quest for that perfect wave. ULV passed the test, giving me the chance to positively impact a football program, receive a great education and be able to surf the waves that my father and his friends surfed.
For me, it’s not just about going surfing. I’m able to surf in spots that are known around the world, such as Huntington and Newport Beach. These beaches are rich in surfing history as well as my family’s history. Huntington was my father’s playground and being able to surf in the same spot is an amazing feeling. Jack’s surf shop bridged our generations; remembering the shared stories that my father told me about Jack himself shaping surf boards gave me a sense of ownership to the sport.
Since coming to La Verne it seems that more and more people are surfing, which is good, as long as they obey the code. The ocean can be a twisted place; new surfers need to learn about the sport and culture before jumping in the water. And as for me, I haven’t caught that perfect wave yet.