It Works

In defense of localism

At spots so localized they can't be named, unnamed locals vie to keep the peace...often by disrupting it. Photo: Lusk
At spots so localized they can’t be named, unnamed locals vie to keep the peace…often by disrupting it. Photo: Lusk

This feature originally appeared in our “Crowd Control” issue, in which we attempted to solve surfing’s overpopulation issues. It was a noble effort, but so far hard evidence suggests we didn’t solve the problem. This is Part 2 of 4 of our Crowd Control series.

I surf a C-grade localized spot on a regular basis. Like many localized spots, it’s no secret. It appears in surf magazines regularly. It’s located within a major American metropolis, nestled inconspicuously below an iconic example of civic architecture. (Hint: It’s not the Kirra-like right that peels along the left foot of the Statue of Liberty.) Nonetheless, it is against protocol to name this break. I will refer to it as Spot-X. There are rules, after all.

I would never dare to call myself a local at Spot-X. I do not have a designated bumper sticker, hat, or T-shirt emblazoned with “Spot-X Gang,” as the real locals do. This largely stems from the fact that I was born 10 miles north, in the next county. My brother, the lucky bum, was born much closer. On the day of my birth, my parents sadly couldn’t be bothered to drive the extra 30
minutes south.

Luckily, however, I did go to high school in the city itself, and I’ve been surfing Spot-X ever since—20-odd years. This puts me further up the pecking order than I otherwise would be. In addition, I am a surfer of moderate ability, and the average skill level in these parts is quite low. However, these merits have been eroded by a number of unfortunate facts: 1) Born in the next county, as mentioned, 2) Left for college for four years, 3) I don’t party with the bros, 4) I write for SURFER Magazine, and 5) I am also a sarcastic asshole with a wave-count not warranted by the preceding offences.

To a non-surfer, this pecking order might sound bizarre and unjust. But here’s the thing about localism: It works. As a teenager, I detested surfing Spot-X, because the pack wouldn’t give me a wave. If I respectfully sat on the shoulder, they took everything, even the scraps. If I sat deeper, they burned me. If I fell, they yelled at me. I didn’t dare drop in on them—but when others dared, they were screamed at until they went in. If they didn’t go in, they’d have to fight. Over the years, there have been frequent brawls, arrests, and a handful of serious beatings.

This helps keep the lineup more orderly than it otherwise might be. Locals know exactly which local will get which wave, and visitors are advised to be on their best behavior. Compared to many iconic surf spots, which have degraded into viper-pits of chaotic, dangerous collisions, things mostly run smoothly at Spot-X.

Mostly. When too many randoms paddle out, things get tense. Otherwise it’s a gentlemanly little arena. Comrades enjoy productive working sessions, splitting limited resources not equally but at least in a consistent manner. When locals burn each other and collide, it’s on purpose, and all in good fun. The system has its merits.

Recently, I enjoyed an early-morning session with just two other surfers. One was a local. The other an outsider on a longboard. The outsider didn’t know where to sit. When a sneaker set came, he panicked, and paddled toward the peak instead of away from it. He bailed his board as we duck-dove behind him. My friend and I narrowly escaped an impaling.

“Go in!” my friend instructed kindly as the foam cleared.

The kook on the longboard responded formally. “Sir,” he began. We could not believe he used the word “sir.“ “I apologize for almost hitting you. I did everything in my power to avoid that happening.”

“But it happened anyway,” I interrupted. “Which is a good indication that you don’t know what you are doing, and that you should go in—because you are a danger to yourself and others.”

He paused at this. “OK, sir, but…the ocean belongs to everyone. It is free.”

At this, my friend told him in no uncertain terms to, “Go the fuck in.” The kook did not. He was a large man, who seemed to spend a lot of time in the gym.

At that point, I intervened again. I attempted to explain to the outsider why he should go in.

“The greatest knock on localism is that it isn’t fair,” I told the kook. “‘The ocean belongs to everyone—it is free,’” as you say. “But when you stop and think about what ‘free’ really means, in the context of the ocean, your logic begins to unravel like a spool of thread thrown in the shorebreak.”

There are different paths to success. Exhibit A: a grom scoring an unridden gem by sneaking inside of the regulars at the peak. Photo: Ellis
There are different paths to success. Exhibit A: a grom scoring an unridden gem by sneaking inside of the regulars at the peak. Photo: Ellis

The kook looked at me blankly, paused, opened his mouth to respond. I cut him off before he could begin. “Yes, international waters have traditionally been considered free in that they fall under the jurisdiction of no man or nation. The ocean belongs to no one, instead of everyone. It is a lawless place, for gamblers, pirates, the province of those who wish to escape governance instead of enforce it. Men are left to organize themselves by whatever improvised rules seem relevant. If you’re wondering how fairness fits into all this… well, it doesn’t. And frankly, it shouldn’t. Life isn’t fair.”

The large man on the longboard stared at me.

“Yes, it’s entirely possible that in the future, all lineups will be governed by strict rules, forcing all surfers to share limited resources equally, regardless of skill level, providence, and disposition. The threat of prosecution and litigation has already curbed the prevalence of physical violence. But it hasn’t stopped locals from taking the best waves. Further legislation—supported by an army of cops on jet skis—might level the playing field further. Surfing could be made more equal, like grade-school T-Ball. Everyone gets a turn and everyone leaves a winner.”

At this, my friend the local shook his head in disgust. “No,” he muttered. “Winners deserve to win!”

“Again, life isn’t fair,” I agreed. “And learning that early and often is one of surfing’s great lessons. I’ve been the victim of localism, and I’ve benefited from it—as have most hardcore surfers. Surf spots, particularly localized ones, act as a microcosm for any group of striving, struggling humans, offering practical insights into social dynamics.”

The kook snorted.

“Lesson one,” I began. “The weak will be preyed upon by the strong. Recognize this fact and begin developing coping mechanisms. We are primates, and alpha males get their pick of the set waves. Among animals, physical strength usually trumps cunning. But in the water, might only sometimes equals right. Strength can be expressed in varied ways. How well you paddle is often more crucial than how much you can benchpress. And physical strength can be irrelevant if you have the political clout to wield a crowd armed with pitchforks.”

The kook on the longboard looked toward the horizon, checking for any approaching sets. He’d learned that lesson at least.

“Lesson two,” I continued. “Put in your time. Outsiders like to discount localism as simple xenophobia. Yes, it matters where you were born. But almost every notoriously localized spot is policed by ‘locals’ who were once hazed as kooks, transplants, or groms. These tough customers paid their dues, showed respect, and worked their way up—just as in business or politics.”

At this the enormous kook responded with, “OK, but—”

“Lesson three,” I went on. “There are different paths to success. If you’re a silverback gorilla looking for a mate, you can simply mate with anyone you want. Meanwhile, scrawny juveniles attempt to furtively copulate when the alpha turns his back. Similarly, many surfers opt to circumvent localism by waking up earlier than the locals. Others attempt to curry favor through simple bribery. Bring a twelver to the beach and see your wave count balloon. Roll a joint and pass it on. Hoot locals into waves. If you’re really serious about success, bring your girlfriend to the beach and suggest that she chat with the locals while you surf.”

The gigantic kook looked perplexed.

“The strategies are endless,” I reiterated. “But whatever you do, don’t choose an approach that will make alpha males feel like they’re being challenged—unless you’re ready to accept the consequences of that challenge, or you have a bigger army. Don’t go right to the peak. Don’t back paddle. Don’t think that riding a bigger board entitles you to more set waves. And definitely don’t burn locals.”

“Go the fuck in!” my friend added, for clarity’s sake.

“Primatology and economic modeling can help inform our thinking,” I offered in closing. “But the best argument in favor of localism is the chaos that emerges in the absence of localism. Take a look at any A-grade spot that’s been transformed into a circus. It’s the tragedy of the commons in action. Everyone can surf those spots, yet no one has a good time. More importantly, it’s really dangerous, because of guys like you.”

“Go the fuck in or I’ll rip your head off and shit down your throat!” My friend added, in order to make things less ambiguous.

And then a set came. The local caught the first one, as protocol dictates. I caught the second, attempted a turn, and fell. The kook caught the third wave—the best in the set—stumbled to his feet, crouched low, and rode inelegantly all the way to the shore.

Then he went in. See? Localism works.