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History of Surfing: Blackball Blues

Surf laws and regulations during the boom years

The bright yellow flag with the solid back circle. The signal for surfers to clear the water at many popular urban beaches, the Blackball, has made its despised path up the flagpole since the early 1960s, just as coastal communities feared the effects of surfing’s troublemakers on local beaches. An unofficial clean-up campaign ensued, as city-enforced regulations — some practical, like the Blackball; and others disciplinary, like mandatory surfboard licensing programs — cracked down on surfers. But the reasons behind the oversight were complicated. Matt Warshaw explains in the latest History of Surfing chapter:

Were surfing’s troublemakers A) actually causing problems above and beyond that of any given group of outgoing teenagers, and B) made of up glom-on newcomers? Probably not, on both scores. Miki Dora, the Windansea gang, and plenty of other surfing trendsetters were all proud, open reprobates. There were "pseudo surfers" lurking on the fringe, but not many. The rogue element in surfing was internal, and not all that menacing. Proof of this would begin 20 or so years later, when it became hard to find a boomer-age surfer who didn't want to talk about his glory days of dropped baggies, stolen food, and lifeguard abuse.

There were other forces at work. Stern, responsible-sounding voices from inside the surfing world were good for business. The surf industry was trending up, and from a manufacturers' point of view, the bottom line could only improve if the sport was handed over to the USSA and its approved list of surf clubs—as well as organizations like the LA County lifeguards and the YMCA, both of whom now offered classes in surf instruction and safety.

The "clean surfing" campaign wasn't all blame-shifting and semi-collusive business tactics. Severson and his fellow magazine editors were also concerned about the growing number of beach towns passing restrictive surfing laws and regulations. This was hurting surfing for everyone, and hooliganism—real or perceived—was the main cause.

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We talked with Warshaw about the regulatory hand-wringing of the period.

Were there any surf mags that embraced the rogue element? Or was most every publication and media outlet onboard with a clean-up campaign?

The first issue of SURFER was actually kinda punk. There’s a picture of John Severson's "Sunset Special" beater North Shore car, all covered in spray paint, even the tires, a ride that would have had the cops on his ass in a second if he drove it down PCH. Another photo shows a guy checking the surf wearing a ratty old woman's knee-length coat. By the next issue, John cleaned the mag up and was becoming more of the cool but strict Surfing Deacon.

The relationship between surfing and the industry seems to take a turn around this time. Surfing used to exclusively shape the industry. Suddenly, you're seeing the industry – the creation – shape the sport, the creator.

Surfboard-making up until 1960, around there — it wasn't much of an industry. It was barely out of the garage. But let’s back up. Two things were happening. Surf manufacturers knew there'd be more money on the table once the sport had broader appeal, and that meant clean it up, make it presentable, get the parents and schools onboard. The other thing was, from 1960 forward, a lot of beach towns and cities were getting serious about anti-surfing laws and regulations. I talked to John about this once. I was kind of kidding him about how Establishment he got in the early '60s, basically trying to get him to admit that he and the rest of the Dana Point Mafia viewed the "clean up" campaign as a business opportunity, and he kind of hit back. He said the anti-surf stuff was coming down harder and faster than anybody had thought, and for awhile, he was really worried that there might be some kind of state-wide ban on surfing—or at least a lot more regs from local communities. So he was doing his best to protect the sport. I think it was both. Good business and preservation.

Was there a surf break that was widely seen as the symbolic priority, above all others, to be kept free from oversight and policing?

No, but I think it's worth pointing out that in a few cases—Malibu is the most obvious—surfers carried the day. First Point was a surfing-only beach as far back as 1959. In other words, you'd get busted at Malibu for swimming, not surfing. Almost all the rules preventing surfers from riding at certain places, at certain times, had to do with keeping swimmers from getting clocked by flying 30-pound boards. Yeah, the rules were too rigid and in some cases maybe even punitive toward surfers, but you can see where city councils would err on the side of the swimmers. Swimmers were there first, plus there were a lot more of them.

How did the conflicts between surfers and city officials differ from the encounters between surfers and the military at Trestles?

The Trestles thing, yes, that was really a whole different conflict, a whole different game, from all the other surfer-establishment clashes. There were no swimmers to protect at Trestles. It was just a simple question of trespassing on what the military regarded as their property. Which I think, legally, it was. At that point, the '60s and early '70s, I'm not sure if there was any kind of mean high tide line right-of-way to coastal waters. Even if there had been, it wouldn't have mattered. We were at war in Vietnam, and the Marines had the power to decide what was and was not off-limits. That said, most of the time, they didn't bother messing with surfers. When they did, though, it sometimes got heavy. No leashes, so loose boards got confiscated. You had MPs in Jeeps, sweeping the beach. There are stories about Marines firing their weapons over the heads of surfers who wouldn't leave the water. It was a running battle, for years and years. And the surfers eventually won!

Which break had a reputation for the most unforgiving surveillance?

The West Coast gets more attention, but the East Coast had way harder and more messed-up anti-surf laws. A full surfing ban for all Boston-area public beaches. In Rhode Island, you had to surf with a buddy, you had to carry a swimming certificate, you had to wear a fullsuit after a certain date. East Coast towns had less experience with surfers, and the surf boom took 'em off guard, and the restrictions were, in some cases, kind of panicky.

How were the fears of the rogue element in Australia similar to fear held by Americans? How were they different?

Same fears, more or less, but more exciting because you had the "clubbies," or the lifeguards, against the surfers. So that split the youth part of the equation in two. In America, in other words, it was old vs young. In Australia, it was young surfers, vs the all the usual older groups—parents, teachers, cops—but also young club members. Brother vs brother. And then you had the Rockers coming in from the 'burbs, all greased-back hair and pointy shoes, ready to fight with whomever. But we'll save that for another time.

With Vietnam, race riots, and assassinations, the surf "problem" really did become a matter of perspective. Like you write, there were bigger things to worry about.

Until the boogie boarders came along.

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