California Surf Town: La Jolla

Never Never Land

La Jolla
Windansea. Photo: Anthony Ghiglia

La Jolla, California: one of the most beautiful and wealthy beach communities in America. A place filled with high-end fashion boutiques; glorious, million-dollar homes and more than enough plastic surgery. The waves are good, too. I grew up in La Jolla, and still live here, but now I get paid to travel the world and surf big waves.

The most famous wave in La Jolla is Windansea, an A-frame peak with a bowling left and a mushy right. On the beach, in front of the wave, is a shack. Above the shack is the parking lot -- always filled with raucous, cartoon-like characters -- and a block south of that is the pumphouse, a longtime La Jolla landmark. This is where I spent much of my childhood, and it's where most of today's local kids pass their time. Many of the Windansea kids don't have jobs; they live at home with their parents and their parents pay the bills, and with Mom and Dad working all day, they have little discipline. Free time and no motivation to work is a perfect recipe for wildness. Drinking, drugging, surfing, fighting, wildness. Windansea has a history of wildness and that history reaches into the present.

"The culture here does have a heavy element of tradition, even though it's a really negative tradition," says Windansea local Richard Kenvin, who's been dominating the La Jolla reefs since the '80s. "It's this sort of false glory of that [crazy] lifestyle and behavior. You can become victimized by it because of environmental circumstances." I asked him about the future of today's Windansea groms and R.K. recalled his youth, "There were older guys who came before me who were f–ked-up menaces, and now they are clean and sober. It's sad because there are good influences in this community, but people have to go through shit, and sometimes people don't make it out."

Saxon Boucher was one of the guys who made it out. When I was growing up, he was the guy I looked up to. Saxon was a superstar. Multiple covers of surf magazines and parts in Taylor Steele videos. He hung out with Slater and was always smiling. He saw that to have a successful surfing career, his world had to be bigger than the Windansea bubble. "Living here in La Jolla, and especially the reputation of Windansea, my mom was really worried I would become a street-fighting drug addict." But Saxon took a different route. "Taylor Steele brought together a big group of successful pro surfers that were living clean lives. It was a really positive influence on me when Taylor brought down guys like Shane Dorian and Kelly Slater. I took the nice-guy route since I wanted to continue to be a pro surfer, instead of being the grumpy Windansea guy."

Although you can surround yourself with positive people and have good intentions in La Jolla, sometimes it's hard to avoid the mayhem. "A few years back I was with Rob Machado in La Jolla," says Saxon. "The waves were good so we went to Big Rock. As we were walking down the path in between the houses, Rob starts saying, 'I hear all these stories of guys getting into fights down here. I really don't want to get hassled.' But I brushed it off and was telling him, 'Rob, nothing bad happens down here anymore, get over it.'"

Dunfee Big Rock
Derek Dunfee at home. Big Rock. Photo: Ghiglia

"But literally, as soon as we see the lineup, we watch a guy cut someone else off. The guy deepest shot his board at the other guy's head. Within seconds the two of them scrambled to the beach and it turned into a full-blown fight. After they were done throwing punches, the local put the other guy in a headlock. We couldn't tell what happened, but the local let go and the other one scrambled off. The local walked up to us smiling with all of this blood around his mouth and he holds his hand out and there is this half-bitten piece of the other man's earlobe. We left and surfed another spot, and both had stomachaches."

Even though my generation of surfers had a positive person like Saxon to look up to, we had other influences that were pulling us to the dark side. "There was a trend that you could actually see and feel that was heading back to the roots of Windansea," says Saxon. "I could tell there was a newer, angrier generation that wanted to take Windansea and the La Jolla reefs back."

Saxon was right. In the late '90s and early 2000s, there were more rowdy kids than ever hanging out at the Windansea pumphouse. Surfing, whomping and drinking all day. Heckling tourists and fighting with boogieboarders. Being wild. Half the kids would surf and the other half would be on the beach drinking and playing horseshoes.

In the 1970s author Tom Wolfe wrote an essay called The Pumphouse Gang, which was based on the Windansea youth. In it, he paints the La Jolla characters as rudderless, semi-violent kids with no parents and a sense of entitlement. In the early 2000s the equivalent to the Pumphouse Gang were the Bird Rock Bandits, a group of kids that hung out, drank beer and bodysurfed the Windansea shorebreak. The surfers were friends with them and most of them grew up together. These were the guys who were constantly looking for trouble and fought frequently, the guys you avoided during parties. One night in 2007, after all the bars had closed, one of the Bird Rock Bandits killed 24-year-old Kauaian pro surfer Emery Kauanui in a street fight. His murder shook the town. Emery, who had moved to La Jolla in 1997, had become friends with everyone and was loved by the community. But that night, the night of the fight, people had had too much to drink. It is a common problem here. Emery died a few days later.

NBC Dateline covered Emery's death and the court case, calling it, "The Surfer and the Bird Rock Bandits." The Bird Rock Bandits were not charged as a criminal street gang and a lot of people were upset over it. Newspapers at the time said, "If they weren't white and from La Jolla, they'd probably be in prison."

The Pumphouse. Photo: Derek Dunfee

During that time, while the madness swirled, there were a few young Windansea artists who eventually put their idle hands to good use. Nobody embraced the riotous Windansea lifestyle more than my twin brother, Taylor Dunfee. The same year Taylor won the eighth grade state longboard championships, he was arrested for the first time for being drunk in public. After years of drinking and fighting, Taylor knew he had to make a drastic change if he was going to avoid prison. Inspired, he picked up a camera and attended the Brooks Institute of Photography. He's since made a name for himself in both the photography and art worlds, with solo art shows in L.A., Chicago and San Diego.

Another successful artist to emerge from Windansea is Andrew Farnsley, who was a sponsored surfer attending college art classes at 13 years old. A few years later he bought a tattoo gun and began to ink all of the local Windansea kids. Today, Andrew works at one of the most famous tattoo shops in Hollywood, The Shamrock Social Club, and over the past two years he has tattooed the likes of Angelina Jolie, Megan Fox and Lindsay Lohan.

Taylor Dunfee
Taylor Dunfee. Photo: Chris Heim

After Emery's death, there was a brief period of hope that people like my brother and Andrew were representing a positive shift for the Windansea community. Then another tragedy struck our town. On September 21, 2011, 23-year-old local Conner Baldassi was stabbed to death by another young Windansea surfer. Conner had broken into the surfer's home with intentions of stealing money and drugs, but upon entering he was stabbed several times in the chest. He bled to death outside of the apartment.

In an email with Conner's then girlfriend, she wrote, "Conner loved Windansea, it was his home -- but that was exactly the problem -- he practically lived there. Conner's dream was to be a surfer, but he got sucked into the drug scene. Not one day passed when he wouldn't bring up how good he could have been if he hadn't fallen so deep into drugs. Windansea was Conner's 'Never never land,' a playground for those who refuse to grow up."

La Jolla memorial
Windansea memorial. Photo: Taylor Dunfee

Unfortunately, the circumstances causing Conner's death are not unique to La Jolla. Twenty years ago Windansea local Andrew Weisiger almost died in an attempt to rob a drug dealer. "I was a ruthless f–king criminal back then," says Weisiger, who now has a family and still surfs Windansea on a daily basis. "You can't have a nine-to-five job and be in the water all day. But you can make a thousand bucks in 10 minutes just answering your phone and be free to paddle out anywhere at anytime. Drugs become an obsession. It was an ego thing: who's making more money and who's got the hottest chick. Having the best of everything and not working for it."

"It happened in 1990. My son was just born and I knew I wasn't ready to be a dad. I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I started robbing people. Taking their money, their blow and rolling them up. We had been up partying for three days and there was a guy who was a known pedophile drug dealer. He would give kids lines in return for sexual favors. One night I was gonna go down to his place and take all of his money and drugs. I knocked on the door and yelled a few times, 'Open the door.' The guy inside opens the door just enough to stick the barrel of a shotgun out. I didn't see anything until I saw the flash. He pulled the trigger, hit me point blank in the chest and I dropped to my knees. I heard him pump it again behind the door and I turned around and ran downstairs next to the building. It felt like all my insides were trying to get out. I ran across the ally and sat down next to a garage. I was waiting for him to find me and finish me off. At one point I left my body and was looking down at myself in this huge puddle of blood. I was waiting for the light, you know the one you see when you die, and saw a few small lights getting closer. It was the cops and their flashlights. The cops started giving me CPR and I was going in and out of my body. The whole paramedic ride I was on top of the car watching them revive me. I was flat-lined with no vitals for 43 minutes. They got me to the hospital, and my eye started to twitch so they started hitting me with defibrillator paddles. I finally came back into my body. I was in a coma for two weeks and still have 120 stainless steel bird shot BBs in me." Weisiger laughs about it now, "I can always guarantee I'm the best surfer in the water that's been shot with a shotgun. I got shot in the chest and had half my lung blown away, but surfing saved my life."

Weisiger was friends with Conner and reached out to him before he passed away. "He was isolating himself and doing a lot of drugs," says Weisiger. "I was trying to tell him that there are other things in life. I told him to look at me, look what happened to me in my life. His life could have gone in so many other ways because he was a talented, funny and caring guy."

Weisiger and Conner's stories, 20 years apart, represent the tragedy of La Jolla; the limits of wildness.
Joel Tudor has had a strong presence in La Jolla since I was a kid. He's seen a lot here. "Kids in La Jolla get eaten up really young," says Tudor. "I was friends with three kids that died from heroin in the '90s. You have an amazing small town with a lot of money, drugs and really good waves. Most people are so comfortable in La Jolla that they don't go south of Pacific Beach or north of Black's. There's a long list of world-class, homegrown talent that never leave."

Jojo Roper
Jojo Roper. Photo: Sherman

But there is a new generation that is trying to leave and make something for themselves outside of the La Jolla bubble. Twenty-two-year-old Jojo Roper, for instance, has stepped up from Big Rock and into heavier waves like Puerto Escondido and Todos Santos, continuing a long tradition of La Jollans excelling in big waves. And last year, 16-year-old Skip McCullough won the NSSA Explorer Boys West Coast Championship. Skip says he wants to make the tour and get 8-foot barrels for the rest of his life. Lucas Dirkse has graced the pages of The Surfer's Journal and Surfer for his shaping and unorthodox surfboard choices. And 17-year-old Jake Halstead has seen the most success of the emerging generation, placing second at the ISA world competition last year and earning a spot on the USA surf team. Jake is focusing on competing and has dreams of making the world tour.

La Jolla isn't the only place where the youth have tough decisions to make, but it's the place I know. The future is in the new crop's hands, and their success depends on which path they choose to follow. Will they join the long list of those who've been trapped in La Jolla by drugs and complacency, or will they avoid the temptations and go on to win XXL awards and ASP world titles? I suppose it depends on where they are looking for inspiration. And if I can have any influence on what route they take, I know where I'll lead them.--Derek Dunfee