About that NCJ cover story

Obviously, I would not write a letter to the editor over it, much as editors hope readers will respond to new stories (I use the term loosely in this case) in that way. And really, the drama will blow over. But being bugged both as a surfer and a journalist prompted me to write a critique for my own sake. I don’t claim to know much more than the average person about surfing the North Coast – but I think I know enough to know where Hank got things wrong. (Which is most everywhere.) Plus, if the story was really supposed to inform people about local surf spots, it should’ve been written much more comprehensively. Of course, that was not the point; the point had much more to do with spite. The whole thing disappoints on so many levels. Comments welcome – I’m curious what you think I get right or wrong, too. (I am saying “comments welcome” as if anyone will be reading this now much more secretive blog! Very silly. But at least not spiteful.)

“News is something someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising.”

— Lord Northcliffe

Cheap quote. By that reasoning, anything personal is “news.” Tabloid culture justification. TMZ upskirt shots legitimized. Does this mean we’re likely to see future cover stories on where to pick wild mushrooms or find Native American artifacts. I’m sure someone would rather “suppress” that information, so therefore it’s all “news,” right?

Really, shouldn’t something actually have happened to for this story to be considered news? Some instance of localism, some conflict between the homegrown crew and the SoCal pros who showed up to shoot at one of the North Coast’s most beloved spots? Your only examples of this “omerta” are a two-year-old NCJ story – in which I explicitly discussed a particular spot, contrary to any code of silence – and some out-of-towner (who happens to be a fine writer, btw) who wrote about Big Flat three years ago. Has another Journal cover story (besides the obvious “What’s Up With Your Hair?”) ever been based on so little?

Our county is home to countless subcultures. They range the full spectrum, from straight to strange, and rare is the person who doesn’t belong to at least three or four of them. Each has its own particular set of rules and social norms. For the Humboldt County surf scene, the first rule is: You don’t talk about the Humboldt County surf scene. The logic, as we understand it, goes something like this. Surfing in Los Angeles and Orange County sucks. It’s way too crowded, and the locals down there are rude and brutal to outsiders. We don’t want that up here, so we will be rude and brutal to the LA and Orange County surfers who dare to enter our waters, so as to discourage their ways from taking root here. And we will never speak of our surf spots publicly.

The logic really goes more like this: Historically, the more people that know about a special place, the more people show up at it, making it, by definition, less special. This is true of surf breaks, rock climbing spots, hiking trails, swimming holes, etc. We all know everyone has a right to be at these places, but we prefer to minimize the impact when we can. Selfish, yes. But human nature and hardly an anomaly of surf culture. Remember the Oregon campaign to prevent Californians from moving there?

There’s a couple of flaws in this line of thinking, starting with the most obvious — probably a majority of Humboldt County “locals” are themselves from southern California. As one frustrated newcomer put it on an online message board: “There’s no real locals up here, they just came up to go to college 15 to 20 years before you and stayed. You can be like them too.” (This is technically incorrect — there are a few real locals here — but the point largely stands.) More to the point, though, it’s kind of sad that we all become what we hate. In this case: insular, xenophobic, secretive.

There are a lot of locals here. You’re quoting an anonymous poster on an unregulated website? You’re quoting an anonymous poster on an unregulated website? Hank! Jesus.

Surfer omertà is enforced to an astonishing degree. Two years ago, when we asked Journal contributor Jennifer Savage, the chair of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, to write a surfing story for the Journal, she refused to mention any but the most obvious surfing spots on the North Coast. (See “Camel Rock rights and wrongs,” Aug. 16, 2007).

Specifically, I wrote about actual problems arising at Camel Rock (again, by naming the spot!) due to overcrowding and bad etiquette. Something that actually seemed newsworthy and useful to anyone who might read it. Any surfers, that is – likely only a small portion of your readers, which begs the question, again, as to why “Where to Surf” rates a cover story.

This week, she declined to participate in any way. A year earlier, National Geographic Adventure magazine featured a story by writer Dan Duane about surfing at Big Flat, the famous hike-in spot on the Lost Coast north of Shelter Cove. Amazingly, Duane never typed the words “Big Flat” in the story, instead substituting the fictional name “Ghost Point.” (See “Surfing the Perfect Break on California’s Lost Coast,” National Geographic Adventure, September 2006). After spending a good number of the article’s paragraphs on the pressure he felt from locals and others to keep the Big Flat secret, complete with implied threats of violence, Duane ends the story with an incredible cop-out: During the long, quiet march, I watched seals watching us from offshore; I saw an osprey hunting the shallows for fish; and I decided that whatever you think about the surfer obsession with secrecy, whether it sounds like selfishness, silliness or soulfulness, the end result isn’t really such a bad thing. Anyone who wants to find Ghost Point won’t have much trouble — I told you that it’s somewhere along the Lost Coast, and the truth is, the break is known to virtually every surfer with a clue in Northern California. But maybe there’s something great about the feeling that the world is still full of mysteries; ones you’ll have to sort out for yourself. And maybe there’s something great about places, real or imagined, where discoveries will always be waiting to be made. Because at some level, that’s what it’s all about.

In surf journalism, such as it is, a tradition of not naming spots out of respect for the locals has always existed. You may not agree with it, but that Duane honored it is hardly “amazing.” See all past issues of Surfer magazine, for example. Note Humboldt’s unnamed representation in Transworld Surf recently.

As the big winter swells approached, we contacted a few Humboldt County surfers to ask them for interviews, or to write something for this package. Then we gave up. To a person, they refused. But as Dan Duane knew, all the basic information is already out there, in books and on the Web. In California, anyway, the beaches and shorelines are owned by the public. If you want to surf, you can. If you have a hankering to get to know the glorious Pacific Ocean up close and personal, then you should do it. You shouldn’t be a dick to other people, but you already knew that.

It’s December. The least surf-able month of the year. One of the most dangerous times for anyone to be in the water. But hey, a nonsurfer, with no information from the people who actually surf, says to go – based on information gleaned from the web. This is journalism? It feels like spite.

The following are just a few of the dozens of worthwhile surfing spots in Humboldt County. We’re just skimming the surface and we don’t claim to be experts in the matter, but these and regular first-hand observation should get you going.

SURFING SPOTS

Patrick’s Point

Inside Patrick’s Point State Park. (Take the Patrick’s Point state park exit about five miles north of Trinidad.) Call ahead for hours/fees/camping arrangements (677-3570). Once inside, follow Mussel Rock Trail down to the beach.

The authorities disagree wildly about the best time to surf this left-handed point break. Guisado and Klaas recommend high tide, because of dangerous submerged rocks; Wright says medium tide; Surf Forecast says low tide (see bibliography). Everyone seems to agree that it’s an excellent spot for winter surfing — provided you know what you’re doing. The swell here can be large and dangerous. On the plus side, it doesn’t seem to be as crowded as other spots.

Guisado and Klaas also give the thumbs-up to the beach break at Agate Beach, also located inside the park, which they say can “range from fun and friendly to a heavy, aggressive beach break.” They do say that it regularly produces good, consistent waves.

It’s a high-tide break. Period. Surf Forecast is bullshit. And it has to be huge to work – must be large, not “can be,” and is therefore always dangerous – meaning it’s “excellent” if you’ve spent a lot of time surfing in big, cold, rocky, boily surf. Hardly a good spot to send people who don’t know where to surf, which is the stated mission of this story.

Camel Rock/Moonstone Beach

These are the two most well-known surf spots in Humboldt County — so well known, in fact, that there are endless complaints of overcrowding. Moonstone Beach is located right off the Highway 101 exit at Westhaven. For Camel Rock, take the same exit and drive a mile or so up Scenic Drive until you see the giant two-humped rock in the water.

The print version of the Journal labels Camel Rock as being north of Luffenholtz, which is like putting “Petrolia” on the map where Shelter Cove is. Another mistake suggesting that maybe writing about doing stuff should be informed by people who do it. In what other story have you ever gone ahead and written without legitimate – i.e., in person – sources?

Both spots are good for beginners; the main difference being that there’s more ocean real estate available at Moonstone. The waves at this beach break both left and right off of the shifting sandbars beyond the low-tide line. This isn’t the ideal season, apparently: Guisado and Klaas say that “[t]he winter surf can be big and fun, though spring and fall months tend to bring waves with less size but better shape.”

No, it’s not the ideal season. It’s too big and the currents are too strong. This whole “winter surf can be big and fun” is stupid. It’s just big. Fall surf can be big and fun. Winter surf is super serious: you’re either an experienced local charger, a pro surfer who wants to practice towing in, or you’re getting plucked out of the ocean by the Coast Guard. There’s nothing about winter that works with beginner. Really bad to suggest to clueless readers (and anyone reading this for information is clearly clueless) that it might be okay to paddle out.

Camel Rock is smaller than Moonstone, and so the competition is somewhat fiercer and the scene more depressing — all the more so because it’s a fine break. The Wannasurf verdict: “When it’s going, it can’t be beat.” Though both Camel and Moonstone are classified as spots friendly to beginners, don’t be fooled — the current can be just as powerful here as elsewhere in the county.

I am just going to go bang my head on the wall. I can’t get over the fact you’re quoting “Wannasurf.” The amount of wrongness here is staggering. If I were a new surfer in town trying to use this advice, I’d be screwed. By the way, Camel only works at low tide – more key info not included.

Samoa/Bunkers/Harbor Entrance

The Samoa Peninsula — the long spit of land between Humboldt Bay and the ocean out along Highway 255 — is home to a few strong breaks and one devastating one. There are beach breaks all along the peninsula; look for the parking spot pull-outs on the west side of the road south of the Samoa Bridge.

More correctly, it’s home to a multitude of fun spots when the swell’s small and a three heavy ones when the waves are big.

One spot worthy of special mention is Bunkers, out near the end of the peninsula. Take the first right after entering the Coast Guard complex, park in the lot and walk down to the beach. Both Wannasurf and Surf Forecast rate it as suitable for all skill levels, but there can be strong currents here and you should probably be a strong swimmer to attempt it. Wannsurf says that the break will provide both left- and right-hand waves, and works best at mid- to high tide with the swell coming in from the west. It can be crowded.

“All skill levels”? Bunkers is a fucking death trap. Okay, that might be overstating the case – I have my own hang-ups – but people have drowned, broken bones and been hit by sharks here. And that’s just in the last five years. The current is insane. The ocean floor is deep. The waves break way far out. When it’s small everywhere else, Bunkers can still be big, especially on a west swell. And, like most breaks, when it works, tide-wise, changes; it depends on how the sandbar sets up, something actual surfers realize.

The entrance to the harbor, way out at the end of the spit at the jetty, is huge and scary. If you’re learning about surf spots from this guide, you do not surf here.

“If you’re learning about surf spots from this guide, you do not surf here.” You should have put that after each of these sections. Hell, you should have started your story with that instead of the Northcliffe quote.

“Humboldt Harbor requires experience and demands respect,” say Guisado and Klaas. “Pros and kamikaze only,” says the Wannasurf write-up. “The place rips your wetsuit off if you screw up on a big day and you’ll be lucky if you pop up from the most violent underwater thrashing you’ve ever experienced in less then 10 seconds.” Still, might be worthwhile to take a drive out to the north jetty and watch the pros — or kamikazes — tow in on jet skis to tackle the massive waves.

The second most important thing to know about the Harbor Entrance – which I actually told you – is, unless you’re towing in, it can’t be surfed other than at the low slack tide. That is a huge, crucial piece of information. If people try to paddle out any other time they will either get sucked out to sea or pulled way into the bay. (At least you skipped the North Jetty – and told people to walk out to Bunkers. At last, something to rejoice about.)

South Jetty

The Samoa Peninsula’s mirror image, across the harbor entrance encircling the southern half of Humboldt Bay, is a huge nature preserve known as the South Spit. You get there by turning off Highway 101 at Hookton Road, just south of College of the Redwoods, and heading down Hookton and Table Bluff Road toward the ocean. Drive to the end of the road, where you’ll find a parking lot adjacent to the South Jetty. Walk to the beach.

Wright lists the beach break here as “a good summer spot.” Guisado and Klaas concur, adding that “winter surf can be big but not as organized or predictable.” Everyone agrees that you want to watch for swell coming from the south or southwest, which can result in well-shaped and fast medium-sized waves.

As I understand it, south swells can’t get around Cape Mendo to reach the South Jetty. And the waves wedge, so what looks small can be deceiving – it’s known as a tricky break. Plus it’s remote and hosts some perhaps not-as-friendly locals. Bad recommendation for beginners aka the only people who might misinterpret this story as useful information.

Centerville Beach/Cape Mendocino

The southern half of the county’s coast is home to the most wild and undeveloped section of coast in the continental United States — the so-called “Lost Coast.” This is a rocky, remote section of land full of good surf. If you can get to it.

One of the more popular spots is Centerville Beach, a ways outside the city of Ferndale. Guisado and Klaas praise its “outside peaks with long lines.” They and Wright both assert that it can work at any time of year with any swell, but Surf Forecast believes that a southwest swell works best. Take Centerville Road from Ferndale and drive west to the county park.

Writing in 1973, Wright reveled in Cape Mendocino: “Miles and miles of unridden reef and beach breaks … an untapped supply of surf,” he wrote. Probably not the case anymore, but this is still a vast conglomeration of surfable spots far out in the boonies. Wright and Guisado and Klaas agree that you can find nearly any kind of wave here at any time — beach breaks and reef breaks, lefts and rights, summer and winter and anything in between. To get there, drive west on Highway 211 — the Mattole Road — until you reach the ocean. Then you’re there.

Both these spots are a good distance from civilization, so don’t go alone and be sure you know what you’re doing.

Does Centerville count as Lost Coast? Anyway, it’s a fickle place to surf, which is why mostly the only people who surf it live in Ferndale. And south of Cape Mendo is almost always blown out, which is why that area is so popular among windsurfers, but finding a good surf day there is rare, despite what your 1973 guidebook says. Again, this is just so far removed from reality, I’m boggled.

Shelter Cove/Big Flat

There are numerous beach, reef and point breaks in and around Shelter Cove, the tiny, half-deserted town at the southwest corner of the county, right on the Mendocino County line. A whole cluster of them can be found on the rounded beach to the south of the town’s airport. They include, at the far end of the cove, No Pass — “a big, tubular left,” according to Wright. Though Wright has plenty of praise for the cove’s other spots, No Pass is the only one to rate an entry on the more up-to-date Wannasurf site.

And, man, that Shelter Cove crowd doesn’t like outsiders – partly due to surf culture, but mostly due to your typical Southern Humboldt culture. Leaving that fact out is like forgetting to warn people they might get mugged when bar-hopping in Tijuana.

The legendary Big Flat, Humboldt County’s worst-kept secret, is reachable only by airplane or difficult nine-mile hike up the Lost Coast Trail from Shelter Cove. Google it: People who have surfed the spot revel in its big, beautifully shaped waves and long rides, as well as its stunning location — “[I]t may be the only true wilderness point break in the lower 48,” wrote Dan Duane in National Geographic Adventure. Again: Know what you’re doing. You’re a million miles from nowhere.

What happened to correcting the “reachable by airplane”? It’s illegal for anyone except the caretaker or whomever he’s given permission to. You can’t just charter or fly a plane in – that’s total misinformation.

SURFING SAFETY

Ensign Tim Mosher of the U.S. Coast Guard, a surfer and a Humboldt County native, can boil his main safety tips down to three: “Know your limitations. Know where you’re surfing. Either surf with a friend or tell a friend of your whereabouts and when you’re planning to get out of the water.”

The ocean hereabouts is nothing to fool around with, especially in winter. Rip tides can develop upon a slight shift in current. Hidden rocks and reefs can knock you unconscious in a moment. Sneaker waves can rip you bodily from the shore and carry you away out to sea. If you’re not a strong swimmer, a powerful break in Humboldt County can mess you up in any number of ways — and even if you are, you’d better know what you’re getting into. “A lot of times surfers get in trouble because they go out in a place they’re not familiar with,” Mosher says. This year, the Coast Guard has already rescued one surfer who got swept out to sea at Camel Rock — they’re happy to do it, but of course it’d be better for everyone concerned if they didn’t have to.

One more piece of advice: gear. Surfers from elsewhere may not be accustomed to donning a thick 5 mil suit, complete with hood and booties, but that’s what you’re going to need in the cold Humboldt County waters. Don’t skimp.

Sharks? Mosher is more or less a fatalist when it comes to risking an encounter with a Great White. “That’s something you kind of accept,” he says. “You’re in their environment.” Otherwise, the best advice seems to be, first, to get out of the water as quickly as possible and, second, to fight back if attacked. Use your board or any other available tool to beat the fish in the soft spots, especially the eyes or gills.

Wow, a Coastie, a local, even – see, they do exist! – and good advice. This is actual useful information. Pretty much the only actual useful information. Your whole story could’ve been this one section and it would’ve been perfect.

Happy as he was to share safety tips, Mosher declined to list his favorite surf spots.

He didn’t want to share surf spots? Go figure. Yet you spared him the mockery treatment. (Good call.)

SURFING ETIQUETTE

To repeat: Journal contributor Jennifer Savage, a surfer, refused to participate in helping us put this story together. She refused, even, to discuss issues like local surfing etiquette, which one would think would help newbies and out-of-towners respect the Humboldt County scene. However, we assume that the advice she gave in her Journal story of Aug. 17, 2007, on surfing at Camel Rock, still holds:

“Listen, if you’re new in town, be respectful. If you’re new to surfing, be doubly so. Pay attention to the line-up. Beginners, stay out of the way. Go to Moonstone until you have a sense of what you’re doing. When paddling for a wave, look over your shoulder. If someone else is closer to the peak, either stop or be prepared to pull back if he or she catches it. (If you’re a guy, don’t assume a girl’s not going to catch the wave. That happens too often, but you don’t hear about it because most girls are too nice to cuss you out.) If you’re an experienced surfer, don’t make the beginner feel worse about kooking out, just accept the apology gracefully. If you find yourself in front of someone, direct your board over the back of the wave to get out of the way. Apologize immediately. Pay your dues.”

Sarcasm noted. I guess this is useful, too. But using a two-year old excerpt as filler is still pretty sad. Why not talk to one of the Moonstone surf camp counselors? Or HSU Surf Club’s faculty advisor? Or the Center Activities surf class instructor? Or the surf shop owner? I’m hardly the only – or most expert – source of surf etiquette. What happened to finding sources to provide information?!

SURFING RESOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Surfing California**, by Bank Wright. Mountain & Sea Publishing, 1973. Self-published hippie-era guidebook to the coast. You can still buy it on Amazon. The more comprehensive of the two books we consulted, with dozens of Humboldt County spots listed.

Surfing California**, by Raul Guisado and Jeff Klaas. Globe Pequot Press, 2005. Has much more detail than its predecessor on certain Humboldt County spots, but lacks its encyclopedic range. Functions as a decent general travel guide for the surf-oriented, throwing in notes on area history and community character.

Other, newer books exist, too. You might’ve sent people into the local surf shops to find out the best ones.

Web sites

Wannasurf. wannasurf.com. “A surf atlas made by surfers for surfers.” Worldwide, but features a dozen or so Humboldt County spots. Lots of pictures, maps and smack talk between locals and the rest of the world.

Wannsurf is so lame. Really. Inaccurate and cheesy. It’s like directing people to the Herald to learn about local politics. Sure, some truth might be in there, but it’s hardly a legitimate source of information. Wrong as often as it is right.

Surf Forecast. surf-forecast.com. Focuses on the science of surfing, with startlingly detailed wind, weather and tide predictions combined to create hour-by-hour ratings of 18 Humboldt County surf spots. Probably best to groundtruth its observations before taking them as gospel.

Nothing you shared from this site has been accurate so far! What people need are buoy sites, NOAA weather links, a tide chart and to know how to use them.

Camel Rock Surf Cam. http://www.camelrocksurfcam.com. When it works, it’s a live picture of the Camel Rock waves and some basic weather information.

Blogs

House of Sand and Fog. jennifersavage.wordpress.com. By Journal contributor Jennifer Savage. One of the goals of the blog is to chronicle every surf session the author undertakes — without saying where she undertakes them, of course. To repeat yet again, Savage absolutely refused to take part in any aspect of this story.

Yeah, that’s gone. As you know, I often do say where I surf, which I hadn’t worried about because my blog was relatively quiet. It was primarily for me, but happened to attract a few regular readers. It’s absolutely not meant to be any sort of surf resource for the general public. Wasn’t meant to, I mean. And I post a lot of personal stuff, which is no big deal when not many people read it (and the ones that do are nice). Super bummer.

Surfrider Humboldt. surfriderhumboldt.wordpress.com. Also by Journal contributor Jennifer Savage, who doubles as the chair of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Weather alerts, beach closures and occasional updates on the internal business of this nonprofit group, which advocates for clean oceans.

You know, Surfrider Humboldt has one of the most widely recognized victories in environmental protection legal history. After some years of inactivity, a much beloved former local member, national boardmember and CR poli sci prof passed away from brain cancer. His family wanted to donate to Surfrider Humboldt in his memory, which is when it became clear the chapter had failed to keep its charter. I and several other started it back up again, in his honor, and with a ton of support from the community. We raised $10,000 in small donations over the past year, quadrupled our membership and have brought a lot of attention to our planned projects, in addition to hosting a number of awesome family events and organizing regular beach and highway clean-ups. We also hosted a highly attended Wave Energy forum. If you ever want to do a serious story about surf stuff in Humboldt County, let me know.


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6 thoughts on “About that NCJ cover story”

  1. I remember when Surfing Magazine ran Mikol Moon’s article on the wilderness point back in… I think ’92, or maybe ’94. Though it had never really been a secret to locals and cautious travelers, there was a lot of mystique about the spot. The outside world was pretty clueless.

    After Moon’s article, by which he went ahead and outright named the spot, area locals were enraged. I heard there were threats made against Moon (not his real name of course). I remember being in a surf shop in Santa Rosa and hearing these customers talking about gearing up and heading north to surf the spot. It made me a little sad. It was just the beginning…

    Over the years I’ve heard about trash and crowds at the point. After Duane’s article, I was left shaking my head. Today’s surf culture isn’t about keeping secrets anymore. That’s left to a bygone era. Sure there are still locals who try and enforce the silence, yet as more and more people get into surfing, the idea of keeping things a secret falls upon increasingly deaf ears. Sites like Surfline and Wannasurf only perpetuate the problem. Especially Wannasurf.

    Sometimes I wish surfing’s popularity would die off. I absolutely miss the old days.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

    But Hank’s article is a disappointment. And I think your comments concerning the article are fairly right on the mark.

  2. Thanks – the article pains me both as a surfer and as a journalist, compounded by the publicizing of my blog. In a way some irony exists about the fact that Hank set out to expose what he sees as this stupid part of surf culture, but the only thing he really revealed is another example of why people who don’t know what they’re writing about shouldn’t write about it.

  3. It’s like directing people to the Herald to learn about local politics. Sure, some truth might be in there, but it’s hardly a legitimate source of information. Wrong as often as it is right.

    Ouch!

  4. Ha! I was thinking about the comments mostly – but in any case, wouldn’t it be odd if a reporter did a story on, say, the Marina Center, with only the local political blogs as the sources, no first-hand quotes from the people involved? That’s the point I was trying to make. Of course, when I thought of the most-read, most-active political blog in town, I thought of the Herald – hence, my example. It’s a compliment really!

  5. I’m totally down with the compliment. Thank you!

    I like to think the T-S (and maybe sometimes the holy, progressive, always-get-it-right North Coast Journal) learn a thing or two from the Herald. Why else are they always reading?

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