The Death of Jeff Spicoli & the Rise of the Surf Punks

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Another wave crashes into the jagged dark rocks far below us and I sit with my friend waiting. It is still dark as the sun rises behind us barely peaking over the low Santa Cruz mountains. We left the CA delta region at two am to make it here by sunrise. We are waxing down surfboards, his six and a half foot five fin carver and a longer fun board that he “borrowed” from his older brother for me. He also borrowed a thick black wet suit that is too big, but it is better than nothing considering how cold the ocean is here. He is a short, cocky, ADD addled type with blue eyes and a cute girl killer face that matches his jumpy charisma. On most days the long mop of surfer blond hair is combed to the side half covering the shaved sides of his head, but today his hair is spiked up in full seven inch Mohawk. He lost an extra forty minutes of sleep last night because he had to wake up earlier than me to gel and blow dry it into place. At the time I didn’t understand why he bothered. Standing here at Steamer Lane looking at all the mean punk surfers glowering at us I’m starting to get it.

The local scene here is as heavy and brutal as the frigid surf that crashes below us. When it’s breaking here fights are a daily occurrence. And for the last few years most likely it is the classic long hair surfer dude that’s getting stomped. Skinheads, Mohawks, tattoos, pierced ears, noses, and even tongues reign supreme. The parking lot that just a few years ago was dominated by Chevy vans and muscle cars has completely given way to custom early model VWs: chopped bugs, Safari Vans, Squarebacks, even a few Karmann Ghia’s. A massive, twenty foot by twenty foot white spray painted “LOCALS ONLY!!!!!” runs the length of the parking lot. It is bordered on both ends by large red swastikas. Buddhist, I noted when we parked not Nazi, and I wondered if the artist was too stupid to know the difference. I don’t have the hated long straight surfer hair, but I am driving a Trans Am, the type of muscle car the skinheads and surf punk locals hone in on like murderous birds of prey when they see them. Luckily for us we arrived when it was still dark out and so far no one has identified me as the owner.

But my friend Brendan has some creds here. His older sister Julie is dating the leader of BASH, Bay Area Skinheads, the largest skinhead gang in Northern California. And he assured me that if we made the three and half hour drive when we got there, despite my offensive car, I wouldn’t get my ass stomped in the parking lot or even out on the break.

And the break is the other thing that worries me. I have overstated my surfing abilities to Brendan by about two hundred percent. Brendan is a year younger than I, but is extremely popular with the skate punks at our high school, especially the girls. I don’t really know Brendan or really like him and I think the feeling is mutual, but I have a car and a driver’s license and Brendan gets a lot of girls and can surf like it is second nature, hence the exaggeration of my enthusiasm for and skill at surfing. And he grew up in Santa Cruz and knows how to get there.

I’ve been on swim teams since I was ten years old and somehow in my mind, I’ve decided this will compensate for only having a few hours of actual surfing under my belt. Half of it on a giant foam tourist board on Waikiki Beach riding gentle sissy waves. And I still managed to eat it badly twice. “Steamers is no fucking Waikiki,” I think to myself as the sunlight begins to illuminate the break and I see the water monsters roaring out of the Pacific.

I’ve been aping Brendan’s waxing technique as best I can, but now the sun is up enough to actually paddle out. I had it in my head that it would be a Sunkist commercial with beautiful young people wearing colorful board shorts and bikinis running down to the beach in the bright sunshine, but instead, most of the tribal looking surf warriors here are in full wet suits. And they do not run down the beach to the surf and paddle out. Mainly because there is no fucking beach I realized. To get to the break you have to jump off a thirty-foot cliff into a raging mess of white water and if you survive that then you can paddle the rest of the way out. And there is no million dollar white teeth Sunkist commercial smile care free dash for the break here, there is a hierarchy and if you violate it you will probably lose your teeth, million dollar or otherwise.

Five very big dudes are the first to approach the edge of the cliff. Each of them greets Brendan as they walk past and ignore me. They jump in pairs. They will get the first waves. Brendan hangs back. There are six more guys out here. Four of them walk to the edge of the cliff, but two stop and talk with us. One of them is five-foot-five, shorter than me, but has bodybuilder thickness and a Marine shaved head. The other guy is taller with spiky black hair and the word “rage” tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand. They sort of acknowledge me with a few glances, but there are no greetings or questions about who I am or where I’m from. They start to walk away to the cliff and Brendan says, “Hey, can my friend paddle out today?”

Both of them stopped for a second and looked hard at me.

“Don’t know him. Locals only Bren, you know that,” Rage Knuckles said.

“Yeah, you’re okay, but take the fucking grom to Cowell’s or somewhere if he wants to surf. Not at Steamers, not when it’s breaking big, no way.”

And that was it. Three hours of driving through the predawn for nothing. Brendan did an apology dance acting like he didn’t know this would happen.

“I’ll make it right dude. Just hang here for a little bit and watch the break. I’ll talk to Meathead he’ll let you paddle out I promise.”

Then he turned and went to the cliff and jumped just like that. I was left standing with the surfboard in the wet suit feeling like an idiot. There was no one here now, so I walked to the edge of the cliff where I could at least see the surfers. I picked Brendan out since he was the last guy to the line-up. I guessed it was breaking nine to ten feet out there.

As the sun came up a few more guys came to the cliff. I got a couple of “Fuck you, locals only,(s) and “Go home, grom,” yelled at me as they jumped off the cliff and paddled out. I took the surfboard and wet suit back to the car and watched from the edge of the parking lot for a while to be less conspicuous. Watching those guys shred the waves and Brendan even getting barreled I realized that they were right. I didn’t belong out there. I would have looked like a fool and probably gotten hurt. Having stood up a few times and ridden a wave into the clean white beaches of Waikiki in no way qualified me to surf here. This break was for surfers, not tourists. The guys out there had probably been on surfboards since they could toddle. I made do with a few hours of watching wave wizards pilot through the heavy surf until Brendan came back to the car. He wouldn’t look at me and I knew he was trying to think of a way to deliver the bad news.

“Heavy out there today,” I say.

“You know it, man.”

“Hey Brendan, it’s cool. I’m not ready for shit like that anyway. That’s too big for me. Awesome tube you caught though.”

“Yeah, yeah, it was fucking great man. Hey, we can go to Cowell’s or drive up to Pacifica if you want. I’m cool with that. It will be smaller there.”

“Yeah, cool,” I say.

At Cowell’s it’s a madhouse. I’m sharing waves with five people at a time and they are eating it all around me. Out here I’m a superhero because I can stand up for more than a minute and Brendan is a shackled God since he can’t carve for fear of slicing a grom in half.

We are out there for an hour and mostly two and three footers roll through. Then a freak five footer plows in and everyone is washed up on the beach blowing saltwater out of their noses. Brendan ducked, dived the five footer and waited for the set immediately following, one slightly smaller than the five footer and he rips like no one has all day. All the washed out groms stand on the beach and watch a minute and a half of pure surfing beauty. I watch with a mixture of pride that he’s my friend and envy that I will never surf like that.

I know that is the only ride he’ll get like that today here at Crowell’s. When he paddles in I ask him if he wants to get some food and hang out on the boardwalk. I’m thinking since surfing was a bust for me maybe there’s still a shot at meeting some chicks.

We park in Cliff St. and Brendan takes me to a taco stand near the boardwalk. Surfing has flattened his Mohawk, but he has all the equipment he needs in the car to bring it back to life. But he waits. During the day the boardwalk is a huge tourist draw and Brendan wants none of it. “Fucking Disneyland all day,” he says. We walk along the San Larenzo River five blocks north to a skate park. I don’t ask, but I know neither of us has skateboards and I skate a hell of a lot worse than I surf.

Close to the skate park he ducked into a gas station bathroom for twenty minutes and emerged fully punked out, Mohawk standing tall, black jeans, purple high top Converse, a white t-shirt with the Black Flag logo and the sleeves cut off. I’m wearing tan shorts, a green t-shirt and fucking brown boat shoes, every bit the out of place dork at a skate punk paradise like this. I spent the next three hours until sunset stewing in my own discomfort. Brendan would come by every once a while with his friends, but the weirdness of it drove him and them off pretty quickly each time. I didn’t even have the balls to just leave his ass there. But finally, in the evening, he came around again and said he was going to a party with some friends. He was planning on spending the night at their house. No invitation was implied.

I said, “Yeah, cool, whatever,” and left.

Leaving the beach area and getting out of the tourist traffic I floored it and angrily chased the setting sun over the Santa Cruz mountains.