There are surf spots north of Los Angeles that offer sets of sweet, peeling summer waves. Protected by jagged cliffs, razor-wire fences, locked gates and equally impenetrable mansions, they feature long, luscious rides and are relatively shielded from the hordes that make modern surfing so frustrating.
Venice's Breakwater is not such a fantasy. Its relatively short waves meet crowded, littered public shores. There are surfing points north, in less populated or more monied neighborhoods at Sunset, Topanga, Malibu and Zuma. And there are fine surfing locations south, in Manhattan Beach and beyond.
But the popular and historic surf break in Venice has been used by thousands of surfers over the decades because it's the most surfable spot at the edge of L.A.'s crowded, vast urban reality. It's a place where a line of rocks jutting out into the ocean and the buildup of sand on the sea floor coalesce to produce something ridable.
“The Venice Breakwater is the unofficial L.A. city municipal surf break, where surfers come from East Los Angeles and Silver Lake to surf,” says surfer Greg Falk.
But this summer, without public discussion or notice, the Venice Breakwater was closed to surfing on 54 afternoons, leaving, on another part of the beach, a few inferior and narrow “surf lines” for surfers to crowd into. At the Breakwater, surfers were greeted by a “blackball” — the flag Los Angeles County lifeguards fly when they prohibit surfing to protect swimmers.
Though surfing at the Venice Breakwater has been blackballed in previous summers, the action has never been popular with surfers. This time, the county government's explanations have been terse and convoluted.
“It's just crazy! They should not blackball it,” says artist Ned Evans, who has lived in Venice for decades. “You have to have someplace to go surfing. It's the best place for people to learn.”
Though Evans more often surfs Malibu, he's emphatic about the importance of the local break. “It's become the democratic beach. The old guys, the young guys — the whole deal.”
Jeff Litz, a second-generation surfer, lives about 20 miles from the beach but works at a local surf shop. “Venice isn't the best surf spot,” he says, but “it's like surfing pushed into the neighborhood, and it's there for everybody to see, demonstrating what L.A. life is like.
“That's what makes Venice cool,” Litz adds. “There's people who have never seen surfboards. Little kids run up when you lose your board. It can be really positive.”
Surfers tell L.A. Weekly that the Venice Breakwater wasn't closed routinely last year, and nothing has changed to justify the summerlong afternoon ban this year. A mystery has emerged regarding which county official ordered surfers out this dismal summer of 2010.
Intense secrecy over the issue from Los Angeles County lifeguard officials has taken on the flavor of a national security risk. Within days of the Weekly's initial inquiries, a captain responsible for the Venice area instructed lifeguards not to speak to the press, and one lifeguard was openly afraid to speak to the Weekly. Acting county Assistant Lifeguard Chief Garth Canning, contacted by the Weekly, was told not to talk to the newspaper by his supervisor, according to Public Information Officer Don Kunitomi of the county Fire Department. County lifeguards work under the Los Angeles County Fire Department, not the county Parks Department.
Kunitomi refused to tell the Weekly the name of the supervisor who placed the gag order on Canning. The secrecy within the L.A. County Lifeguard Service is so extensive — and disproportionate to the issue of a small Venice breakwater — that the Weekly cannot determine whether the orders to impose the blackball on a regular basis came from Los Angeles County Lifeguard Chief Mike Frazer or someone below him.
Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Deputy of Emergency Operations John Tripp, one of the three men authorized to speak or to delegate others to speak, was more helpful. He says the policy is unchanged from 2009: Surfing at the Breakwater is prohibited when too many swimmers and surfers use the area and lifeguards can no longer keep them safely separated.
But veteran surfers disagree with the county lifeguards' rationale.
One surfer pulling on a wet suit on a Friday morning, Michael Mettler, says the safety problems are caused in part because surfers are given too little space. “When [lifeguards] condense it, it becomes dangerous,” Mettler says. “They don't want to do traffic control” necessary to keep surfers and swimmers in their own areas. “It's too much work for them.” He feels it's not glamorous work for Venice lifeguards to spend time “blowing their whistle.”
Mettler points to three lesser Venice surf lines that lifeguards are keeping open nearby. “They can control all the other surf lines, the jetty and the pier, and they don't blackball them,” he says. “Why blackball the one place that has waves?”
Farther up the coast at busy and often-dangerous Zuma Beach, in the afternoons lifeguards hold open a stretch of ocean for surfers whenever they have to blackball the beach, which happens almost daily.
“We're trying to help them out, and give them a space,” says a county lifeguard there. A surfer himself, he understands the impact when surfboard fin meets swimmer skin. He says that at Zuma, holding a zone open for surfers is up to the lifeguards' discretion.
“It depends on how the day presents,” the lifeguard notes. “It's hard to make a standard on the ocean, 'cause every day it's changing. If it's super out-of-control [due to crowds or ocean conditions], we have to make it safe.” Yet he has trouble recalling the last time surfing was prohibited at Zuma, saying it was probably July 4 or 5.
Pressed by the Weekly to explain why surfers at Venice are blackballed, county spokesman Tripp blames the huge crowds at Venice Beach — but the crowds are no different from 2009. In fact, no county official could give the Weekly any reason to justify the consistent bans on surfing this year.
Jeff Ho, the iconic surfboard shaper and a founding father of Dogtown, who launched Zephyr Surfboards in nearby Santa Monica in the early 1970s, notes that many years ago the Breakwater “was hidden in a place that no one really went to or wanted to go to or even cared about as a surf spot. There would be a big south swell, there would be 'lefts' coming off the north side, and you'd be in the water with a couple of people.
“But now Venice is so populated. They took away the Venice Pavilion and the oil wells and you can see the ocean from the boardwalk. To control the situation, they've gone to blackballing the beach.” Many surfers understand the lifeguards' concerns about safety, but argue that their response is wrong.
Ho says it would be safer for swimmers if the county banned them from the Breakwater. “There are currents out [at the rocks] and there's a rip that will pull you out. And when you have tourists that aren't familiar with the ocean, they're going to have to somehow police that.”
Surfers' skills are better suited to the area, he and others say. “Put the swimmers down the beach somewhere else. The Breakwater should be a designated surfing area.”
But instead, surfer Greg Falk says, “The lifeguards currently encourage surfers to surf the north side of the Breakwater,” where the surfing isn't as good but surfers create a human buffer that keeps swimmers away from hazardous rocks and currents.
In essence, both men say the county is doing the opposite of what it does at Zuma. Says Falk, “The Breakwater is a natural resource … at its highest and best use when utilized by surfers.”