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Surf And Turf

In San Diego’s surfing turf wars, tempers heat up as the waves become more crowded. Are the skirmishes a solution or a symptom?

Photo by Anthony Ghiglia

I'm not violent, but I have had some times where we’ve had to do some breath-holding exercises, me and another guy," deadpans Nate Cintas. "That's just part of it."

Part of waterboarding? No. Part of surfing? Yes—if you surf at Cintas’ spot at Sunset Cliffs and don’t obey the locals’ rules.

Cintas, known to many as Irate Nate, has for years been one of the heaviest enforcers at his home break—a wave surf magazines won’t run photos of, much less mention—solid, powerful, with close-cropped hair and in great shape for a man in his 40s. Born and raised less than a mile from the Cliffs, he’s a local in every sense of the word. When Cintas talks about breath-holding exercises with other surfers, you get the feeling he’s not the one holding his breath.

It doesn’t stop with being held underwater. How does surfing—which, to an outsider, means simply riding waves toward shore, then repeating—reconcile throwing rocks at “kooks” before they enter the water, cutting them off, breaking fins, harassing, drawing blood or vandalizing property?

For years, locals have fiercely protected what’s theirs—or what they perceive as theirs—from Sunset Cliffs to the South Mission Beach jetty to La Jolla’s many reefs. Some contend this at-times-brutal defense maintains safety in the water and preserves the integrity of surfing against those who endanger others or don’t abide by the implicit rules.

In essence, localism keeps people in check. Whether novices are surfing a wave beyond their abilities or seasoned experts are showing contempt for the few hard-and-fast rules of surfing, localism is the tribal enforcement of order. Even world-famous surfers like Gerry Lopez and Sunny Garcia were straightened out by locals, according to San Diego surfing lore, when they visited our shores and didn’t respect the rules. And while many say localism is less violent than in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, it lives on well into the 21st century.

“Localism, in general, isn’t looked at as a good thing,” says Cintas. “If people better understood it, they might respect it and what it serves. There’s definitely some bad stuff about it—the hostility part—but in general, localism’s misunderstood.

“There’s etiquette in any sport,” he says. “If you’ve ever golfed, when it’s time to tee off and someone walks up and throws down their tees in front of you and assumes they’re ahead of you, that would be
a little disrespectful and invasive. And it wouldn’t follow the etiquette of golf.”

Paradoxically, a sport as free and expressive as surfing needs rules, now more than ever. Think about all the variables: powerful, breaking waves; rocky seafloor; pointed, fiberglass-encased boards slicing through the water at 20 miles per hour; adrenal glands and neural synapses in overdrive. In this kinetic clash of elements, rules are a must. (See sidebar.)

In 1981, Jack Hamlin, a third-generation O.B.cian and former cop, made one of the first surfing-related arrests in San Diego County. A surfer at Ocean Beach was cut off by a beginner. On the next wave, after mowing down the beginner, he then jumped off his surfboard, beat the kid unconscious and left him floating facedown.

“The guy admitted to it,” says Hamlin. “He said, ‘Yeah—the kook cut me off. He deserved it.’ The lifeguard had to pull the kid out of the water, or he would have drowned.”

The same year, a longtime Carlsbad resident was charged with assault with a deadly weapon after intentionally using his surfboard to spear another surfer who dropped in on him at Warm Water Jetty. He claimed that because he was a Carlsbad local, he’d spear anyone who cut him off.

And in Del Mar in 1994, after inviting a surfer he’d cut off onto the beach to calm him down and settle things, a 48-year-old man suffered a broken pelvis and ribs and lacerated liver, in front of his 12-year-old son, at the hands of a 27-year-old karate expert—encouraged, blow-by-blow, by his martial-arts-teacher uncle nearby.

It’s a small sampling of incidents that are reported. Most aren’t.

To his credit, Cintas—who, on land, is funny, charming and gracious—says he’s never had any legal trouble. At times, he doesn’t have to lift a finger.

“They know Irate Nate and will come right up next to me,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Come on. Cut me off. I dare you.’ I say, ‘I don’t have to cut you off,’ and I tell every local in the water, ‘This guy’s blackballed.’ Game over.”

Spending time with Cintas, you learn he’s big on rules, order and personal responsibility. His surf shop, Point Loma Boardroom, is meticulous, its walls adorned by old photos that serve as a sort of surfing history of Point Loma. There’s less accountability in society these days, he says; kids, especially those who attend Point Loma Nazarene University above Sunset Cliffs, have too much entitlement and too little respect.

The Irate Nate character was forged at an early age, in the ocean below his beloved cliffs. “I truly was a total jerk in the water for a long time,” Cintas says. “My first bout with it was when an older guy, a ­local, barked at me in the water. I was maybe 14, and one of the [other] locals said, ‘Paddle up to that guy and spit in his face. If he does anything, I will kill him.’ Then it was ‘If you want waves out here, you have to earn your keep by cutting off kooks.’”

Enforcement of his favorite wave at Sunset Cliffs—which means having a word with anyone who shows up with a leash or a colored wetsuit, who brings a crowd, who doesn’t share waves or doesn’t defer to locals—is, to him, a matter of preserving an area he holds sacred. He reminisces about sneaking off to surf there as a young kid without his mother’s approval; of teaching his son, now a pro-am, to surf when he was 18 months old; of scattering the ashes of friends during ceremonial paddle-outs; of participating in beach cleanups. He says he’s preserving a legacy for his children and all those who grow up along the Cliffs.

About a year ago, he says, a couple of close friends approached Cintas after a surf session, asking, “‘Are you actually having fun? Sure, you kicked six guys out of the water today. But was it fun? Because you’re screaming at them. You’re grabbing them. You’re threatening them. Does that define fun for you?’”

Sea Change

Much as surfing exploded in the ’60s—celebrated, however inaccurately, in Gidget flicks and Beach Boys tunes—the past decade has seen unprecedented growth due to the industry’s marketing power, a more visible professional tour and the gentrification and increasing development of coastal areas.

Surfers of previous generations say they grew up with more reverence for the sport. As kids, they revered local heroes and surfing-movie icons. In school, surfers didn’t letter in three other sports. They worked hard to earn respect and a spot in the lineup. To paraphrase Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Jeff Spicoli, surfing wasn’t a sport, it was a way of life.

“Surfers were just counterculture,” says Jeff Sternberg, a P.B. Point local. “We were counter-anything. We didn’t like the jocks. We ­didn’t like the cheerleaders. When you signed up to be a surfer, you signed up to be in a certain class of people—your road was paved, and that was it. You were gonna spend your days and weekends looking for gas money to get to the beach, and everything that followed was gonna be all about being a surfer. It was a commitment to a lifestyle. And we used to get thrashed by the older guys. I’ve been stuffed in trashcans at the beach. It was rough, and there were fights, drinking, drugs, hot chicks—and that’s what it was about.”

Nearly 500,000 more people nationwide took to the water last year than during the previous one, according to an annual survey by industry analyst Board-Trac. Bigger, easier boards for beginners and older surfers, wetsuit technology that allows people to surf year-round, stand-up paddle boards—all mean easier access to a finite resource: quality waves.

Windansea local Devon Howard, manager of Cardiff’s Patagonia surf shop, says surfing media for years “put into our minds that the idea of surfing was about being alone and into yourself, that it’s an individualistic endeavor.” Take one look at 15 people paddling for a wave at Pacific Beach on a summer day, and you realize the current absurd­ity of this notion.

“It’s tough for people who’ve been surfing a long time to live alongside folks who aren’t necessarily interested in learning traditions and culture,” says Howard. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait till I was one of those guys who don’t get dropped in on, who get the respect. My generation got screwed because we paid our dues and we actually cared when we were kids. And now we have young kids that yell at us, or say, ‘Who the hell are you?’ It’s total disregard. It’s a bit of a free-for-all.”

 The New Localism?

Although Cintas works hard to keep a lock on his wave, he contends he earned the right to hold the key in the same way Sternberg, Howard and others say they’ve paid their dues. Cintas spent his first 10 years inside the break, catching scraps that surfers outside would pass up.

But he’s had it far worse. Online mes­sage boards are filled with hateful remarks about him. Cintas concedes he’s possibly lost some business over his actions in the water. In his previous career as a real estate agent, one of his Point Loma billboards (picturing him surfing) was severely vandalized, with “kook” written all over it and his photo sodomized by graffiti phalluses. Then there was the time somebody posted an ad on Craigslist advertising “Surf [Sunset Cliffs] with Nate for $1,” and Cintas would return to his car after a crowded session to find dollar bills under his windshield wipers. Or occasionally, his window plastered with spit. Conversely, he says he gets letters from parents who thank him for standing up for their child who’d been harassed by an older surfer.

Cintas has taken steps in the past year to reform. “There’s something definitely so addictive about surfing that there’s never enough waves,” he says. “Being an obsessive and compulsive person and acknowledging that, it really comes down to: How long do I have to feed my ego? Why do I always have to have the best wave of the day? And when’s it enough? There’s gotta be a balance. And then a big motivator was being a better role model. It’s never good for everybody to look at you as a jerk in the water.”

Under the Windansea shack on a calm, cloudy morning, University of San Diego professor Jerome Hall watches the uncrowded session. “Looking out here, do you realistically think that 10 years from now there will be fewer surfers?” he asks. “No. So how are we gonna handle this? Because we’re not gonna limit the number of people, and technology is democratizing everything. More people are going to be getting in the water. Are we gonna beat ’em all up? Are you gonna make it miserable for everyone?”

Hall, who bears a passing resemblance to a Big Lebowski–era Jeff Bridges, offers this strategy: “You don’t need to paddle over to someone and say, ‘You do that again, I’m gonna kick your ass.’ You paddle over to someone and say, ‘That’s not the way we do things here. That’s dangerous, and this is not a threat, but you may be the one that gets hurt. So let’s rethink this, and I tell you what: You take the next wave. And I’ll take the one after that.’”

Hall also reveres local surfing and shaping legend Skip Frye, who, when surfing, keeps to himself, quietly slips away to another wave when it gets crowded and picks up a piece of trash on the way back to his car. “He does it because that’s what a king does—he takes care of his kingdom,” Hall says, a reference to the fact that surfing was the sport of kings in pre-colonial Hawaii.

The modest Frye would never accept such a title, however appropriate. But it’s true that this patriarch of San Diego surfing—one look at his workspace, loaded with iconic photos, surfing mementos and dozens of his sought-after boards, suggests there’s no better label—simply doesn’t let crowds, greedy surfers or novices bother him.

“A lot of people just surf a certain break—that’s their place,” says the 68-year-old Pacific Beach native. “They won’t venture around. At the Cliffs, there’s like 20 breaks! I ride bigger boards, so I just paddle break to break.”

Frye also says he makes it a point to show enthusiasm for everybody in the water and give novices pointers, rather than yell or fight with them—the “hoot a kook” philosophy. “I just find things go better if you share anyhow, you know?” he says. “I’ve actually seen waves stop when the vibe got bad. And then I’ve seen the opposite, where people were sharing, hooting each other on in the aloha spirit, and the waves just got better and better.”

The best surfers can hope for, according to Howard, was detailed in legendary Australian surfer Nat Young’s book Surf Rage, penned in the hospital after the man nicknamed “the Animal” was severely beaten and required facial reconstructive surgery. Among the book’s suggested solutions for avoiding violence, one of the most innovative is the posting of signs at every surf break outlining surfing’s universal etiquette.

For years, surfers have, for better or worse, one way or another, regulated themselves. And they’re likely to want to keep it that way. “We don’t want the lifeguards or the police doing it for us,” says Howard. “We just have to hope that common sense will prevail.”

Common sense, as well as remembering why surfers ultimately do what they do, summed up by Frye: “To me, the best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun.”

    The Rulebook

  • The surfer nearest the peak of the wave has priority.
  • Fellow surfers are not to be dropped in on or cut off under any circumstances.
  • Stay out of the way of others.
  • Don’t take all the waves for yourself.
  • Show respect for and learn from those with better ability, pedigree or local knowledge.

 

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