At 10 my friend David Schutz and I bought surfboards. I think our moms were sick of us riding homemade skim boards in the ditch and both of us coming in for dinner covered in oozy abrasions. Mine was a smashed up 5’11” yellowed Dale Dobson and his was a 6’1” green Petrillo. Beautiful. It was 1975, short boards hadn’t been around long, and every board had one fin. We sucked. But man, we had fun! My mom took us up to the beach at 47th all the time, and we’d stand in waist deep water and push into waves thinking we were superstars.
In 6th grade I went to a new school and met surfers that lived near me. We’d ride bikes up to 53rd and surf together for fun and for protection from the older, better, meaner surfers. Our friend group grew and we got better. There weren’t a lot of surfers around then and we knew most everyone by sight if not personally.
Being the 70’s there was this sort of hippy vibe to the whole surf scene. Lots of the older, hardcore guys worked jobs that they could ditch when the fickle Texas surf came up. A bunch of them worked at the Glassing Factory or Freestyle Fins. Both of those places were pretty tolerant if you took off for a month or two to go down to Mexico or farther on safari. They also closed down on days with surf and they’d all hit the water. Some of the best local surfers worked there and it was pretty humbling if you were out in the lineup when they all paddled out together.
One day I drifted out too far with the rip into the lineup and got in one of the real superstar’s way. I dove under and heard the boards crack. “YOU STUPID KOOK!” he yelled balling up his fist. “I was here first!” I yelled/stammered, my little tween voice cracking. The older surfer looked like he was going to smash my face for a minute, and then seemed to think better of pummeling an 11-year-old. Instead, he paddled off, a deep gash on his leg trailing blood (which he ignored and kept surfing). He turned, glared, and yelled, “GET OUT OF THE WATER AND GO HOME GROM!”
Now, 47 years later, I’m intimately familiar with all the rules I broke. The person on the wave has the right of way. The person closest to the curl has the right of way. The first person to stand up has the right of way. Beginners (“groms”) should stay away from the pier, the rip current, and the pack at the end. And in every surfing pack there’s at least one “alpha”. That guy or girl gets their choice of waves and should be shown respect at all times.
Surfing culture has changed as the sport has grown and become more mainstream. Its more inclusive and less territorial. It may have lost some of its mystique, but the waves are the same.