That was then, this is then–Why Lunada Bay never left the ’70s

August 11, 2016 § 25 Comments

Lunada Bay is located in the heart of the Palos Verdes peninsula, which is itself ground zero for the war on cyclists. But you’ll be surprised to know that we have all been here before. This amazing tale of Lunada Bay from a man who grew up here sheds light on the forces at play in gripping, powerful words that you won’t soon forget.

“That was Then, This is Then — Why Lunada Bay Never Left the ’70s”


With all the media coverage of late regarding the Lunada Bay lawsuit and the ongoing saga of the Bay Boys’ gang-like territorialism over “their” surf spot and broader community, I thought I would offer up an insider’s purview on the dynamic at play—shared through an archetypal anecdote of Bay Boy bad behavior.

It happened on a casual winter day in 1983 while my friend and I were on the southern section of the open cliffs in Palos Verdes that line Lunada Bay, checking the waves from a “safe spot” on the Avalanche side of the bay that wasn’t usually patrolled by the Bay Boys. There was a younger kid, about thirteen years old, sitting along the edge of the cliff near us with his unwaxed, brand new board straddling his knees.

We didn’t think much about him except we noted that his board wasn’t from one of the local shapers, but rather from a South Bay shaper, which the kid obviously didn’t know was like wearing a blue bandanna to a Bloods BBQ. It was just the three of us checking out the surf at the Bay, when out of nowhere came a Bay Boy we only knew as “Jeff,” a feeble surfer usually looking to compensate, who walked past us in that classic Bay Boy style—low hanging pants, flannel shirt, Ray-Bans and the duck-like shuffle affectedly conveying some sort of street cred that he thought might belie his (family’s) wealth.

With a façade of genuine caring, Jeff walked right up to the kid and said in the nicest way, “New board, huh?” The kid replied with a smile, proud of his new stick. Jeff said, “Lemme check it out,” and the kid easily handed it over to this seemingly innocuous character, then began answering the soft serve of questions Jeff delivered as the board was genuinely inspected in its every detail.

My friend and I were caught off guard by this surreal interaction. It seemed so incongruous with everything we had ever witnessed growing up around this surf spot, especially with this Jeff character, who was notoriously pernicious to all but fellow Bay Boys. We pretended to talk to one another while listening to the kid answer the questions. “Who shaped the board?” “How thick is it?” “It’s small, huh?” “Why the double wings?” “What’s with the swallowtail?” “Where are you from?”

And then it happened.

Jeff began to hand the board back to the kid, but with one smooth lunge of devotion to everything his little mind and body aspired to be, the new board went hurling off the steep and tall cliff, swirling and twirling, whooping and whirling, briefly, almost miraculously defying gravity on its way to a fate usually reserved for the most battered and yellowed of old boards.

All four of us watched for what seemed like a full minute as the board unraveled its spectacular dance of death, but the instant it was out of sight, Jeff turned to the kid and said, “Get the fuck out of here and don’t ever come back.”

The kid mustered a “You dick!” before he began visibly weeping, as Jeff turned to us, the only audience he had, chuckling oddly to himself as if he had just killed a rattlesnake.

Looking back, what was most noteworthy about the incident was the style in which it was perpetrated—like some well-rehearsed routine executed with flair, pomposity, and disdain, the Machiavellian nature of the act overshadowing its cowardly criminality and symbolizing the essence of the Bay Boy existence. It was a unique affront, in that moment, in that person, in that subculture, which was lost in time but still intact in some odd radioactive way, with a half-life that radiated intensity in a self-possessed fashion with self-preservation at its nucleus.

Jeff wasn’t afraid the kid was going to surf the Bay, not that day.  Jeff’s act had a much deeper, more sentimental meaning behind it, besides making him feel taller and more potent. It was about preservation of the place, the people, the feelings, and the fraternal magic. It was about keeping things the same, about holding onto the past and the purity of surfing Palos Verdes when things had been much more simple. That kid, with his youthful exuberance and new board, was symbolic to Jeff of everything he and every other Bay Boy feared, that the newness of the modern, outside world could take it all away.

The reality that encased the PV surfer during the ’70s—the spectacle of Lunada Bay and its Bay Boys, their codes, nicknames, personalities, and demeanors—seemed to carry with it an incredible, collective, unspoken desire to hold onto something nostalgic. It was as if the Bay Boys’ customs, rites and rituals, clothes and attitudes, could half-retrieve the magic of the early days. Maybe by wearing black wetsuits, riding outdated white boards, going leashless, shunning the new, listening to the Stones or The Who or The Dead, they could conjure it all back to life. The Bay Boys were nothing more than sentimental creatures looking to hold onto something precious, a wave, a feeling, a moment, a subculture, themselves, their parents’ money.

Like the gangs that developed in East Los Angeles during mid-century, the Bay Boys were born from of a confluence of geography, sociology, and economic factors. Though they weren’t born out of repression, they were born out of possession. For all intents and purposes their parents owned the cliffs and, more importantly, the surf spots below them, which were aplenty and amazingly good during the winter months. They banded together to preserve their status quo because they could do it if they could keep the outside world off of their little island. Oddly enough, PV used to be an island; the channel between it and the mainland eventually silted up to form the Los Angeles Basin.

The Bay Boys were merely a reflection of the larger Lunada Bay culture, which has been informed by a long-held self-entitlement of the denizens of this bucolic yet small-minded community, and this includes surfers and non-surfers alike. They don’t want to share their waves, parks, roads, or even their sunset views with outsiders. Their tenets have been cultivated by an “it’s mine” mentality and by the companion idea of preserving it for themselves, and they have taken their preservation to stylistically interesting extremes.

Like real gangs, the Bay Boys have thrived on intimidation and notoriety. Many of their younger and more insecure members find cowardly vandalism or violence glamorous or necessary in order to maintain their individual status within the lineup. Like most groups, they have depended upon both individual and group participation in criminal activity that includes actual theft of the state’s coastline by constructing an illegal structure there and preventing anyone but themselves and their friends from using it.

Unlike legitimate groups or organizations, there hasn’t ever been a single identified leader. In fact, those at the top are the least likely to be involved in anything negative, leaving the dirty work for those on the lower rungs of the pecking order, spurred on by the unscrupulous members’ directives. Like other gangs, the Bay Boys have had their own hallmarks of identity: The clothes, the vehicles, the sunglasses, the stares, the music, the walk, the protocols, the P’s and Q’s. In the water, the style has been even more apparent. Besides the white boards and black wetsuits, there is a litany of behavior that comprises their style, all with an intended purpose, a saving grace, that with critical mass and less-than-critical thinking could preserve the Bay for all time for a select few who would somehow never never grow old, or grow up.

Surfing in PV was and still is largely controlled by the Bay Boys, whose ethos was formed in the sixties but found purchase in the seventies. Ever since, PV has been caught in a time warp of out-of-date sensibilities that keep it purposefully behind the times. While dramatic board advances were being made off the hill, the few PV shapers kept to their insular world, content to stick to their own ways. Even though the leash was being widely produced by the mid-seventies, they were largely unused the entire decade among PV surfers because, you know, leashes were for kooks.

While the rest of the surfing world was growing in new ways, the Bay Boys maintained their integral mores: Surfing longer, more gunny boards than necessary, swimming into the rocks to gather their leashless, battered boards, riding waves with a style that hearkened back to earlier decades, but failing to push the performance extremes of the envelope they had intentionally sealed themselves into.

Some would argue the Bay Boys pushed each other and grew their skills over the years, particularly through summer sojourns to Puerto Escondido, but somehow they managed to keep the outside world away from the Bay. It seems their own myopic efforts of not sharing managed to keep their dream alive. That is until now, as a number of incidents have drawn the attention of international media and ultimately the Coastal Commission, most compellingly represented in a pair of federal class action lawsuits targeting their gang activities.

Even today, just as it was in the ’70s, on the surface Lunada Bay is a serene, beautiful, enchanting place that’s home to one of the best big wave spots on the California coast, with slight crowds who share waves, take turns, patrol the cliffs, and socialize together.

But upon closer inspection, it’s easy to discern the sad tension, even angst, which permeates the fabric of the Bay Boys’ culture. Most would agree that the Bay Boys ride boards that are too big in a style that’s antiquated, that their rituals are archaic and their conduct is criminal. It’s all true.

But through it all, they’ve managed to stop time, to hold onto to something precious and preserve both the feeling and the place, and they’ve done it with a style all their own, and with a criminality that not only these adult Boys endorse, but that has been abetted by local law enforcement and the broader community for decades.

It’s a slice of paradise in the Wild West, a Technicolor vision of the California Dream, hidden right in the heart of teeming Los Angeles. And no, you can’t have any. Don’t you even dare look.



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