The Mesmerizing Mystique of Malibu

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Boards stacked against the wall

For many years, even after I became addicted to the act of riding waves, I thought Malibu was a bit cliche. Yes, of course, it was synonymous with surfing and surf culture. Even those who didn’t surf automatically associated Malibu with surfing. I was happy with the waves in San Diego, and after I found my “secret spot” (as all my surf buddies like to call it), I felt that no wave could be better than a reef/point break in a small North San Diego county town…birthplace to many famous surfers…and best on a winter North swell.

I never imagined that I would surf in contests. Actually I never imagined to surf at all. I was a pretty late bloomer compared to a lot of my friends who grew up in Southern California and took to surfing when they were young kids or teens. A Philly girl who didn’t know how to swim until I was 14, I had no idea how to swim in the ocean until I was 26 when I finally made my way out to California. I never learned how to surf until I was 27. Old! And I thought surfers were a bunch of maniacs like Bill and Ted who smoked pot all the time, slurring about their most excellent adventure. Well, surfers really are a bunch of maniacs, but not all of us smoke pot. But I can say that all of us are just addicted to…surfing!

Many years ago, before marriage and kids, a local surf club member asked if I would be interested in competing for them in a Malibu contest. They needed folks and by then, I knew enough about Malibu to be curious. Sure, I said. And then, after surfing there and catching a wave that felt as if it was machine-made — pitch perfect — I finally realized why people are so drawn to Malibu. Forget about the history for a moment…Gidget, Beach Boys, even Mickey Dora. Well, maybe you can’t forget about Dora. He still remains (for me at least) the epitome of Malibu. Like the waves themselves, Dora seemed to capture the essence of the place — graceful, tricky, enticing, and rebellious, all at the same time.

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Early morning in Malibu

There really is something inexpressibly mesmerizing about this place. Maybe it is the drive up Pacific Coast Highway, the way the hills lean against the sky, and finally catching the glimpse of a small point of land jutting into the vast turquoise ocean, just past the Malibu Pier. Maybe it is seeing how perfectly the waves stack up behind each other from First Point, even on a small day. And to surf Malibu with only five other people? Who wouldn’t? From then on, I was hooked.

I’ve surfed well in contests elsewhere (meaning that I’ve been lucky enough to place in the finals and take home a trophy), but Malibu has always eluded me. This year, I finally did well enough to advance past the first heat and surf in the semi-finals. It seemed a bit ironic that, as easy as a Malibu wave seems to noseride, it also has given me the most difficulty. The wave itself is fast, tricky in that it sections in places…unless you have surfed there all the time and know the wave to pick…then you can catch the outside bomb, speed through the section and make it all the way through to the beach near the pier.

MSA 2015

When someone in the next heat doesn’t realize you’ve made it through the section

The Call to the Wall contest has been held for 25 years, and I went up there this past weekend. I even sacrificed yoga practice to prepare for it. I took Friday off and intended to drive up there in mid morning after yoga practice. But at 1:30 am in the morning, I awoke with a start and couldn’t go back to sleep. Images of clogged freeways through LA on 405 flashed through my brain. I decided that I would drink my coffee now, and race up through LA to Malibu for a dawn patrol session while the time was right. It was a wise decision and it seemed as if my body automatically knew what it needed to do. I left the house at 3:30, and arrived at First Point by 5am in the morning. The sky was still dark, and I even found a space in the small lot — first time ever for me! By now, the lot was almost full with campers and pick up trucks with folks who have already claimed their spot for the contest, and cars and campers lined the Pacific Coast Highway as well.

There are separate parts of Malibu. First Point is the most well known spot, where the waves break perfectly from the inside point and peel slowly towards the pier. Second Point is about a quarter mile North — faster, punchier, and best on a shortboard. A bit further north, Third Point ends just south of the rocks, and totally dumping on the sand bar. Folks who surf there seem to be those who like a lot of punishment or are beginners on foamboards, and cannot find a place in Second or First Point.

The scene at the lot was something else too. You have the locals who go there everyday, and then you have outsiders like me who surf there maybe twice a year for contests. Vagrants wandered around, and some hoped for a chance to fill a spot if a surf team was missing a member. The pale brick wall with the dirty bathrooms was stacked with boards in the bright sunlight. Kids, groms, adults wandered about…some were drunk, some skateboarded haphazardly on the sidewalk, and some just stared at the waves. A lot of folks bought the most delicious beef hotdogs at a flimsy concession cart perched by the wall. With the contest, tents were perched up along the perimeter of the beach. The pier maintained its graceful distance from the menagerie of surfers, onlookers, and wanderers among the hot sand.

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Contest tents

When I paddled out at 6 am, there were already at least 25 folks in the water — pretty crowded by my home break standards. I had been warned that people will drop in on you, that there are no rules, and to be prepared for a brutal onslaught. This is true. By around 8am on a Friday morning, there were probably close to 80 folks in the water. It was a glassy day with only 2-3 foot waves, with about 7-8 folks on each one. Because the wave sectioned at different parts, there were spots where you can take off even if there was someone else already on the wave. But…God forbid if you chose the wrong person to drop in on! The art of riding a wave at Malibu became more the art of knowing how and when to drop in…because if you followed the “rules” and didn’t drop in or snake someone, you would NEVER catch a wave.

The contest started on Saturday; I did well in my first heat, placing first — unheard of for me at this spot! Of course I got lucky…there were waves and I happened to be in the right spot. There can be a bit of randomness in surf contests — you have only 15 minutes to catch your quota of waves. Most contests say 6 wave maximum and your best 3 count. With Malibu, it is a 5 wave maximum and your best 2 count. Having practiced on Friday and Saturday (early before the heats began) helped me, I think. After all these years, I felt I like I finally had some of this dialed in:

  • Drive up early to LA, skip the stressful traffic…early means between 2-4am. Which means you need to wake up around 1 or 1:30, have your coffee or tea, do your bathroom routine, and drive. I made record time driving up to LA from San Diego — 1.5 hours.
  • Arrive a day before and not on the day of the contest, so that you don’t have to panic about finding a spot before your heat begins!!
  • Some folks camp in the lot, but I need a clean bathroom and a quiet place to sleep. So I booked a room at the Good Nite Inn in Calabasas.
  • Arrive super early so that you can find a good spot to park, and carry that heavy longboard to your tent before the heats begin.
  • Surf as early as you can…even then, you will fight at least 20 other people for waves before the sky begins to lighten.

But like I said, surf contests were random. On Sunday, I slept in and didn’t have time to surf early in the morning. Maybe I got over-confident from winning my first heat the day before. I counted again on my strategy of catching the inside mellow waves, and then going for the bigger set waves with my remaining time in the heat. However, my plan didn’t come through. I caught only one good wave that was long enough for a nose ride; the rest closed out. I finished last in my heat.

This was sad for sure; I felt my heart drop down to the pit of my stomach when I finally got the standing scores. But at the same time, I was struck by the kindness and warmth of some of the other surfers. As in yoga, surfing humbled me, but it was always kindness that lifted my heart back up. There were a great deal of incredibly talented surfers out there, who have been surfing nearly their whole lives…but the ones who impressed me the most weren’t those who got the longest noserides or the best maneuvers…they were ones who always had that smile on their faces, and shared the stoke of surfing with you, whether you were good, bad, or somewhere in between. That is the ideal that I will strive for. And the best part was also being able to laugh and share with friends…ones that you’ve known for a while, or new ones that you happen to make just because you’ve spent so much time there over the weekend.

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The dream of Malibu

Now I am back home. Even so, I keep on replaying in my mind those perfect, glassy waves which peeled slowly down the point, and sharing them with only five other people instead of 105 folks. The way the wave sped up and making it through the section. That glassy steep wall and the speed I felt beneath my body, stepping carefully at the nose and inching those five toes over (maybe in my next life I can get ten over). Feeling the incredible thrill of being able perch up there for a few brief seconds. Malibu is a bit like a dream, and perhaps that is its mystique. It somehow touches or fulfills the dream of surfing that we all carry in our hearts, young or old, good or beginner, big or small, man or woman. And it touches a dream that we will always carry with us.

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