When I go surfing below the Golden Gate Bridge, my worries include shark attacks, hidden underwater boulders, and strong currents that could pull me into a shipping lane. But as long as I have my wits about me, I can reduce my odds of having to deal with those threats. There’s something way uglier there that scares me more: surf localism.
Fort Point—just “Fort” to locals—is a novelty wave located underneath the south end of the world’s most famous bridge. It’s a beautiful setting, so the demand for waves can quickly outpace the supply Mother Nature offers. And when that happens, the regulars at Fort get territorial, fast.
To counteract overcrowding, local surfers have a well-earned reputation for intimidating and belittling newcomers. In a short documentary on the surf break, one local reports seeing hundreds of violent incidents in the water in his 30 years of surfing there, including broken boards and fins, beatings, and attempted drownings. There has only been one conviction, though: In 2003, three surfers at Fort assaulted a Berkeley resident during a spring afternoon session. They held him underwater, broke his nose, and left a gash in his eye that required eight stitches. None of them received jail time.
“I have friends who are really good surfers, very knowledgeable, surfing forever, would not go out and make idiots of themselves, and they won’t surf Fort Point,” says Steve Hawk, former editor of Surfer magazine (and older brother of the skateboarder Tony Hawk). “I’ve never surfed Fort Point, because you just know those guys are dicks…you stay away from those guys because they have this reputation of being jerks, no matter what you do.”
This standoff between Bay Area locals and newcomers has acquired a particular resonance lately, because there’s a somewhat similar struggle ensuing on dry land nearby. San Francisco has become a case study in the impacts of gentrification, as well-compensated tech industry workers have surged into the city, often from other areas. The influx of newcomers has transformed the city’s character, driving up prices and driving away longtime residents. The city is grappling with a critical shortage of affordable housing: Between 2010 and 2015, the number of jobs created in San Francisco outnumbered the number of houses built by a ratio of more than eight to one. In the new, gentrified City by the Bay, the tech sector and its riches reign supreme. But there’s one place, at least, where its powers are limited: the ocean.
Fort Point breaks along a seawall that protects its namesake, a military installation built during the Gold Rush to defend San Francisco Bay from foreign attacks. The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge initially included the demolition of the building, but the bridge’s chief engineer, Joseph Strauss, decided instead to build an arch over it. Fort Point acted as a last line of defense from submarine attacks during World War II before it transitioned from a military stronghold to a National Historic Site in 1970; it remains a cornerstone of San Francisco’s past.
Thanks to the California Coastal Act, the vast majority of the state’s beaches must be publicly accessible. The first surfers at Fort were trespassing on military land, but now anyone can paddle out to the lineup, as long as they have the skills and the confidence. “What’s kind of amazing about surfing is also terrible about surfing: It’s unregulated,” says Matt Warshaw, another previous head editor at Surfer and current curator of the Encyclopedia of Surfing. “It’s just people stepping out into the wild, outside. There’s no one out there directing things, so you work it out yourselves.”
In this ungoverned polity, the locals are the alphas. “There’s people for whom that’s the most important thing to them, sort of like gang turf or something. They get to rule,” Warshaw says. “They’re in charge out there in a way that they’re not in charge anywhere else in their lives.”
While this has always been true, it’s especially striking now, because the water is one of the few places left where longtime residents still have a leg up on the new order of affluent San Franciscans. Absent their fierce territorial displays, Fort locals would be swiftly overrun by outsiders from every corner of San Francisco and the rest of the Greater Bay Area. The pecking order at Fort isn’t reliant on socioeconomic statuses or job titles; instead, it’s based on knowledge, ability, ego, and a group of friends to back you up.
William Finnegan’s two-part New Yorker story, “Playing Doc’s Games,” a detailed look into the San Francisco surf scene in the 1980s, captures this dynamic well. Finnegan recounts a trip he took to Fuller’s Beach in Big Sur, an unincorporated stretch of wilderness just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, with the eponymous subject, Doc Renneker. As Finnegan paddled out to the lineup, he noticed that everyone else knew each other, and “they just weren’t about to let anybody they didn’t know have any waves if they could help it.”
This me-first surf-NIMBY mentality creates a selfishness that permeates popular breaks everywhere (forget the zen, chill aesthetic that most pop-culture representations of surfing exude). Sometimes, this behavior is warranted. Visiting surfers rarely have a good grasp of the dynamics of a wave, and Fort breaks very close to the boulder-strewn seawall. A mistake by an outsider can lead to a local getting washed into the rocks. Safety is an issue at any surf spot, and sometimes the only way to get a point across in a critical situation is to yell, threaten, and be forceful with the message.
Photo by Jack Persons/CityLab.
But mostly, this is just people trying to call dibs. For every wave that newcomer rides, there is one less wave to ride for a Fort local. “Just about every bad thing in surf comes from people feeling that they’re not getting their fair share of waves,” Warshaw says. “If people were getting enough waves, none of that would matter.”
As in booming cities, popularity fuels the fears of displacement. According to a study by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, the number of surfers in the United States increased from 1.8 million in 2004 to 2.6 million in 2016. While its numbers grow, technology improvements in equipment and forecasting have removed barriers to access surfing. Crowds get noticeably heavier on days with great conditions at spots in San Francisco, thanks to websites like Surfline and Magicseaweed. Forecasters can predict swells around the world more than two weeks in advance, giving out-of-towners ample time to make plans.
“You forget how distant and removed people were in the ’70s and ’80s. Not everybody knew everything. Everybody knows everything now,” says Ben Marcus, longtime surf journalist and author. “We didn’t know when swells were coming back then, we went by sound and by smell. You lie in your bed and you hear it and you figure it out.”
Before the internet, the best way to find out whether the conditions were optimal in San Francisco was to call Wise Surfboards, a local shop near the beach. There wasn’t any science to it though; the recording told the caller what the waves looked like earlier that day. This advantaged locals living near the beach, who only had to drive a few minutes to check the conditions, over East Bay or Marin residents. In the age of smartphones, anyone from anywhere can check the forecast days in advance and guarantee themselves a great session.
The culture of instant gratification has made its way into the water, as luxury surfing clubs and high-end surfboard rental programs have started to build a market in the Bay Area. It’s Silicon Valley solutionism at its finest. “[Newer surfers] want to go down and have a quick surf, and get a couple of good waves, and go back to their normal life,” says Andy Olive, a 38-year-old surfer who worked at Wise in the 1990s. “Which is fine, but if you think about Fort Point, no one takes the time to understand who’s actually putting in the hard work there, or who’s been surfing there for 40 years.”
And it’s not just the waves these locals care about: They connect with the place in a way outsiders cannot. It’s home, and everyone else is intruding. And while their defensive techniques may be less-than-civil, they symbolize a fight bigger than two surfers and one wave. They represent the protective nature of every longtime resident toward their city and its past.
And they have succeeded. Fort Point is Old San Francisco’s Alamo: This is the last stand, and so far, the locals have held off the attackers.
Other efforts by locals to head off the effects of gentrification have been spectacular and polarizing, but ultimately ineffective. In the Bay Area, protesters famously tried to intimidate and scare tech companies away, to no avail. Such efforts make headlines, but seem to do little to slow neighborhood change. Defending a neighborhood, or a city, may be a lot harder than defending a beach. But there may be lessons for both newcomers and natives in the battle over the waves of Fort Point.
In surfing, when outsiders don’t make the effort to forge connection to the established community, or learn to respect the decades of culture and history that precede them, they are likely to get bounced off the beach. Getting to know locals is the best way to gain credibility in the lineup, and outsiders open to learning and watching at Fort will eventually earn respect in return.
This might mean going whole sessions without catching any waves. But that patience and deference towards established residents will ultimately be rewarded.
City leaders have some things to learn from these battles between surfers, if they want to offset the effects of gentrification. As less-affluent residents get priced out and vanish, so too do their businesses and cultures; in turn the city’s vibrant, colorful personality becomes tech-washed. Rather than imposing their own cultures and influences, every inhabitant of San Francisco, old and new, should embrace the established histories and characters of their respective neighborhoods. As long as elected officials continue to ignore the economic drivers of gentrification, San Franciscans are likely to take matters into their own hands to resist its consequences.
By the same token, the surfers of Fort Point could definitely learn a few things about how to be a more inclusive and welcoming community, even in the face of displacement anxieties. To see what that might look like, drive an hour south down the coast and you’ll reach Half Moon Bay, a sleepy, unassuming harbor town that’s best known for its Christmas trees farms and its surf spot, Mavericks, home to some of the biggest waves in the world. But Steve Hawk says that there’s no tension between the various surfer communities in Half Moon Bay. There, the older generation has become more peaceful as they’ve aged and introduced their children to surfing.
“You teach by example,” says Hawk, “so if a kid sees his father being polite to a stranger, then they’re more likely to follow suit.”
The town has a robust surf club that middle and high school students take part in. Parents teach, kids learn and compete, and a culture of respect grows out of the partnership. This, partnered with a general indifference to outsiders (the town’s isolated location along the coast attracts less visitors than San Francisco and Santa Cruz) has created a much more inclusive atmosphere. As Hawk puts it, “There’s just no vibing around here.”
If San Francisco wants to follow that kind of a model, the most critical changes for Fort Point will have to come from the top of its food chain. The creation of a historical society of surfing, curated by local legends, would be a great platform to impart proper etiquette and established norms. It could also make the surf community more accessible for everyone, newcomers included. On a broader scale, all San Franciscans could use more cultural awareness about their city and the many communities that span its diverse neighborhoods and generations. Such collaboration could help ease the stressors gentrification creates.
It’s also possible that, for now, San Francisco is just too polarized—and too gentrified—for all these sides to truly find common ground. The old guard and the new era might never get along. But even if that’s the case, then everyone should, at the bare minimum, try to follow Hawk’s golden rule, both in and out of the water.
“My whole thing is: Just don’t be a dick. Don’t be a dick and everything will be fine.”