The Malibu Theme Park
(Published in “Surfer Magazine”, November 1997)
Twenty yards out a dark fin broke the surface. I couldn’t see what it was, but it was moving some water, and heading right for me. Then it submerged.
It was bad enough that I had to resort to night surfing in my quest for some solitude at Malibu. Shooting stars and police searchlights are hardly what comes to mind when you think of a summer surf session, but with all the flat spells and fog, I was beginning to wonder if summer still made a stop here at all. Now I’d missed the last wave of the set, and listening to my friends’ hoots fading towards the beach, sitting alone gaping down into the cool blackness, awaiting a glint of teeth, I tried to remember one very important detail of local ichthyology: Does Malibu have sharks?
The Chumash Indians called the area Humaliwu, meaning “the surf sounds loudly”. Early settlers bent the pronunciation into Malibu, which – during the long dry summers anyway – has come to mean something like “burning real estate”.
These days the best way to find it is to hook a left at the Jack-in-the-Box. It’s the area where the hillsides move and the traffic doesn’t. Actually, given its legendary status, it’s odd that the place isn’t better marked.
I recently played host to a young girl from France who’d spent the summer in Los Angeles doing the whole HollywaxlostworldUniversalberryfarmdisney tar pit thing, and on her last day in the U.S., she was determined to see “Maw-lee-boo”.
So I took here there. Why? Because despite all the runaway development, the pollution and the stuffy millionaire neighbors, Malibu still stands as the summer icon: The international symbol of the whole California surfing movement. And, well, because we couldn’t find parking down at the set of Baywatch.
As we sat on the beach I tried to explain to her why these waves were so special: the way they zippered down the point for hundreds of yards. She seemed more interested in the world-class hard bodies on the sand. And as I took in the scent of Bain du Soleil and admired a few rib-rockets myself, I wondered how many other tourists come and stand here with a Minnesota blindness to the perfect lines peeling in front of them, then turn and trudge back to the car in their big clunky shoes, annoyed by all the … ssaand, and morbidly depressed that they didn’t see Annette or Moondoggie.
This stretch of coast, after all, never did offer much as a tourist attraction: no sprawling vistas, no gift shops. Not even a photogenic landmark. Without the appreciation and wave radar that comes with years of stoke, one might dismiss the whole area in a fleeting PCH drive-by, stammering, “Hey, you guys, that was a beach.” Still, if you’re wearing a $170 strip of lycra, this is a good place to swing it.
On typical summer days, Second and Third points get overrun in a feeding frenzy unparalleled at other breaks. To visit Third on a good swell is a study in mob surfing: the predators, the prey, the shouting, the inevitable crack of boards slamming together, and the onlookers’ mischievous snickers.
Many find it’s worth the fight, as there is probably no faster wave anywhere in L.A. county. In a frantic three hour session, you may only get one to yourself, flying through the obstacle course, trying to make the connection, hurling body and board over sections and around painfully slow paddlers. At five people per wave, there are usually another ten who sit watching the mayhem from the shoulder without so much as a taste. I call them the conscientious objectors.
Eventually they’ll meander through Second and into First Point, where a 6’0” Zuma Jay is no match for the 10-foot cruisers driven by a parade of Forrest Gumps (“that’s ma boat”). But there’s a distinct change in the vibe at First, where even the waves seem to shake off the testosterone of Third Point. It’s that solemn confidence that comes with maturity, like, “I’m not gonna scream at you: I’ll just quietly run your ass over.”
The people in the lineup are almost as much fun to watch as the wave is to ride. They are a microcosm of L.A. itself: young, old, imported, rebels, punks, endangered species, godlike masters, and a whole bunch of Chris Farleys. The ‘Bu holds the largest collection of graceful fat guys you’ll ever find.
Sadly, beneath all that clutter there’s still a beautiful wave, more neatly groomed and consistent in shape than almost any other in the state. But there’s no other evidence that you’re standing on surfing’s hallowed ground. It’s just a perfect wave in a billion-dollar neighborhood. The neglect it suffers stems from one primary thing: It doesn’t turn a profit. If it did, there might be a sign, a plaque, or a statue. They might fix the contamination, and even that nasty little end section at First Point.
Until then, the next caretakers may well be the new crop of 12-year-old kids snatching up the lightweight noserider reissues, injecting youthful exuberance to a spot that’s seen it all.
It’s hard to complete with a kid on a paddling machine, and that’s what drove me to my night session. Night surfing, even with the blind takeoffs, creepy entangling kelp, and the occasional duck dive into a school of squirming grunion, is the best way to go back in time.
So there I sat, fearing a shark fin that turned out to be a dolphin, the guys laughing that I had pulled my feet up onto my sunken 5’11.
It may be that the “Malibu summer” that tourists come looking for exists only in the old Gidget movies, and like the feisty drunken flirt across the bar, some things are better left to the imagination. So they’ll go back to their affordable homes and talk about L.A., and that trip to the ‘Bu will probably get lost among the stories about meeting John Mellencamp at the Hard Rock and that crazy screaming ride at Magic Mountain.
As for the rest of us, the Malibu summer arrived as it always has. And with that first big south, we’ll be getting a few crazy screaming rides of our own. – Jaz Kaner