Why one local surfer wants to put the ‘Aloha’ back in surfing
Denise Garcia began surfing as a child growing up in Santa Cruz County. She got serious about it around the age of 16, when she and a friend bought a longboard to share. They would walk from their homes in Soquel to Pleasure Point, taking turns carrying the board on their heads.
Now 29-years-old, Garcia is a seasoned surfer and Pleasure Point veteran. But as much as she loves Santa Cruz and its waves, a recent life-changing experience has put local surf culture into question for Garcia—what she once accepted as a competitive and aggressive tradition she now fears is facing a dangerous departure from everything it claims to stand for.
“I used to be aggressive and—like everybody else—hardcore and [saying] ‘move out of my way,’” Garcia says, touching on two of surfing’s most talked about issues: rage and localism (and the interconnectedness of the two). However, a 2009 vacation to Hawaii (despite being famous for territorial surfers) made Garcia realize that the agro attitudes and hostile waters of her California town were a far cry from the true spirit of surfing. “I went to Hawaii and decided that when I came back to Santa Cruz I was going to surf with more calm, more love, more aloha, instead of frustration with everyone else,” she remembers.
But soon after she returned, one swift moment in the water threatened to keep her off a board for good. On Jan. 9, she re-entered the Santa Cruz waters armed with a new outlook and more relaxed approach. “I stayed on the shoulder, away from the crowd, waiting for the wave to come to me instead of chasing the waves and paddle-battling with everyone else,” she says.
It was about 4 p.m. when a nearby surfer collided with Garcia, his surfboard’s fin slicing through her wetsuit to create a gash about two inches wide and six centimeters deep in the back of her leg. She would find out later that the fin severed her sural nerve and seriously injured her tibial nerve, leaving her on crutches and off a surfboard for at least a year. She remembers making eye contact with the oncoming surfer as she did what she could to paddle out of his way. “[Afterward] his friend said ‘That’s just how it is out here, you gotta get used to it,’” she says. “That’s the problem—the wave has become more important than other people.”
Whether the young man responsible for her injury lost control of his board, didn’t know how to steer around her or simply didn’t care to wasn’t clear. What was clear was the culprit’s defensive attitude afterward, lack of apology, and inability to follow the unwritten rules of the lineup. The incident occurred just 10 days after a good friend of hers was violently cut off while surfing at Pleasure Point, causing him to need 36 stitches in his leg, and soon after another friend was cut off by someone who then attempted to hit him over the head with his surfboard. Needless to say, Garcia had seen enough.
“The increased amount of surf rage has become very intense at Pleasure Point,” she says. “I have been surfing here 18 years and I have never seen it this bad.” Garcia plans to campaign for improved signage at local surf spots that detail the skill level of the break, and go further in explaining surf etiquette. She says these measures—which she hopes to push for with local governments—wouldn’t be aimed at keeping anyone out of the water, per se, but rather increasing awareness and preventing accidents such as hers.
“It’s OK to be territorial, but how we go about doing this is really important,” she says. “When we go around screaming or yelling, beating people up or fighting on the beach, it’s going to make it worse. People will get hurt.” In addition to signs or educational efforts, she says that, ultimately, people will have to hold themselves responsible for “where they decide to surf and how they react in the water.”
However, not everyone believes that surfing behaviors can, or should, change. “If you want peace, surf at Cowells,” declares one local surfer, who wishes to remain anonymous. The man, a long- boarder in his early 30s, also dislikes and tries to avoid negative vibes in the water, but believes it comes with the territory.
Darshan Gooch, a semi-pro surfer who was present the day of Garcia’s accident, grew up near Pleasure Point. “I grew up in the thick of it there,” he says. “It’s pretty typical to have confrontations and aggressive scenarios happen on a common basis.” Like Garcia, he believes many of the problems are rooted in a lack of understanding. “There are a lot of factors,” he says, “like limited resources, a real lack of order in the lineup—in other sports you have rules and structure. There are a lot of people that surf nowadays and a high percentage of them are unaware of their surroundings and how the lineup operates functionally.”
Although Garcia says “what’s done is done” when it comes to her particular run-in, she hopes that no one else will be as harshly affected by rampant bad vibes in the water. “I don’t want justice from this guy that surfed over my leg,” she says. “I just want him and others to understand that the choices we make in life and the emotions we feel towards others affect others in ways that, lately, we have chosen not to see.” What we need, she says, is a little more aloha.