The Stormy Legacy of Windansea Photographs and story by Christopher Briscoe

At a glance, the La Jolla coastline is a postcard vision: sandy coves bending around a series of tight nooks and boulders, seated below a wave-worn sandstone plateau. The crowning point along this road, Windansea, is a surfer’s shack, made of eucalyptus poles and palm-fronds.

The shack was built in 1946 by 3 friends: Woody Ekstrom, Fred Kenyon and Don Okeyand, anchoring it into the rock. It seems like it grew there naturally, like the algae and barnacles, as if it was planted, The shack has survived ranging storms, a fire, the biggest winter swells in memory, and thousands upon thousands of perfectly sunny days. It is a monument to the pioneers who have surfed, partied and died there, since Woody Brown first paddled out on a handmade, solid-wood board in 1937. It is a shrine, a temple, and a church, all in one.

Behind the shack is a steep incline that leads up to narrow strip of parking spots. In front of the parked cars, Glenn, a gray bearded artist, and Windansea historian, sits on a 2 foot wide, flat rock wall. He takes a swig from a brown bottle of beer then curls up for his mid-morning nap. Pinned to the top corner of his painter’s easel is a tiny American flag that snaps in the wind.

On the other side of the street, the local neighborhood meanders with an eclectic blend of tidy multi-million dollar homes. Tall, skinny palm trees line the streets, providing little shade. They sway and bend as if being wooed by the siren of the surf, straining to get a look at the massive waves rollIng in. There is only one season this far south in La-La Land: the season of Beach, bathed in the warm breeze of affluence and life-is-easy.

Windansea

Just off shore, grows a tangled bed of kelp shading a reef, with deep water channels plunging down around it; all working together to help form perfect waves that peel both left and right.

the heaviest surf crew ever.

Beneath the pristine wrapping of this beautiful place is a history of surf lore that reads more like the Wild West than Pleasantville. Steve Pezman, a publisher of Surfer and of The Surfer’s Journal, called Windansea locals in the early 1960s, “the heaviest surf crew ever.” During that decade of peace and love, teams of San Diego police were often called in to break up beach parties of nearly 500 strong.

In the summer of ’65, writer Tom Wolfe journeyed out from the East coast to take a look. He was so enchanted by the rebellious surfer subculture and the surf rats who hung out there, that he wrote a story about them called, The Pump House Gang. He was intrigued, watching many of the bronzed warriors take on the tourists - The Outsiders - with The Stare as they spit on the sidewalk before gesturing to the graphitti on the pump house wall, Warning!! Windansea May Be Hazardous To Tourists. Some were the kind of kids whose only surrogate parent was the beach - the kind of kids who jumped in their VW van and drove to the Watts riots for entertainment as if it were a Rose Bowl game. Some were the kind of kids who vowed to blow their brains out on the steps leading down the beach, rather than grow old past their 26th birthday.

After Tom Wolfe's story was published, many of the Windansea surfers felt double-crossed by how they were portrayed in his piece. Soon afterwards, there was a new graffiti message on the pump house wall: "Tom Wolfe is a dork!”

Even today, some harsh feelings boil up. In 2015, esteemed New Yorker Magazine writer, William Finnegan wrote a book about his surfing adventures: Barbarian Days. After an evening of signing books at a La Jolla book store, there was a new declaration spray-painted on the side of the pump house: "Finnegan is a kook". That thread of localism, tribal loyalty - call it what you want - runs deep.

(After reading this, I just hope they spell my name correctly.)

In the early 2000s the equivalent to the Pump House Gang were the Bird Rock Bandits: a group of kids that hung out, drank beer and bodysurfed at the Windansea shore break. Fueled by a sense of entitlement and booze, they were known to get into fights. Late one night in 2007, during a street brawl, a few of the Bird Rock Bandits killed 24-year old pro surfer Emery Kauanui. A witness stated in court, "They smashed him into a palm tree and took him down. His head hit the street. That was the blow. That was the one." Nearly everyone knew and loved the guy. Emery's murder rocked the community.

slow-cooked from too many decades of southern exposure...

Some visible signs of that era are still etched into a few faces that linger along the short wall of the parking lot. The old timers, beer in hand and leathered pot bellies, slow-cooked from too many decades of southern exposure, watch the surfing below, telling their stories of waves past.

The light that glows brightly through all of that history is the Windansea Surf Club. It's a far cry from its roots. Founded in 1962 by Chuck Hasley, the club has included members such as Ian Rotgans, “Big George” Felactu, Longboard Larry, Skip Frye, Joey Cabell, Del Cannon, Mike Purpus, Rusty Miller, Andy Tyler, Tom Ortner, Brew Briggs, Debbie Beacham, Peter King, Saxton Boucher and The Endless Summer film star Mike Hynson. All legends of the sport.

The Windansea Surf Club is the steward of the flame that burns here. On any given day, fathers with their young daughters run with wax-heavy surfboards into the white surf. Golden haired 10 year old boys perch atop the rocks, scanning the lineup for open peaks, plotting their way for the easiest way to get to them. Guys who can get a senior citizen discount at the movies instead ride their longboards with ease and grace. Windansea is a mix of multi-generations and multi-cultures. Surf contests are held regularly. On any given Sunday or holiday, long tables covered with a smorgasbord of foods greet neighbors, their white table cloths flapping in the breeze.

The surf rats who survived

The surf rats who survived the earlier years of drunken fistfights grew up and have mellowed out. Along the way, they found success in businesses, raised families and now find meaning in dedicating their club to “fostering a positive image of surfers locally and globally through charity and competition, and supporting our youth for a brighter future."

Surfing is one of the oldest sports in the world. It has been around for hundreds of years, from part of a Polynesian culture, to Captain James Cook, to Mark Twain, to Duke Kahanamoku, to Gidget, to Kelly Slater, to the groms who stand on the rocks at Windansea. It requires a unique blend of athletic skills and a zen-like understanding of the power of nature and the energy that moves across the ocean, forming a shifting shape - a small mountain of liquid fun.

You have to earn your spot

98% of the sport is sitting, bobbing on the board alone while seals, fish, dolphins and who-knows-what swim underneath. Scanning the horizon never stops, squinting for the next wave generated from some weather event thousands of miles away created just for them. Surfers understand the science, the timing, the predictability. The olympians jockey for their place in the lineup, weary that their precious moment on a perfectly formed wave might be stolen. You have to earn your spot, predicated on your skill level, and your history in this hood - all for a chance to be with your god.

The worst thing you can do is ...

As one member of the Windansea Surf Club told me, "It took a decade for me to be able to join the club. It will take a few more years to be accepted." He later explained, “The worst thing you can do is ‘drop in’ in front of another surfer, stealing his wave. The second worst offense is, once you've caught your wave, is kicking out too soon, wasting it.”

Disobey the unwritten laws of this jungle, middle fingers thrust upward. Occasionally fists still fly.

Surfing embodies a passion so deep, no camera resolution can completely reveal it. As I process my photographs after my time at the beach, I'm always amazed at the jaw-dropping skill level of the athletes I've captured through my lens. I am even more enthralled by the the look of unabashed joy and awe on the faces of the surfers dropping down into their waves. I doubt if there is another sport on the planet that telegraphs such electric smiles. The look on their faces answers any questions of why.

An aqua-green wall of water approaches, brushed smooth by the offshore breeze. The paddling begins and the struggle to catch it, ride it, become one with it, get slammed by it, come up breathless, then battle through the oncoming crashing waves to get back out for another round. The quest is simple: ride a perfect wave. (A surfer once drew a parallel with sex, saying of both, that, when it’s good, it's great, and when it's not good, it's still great.)

When the perfect wave finally arrives, the rest of a complicated world recedes. No mass shootings. No mortgages. No bad report cards. No fights with your spouse - only Zen-like Flow and oneness with a wave and all of the majesty that nature has to offer.

Created By
Christopher Briscoe
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All photos copyright by Christopher Briscoe.

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