Quick Take:

A Lookout survey asked surfers their thoughts about problems that are making paddling into Santa Cruz waters increasingly dangerous — and what solutions they think might be viable to explore in 2021.

Even for longtime Santa Cruz surfers, there are no easy answers.

The lineups — from the beaches of Aptos to the far Westside reefs past Natural Bridges — are all frequently overcrowded. Even once hush-hush, semi-secretive surf spots north of town, past Davenport and down in the sandy region surrounding Moss Landing, are packed on any given swell.

The pandemic beginner influx is certainly one factor. But it took the near-drowning of an experienced surfer as one of the year’s biggest swells was just starting to show — and the support for safety protocols from a newly elected county supervisor — to spur a collective “What is up with this scene?”

It underscores a larger problem that was already prevalent well before COVID-19: New surfers venturing into places they don’t belong, largely unaware of the safety issues that might harm them and those around them.

Surfing takes years, even decades, to accrue the knowledge and wisdom to stay safe when the waves are solid — let alone navigate with a modicum of style, dignity or grace like most hope to achieve.

To put it even more bluntly: Surfing has a safety issue that is directly related to an inexperience issue. It’s as if a large group of Pop Warner kids wandered onto an NFL field and said ‘Hey, guys: We’re suited up, let’s do this!’”

While there may be some hard-to-tame Silicon Valley-mindedness in the mix, the vast majority of newbie surfers do not know what they don’t know. And they simply need to be told: As nicely and calmly and with as much detail as possible.

A warning flag system for days when the surf is XXL and conditions unpredictable has been brought up for discussion. More defined responsibility put upon the businesses that rent boards and wetsuits — and those who provide lessons — is a popular idea.

We solicited input from the Lookout audience, and many regular surfers from all sides of town chimed in. Here’s a selection of what people are seeing and what solutions they think might work. We’d love to hear more, so please use the form at the bottom to add your own.

A late-afternoon crowd at Pleasure Point.
A late-afternoon crowd at Pleasure Point. Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz

The problems

Basically we have a nation of people who feel entitled, they lack humility, and they refuse to listen. Every big swell draws out the most incompetent beginners. They paddle out and immediately start running into people and being a menace. You point them toward the spot that is better for learning and eight times out of 10 they will say they can surf where they want, or explain that they’ve got it under control. Both of these are not true. And then that’s when the yelling and the fighting starts. Their sense of entitlement and their complete ignorance of how the world works makes them impervious to reason. — Clay Butler

The novices at the Lane & Indicators on big days are dangerous for them and others. The increase in foils, SUPs and single outriggers are hazardous at Cowells with the rookies and little kids who don’t know how to get out of the way. — Don Iglesias

Try to discuss safety with our new “friends” and you’ll get The ocean belongs to everyone maaaaaan. — Jonathan Steinberg

I’ve seen so many beginners entering the ocean at high tide with large surf recently … it’s horrifying. — Kate Shigeoka

I have seen so many beginners in surf spots they should not be. On small days sure they’re fine, but big days no. — Rhianna Mason

Just another session at the Hook, where safety is always a roll of the dice.
Just another session at the Hook, where safety is always a roll of the dice. Credit: Courtesy Clay Butler

I have seen plenty of first-time surfers that just rented their board go straight out and hang out in the impact zone waiting to get run over. Not to mention beginner surfers with the wrong equipment. — John Dobee Sweeney

I have seen beginner surfers at the Hook going for steep waves elbow-to-elbow with others. Inevitably the beginner falls, sending the board flying into the others who were able to catch the wave. — Sally Annis

I asked a kid that big Tuesday as he was about to paddle out if he knew what he was doing. Costco-bought Wavestorm under his arm he replied, “Nope I’m just learning.” I convinced him not to go, only with the help of a well-timed set of 20 very large waves. — Ryan Holmes

Overcrowding is terrible but localism is second in the list of ugly things. This may become a promotion for sanctioned localism. — Victor Melamed

The ability to ride a wave like this expertly — especially on 'Big Tuesday' at Steamer Lane — does not come overnight.
The ability to ride a wave like this expertly — especially on ‘Big Tuesday’ at Steamer Lane — does not come overnight. Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz

Possible solutions

A flag warning system is a good idea for Pleasure Point. Different spots have different levels of ability on any given day. Simple like ski lifts, green, blue, and black diamond. Doing it right would mean flagging each spot from the point to Capitola: Point First Peak, Point Second Peak, Jacks, Hook, Privates, Capitola Jetty. Beginners shouldn’t be out when it’s bigger or when there’s fast current. And when someone rents a board they should be informed by the rental place what conditions are at the different locations on any given day. Could include the online surf reports such aso Surfline and Magic Seaweed. — David Harnish

Warning systems can easily be ignored. A common thought would be ‘Oh I surfed last time when the red flag was up, and it wasn’t that bad.’ At the end of the day people shouldn’t rely on a flag to tell them not to get in the water, it’s a personal question and you have to be able to trust yourself. Keeping a flag system up will likely cost more than it’s worth. So, if any money is going to be spent I’d say it’s better spent educating the community: partially funded local water safety classes, better structure of guidelines passed out at surf schools, like how to assess danger at a surf break when you are not with a school (e.g. watch for at least 10-15 min, always have an exit plan and a backup exit plan, know how the tide change will affect the break)… Stuff like that. At the end of the day water safety is a community effort, and it turns out that regardless of skill level people make bad decisions or just get unlucky. Sure we can all agree covid has a bunch of beginners where they probably shouldn’t be, flags will not change that — Duncan McColl

I don’t think our experienced locals need this but the reality of surfing in this age is that many, many inexperienced individuals enjoy the waters here and would potentially have their lives saved by a flag system. — Jennifer Young

I would be all in favor of a flag system to give people a warning before going out. It seems like something that couldn’t be “enforced” or “punishable.” At the end of the day they have the choice to do what they want. The one solution I’ve thought of is that certain breaks at a certain wave size could require a form of certification like scuba diving . But I recognize that would be very difficult to enforce. — Joey Williams

Education in the past has been tribal and handed down verbally, but with the increase in beginners, there are too many people to educate individually. So whether signage, flags or some other type of alert system, they would be a definite benefit. It’s difficult to legislate all safety, but some type of test or information should be gone over for rentals and surf schools, most aquatic situations have posted rules and lifeguards (pools). Surfing is no less dangerous. A website that surf equipment buyers, renters and beginners can be referred to would be great, something that contains safety tips, surf etiquette, behavior suggestions and local knowledge. — Bruce Watson

The flags should speak to surfer ability level and wave size. Warnings at the Hook and 38th Ave stairs that access is dangerous at high tide. Rental ban on big days. — Chuck Masud

Having simple (maybe tiered) safety precautions would be great, both for surfers and first responders (e.g: 1- general warnings of when surf is dangerous or tide is high; 2 – flags to indicate danger level, from green, yellow, red, to purple; 3 – roping off entrance when very dangerous; 4 – parking or violation fees that go toward emergency responders and/or cliff upkeep. — Kate Shigeoka

I believe that a flag system would work out wonderfully if the entity conducting and enforcing the flags was properly educated and committed to the system! The systems have worked in Australia, South Africa, and Hawaii (where I’m originally from.) — Ikaika Riveira

Signage similar to the diamond system used at ski resorts for surf spots — green being beginner spots and conditions, black and double black diamonds for expert spots and conditions. — Mike

How about a digital flag system which can be updated remotely as often as needed as conditions change. With each color flag, include a digital explanation of the warning level and who should not go into the water. Also post a legend of all flag colors and what they mean at each digital flag sign with a QR code so people can go quickly to a web site to FAQs if they have concerns/questions. All digital flag signs can be linked and some have a video cam to see conditions. Each beach location can post different digital flags depending on the conditions at each location — Marianne Rebele

Never surf alone. Always join others in the water. Be within sight of others. A flag system would be great. — Patty Radley

I think the flag system at every access way to the surf is a great idea. I also think the surf shops should educate new surfers on the right spots and educate when in the water. — Rhianna Mason

Sharing is not always caring. Sights of carnage like this are normal at surf breaks like the Hook.
Sights like this are normal at surf breaks like the Hook. Credit: Courtesy Clay Butler

How about this: estimate a safe number of people for each break and post that number near the stairs saying something like “if you see more than X people in the water, it is dangerously crowded. Please consider going somewhere else.” — Valery

Beginners and tourists should know their ability. Get familiar with the equipment and surf at a place that is suitable, otherwise they are just a hazard and will get hurt or hurt other people. The rental shops should direct people to beginner places like Cowells. — John Dobee Sweeney

There has to be a way to let people know they are going out into unsafe conditions. They simply don’t know and don’t know what to look for so maybe we should just standardize it like they do at ski resorts. — Ryan Holmes

I think a flag warning system is a good idea. But if the beginners are not educated, they will just ignore the flags and paddle out. I think beginner education through surf rental shops and instruction is the best solution. — Sally Annis

In psychology it’s called the Dunning-Krueger effect. It’s a cognitive bias that shields the incompetent from knowing or feeling that they’re incompetent. If you put flags up it will make zero difference because if you’re the type of person to pay attention to a flag, you’re also the type of person that doesn’t need a flag. — Clay Butler

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Follow Mark Conley on: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Mark joins Lookout after 14 years at the Mercury News and Bay Area News Group, where he served as Deputy Sports Editor on a staff that covered three...