‘Really cool to see all these people on boards’: Black Surf Club Santa Cruz brings diversity into the ocean

It was a Sunday at Cowell's to remember for many.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If this was a preview, next weekend’s Juneteenth events will be unmissable. As volunteer and ally, Tim Robbins says while manning a booth at Cowell’s, “Democracy is not a bystander sport. You have to participate. We have to get away from silo politics and come together as a whole.”

Conditions couldn’t be more ideal for Esabella Bonner and the Black Surf Club Santa Cruz’s Pre-Juneteenth paddle-out Sunday, aside from the foot-scorching sand, with sun shining bright and temperatures rising into the 70s.

Though the wind picks up in the afternoon, high tide means Cowell’s is flat, if slightly choppy. Still, it’s near-perfect — unintimidating. Many of the participants are new to the ocean.

“This is my first time putting on a wetsuit,” San Jose resident Tamika Cox, who drove down for the day’s events, says. “It was an experience! I had to have my girl over here help me put it on.” Taylor Williams, who came from Oakland via Texas and has one prior surf lesson under her belt, helped Cox out with the wetsuit.

Despite some struggles wiggling into the neoprene, after taking a plunge in the Pacific, Cox compares it to a second skin. Cox loved being able to be in the ocean without feeling cold.

The day begins around 11:30 a.m. with participants walking down the ramp onto the sand at Cowell Beach. They’re greeted by a semicircle of loaner surfboards arranged there. Raffle prizes are set up on tables — an impressive number of prizes, with 19 bundles total, including donations of equipment like a locally shaped M10 surfboard, wetsuits from O’Neill, fins, Nudi Goods body care products, jewelry, and gift cards for local businesses.

It is hard to believe that Ella Halliday and her mother, Lori Halliday, the team behind Santa Cruz experiential equine learning nonprofit Horse & Heart, helped organize the raffle donations in only one week.

Surfers
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We’ve done a lot of fundraising already,” Ella, who is a friend of Bonner’s, explains. “It’s all come together beautifully.”

Ella’s father, Andy Halliday, chief operating officer of Santa Cruz healthy sports drink company LifeAid, donated a huge crate full of ice-cold beverages for participants to enjoy. The synergy of everybody pitching in is a theme running as an undercurrent throughout the day.

The day schedule builds in ample time to mingle on the beach before the main event of the paddle-out. From 11-1:30: the beach clean-up, raffle entries, volleyball and soccer are on the beach-time agenda, though many opted to use the time to simply connect over conversation prior to the main event.

Kayiita Johnson, the founder of @black.surfers on Instagram (with more than 8,000 followers), came out “to support Black Surf Club Santa Cruz and everything it’s trying to do,” because Johnson’s group aims to increase the number of Black surfers through building community and representation.

“A lot of what Black Surf Club SC is doing is right up our alley and we’re hoping to do this more globally, across the United States and worldwide. We’re very excited to do this,” Johnson said.

Capitola-based Cabrillo College graduate Thairie Ritchie knows Bonner from their work together in community organizing and activism. “I haven’t paddled out ever before,” he says, “but I’m here in support of my friend Bella, a fellow community organizer and community activist.”

The turnout and coverage of last year’s events in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the death of Tamario Smith inspired Ritchie to continue organizing and showing up to show support, as well as to pursue a career in communications.

Surfers prepare ahead of the Black Surf Club Santa Cruz paddle-out Sunday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A group with a large presence are members of a recently formed men’s group, the Black Kings of Santa Cruz County. Founded by activist Thomas Sage-Pedersen during the pandemic, Black Kings of Santa Cruz County is a virtual and now also in-person meeting space for Black men in Santa Cruz to have a place of “community and brotherhood,” member Jeremy Stone says.

The group is very new: only four months old and with 15 members. “We meet once a week by Zoom and recently had our first two dinner get-togethers in person at Oswald’s,” Stone says.

Members of BKSCC, including Sage-Pedersen, Taj Leahy, Issac “Lyrical I” Collins, and others, came to paddle out “to support the surf event and be here with all of our friends,” Stone says.

Collins, a spoken-word artist and skateboarder, will be a performer to keep an eye on at this coming weekend’s Juneteenth events at Louden Nelson on Saturday and on Fathers Day, Sunday, at the Black Lives Matter mural.

Black Surf Club Santa Cruz founder Esabella Bonner speaks to a crowd at the pre-Juneteenth paddle-out on Sunday.
Black Surf Club Santa Cruz founder Esabella Bonner speaks to a crowd of supporters at the pre-Juneteenth paddle-out on Sunday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Collins expresses admiration for Bonner and the work she is doing. “She’s full of energy and organizes all this stuff,” he says. “There are challenges and she’s so resilient.”

Sage-Pedersen, host of the “Speak for Change” podcast, agrees. “We’re going to host the Juneteenth events together next weekend. Bella’s an amazing organizer.”

After a mini-lesson for first-timers, the group descends to the shore and is soon entirely out past the break. Safety patrol surfers in red shirts are there to help, but no one, not even first-timers, seems in need of assistance.

Out in the ocean, a circle forms, names of loved ones, cheers and chants are called out, flowers thrown into the ocean. It’s the apex of the day, and an exhilarated mood permeates the crowd on the way back to shore. Despite a larger-than-expected shorebreak, no one is accepting offers of help on the way in; they are having too much fun in the water.

Surfers form a circle during a pre-Juneteenth paddle-out Sunday.
Surfers form a circle during a pre-Juneteenth paddle-out Sunday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’m super-excited that with the guidelines lifted we’re able to get more Black and POC community members out into the water, into wetsuits,” Bonner says. “It’s been really really cool to see all these people on boards.”

Though Bonner isn’t sure of the total numbers, it’s a fair estimate that over 50 BIPOC and allies attended the paddle-out.

Back on the beach, the women of vegan and vegetarian Venezuelan pop-up Areperia 831 served a delicious vegan feast of rice, black-eyed peas and collards, and fresh kale, beet, and avocado salad. (All free.)

If this was a preview, next weekend’s Juneteenth events will be unmissable. As volunteer and ally, Tim Robbins says while manning a booth at Cowell’s, “Democracy is not a bystander sport. You have to participate. We have to get away from silo politics and come together as a whole.”