The Coast News Group
Super Girl Surf Pro is an annual competition in Oceanside for female pro surfers. File photo

Is pro surfing good for average surfers?

It seems strange now, but in the late ’60s a debate raged in surfing about the relative benefits of pro surfing. Of course, many of the top surfers were in favor of being paid to surf, but others were not so sure.

The reasoning from average surfers like me was that nobody had the right to rope off portions of the ocean for their own benefit. In opposition were the stars of our day who, quite naturally, wanted to get paid for doing what they did best.

Since this predated the rise of the surf clothing industry, the behemoth that would eventually control the sport’s competition and media, Surfer Magazine jumped into the mix without the consequence of losing ad dollars. 

I have not seen the article in nearly half a century, so excuse me if I get some of the details wrong. The story, as I recall it, offered three opinions: Pro Surfing is White, Pro Surfing is Black, Pro Surfing is Gray.

Santa Cruz surfer/shaper John Scott occupied the black column, and held his ground to the end, protesting surf contests all the way through the ’80s. The same Scott whose Surfer Magazine photo of a clean, glassy peak with the name of the location attached had sent surfers flocking to what had previously been a secret spot.

For the sin of violating the unwritten law of never exposing secret surf spots, Scott found himself in self-exile, wearing figurative sackcloth and ashes for the duration of his time on earth.

Jock Sutherland, who in the mid-’60s had lifted the Mister Pipeline mantle from Butch Van Artsdalen’s powerful shoulders, somehow understood both sides of the debate.

Jocko’s photo accompanied the words, “Pro Surfing is Gray.” While one of the best surfers in the world in the mid-’60s, Sutherland was and is humble and thoughtful enough to consider the needs of the masses.  

Former World Surfing Champion Fred Hemmings occupied the white column, where he articulately defended the right of surfers to compete for cash.

The article was published during surfing’s last gasp as a counterculture. As such, many surfers sided with John Scott, paddling out into the competition area regardless of who was in the water. This led to beach permits and lifeguards being called in to remove the unruly among us. The movement was squashed before it really began.

While I had been among those who paddled out into the competition area in my teens, I was bought off for a mere $100 a day, lunch, and a T-shirt in exchange for judging a surfing contest for three days. 

Not long afterward, when I began being paid for writing about surf contests, I forgot all about my power-to-the-people, stick-it-to-the-man mentality. I am not only a hypocrite, but an underpaid hypocrite. 

Still, the idea of roping off a section of beach for the benefit of the few still bothers me, just like it does whenever the city shuts down Coast Highway so some residents can run on the street. Of course, I now realize that if I were a runner, I would be an advocate for diverting traffic. 

But I am no runner, and anyone who has ever seen me surf realizes that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a great surfer. I have about as much chance of making money by riding waves as I do of being an astronaut.

I would never have admitted this in my teens, but I like watching great surfers ride great waves. Of course, liking it doesn’t make it right. I mean, it is everybody’s ocean.

That brings up the idea of surf contests in wave pools. I don’t even think John Scott or a pre-corrupt Chris Ahrens could argue with that. 

Leave a Comment