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Sea Notes by Chris Ahrens
Surf memories of one joyful little spot
Except for the best days, Beacon’s Beach has always been a girl-next-door wave the bridesmaid, the dependable standby, the place that you went surfing when faster, hollower breaks weren’t happening.
I first surfed the spot in the early ’60s and was amazed at how gentle the waves were, staying glassy well into the afternoon, unlike the blown-out-by-10 surf I had grown up riding in Orange County. By the early 1970s I had moved to Leucadia, borrowed $2,000 from my parents and bought a trailer at the now demolished Hilltop Trailer Park, on the corner of Jason Street and Neptune Avenue. I guess that made Beacon’s my home break, and I surfed there on a near-daily basis for a year or two. On the way down Neptune, I would encounter Mrs. Searls, a kindly woman who always offered me chocolate chip cookies, loquats or oranges from her trees. Then I would head down the stairs to the surf, which was sometimes vacant, even during the summer.
Over time I developed a fondness for that wave, keeping my affections a secret, much like a teenager with a crush on an unpopular girl. I did love Beacon’s, however, and after countless sessions began to learn about the spot, how to set up the lefts and milk the slow rolling rights to shore. The outlying finger reefs were a challenge made necessary by increasing crowds, but these also became familiar over time, and I eventually knew what tides and swell directions they were good on.
The tight group of locals who occupied the main peak included Jack Jensen and Buttons Humphrey, Peter Saint and Sally St. Pierre, Baird Wheatly, Maggie, Mike Dobransky, Steve Moret, Willy McLeary, Wayne Hasaki, Dianna Brummett, Wally Wallace and Mark Rodriguez. For Texans, Floridians and New Yorkers, this was Ellis Island, the entry point for those who, in spite of facing relentless ridicule, soon became locals themselves.
The more foresighted among us bought up cliff-top houses and moved in, only to watch their stairs wash away when winter swells moved the sand south into the La Jolla trench. Small guest homes perched on the cliff were lost, catamarans which were once kept on the beach, were moved to higher ground, bedrock replaced volleyball courts, the coast retreated and residents fought to hold vanishing ground. The stairs to the main break were built and rebuilt, but the sandstone cliffs continued to make their way to the beach.
Like everywhere else, the names of the surrounding reefs at Beacon’s have changed. We called only the main left and right, just to the south of the stairs, Beacon’s. The middle section was rarely ever considered worth riding. Directly to the south of the main peak was a place that we called Slabs. Slightly to the north was a low- tide friendly place that we called Caves. Later, there would be names like Bamboos, Little Tahiti (that’s a stretch) and White Fence.
Ed Machado moved into a house about a block north of Caves, used Kit Horn’s stairs to enter the water, and, because of his frequent riding there, that place became known, at least for a while, as “Ed’s Reef.”
Kit has continued to surf and dive in front of his property, but was never contained by the surf there, longing for bigger, more powerful waves like those found in Oregon. When Kelly Sarber moved a few blocks north of Horn and three houses south of another surfing pioneer, Woody Ekstrom, the peak that faces her front room window became known to many as Kelly’s Peak. There are, no doubt, new names for other little reefs. Of course, these too will change as new kids “discover” the joy of surfing this stretch of the coast.
I wonder if kids still spend summer nights camped on a small grassy area, to the south of the stairs, just beneath the cliffs. In the mornings we would wake to see the surf, almost always glassy and predictable, breaking through the thin smoke of a dying fire.
Is the path still surrounded by wildflowers during the spring, or has the topsoil given way? Is there instead coarse sandstone trampled by the feet of the impatient and the unknowing who used the bluff, rather than the stairs, for entry into the water? Of course the bluff was doomed to seek the angle of repose, which could be somewhere between Neptune and Coast Highway 101. A wet winter or a major earthquake could change everything.
There has been a moderate return of sand, thanks I guess to the latest replenishment programs, the deepening of the Batiquitos Lagoon, shifting currents or some combination of the three. Beacon’s is once again approaching its former glory.
There are new locals there, a surf school and a Web site, www.Beaconsbeach.com, operated by a local surfer and Beacon’s lover named Kenzie.
Visiting the site you will come upon memorable characters that frequent the spot: Dean Redfield, who began surfing there in the late ’50s, is among them, along with Gary the Enforcer; jazz great Peter Sprague; Zoe; Jen the Ripper; Carolyn and Doug Jopes; Lexi; the fabulous Unsworth boys; Fireman Chuck; Papa Gus; and Charger Bobby
It was a hot August afternoon when a white Jaguar pulled up with a vividly airbrushed Fish on the roof. The car’s driver opened the door and stood on the running board revealing a long, black and silky mullet, tight white polyester pants and an airbrushed T-shirt that showed either Journey’s Steve Perry or David
The board made me side with Nuuhiwa, whose style was unmistakable on water or on land. We walked down the cliff together and paddled out to clean, glassy and empty 3- to 4-foot peaks.
David, who had been a top noserider in the ’60s, despite what people who weren’t even alive at that time might tell you, is a goofy-foot surfer, and preferred going left.
Being a regular-footed surfer, I preferred going right. And so we dropped in together and split the peak until dark.
There are now plans for a new Beacon’s.
Sea walls, a shower and improved parking (check the Web site for details) could be in the works.
This will be welcomed by those hoping to stabilize the cliff and make the place cleaner and more family-friendly.
Those opposed will dig in, trying to retain their memories of a slightly wilder place, where the good intentions of the state are less visible.
Regardless, the cliffs will continue to crumble, the crowds will continue to increase, the faces of the people will continue to change, but that fun little wave will remain a joy for all of those who paddle out and ride it for the first time or 1,001 times.
Chris Ahrens is a surfer and a writer. He is the author of four books on surfing: “Good Things Love Water,” “Joyrides,” “Kelea's Gift” and “The Surfer's Travel Guide.” You can e-mail him at
Site is maintained and operated by Kenzie Aries