LONG BEACH — At first, it seemed laughable. Then Wilfred Otaguro decided it was no laughing matter.
Otaguro, 41, had planned to spend last Saturday teaching three friends to windsurf at Alamitos Bay in Long Beach.
The four and another amateur instructor, all engineers for McDonnell Douglas Corp. in Huntington Beach, arrived at 7 a.m. to avoid weekend crowds and were perhaps two hours into the lessons when a lifeguard told them they were breaking the law.
"I couldn't believe it at first," said Otaguro. "I thought it was a joke. But the lifeguard was serious. He said (the city) has an ordinance that says any kind of instruction on the beaches requires a permit. He said, 'This is a warning and you'd better stop or I'm going to give you a ticket.' "
As a small crowd gathered, Otaguro and others questioned the lifeguard, he said. "The lifeguard said he was obliged to warn us because the concessionaire who had the license to give lessons was complaining. We told him our lessons were free . . . among friends. He said that didn't matter.
"One guy said, 'Gee, I'm here teaching my son,' and the lifeguard said, 'Well, that's in violation of the ordinance,' " said Otaguro. "That's when the crowd really got upset."
Otaguro said he quickly gathered about 35 signatures on a petition protesting what he saw as improper restrictions on a public beach. Several beach-goers told him about others who had recently been warned or ticketed for teaching windsurfing at Alamitos Bay, the best beginners' beach in the area, Otaguro said.
"To me, this was carrying something too far," he said. "Next they might say you can't even board-sail there unless we rent (boards) from the concessionaire."
Otaguro's friends, two of whom confirmed his account of Saturday's events, then spent the day alternately "floundering" about the bay and returning to the beach for clandestine windsurfing instructions.
Still angry, and determined to find out "if we were just dealing with one crazy lifeguard," Otaguro pursued the matter with several city officials Monday and Tuesday.
In the end, he was referred to Carolyn Sutter, director of the Tidelands Agency, which governs city beaches. She told him the city restricts windsurfing instruction at Alamitos Bay to a single licensed concessionaire and she advised him to go to other beaches to teach his friends, Otaguro said.
Sutter said in an interview Wednesday that the city is obligated to protect the rights of Long Beach Windsurf Center, which won the Alamitos Bay windsurfing concession nearly two years ago through competitive bidding. The concessionaire pays the city about 30% of its gross income from Alamitos Bay lessons and rentals, spokesman Jeff Jones said.
Sutter, however, acknowledged that unpaid teaching of friends or relatives, as was purportedly the case with Otaguro, is legal, even at Alamitos Bay. Deputy City Atty. Thomas Vyse also said he thought the broad city ordinance regulating distribution of merchandise and services in public places, including the beach, allows free windsurfing instruction without a permit.
Still, when three or more people are receiving free instruction "that gets a little different," Sutter said. Crowded conditions might create a safety problem that would prompt a lifeguard to halt such private instruction, she said. Otaguro and his friends insisted the beach was not crowded when they were warned, nor did the lifeguard mention crowding or safety.
Group Compounds Problem
Sutter also said that when several people are involved, lifeguards might find it hard to tell the difference between legal amateur instruction and illegal professional instruction.
"I'd expect my safety officers (lifeguards) to use their discretion," she said.
Otaguro "was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Sutter said. "If anyone has a relative or a friend they want to teach windsurfing, we have 15 miles of beach. This is just one spot in 15 miles."
However, spokesmen for the Marine Bureau, which is part of the agency, and the lifeguards said that launching of windsurf boards is allowed only at three small areas of the city beach, including Alamitos Bay.
Neither lifeguards nor their supervisors would comment on the criteria they use to determine if windsurfing instruction is legal. They referred all questions to Sutter, who said she relies on their best judgments.
However, Jones, a partner in Long Beach Windsurf Center, said it is often easy to spot the professionals.
"When an employee or owner of a commercial windsurfing store shows up in a vehicle with advertising on the side," there is no doubt they are "bootleg operators," he said.
Abuse of Rights Common
Abuse of his concession rights is so common, Jones said, that "there is a lot more rigid enforcement than normal" at Alamitos Bay. When he sees known professionals working there, Jones notifies lifeguards, he said.
"If somebody comes down and starts running boards off their truck, it makes me upset," he said. "It's infringing on something (I've) built up."