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Pell-Mell IN THE Swell : Surfing Traffic at World-Renowned Rincon Has Increased at a Rate That Alarms Locals and Threatens to Desecrate Site's Mystique


John Ziegler hauled his surfboard from the water and angrily made the long walk back to his car. His pilgrimage to Rincon--one of surfdom's hallowed sites--had just been spoiled, he said, by fellow surfers, mainly youngsters--the kids with an attitude, bad manners and no respect, the kids who think they own the waves.

"It's ridiculous," said Ziegler, a thirty-something Santa Barbara resident and longtime surfer.

Although nobody has actually resorted to anything more abrasive than the "L.A. go home" graffiti spray-painted on a seawall, Ziegler and other local surfers are up in arms over the influx of outsiders, primarily from L.A. County, who have contributed to overcrowded conditions. In the past few years, the limited wave space at Rincon--officially Rincon Point, a section of Carpinteria State Beach about 15 miles north of Ventura--often has reached critical mass, with as many as 200 surfers competing for rides.

"It's like a fiberglass curtain," said Sam George, a senior editor of Surfing magazine who called Rincon his home surf for seven years.

But even worse than creating surfboard traffic jams, say surfing purists, the overcrowding is desecrating Rincon's existential mystique. Rincon's perfect winter swell was discovered at the dawn of the surfing era, inspiring soul surfing and a one-for-all camaraderie. In this laid-back surf brotherhood, surfers waited their turn before glomming a ride, and even the gnarliest wave was on a first-come, first-served basis.

But in the late 1980s, a kind of greed mentality swept into Rincon. "It's more like commuting on the highway than surfing," Ziegler said. "If you get caught inside (on a wave), you get the (expletive) beaten out of you," run over by inconsiderate surfers.

Rincon has changed. Instead of a oneness with self and sea, the law of the surf has become survival of the fittest. "I think the crowd tends to pick on the weak and the meek," said Simone Reddingius, a prominent woman surfer from Santa Barbara who also has to deal with sexism on the waves. "They don't cut you any slack," she said.

Locals blame L.A. County surfers for creating what the Beach Boys call bad vibrations. "There's still a lot of really soulful days at Rincon," said Matt Moore, a 39-year-old Carpinteria surfboard shaper who has been surfing Rincon for more than three decades. "But when it gets crazy, it gets just as ugly and nasty as you can get."

However, an interloper from L.A. County identifying himself only as "Stick" accuses locals of hogging the surf. "I've got just as much of a right as they do to go for the boil," he said. "Too bad if they don't like it. I don't see them crying about outsiders when they surf at Malibu or Trestles."

The reasons for Rincon's problems go beyond its allure as the best winter wave in Southern California: Modern technology also has a hand in the overcrowded conditions. Since the mid-'80s, several 976 telephone services have been providing up-to-the-minute surf information for Southland surfers. Before, surfers would have to beach hop in search of waves, deterring L.A. surfers from making the 60- or 70-mile trek to Rincon on the chance of finding surfable conditions. Now, they know in advance if Rincon is a sure thing.

"Those 976 numbers took the guesswork out," George said, "and led to a significant increase in crowds." Local surfers, he said, "were outraged" by what they perceived as marauding L.A. surfers and complained to the 976 services, which agreed to drop specific reference to "Rincon," simply lumping it into the "Ventura area," George said.

Local surfers estimate that the crowds have doubled since the advent of the 976 services, which have "ruined" Rincon, said Moore, who nonetheless does not blame outsiders for making the drive. "If I lived in the Valley and heard the surf at Rincon was 6 feet and glassy, I'd ditch school or my job and be gone too," he said.

New, larger, paved parking lots also have made Rincon more convenient than in the old days when surfers had to park on the freeway shoulder and dash across the 101 Freeway. "Build a parking lot and they will come," George said sardonically.

This year, especially, Rincon is drawing an abundance of surfers because of better-than-normal surf conditions. Angry winter storms have spawned the enticing swells, and this winter's surfing season is the best it's been in the past four or five years, locals say.

"Everybody from Santa Cruz to San Diego wants to surf Rincon," Mike Phillips of Ventura said. "The wave is absolutely perfect. We just had two straight weeks of incredible surf."

No less a surfing authority than Tom Morey--board builder and father of body-boarding--calls Rincon the "best surf" in the United States. He's not talking about monster waves or tubes the size of the Holland Tunnel. Rincon is worshiped for its consistent, cylindrical wave that can carry a surfer on a "ride that lasts forever," perhaps as long as a quarter-mile, Steve Schwartz of Santa Barbara said.

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