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The Seven Seas : Southern California and beaches. Like Mom and apple pie, right? Well, sometimes they're not all Beach boys and babes, as we discovered during visits to seven waterfronts. (Consider the oceanless beach in San Bernardino County.) Sometimes they're havens for stars and starfish, the fishing set or bodyboarders. Or they can be a place where a longtime Angeleno hasn't take a dip for many years. : Bodyboarders Rule the Waves at Boogie Beach : San Diego

August 17, 1994|DENNIS ROMERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 3:15 p.m. on a recent Sunday, childhood buddies John Boyle and Scott Levin arrive on the sand, drop their backpacks near a fire ring, and head for the water.

At 3:17--low tide--they're in knee-deep salt water putting on swim fins.

By 3:20, they're soaked.

No time for bikini patrol.

As the two paddle out, kicking furiously as their hands grip the top of their matching black-bottom bodyboards, they're oblivious to warnings:

"Bodyboarders, you need to stay at least 75 feet away from the pier," a lifeguard announces.

Low tide, meanwhile, creates bone-crushing waves. A medium-size swell treading shallow waters collides with the ebbing sea to create hollow "grinders." A riptide forms.

Boyle (the blond one) and Levin (the tall one) paddle closer to old Crystal Pier, several yards away. "This is where all the best waves are," Boyle says.

The rip takes Boyle and Levin, both 20, even closer to the pilings. Now the fishing lines that customarily hang off the end of the creaking structure are visible. "A few days ago a bodyboarder got a line wrapped around his neck," Levin says.

"He was OK, but it didn't look too pretty," he says. "He had this big, red mark afterward."

Assuring thoughts for a novice.

But these guys are pier-side pros: daily bodyboarders who have been at it for 10 years. And they represent the fastest-growing segment--hard-core enthusiasts--of a fast-growing sport.

Soft, small bodyboards--descendants of the Morey Boogie board invented 23 years ago--accompany almost every other towel here on south Pacific Beach, a small stretch of sand between the pier and the area's main lifeguard tower. It's Boogie Beach to city lifeguards, who cordon off the sea for nearly 4,000 swimmers and soft-board riders.

Down a ways, Don Mullen caters to the other expanding breed: the first-timer. He is out of old bodyboards to rent, so he rips the cellophane off a couple new ones.

Mullen started his rental business 14 years ago by hiring out roller skates from the back of a leased van. Today, 75 bodyboards make up 40% of the take at his shack-like storefront, called Best at the Beach. (Rollerblades, wet suits, umbrellas and chairs make up the rest.)

"Bodyboarding is an easy thing to learn how to do," Mullen explains, slapping a pair of squeaking swim fins on his counter. "It takes you at least three days to learn how to surf. Bodyboarding only takes an hour."

That might explain the record number of people expected to lay their bellies on a bodyboard this year.

But at Star Surfing Co., a surfer's surf shop about a mile away, bodyboards are no boon. This is a place where classic, collectible longboards stand proud and nary a bodyboarder enters.

It's not the traditional rift between surfers and bodyboarders, however, that keeps the horizontal surf-riders away. ("Barneys," "sponges" and "doormats," surfers call them).

It's the discount chains like Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target. Their volume-fueled discounts on bodyboards make it hard for some small beachside shops to cut a profit. So longtime surf-shop owner Glenn Paculba misses the wave that will usher in sales of half a million boards this year. "I can't compete," he says.

*

Boyle and Levin float a few feet away from the pier, waiting for a freak set of waves to pop out of the choppy seas.

Boyle spies a nugget: "There you go," he says to Levin.

"You got one?" Levin replies, craning his thick neck to the west.

"There!" Boyle yells.

In a matter of seconds, Levin swings his slick-belly bodyboard under the frothing wave and, whoooosh, his prone body is swallowed up by a four-footer that cranks into the pier. He emerges unscathed, a smile on his wet face.

Boyle is usually the one closest to the pilings. The wood doesn't bother him, but fish do. "A bat ray!" he cries. "I'm getting the (expletive) out of here."

Before he can paddle away, another set forms and the two take off on the same wave. Boyle goes left, toward the pier, and Levin goes right. A lifeguard, sitting in an orange Nissan Pathfinder next to the pier, continues to wail on his public address system--to no avail.

The waves are too inviting for this pair of college students. "You drop in and you forget everything," Levin explains.

The ultimate tease is getting tubed, or covered by a breaking wave, as the bodyboarder jets across its face. Bodyboarders also get peer points for doing a 360, surfing on a knee ("drop knee") and flipping over by using the wave's upward force ("el rollo").

But there's also one other attraction: "I tried surfing," Levin says. "I really suck at it."

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