O.C.’s Biggest Export

August 2012

In the winter of 1985, I had dinner in a tiny Balboa Peninsula restaurant with Steve Hawk, with whom I was sharing an apartment, and a group of his lifelong surfer friends. Freshly arrived from Pittsburgh—and with the Beach Boys and Jeff Spicoli as my only points of cultural reference—I was sure I was in for a vapid conversation about hot babes and tasty waves.

At some point—right around the time I had to ask someone to explain Erwin Schrödinger’s 1926 equation about the behavior of particle waves—I realized surf culture in Orange County was perhaps a bit more complicated than I thought. These guys weren’t just talking about surfing. They were talking about wave mechanics; the speed of energy pulses moving through water; corollary issues of pollution, weather, and nipple chaffing. This wasn’t a hobby or a lifestyle for them; it was an avocation. For Hawk, a fellow newspaper reporter who went on to become editor of Surfer magazine, it became a career.

Nearly three decades later, that long-ago conversation echoed as the Orange Coast staff first discussed the idea of a special issue to celebrate the central role O.C. plays in the surf world. My appreciation for surf culture has only deepened since that night. Each time I order a fish taco at Wahoo’s or slip on my Rainbow sandals, I’m reminded how deeply woven into the fabric of Orange County it is. Each time I see people in far-flung places wearing Quiksilver, Hurley, or Volcom, I’m reminded how far our influence has rippled. Forget microchips and Botox. Surf culture—not just the sport but the style, technology, innovations, legends, literature, media, and heroes it has spawned—is our primary export. 

The four feature stories in this issue—an audacious claim that O.C. is the center of the surf universe, a profile of the iconoclastic first family of surfing, a conversation with world-champion longboarder Lindsay Steinriede-Engle, and an homage to open-ocean swimmer Lynne Cox—hardly reflect the breadth or depth of our beach culture. They are, at best, a sampling.

But taken together, I hope this month’s stories reinforce for our readers what I learned in 1985: Orange County is a far more complicated and interesting place than I ever imagined.

Martin J. Smith

Illustration by John Ueland

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