‘Topangry’: Why are local surfers sometimes aggro at Topanga Beach?

By Zeke Reed

Topanga Beach has a “locals only” reputation that’s earned it the nickname “Topangry.” Photo by Zeke Reed.

Donnie Wilson has been surfing at Topanga Beach since he was a kid in the 1970s. A former professional surfer, Wilson’s traveled all over the world but still says Topanga is one of his all-time favorite places to surf.

“It's the only spot in LA that gets a south and a north and a west swell, and it's a point break,” he explains. “It's one of the best waves in the world.”

The beach itself is also idyllic: palm trees, a big bay, a lagoon. Other than the cold California water, it almost looks tropical.

But stellar waves and picturesque views mean lots of competition, and many of the locals aren’t keen on sharing.

“I’ve been one of the ones guilty of [yelling] ‘get the fuck out of here kook,’” says Wilson, using a derogatory term for beginners. “I’ve been cracking people since I was a kid. When I was in junior high or something, I fucking broke this dude's nose.”

Wilson isn’t alone in his willingness to enforce local rule. Most folks at Topanga Beach have a story or two about aggressive run-ins that sometimes escalate to violence.

Things were especially gnarly back in the day. A popular zine about Topanga Beach in the 70s refers to it as “the Snake Pit.” Fights were frequent, especially between locals and outsiders.

“The really heavy guys are the ones that had to pay some real dues to surf here,” recalls Chad White, who’s been surfing Topanga for over four decades. “In the 70s, it would be every time they came to surf here. They’d have to fight.

Topanga Beach is known as much for its “locals-only” reputation as its quality waves. Photo by Zeke Reed.

While most folks agree that the culture is not as intense these days, especially with the rise of smartphones that can capture fights on camera, the Topangry mindset still exists. Yelling, arguments, and tension in the water are common. One surfer described how during a recent session, he was “fully chewed out by a Topangry 12-year-old girl, and fully got bullied into submission as a 34-year-old man who's surfed here most of my life.”

Other spots have a  locals-only reputation too. Just up PCH at First Point in Malibu, a local surfer was recently caught on camera smashing a kid’s board with a rock before ditching it in the ocean. Down at Lunada Bay in Palos Verdes, an infamous group of locals known as the Bay Boys would slash tires, throw rocks and cut leashes of nonlocal surfers. It took a court order to finally end the mayhem.

Most folks I spoke to agreed that as long as there is competition for waves, there will be conflict in the water. “If you have too many people trying to go after one limited resource,” reasons Chad White, “it doesn't matter what that is in human life, we turn into a**holes.”

Competition is made more intense by the tribal nature of the Topanga Beach crew. As surf instructor Kassia Meador puts it, “They all know each other. They all park in the same spots. They love to catch up with each other whether there's waves or not. … It's really like that family at the beach. It's ‘Cheers.’”

The lifeguard station and bay at Topanga Beach. The bay is considered a more beginner-friendly place to surf. Photo by Zeke Reed.

The familiarity amongst locals makes it clear who the outsiders are, and good surfers get frustrated with beginners. “If you don't surf great, you just don't go into the VIP room,” Donny Wilson says. “You gotta show some respect. And you gotta learn the rules.”

The “rules” in question are fundamental surf etiquette, such as whoever is closer to the breaking part of the wave gets to take that wave, and don’t paddle right in front of someone while they are riding. These norms might not be obvious to folks who just bought their first foam board from Costco, and Topanga locals regularly complain about the lack of awareness.

Beyond disrupting the flow of the lineup, breaking etiquette can have real consequences. Kassia Meadow describes: “If somebody puts you in harm's way, it's probably going to cause you to snap because it's dangerous. … I've been put in the hospital by people being totally blatantly unconscious.”

There’s also a sense amongst locals that their outsider culture is under threat as surfing becomes more mainstream. Chad White explains, “[Surfing is] an activity now. It's not a lifestyle. … People that come and surf, they also might bike ride, or they also play club soccer, or they're yogis.”

While concerns about safety and overcrowding are understandable, there are some darker undertones to localism. Though surfing started as an indigenous tradition in Hawaii, SoCal surf culture has been largely dominated by white men. And while the lineup is more diverse these days, including a significant number of first-generation Asian surfers and a growing number of folks from other racial backgrounds, the sport still has its share of racism.

Joshua Alexander is a Black surfer who picked up the sport two years ago and regularly surfs Topanga. He says he’s had multiple racially-charged encounters in the water, including being told to “go back to your hood.” In another instance, he overheard “someone shout across from all the way from the top, ‘Go back to China,’ at six in the morning. Even just repeating it hurts.”

Joshua Alexander has been surfing for two years and hasn’t let unpleasant encounters ruin his love for the sport. Photo by Zeke Reed.

Incidents like this mean surfers of color have to make different calculations. “People are always talking about sharks, like are you afraid of [sharks]?” explains Alexander. “No, I'm afraid of racism. I'm not afraid of sharks. … I love sharks. Sharks belong in the water. Racism does not.”

Female surfers have also been historically excluded. As local pro Frankie Seely explains, “Growing up, there was maybe one woman in the lineup as compared to like 20 guys.” But she says that’s changing. “There's a lot more women surfing. The ratio [of women] almost gets to the same as the men's ratio in the water.”

Folks like Seely and Alexander are not alone in their desire to make surfing more inclusive. Organizations like Color the Water, Ebony Beach Club, Salt Water Divas and Textured Waves help provide a sense of community for women and people of color looking to surf.

Frankie Seely is a pro longboarder who grew up surfing Topanga Beach. She’s witnessed the sport progress as more women enter the water. Photo by Zeke Reed.

As new people enter the sport, the locals-only culture is starting to change. More enlightened long-time surfers are working with newcomers to teach them how to respectfully navigate the lineup. As Kassia Meador puts it, “Whenever I see people that I feel like are struggling in the water that maybe don't know those couple core key etiquette points … rather than yelling at them … I try to invite them. … ‘Hey, are you okay? Are you new here? Do you need some help and guidance? Can I give you a few pointers?’”

Even locals like Chad White, who admits to being aggro at times, says that his outlook softened when he started teaching his wife and her friends to surf. “If you're a local somewhere, [it] doesn't mean that your job is to be an asshole. Maybe if you're a local, your job is to be really helpful.”

However, White is quick to point out that respect in the water is a two-way street. “It's not just like we, as the people that have been surfing here need to just be all of a sudden be nice to everybody…It’s etiquette. It’s understanding how this thing operates. It's an ecosystem.”

For all his earnest talk of inclusivity, Joshua Alexander also recognizes the tension between wanting to welcome more people while still claiming the best waves. After our conversation, he and I paddled out together. We watched a novice surfer miss a few waves, and so when the next set came, Joshua cut in front of him. After the guy complained, Joshua turned to me and smiled. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m also part of the problem.”