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2020 hasn’t been easy, but surfing has been a silver lining

By Jake Howard

Anybody else notice it’s been a weird year? Anyone?

A pandemic, civil strife, political chaos—if I didn’t live in this glorious little surf town, it might be hard to find a lot for which to be thankful. But as I recently got out of the water at San Onofre, the sun was shining, the wind was offshore, the crowd was light, and the surf was a perfect 3 feet.

I’m thankful for the two hours I just got to enjoy. And I’m sure the cormorant I watched pull up a little fish is thankful, too.

I don’t mean to wax poetic and get all Hallmark card on you, but we do have a lot to be thankful for around here as we sit down for what’s sure to be a different kind of Thanksgiving feast. And while basking in my post-surf glow, it’s worth taking a breath and recognizing all the good stuff.

A Thanksgiving spread that a surfer can be proud of at San Onofre. Photo: Jake Howard

I think I speak for just about every surfer from Salt Creek to San O when I say that over the past eight months, the ocean and its waves have provided us all with some semblance of sanity, stability and salvation.

Remember when this whole COVID-19 thing started and the beaches were closed? Remember what a shock it was to see armed police officers standing between you and the surf? The reaction by surfers was visceral.

Not happy with the situation, my favorite moment was the ill-fated storming of Lowers that ended up with a boat on the rocks and a couple brave and embarrassed locals having to justify their overeager actions.

Thankfully, the beaches were reopened, and our lineups have proven to be one of the safest outdoor spaces when social distancing and other precautions are taken—which, if you’re practicing proper surf etiquette, shouldn’t be an issue.

Once we got surfing back, something interesting happened. People took to the water in droves. Every longtime local I talk to has remarked about how crowded it’s been the past few months. And it’s not just anecdotal.

In a piece published by action sports industry publication Shop, Eat, Surf, it was reported that before the pandemic, there were three million people recognized as surfers. By August, that number had swelled to 5.6 million.

With the influx of people finding their way to the waves, the surf industry, which has been languishing on life support the past few years, enjoyed a much-needed shot in the arm. Board and wetsuit sales have skyrocketed lately. Shapers, glassers and the other craftsmen and women who build surfboards have been slammed. That’s a good thing.

For the first time in a long time, I’m optimistic about the outlook of the surf industry. I think good times are ahead for next spring and summer. New brands such as Newport Beach-based Florence Marine X, two-time World Champ John John Florence’s latest endeavor, will be launching.

And established brands such as Rip Curl, which recently moved its North American operations to San Clemente, are poised to capitalize on the success of their booming wetsuit and hard good sales.

We’ve also seen competitive surfing come back. The National Scholastic Surfing Association was able to safely pull off its National Championships in North Carolina last month. And next month, the World Surf League’s Championship Tour will kick off in Hawaii after its 2020 hiatus.

Then next September, the WSL will be crowning the 2021 World Champ at Lower Trestles, which is a great thing for our local surf community.

Sure, there are those who will grumble about having to temporarily give up their spot to the pros, but the WSL Finals is a one-day event, and only the top five men and women in the world will be invited. So it’s not the huge production that the contest has been in years past.

I think it should be a holiday for all the groms in school around here. Take the day off and go to the beach.

Anyway, the point of all this is that as surfers, there’s a silver lining to a lot of the tough times we’ve been enduring. Yeah, we may have to share a few more waves these days, but that’s what being part of a community is all about.

We’re all just trying to get by the best we know how, and for me, that’s to spend as much time as I can in the water. It’s like my obsessive Monty Python fandom has taught me, “Always look on the bright side of life.”

Jake Howard is local surfer and freelance writer who lives in San Clemente. A former editor at Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and ESPN, today he writes for a number of publications, including the San Clemente Times, Dana Point Times, Surfline and the World Surf League. He also works with philanthropic organizations such as the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center and the Positive Vibe Warriors Foundation.

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