The bodysurfers: the battle for north side of the Manhattan Beach pier
by Mark McDermott
John Shearer found his cathedral in the summer of 1968. He and his buddies had just graduated 8th grade from American Martyrs and each received a pair of swim fins as a gift. They typically bodysurfed at 14th Street but had been eyeing the south swells at the Manhattan Beach Pier. Finally, with their new fins, the boys went for the big time.
“We would look over at the pier and kind of built up our courage,” Shearer recalled. “We saw good waves right at the pier, so we started going there. It was quite a goal, quite a thrill to advance to the north of the pier.”
The north side of the pier had already been the premier spot for bodysurfing locally for as long as anyone could remember. The pier causes the formation of sandbars, so the waves break there with more velocity, creating an ideal takeoff for a bodysurfer to catch a wave.
For Shearer, that summer was the beginning of what would become a lifelong love affair. His family lived at the foot of the pier — this was a time when it was still possible to be of modest means and live at the beach — and so Shearer was able to keep a constant watch for waves. He also surfed and kneeboarded, but he was increasingly drawn to bodysurfing, to the thrill and the physicality of being part of the wave. Also, he didn’t have great eyesight, so identifying waves from in the water was easier than from atop a board. Then, in 1970, someone stole his surfboard from the backyard of his home.
“I couldn’t afford to buy a board, so it was like, ‘I guess I’m going to bodysurf,’” Shearer said.
There was a kid who was a couple years younger than Shearer named Mike Cunningham whom he couldn’t help but look up to. Cunningham was a powerful swimmer but moved with such ease it hardly looked like he was exerting himself. When he bodysurfed, he made it look like just about the coolest thing in the world.
“He just seemed to have this incredible ability to ride waves at a young age,” Shearer said.
If surfing was still a maverick sport at that time, bodysurfing wasn’t even quite regarded as a sport, except among a quiet, almost slippery brotherhood whose devotion to it felt as much like an ancient rite as it did an athletic pursuit.
“It’s pure,” said Conrad VonBlankenburg, who has been bodysurfing since 1943 and since 1950 at the Manhattan Beach Pier. “It’s just you and how fast you can swim, your whole body feeling the wave, feeling the power of the water. And it’s free.”
“In many ways, it’s probably the purest form of riding waves,” said Bob Burnside, a legendary waterman and former chief of the LA County Lifeguards. “I’m sure history would support that argument. Riding waves with your body came well before anyone ever stepped on a surfboard. That’s obvious. dolphins, sharks, all types of mammals in the ocean, fish — they all ride waves. It’s part of evolution. Man is there, too.”
Regarding the differences between surfers and bodysurfers, bodysurfer Mark Stover recalled an old saying. “They are on it,” he said. “We are in it.”
After he began bodysurfing at the pier, Shearer started encountering some of the old guard. The Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association (GBBA), founded in 1964, is believed to be the oldest bodysurfing organization in the world. Its members included pioneering lifeguard Sharon Law (the first permanent, full-time woman LA County lifeguard), lifeguard John Stahl, VonBlankenburg, Burnside, and founding members John Rogers and Bob Holmes. In the same year as its founding, the Gillis Beach break in Playa del Rey became unsurfable after the installation of a breakwater north in Marina del Rey. The Manhattan pier became its new home.
“People started moving to Manhattan Beach, El Porto, and Hermosa Beach, but the pier was the meeting spot,” Holmes said. “If you are going in the water, you are going to the pier.”
By most recollections, lifeguards started the unofficial policy of “blackballing” the Manhattan Beach pier in about 1960. If bodysurfers arrived at the pier when a guard was on duty in the tower there, the guard would put up a flag with a black ball indicating no board surfing was be allowed. Surfers represented a danger to bodysurfers; in the collision of board and flesh, serious injuries could occur.
For the next six decades, the north side of the pier remained a bodysurfing haven. The Gillis group continued to grow, and become more organized, hosting some of the first bodysurfing competitions ever, and eventually, as the sport itself ascended, sending teams to the World Bodysurfing Championships.
Both Cunningham, who became an LA County lifeguard, and Shearer, who became a school teacher, were eventually recruited into the GBBA.
Cunningham made a big stir on the scene in the late 70s when he won the second and third World Championships, ever.
Cunningham made a big stir on the scene in the late ‘70s when he won the second and third World Championships ever. (He’d win a total of five, and almost won a sixth in 1990 when he was upended by the 57-year-old Burnside, who became the oldest world champion in the sport’s history. Burnside told the LA Times he’d cheated. “I have a little mermaid out there that guides me around,” he said. “She tells me where to go and when to go. Without her, I’d be a little minnow in a pool of sharks.”)
“People may not see what we do as a sport, or think it’s dying, but it goes back decades for us,” Cunningham later told the Times. “You see someone bodysurf, and his dad bodysurfed, and his granddad bodysurfed, and so on.”
Inspired by his friend’s success, the mild-mannered Shearer entered the World Championships in 1980 and surprised himself by making the semi-finals. The following year, he made it to the finals and won his age division.
“After that, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m really going to go heavy into this,” Shearer said. “I’m really going to go at this in a passionate way.”
Shearer made a name for himself in competitive bodysurfing world, literally — due to his teacherly demeanor, he was known as “Mr. Chips.” A bodysurfing legend, the late Joe “Dr. 360” Wolfson, expressed his admiration for Shearer in a later LA Times story profiling both Shearer’s gifts as a teacher working with underprivileged students in South Gate and as a bodysurfer.
“He gets into the waves quicker than most riders, and he has very good wave judgment,” Wolfson said. “He won’t force things. He is smart. He never lets his ego get in the way of getting a good wave.”
Of late, Shearer has found himself in the uncharacteristic position of trying to force something, and it’s because he and other bodysurfers now have something getting between them and their waves. He was visiting his mother one day two summers ago, helping apply eye drops after she’d undergone surgery on her cataracts. He looked out the window from her house and saw a nice set coming in.
“I’m going to go out there,” he thought.
It was early afternoon. As he entered the water, he noticed there were a few surfers and no black ball flag. He swam out to the break and was shocked when the surfers disregarded his presence in the water.
“A couple of surfers were just dropping down the face of a wave right in front of me,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Man, I’m going to get injured here.’”
So he went to shore and asked the lifeguard at the tower if he’d asked the surfers to move out of the swim area.
“No,” the guard replied. “This isn’t a swim area anymore. It’s a surfing area.”
The fall of the black ball
Shearer spent the next year trying to figure out what had happened that necessitated the change north of the Manhattan Beach Pier. At issue was mainly the summer months, which due to the warmer water temperatures are peak bodysurfing season, and also the time when the pier area is busiest. By the time, two years ago, he’d learned something had changed, summer was almost over. He decided to bide his time and approach the lifeguards the next spring.
On April 24, Shearer sent a letter to the two captains responsible for overseeing the pier area, Capt. Jeff Horn and Capt. Tom Seth. He asked what policy was in place north of the pier, when did the policy change, who authorized it, and what was the reason. He also included a petition signed by 75 people asking that the swim/bodysurfing zone be restored. When he didn’t hear back that week, he emailed the captains again and also Section Chief Maria Bird. On May 2, he heard back from Section Chief Adam Uehara, who indicated that swim areas are usually located away from piers and referenced LA County code authorizing lifeguards to prohibit activities in areas they deem dangerous.
“Typically piers and jetties cause a rip current hazard for bathers, swimmers, surfers, and bodyboarders,” Uehara wrote. “Rip current hazards comprise 15,000-plus of the rescues and 1,000,000-plus of the rescue preventions that we make annually and occasionally water-related fatalities. To mitigate these hazardous conditions for our community and visitors along our coastline, we create safe swim areas denoted by our ‘Swim Flags’ away from such hazards and advise people that aren’t of expert level capability to move to a safer area.”
Uehara didn’t directly answer any of Shearer’s questions but did note that many changes had occurred that impacted lifeguard’s management of busy areas.
“There have been many new trends in the world of ocean water sports such as Stand-Up Surfing, Kitesurfing, Foil-Boards, Tow-In Surfing, Kayak Surfing, Wave Storms, Jetboards,” he wrote. “We will continue to adapt to provide safety to all visitors embracing these new evolutions in water sports now and into the future. Our goal is not to restrict anyone regardless of the vessel or method they choose, but to make sure they go home safe.”
On May 9, Shearer filed a complaint with Los Angeles Fire Department, which oversees the LA County Lifeguards. He charged that a significant change had been made with no communication to the public regarding its reasons. He noted that a long line of highly respected lifeguard captains had kept the north side of the pier safe for bodysurfing for 55 years.
“Lifeguards Greg Noll, Mike Stange, Gary Crum, Sharon Law, John Stahl, Steve Wood, Bob Moore, Mike Cunningham, Joel Gitelson, and many other lifeguards successfully followed the safe swim zone policy with no significant problems from 1960-2016,” Shearer wrote. “Now, under Capts. Seth and Horn, there is a new policy, but the public is being denied information about the new policy and justification for the change. There is a growing groundswell of opposition to the new hardboard zone that is dangerous for swimmers, bodyboarders, and bodysurfers.”
Fernando Boiteux, the Acting Chief Lifeguard for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, agreed to meet with Shearer on May 22. Shearer was accompanied by Mike Cunningham, who before retiring had been the lifeguard captain responsible for the pier. Boiteux was accompanied by assistant chief Tim Arnold, Uehara, and a few other lifeguards familiar with the issue — although neither Seth or Horn was present.
Cunningham had arrived with a compromise in mind: Keep the south side of the pier for surfers only, as it has been, and from June 1 to Oct. 1 keep the north side as a swimming and body surfing zone. His reasoning was that in the summer, south swells dominate, which push swimmers away from the pier; in the winter, north swells dominate, which push swimmers toward the pier. In this manner, surfers would still have more access to an area that had been historically for bodysurfers, but bodysurfers would retain a safe place during their own peak season.
From the outset of the meeting, it became clear no compromise would be discussed.
“The north side, to me, is sacred ground,” Shearer told the lifeguards. “It’s a place I’ve always treasured. I would like to see it maintained as a safe swim zone, with no hardboards. Because now I am at risk. It is my hope to come to a resolution.”
Boiteux was blunt. He said that they were not going to come to a resolution that would satisfy Shearer.
“The fire department is not a body that makes rules and regulations,” he said. “That has to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.”
“His mind was made up before we even got there,” Cunningham later said.
The meeting lasted 90 minutes but went in circles. Boiteux said the issue was not a matter of policy.
“Nothing has changed,” he said.
The policy was the county code. Boiteux suggested Shearer’s best option would be to petition the county supervisors to have the area officially set aside for bodysurfing, akin to “The Wedge,” a break in Newport Beach designated for bodysurfers, or Surfrider, a break in Malibu set aside for surfers only.
Arnold noted that he’d researched the matter and found only a rough guideline, dated 2014, which suggested the use of blackball flags when a guard in tower deemed the area needed to be made safe for swimmers.
“Captains Seth and Horn have been there since 2014,” Arnold said, noting that such guidelines could be adjusted “if they modified how they want to run the blackball in the area. So basically, any captain has the discretion to do what they feel is right.”
“To provide public safety, yes,” Boiteux added.
Both Arnold and Boiteux said they weren’t aware exactly what guidelines the captains were using at present but they trusted them to know best what was needed in managing the pier area.
“They are both very expert lifeguards,” Arnold said. “I’ve worked with them for years and I know they are committed to public safety.”
Uehara reiterated that larger factors were at play — the changing nature of who is using the water, and how they are doing so. “Things change. It’s a dynamic,” he said.
Boiteux offered an analogy with snowboarding and skiing. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he said, it was believed it wasn’t safe to have both snowboarders and skiers on the same runs. “Now they coexist,” he said. “Back in the ‘60s, surfing was in its infancy…. The dynamics have changed since the ‘60s.”
After the meeting, Shearer considered a couple options. One was to contact the Board of Supervisors and attempt to have the north of the pier set aside for bodysurfing and swimming. The other was to organize a protest during the International Surf Festival, which takes place this weekend, to bring attention to what he considered the loss of hallowed bodysurfing grounds.
But instead, he decided to take another route. He began arriving to the pier at the break of dawn.
“The conditions are relatively safe, before there are too many boards out, and [the surfers] have been relatively considerate,” he said. “They’ve been moving a little bit over, and we just stay by the pier and manage to keep a little window by the pier, at least for this summer. But it doesn’t always happen.”
If Shearer is resigned to the changes to his hallowed ground, he’s still not happy about it. He says it’s essentially taken away an historic bodysurfing spot.
“Basically, a lot of people would be going out there who now don’t want to go out,” he said. “They just move on to somewhere else. In essence, the lifeguards have won in chasing away a number of prospective bodysurfers. It’s not worth risking injury to go on the north side of the pier when boards are out.”
Next week: the changing beach, the patience of bodysurfers, and the lessons of Hawai’i.