Elliott Almond on the Breaks of OC, Life and Journalism
Today's OC Weekly Summer Guide features a Q&A with Elliott Almond, who spent several years covering surfing and other sports for the Los Angeles Times before relocating to the Bay Area, where he writes for the San Jose Mercury News. Almond's passion for surfing comes out in his new book Surfing: Mastering Waves From Basic to Intermediate (The Mountaineers Books), which is more than an instructional manual, covering the sport's history, personalities and lingo--with a very heavy emphasis on the major role Orange County played in creating it.
Almond played a role covering it. But first he recalled a funny story regarding his application for a summer internship at the Orange Coast Daily Pilot. "They couldn't give me an answer for weeks," he said. "Finally, one day they called the beach house, and someone told them to call a neighbor's house right on the sand at 38th Street. The paper sent the neighbor's daughter, Sherrie Parks, out to the jetty to get me out of the water. She yelled, 'Elliott, you've got to come in. The Daily Pilot needs you to report to work now.' I arrived with wet hair and all hell breaking out on deadline. I jumped right in to take dictation."
And away Almond's journalism career went. He talks about that, his early days surfing and his initial move to OC in the Summer Guide interview. But that's not all we talked about. Space restrictions prevented the printing of the entire Q&A. Cyberspace allows sharing the rest, which includes references to Trestles vs. the toll road, "Surf City" Huntington Beach vs. "Surf City" Santa Cruz and daily print journalism vs. Elliott Almond's future.
But before we get to those, I need some help.
OC Weekly: I'm a really bad, very inexperienced surfer. The deal with me is I'm exhausted by the time I paddle out, so I am keen to follow the tips in your book on proper paddling. Any other advice you can shoot someone like me, other than my obvious need to lose weight and get in shape?
Elliott Almond: You've answered two main concerns off the top. If you're a bit out-of-shape and have patience, paddling will give you some muscle definition. Surfing also supports a healthy lifestyle, which includes diet and exercise.
Another element that we found successful is making sure you practice at a beginner's beach. Bolsa Chica is an excellent spot, especially when small and blown out; that's good for paddling. The best spot in Orange County's reach is San Onofre, though Old Man's now is so crowded it brings tears to my eyes when recalling perfect empty waves in October. Go to the spots south of Old Man's with your friends and practice in relative obscurity.
Another suggestion involves equipment. Start with a lightweight but 9- or 10-foot long board. You need something super stable so you can stand up as well as paddle.
And, if you're really struggling, or facing fears about it, then start with a Boggie Board. It's so much easier to learn the ways of the ocean on the sponges before graduating to a surfboard.
If none of this is helping and you haven't given up, try a beginner's lesson but make sure you find a good instructor because that will make all the difference whether you enjoy it or not.
Finally, surfing is supposed to be fun. Please, whatever you do, have fun out there.
A movie titled Echo Beach made its world premiere at the Lido Theatre [April 28]. In fact, it was sold out so I didn't even attempt to get in. It's about a 100-yard stretch of sand in Newport Beach credited with launching the huge growth of the surf/action-sports industry in the 1980s because of the future surfers, photographers, magazine publishers, clothing retailers, etc. who surfed there. Any memories about Echo Beach?
You're talking about the scene at 56th Street in Zooport. I hung out with the Cranes at Grant Street a few blocks to the north. It's a matter of simple geography because I lived on Grant behind the Frog House. I was a bit older than the Echo gang but knew some of them, particularly Danny Kwock, Jeff Parker and Preston Murray. I recently got re-connected with one of Preston's friends through Facebook. Preston lived down the street from me in Newport Shores in the 1970s and even as a pre-teen he was interested in surf culture. So I always respected him for being such a great surfer and all-around waterman. Actually, same goes for Danny and Jeff. These guys were the hot stuff, the next generation after Lenny Foster (aka the Newport Kid) and Junior Beck. They were known for partying but they were good peeps and I think they did a lot for surfing and Newport. They respected those who came before them.
What I remember about them is their sophistication with regards to surfing. Yeah, they could shred but they also understood early on they could parlay their God-given talent into a business. So even while they pushed each other in the water they were pushing the industry. Of course, it helped having someone such as Bob McKnight of Quiksilver right there. And there were so many other businessmen/surfers who were part of it, such as Tim Bernardy and Paul Heussenstamm. I'm forgetting the whole crew: We used to play in a summer softball league together on the Newport Peninsula circa 1974.
There was a big deal here to "Save Trestles" from a toll-road extension. Now that Trestles seems to have won, there has been some blowback to claims that it was ever "world-class" surf breaks. What do you make of this?
Firstly, I'd like to defend Trestles as an important part of California's surf heritage. It is a classic Cali point break and I have had the privilege of riding rights there that blew my mind. No, it's not the Pipeline or Mavericks but it rivals Rincon and Malibu as an iconic California wave. For that reason alone Trestles is world class in my book.
I'm not sure how these debates get going but it's not surprising how politicized people can be when it comes to something as precious as our ocean. If anyone saw the movie Nixon and grew up surfing in those times of the Western White House, then Trestles holds special memories. They used to close Cottons, the break just north of Trestles in front of Nixon's home. For that we disliked the president very, very much. The Marines used to arrest surfers for trying to sneak into the break when they closed down Cottons and Trestles just because Nixon was in town. Still makes me fume.
As someone who has lived down here but now lives in the Bay Area, what do you make of the whole Huntington Beach vs. Santa Cruz battle for the nickname "Surf City"?
With the swine flu threatening our very existence, with climate change, economic depression, terrorist attacks and Men Who Start Wars lurking, I can't get too worked up over the moniker of a city. It does cause one to pause that these cities would fight for something they once summarily rejected. It underscores the fact surfing has become mainstream. Wetsuit pioneer Jack O'Neill talks about being arrested for trying to surf at Ocean Beach in San Francisco because it was such an outlaw activity.
After a year of research for my book, I did conclude that Santa Cruz and Orange County--Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Newport, Laguna, Capistrano Road and Dana Point--have played major roles in the development of surfing on the West Coast. Many of the trends and innovations came from these places so they both deserve their due for contributions to surfing.
If you're talking aesthetics, however, Santa Cruz wins hand down. I remember the first time, in 1972, when I drove over Highway 17 through the redwood-carpeted Santa Cruz Mountains and reached the Hook at 41st Street. With the mountains meeting the sea it's just a special natural setting.
But a peaky autumn day north of H.B. Pier with only one friend out there also is tough to beat. I used to love going to downtown H.B. to get a smoothie from Mary Setterholm at her stand in the back of George's.
Do you have any opinions about the sad demise of the Los Angeles Times (or the newspaper business in general)?
What? You looking for a second story to write? I spent 20 ½ years at the Times. Amazing talents who I hired have been let go. I'm sick because the Times was one of the world's great newspapers. People in LA never understood it had a huge worldwide reputation because of its depth of reporting. I worked with so many great editors and writers there. I am happy to report my close friend Julie Cart just won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism for a series on firefighting. Who will do this kind of journalism when papers such as the Times disappear? The OC Weekly, I hope. I'm not here to say we were perfect. But we were imperfect every day, just like humanity. The Orange County edition of the Times also brimmed over with talent. The push into Orange County helped the Register become an excellent regional paper in the 1980s and '90s.
Those of us remaining on the sinking ship are heartbroken and frightened about becoming unemployed in uncertain times. Every day another close friend has lost his or her newspaper job. Yet you will find the remaining editors and reporters striving to bring quality stories to the public despite the greater demands and huge layoffs. I came to the Mercury News as the Olympics reporter and enterprise/investigative reporter. I broke a lot of ground on the Balco steroid investigation with the guys from the San Francisco Chronicle. Now I wear four or more hats: I cover San Jose's two pro soccer teams, Stanford women's basketball, the Olympics, which we don't do much with anymore, and I work the sports copy desk at night condensing wire copy into the limited space. I also take on whatever other assignments my boss needs from me. We're all doing this--pitching in to make it work.
I have reflected a lot on this subject. I spent 25 or more years committed to making sports journalism a serious endeavor, working with greats such as Danny Robbins, Maryann Hudson-Harvey, Julie Cart and our editor, John Cherwa, to enlighten readers about the seamy side of sports: cheating in college athletics, performance-enhancing drug use and all sorts of other complicated social issues that sometimes took the fun out of the games. We all made many sacrifices to raise the level of sports journalism and now all that is being discarded by newspaper owners who want three superficial stories a day because it is easier, cheaper and less likely to bring on legal action.
But I am a realistic enough to know the public doesn't care. You can't stop change and the technological delivery systems are changing blink-of-an-eye fast. Everyone says journalism will survive once they figure out to how turn it into a profit-making enterprise with the new technology. But I wonder if the technology will continue to change making it tough to ever catch up. I also worry that a fundamental part of our democracy will erode once traditional journalism is gone. And yes, I am well aware of the arguments about Citizen Journalists filling the void. My response is, why not Citizen Neurosurgeons, Citizen Fighter Jet pilots?
In conclusion, I've offered no solutions, just a big complaint. But while I'm still doing this I am going to remain as passionate and committed to producing quality journalism as ever.
What's next for you?
I wish I knew. When I joined the El Gavilan at El Dorado High, in Placentia, in 1970, I found my calling. I knew it wasn't a career in which one would become rich but I didn't care. I always felt journalism was part social service and a vehicle into the greater world.
The San Jose Mercury News is threatening to consolidate even more by summer. Our jobs are precarious and every colleague asks the same question: what's next?
I hope that in a small way the book helps me move away from newspapers and daily journalism into something like narrative non-fiction.
Also, I taught at Orange Coast College and Cal State Fullerton as an adjunct in the early 1980s and loved it. I'd love to return to teaching. I know I'd be way better now than back then.
The one great element about journalism is you get to experience so many aspects of life. I'm working on a story about two women who are foster parents and are adopting one of their kids, a baby that has a horrible and rare disease known as velo-cardial-facial syndrome. I'll do a lot of research on this before I write it up. Oh, and yes, this is a sports story.
I'm interested in taking my years of newspaper experience into areas such as the environment or just about any avenue that has a public/social component.
Then again, the practicality of it might mitigate just finding a job to survive. There's a surfing metaphor in this: "what's next'' is the vast unknown like taking off on a snarling monster at Mavericks and dropping into the void.
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