The nonprofit invites a new and diverse crowd to test the waters at Linda Mar.

By Paolo Bicchieri

Sutara Nitenson loves surfing Pacifica’s beaches. Their work with Brown Girl Surf aims to change the landscape. (Photo by Nick Paz)

The Northern California surf scene is notoriously intense. It’s cold. It’s sparse. It’s rugged.

The social dynamics on the waves can be harsh, too, as many new surfers in Pacifica have noted — it’s a culture driven by veteran athletes and longtime locals who can be highly competitive and aggressive out on the waves.

Growing up in Pacifica, Sutara Nitenson never felt welcome within the surf scene. Nitenson is 24 years old and nonbinary. Their mother is a Thai immigrant and their father is a white airplane mechanic who brought the family to the Peninsula when he took a job to work at United Airlines.

As a kid, Nitenson would go boogie boarding in the flotsam of Linda Mar. They would go to tide pools, always hanging on the beach. When they attended their first surf camp, Nitenson didn’t exactly feel welcome. That exclusion is part of the reason Nitenson didn’t venture out on the waves again until college.

More recently, Nitenson has taken a job with the nonprofit Brown Girl Surf, which seeks to open up surfing to those historically underrepresented in the sport.

BGS focuses on young surfers all over the Bay, but they’ve recently focused their attention on Pacifica’s beaches. The group wants to make sure people who aren’t the typical surfer get a chance to carve up the water. Like Nitenson, a lot of the staff have felt that sense of not belonging. In this regard, BGS has been working tirelessly to convince the city of Pacifica to open up the beach for new permits and new opportunities for folks to get involved at the classic local surf spot of Linda Mar beach.

Linda Mar is widely considered one of the most beginner-friendly beaches on the Northern California surf scene. (Photo by Nick Paz)

Jay Bundalian knows the feeling of being an outsider in the lineup. He’s a 34-year-old nurse who came to Pacifica by way of New Jersey and the Philippines, where he was born. He’s spent the last seven years living in the South Bay and San Francisco, and surfs on his days off. He’s been called a moron while surfing Linda Mar.

“I wanted to try something new,” Bundalian said. “I heard it was the thing to do in California.”

Nitenson met Bundalian while filming surf shots, and they’ve been surf buds ever since.

Bundalian agrees with Nitenson that he likes to see more young women and people of color in the water. He says it subtly combats the exclusive attitude he feels pervades the beach.

“There were only a few female surfers,” Bundalian said of Pacifica in years past.

In even the last year and a half Bundalian said the demographics of the lineup are changing for the better. Dana Moreno, owner of Sonlight Surfshop just a block from the beach, agrees.

“Absolutely in the last few years it’s definitely grown in every way,” Moreno said. “Women and people from different backgrounds are getting into surfing.”

She said COVID-19 shutdowns were a big incentive for people to try out a new sport. On the other hand, Moreno doesn’t feel that Pacifica has a particularly toxic culture. She herself, a woman of color born and raised in Pacifica, has never experienced those forms of discrimination either. Her parents opened the shop in 1985, and her father is 100 percent Filipino. She said he never experienced explicit forms of racism while surfing, or as a business owner in the community.

“There’s always going to be some localism,” Moreno said. “But our beach is widely known as a beginner location that is more and more welcoming.”

“It’s definitely grown in every way. Women and people from different backgrounds are getting into surfing.”—Dana Moreno, owner of Sonlight Surfshop in Pacifica. (Photo by Nick Paz)

Whether or not surfers of the past felt excluded, BGS is on a mission to make sure that all future surfers feel welcome in Pacifica, and they’re taking it all the way to city hall.

BGS wants to create a system for nonprofits like themselves to hold events and workshops in a more streamlined way. That’s why they’ve been attending Pacifica Beach Access meetings, held by the city.

“In Pacifica specifically, there’s an inequitable permitting system,” wrote Adriana Guerrero, executive director of Brown Girl Surf, in a recent email. In Pacifica, no surf schools or nonprofits are allowed to operate without a permit. There are only four permits every year, and they are perennially taken by the same four schools. “There is no application process for nonprofits to operate surf camps, so these orgs are essentially shut out.”

For the people who can’t pay for surf lessons, the few that have historically held permits at Pacifica can be too expensive or the available seats can go too quickly. Some feel that eliminates reliable alternatives.

In an email to the Half Moon Bay Review, Cindy Abbott, a PB&R commissioner on the Surf Camp Task Force, wrote: “For safety reasons, a limited number of surf camps/ school operators have been granted annual permits,” Abbott wrote. “Historically there hasn’t been availability for new organizations, nonprofit or otherwise, to enter this space as the current operators have been interested in continuing each year.”

BGS has been a part of a pilot program, ongoing since November 2020, to bring new faces to the lineup, breaking through the stronghold that handful surf schools have had on the permitting process. To accomplish this, they’re working with City Surf Project to bring their Community Access Partnership Permit (CAPP) to fruition.

They have become heavily involved in Pacifica’s permitting process. The group has joined the monthly Surf Camp/School Special Task Force meetings, held by the city of Pacifica, to talk about their experience in the pilot and to promote the continuation of CAPP.

BGS attended its second-to-last meeting on July 20, and Guerrero said it went well. She recognized that the task force has a lot of opinions, but they are taking the CAPP proposal seriously. It’s no longer a matter of if the permits become available, but how groups can access them.

Nitenson and BGS are not alone. Other groups around the country are following this same example, such as Black Sand and #ColorTheWater.

In the foggy gray of Northern California, though, it’s only a matter of time until a more colorful scene fully emerges.

The next Pacifica Surf Camp/School Policy Advisory Task Force meeting is August 17, 2021 at 6:OO pm PT. Follow this link to join via Zoom.

Linda Mar Beach at dusk. (Photo by Nick Paz)

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