Ever since The Beach Boys’ happy-go-lucky tunes ingrained the laid-back, beach-loving spirit of California into Americans’ collective consciousness, surfing has been a hallmark of the Golden State’s cultural myth. Many still picture the archetypal California scene as a sun-kissed person biking out to the ocean to catch some waves under impeccable weather.
Any Californian can attest that life, even on the South Coast, isn’t quite that idyllic every moment in every locale, but this surfing reverie comes closest to reality in, of all places, a shabby student enclave.
“Literally, 30 seconds and you’re in the water,” said Byron Roos-Collins, director of the Excursion Club at UCSB, an extremely popular local outdoor adventure organization. “This kind of access to waves for an entire community is pretty unparalleled for most of California.”
One can’t walk down a street in Isla Vista without seeing a wettie drying over a balcony parapet, and flashing a shaka sign isn’t an uncommon salutation. From dawn until dusk, bikers can be seen ferrying their boards out to Campus Point, Devereux, and Sands to commune with the green room. To better understand the decades-old role the iconic sport plays in I.V., I sat down with a couple of student surfers.
“A lot of people know each other, so it’s really a fun vibe,” said Nik Frey, a UCSB senior. “It’s the kind of thing where you’re biking to the beach, board under your arm, and you just yell at people, ‘How was it?’ — ‘Oh, it was good!’ — which might seem normal if you’re from I.V., but that’s actually a really cool thing about being from here.”
“Being a surfer here is unreal,” Frey told me. “When the waves are actually good, you’re always humbled, you’re always pumped that you can actually surf in your backyard … . It’s a workout that’s actually fun that you can do whenever you want.”
I.V. residents’ ready access to surfing has ingrained the activity into the town’s milieu as deeply as partying and studying have been.
“I think it actually has a more disproportionate effect on the community than on the number of people who surf — just that really laid-back, beach-town kind of vibe,” said Roos-Collins. “Whether or not you surf, you kind of look around and see these people just smiling with their wetsuits on and their boards. It just adds to this feeling that we’re in a place where you can really kick back, relax, and be more than just an academic student.”
“If you go in the UCSB bookstore, every UCSB shirt has a surfboard on it,” added Frey. “You go through I.V., you see wetsuits hung out on people’s balconies, boards around. Whether people surf or not, the culture is still strong, I’d say.”
The allure of convenient surfing extends well beyond this half-square-mile. Camino Majorca, I.V.’s relatively remote, westernmost street, is routinely crowded with the board-toting cars of Goleta-area surfers, and Excursion Club surf outings attract a considerable number of international students. Lessons in surfing, standup paddleboarding, and kayaking as well as members’ ability to rent out these sports’ requisite equipment are the Excursion Club’s biggest draws and are the catalyst for many lay people to get out into the water. Even soft rocker and UCSB alum Jack Johnson makes a point of surfing his old stomping grounds whenever he’s in Santa Barbara.
“I’ve talked to a lot of international students, and it’s the reason they come to UCSB instead of, say, UCLA, UC Berkeley,” said Frey, also an Excursion Club board member. “They actually come here because, while they’re going to California, they want to learn to surf. I.V. is actually the greatest opportunity for them to do that.”
Though not quite as exceptional or iconic as other SoCal sites like Rincon, I.V.’s surf spots are still some of the most respected in the area. Campus Point to the east and Coal Oil Point to the west are two point breaks that generate many of the waves surfers dash for as soon as the surf reports give the green light.
With winter being the ideal time for surfing and El Niño beginning to stir up the waters, “Right now,” said Frey, “it’s probably the best it’s ever been.”