PALOS VERDES ESTATES, Calif. >> From high atop the oceanside cliffs, the shimmering blue-green water of Lunada Bay appears to be a surfer’s dream.
But by the time surfers put on their wet suits, some may be having second thoughts. There are the taunts, and the peltings of dirt and rocks they may face as they climb down the hill.
And if they make it into the water, they risk confrontation with a band of residents, known widely as the Bay Boys, who have long been accused of zealously — and sometimes violently — claiming the epic waves here as their exclusive territory.
“The last time I surfed out there, these guys tried to really hurt me,” said Chris Taloa, 42, who for years lived in nearby Redondo Beach. “A guy tried to ram a board into my ribs.”
But after intimidation that has kept outsiders like Taloa away for generations, a group of surfers is fighting to open up the beach to all comers. A class-action lawsuit filed last month by the Coastal Protection Rangers and two surfers seeks to bar the Bay Boys from congregating at Lunada Bay — similar to the way that injunctions have been used against members of criminal street gangs.
The alleged members hail from one of the most exclusive communities in Southern California; many of them are middle-aged; some live in multimillion-dollar homes so close to the coastline here that the morning fog rolling off the ocean leaves their lawns damp.
Still, Vic Otten, one of the lawyers for those bringing the lawsuit, said the group represented a threat to the public. Only eight members have been named in the lawsuit so far, but he said he expected to add dozens more.
“They’ve taken a public asset, the ocean, and stolen it through violence and intimidation,” he said. “In California, the ocean belongs to the public, not to a bunch of trust-fund babies.”
Outside his auto shop, where surfboards were leaning against the wall, Angelo Ferrara, who, along with several of his family members, was named in the lawsuit, said that his family was not part of any gang, and that the territorialism here was no worse than anywhere else.
“Surfing is overcrowded,” Ferrara, 58, said. “You have beginners, intermediate and advanced. And they don’t get along.”
Frank Ponce, a Palos Verdes resident and surfer, scoffed at the idea of an organized gang, saying the problem was merely “a couple bad apples,” and visitors who were not experienced enough to surf a wave as powerful as those at Lunada Bay.
“You get all these people from out of town who think they’re big-wave surfers, and then they cut people off,” Ponce said. “Of course they’re going to get yelled at — they’re endangering lives.”
Surfing “localism,” with a hierarchy in the water based on skill and seniority, is hardly exclusive to this beach: It can be found at choice breaks from here to Australia. And many surfers see its benefits, especially in spots with big waves that are dangerous for beginners.
As surfing’s popularity has exploded in recent years, localism has faded as more people have charged the waves.
But not at Lunada Bay, which offers not only some of the most powerful waves in Southern California but also an easily defensible location. At the edge of the Palos Verdes Peninsula south of Los Angeles, it is a long drive from most population centers; the steep path down from the cliffs to the ocean is treacherous even when nothing is being thrown at you; and the police department in this town — where the median family income is more than $170,000 and Porsches are a common sight — has long been accused of tacitly supporting the Bay Boys’ local-only ethos, as a strategy for keeping away crowds.
Taloa grew up surfing on the north shore of Oahu, in Hawaii, an area famous for its huge waves — and for locals who will use their fists to enforce their hierarchy in the water. But Taloa said he had never faced anything like what goes on in Lunada Bay, where the harassment began before he even reached the water.
“In most places, if you come out in the lineup, wait your turn, give respect, they’ll give you a chance, but these guys don’t even do that,” he said. In Lunada, he said, “I’ve been threatened with jail and rape, racial language.”
Diana Milena Reed, an aspiring big-wave surfer who lives in Malibu, said she was sexually harassed in February while watching a friend surf from a stone patio that local surfers constructed decades ago on the nearby rocks — without approval from the state. She said a middle-aged man sprayed beer on her, made an array of sexual comments and briefly exposed himself, all while several others looked on.
“There aren’t usually a lot of women out there,” Reed, 29, said. “That’s intimidating enough, without having men harass you.”
Reed is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which also seeks to compel the city to crack down.
Past pledges to stamp out the group were quickly abandoned. Little changed here after a brawl on the beach in 1995, surfers said. And in 2002, when the police chief installed a camera to record Lunada Bay full time, the City Council soon ordered it removed, after residents complained that it would draw untold masses to the area after they got a peek at Palos Verdes’ natural splendor.
“Palos Verdes would like nothing better than to have gates at either end of the peninsula, and not let any of us up there,” said Matt Warshaw, who edits the Encyclopedia of Surfing website.
Even growing up in nearby Manhattan Beach in the 1970s, he said, he knew that going to Palos Verdes would mean trouble.
After the release of an undercover video last summer — which was produced by The Guardian and showed middle-aged men harassing would-be surfers, and the police doing little in response to a complaint — the police chief, Jeff Kepley, vowed to end localism.
In a brief telephone interview, Kepley said he could not discuss the issue because of the lawsuit but added: “We’ve done a lot. All anyone says is that we don’t do anything.”
Still, reports of harassment have continued. And most outsiders continue to stay away. On a recent day with a big swell, only three men were in the water at Lunada Bay, catching wave after majestic wave. A few others watched from the stone porch, where beer, snacks and surf equipment were stashed.
“Nobody goes there, because the reputation is so well known throughout the surf world,” said Steve Hawk, a Southern California native and the former editor of Surfer Magazine. “They’ve kind of succeeded.”