California surf clubs unite for Gathering of the Tribes contest, but their future may be at risk
It was a showdown of surf clubs.
Twenty-two clubs from along the California coast, with more than 400 surfers from as far as Santa Cruz, came to San Onofre State Beach over the weekend for the annual Gathering of the Tribes, an event bringing camaraderie and competition to the surf.
“The waves were just to die for, (the swell) came in so beautiful, the weather was perfect,” said Mark Gale, event organizer and president of the Doheny Longboard Surfing Association. “There were some surfers who definitely had a really good experience out there with the waves they caught … everyone had a lot of fun.”
The Gathering of the Tribes is the first stop in a 10-contest series that hops up and down the coast, with the next stop in Santa Cruz, a few in Malibu and San Diego, and the finale, at the end of the year, in Mexico. The club with the highest ranking wins the series, along with major bragging rights.
It’s a tradition that has been going for nearly three decades — but with each year gets harder to pull together as membership and participation in long-time surf clubs dwindles.
Surf club history
Most of the California surf clubs started as a way to gather for a common cause, or to bring surfers together.
Long Beach — though today lacking waves except when an occasional swell sneaks by the breakwater — had a rich surf history, including playing host to the National Surfing and Paddleboard Championships in 1938, with the then newly-formed Long Beach Surfing Club inviting surf clubs from California and Hawaii to compete.
San Onofre Surf Club was formed as a way to let surfers get access to the beach after the Marines and Camp Pendleton took over the area decades ago. Surfers had to be a part of the club to ride waves at this tucked-away surf spot.
Malibu and Doheny surf clubs sprung up out of environmental concerns, prompting the creation of the Surfrider Foundation.
“The need for environmental change was the driving force for those surfers to come together, to write letters and push for change for a cleaner environment,” Gale said. “A lot of the younger people today don’t realize that’s how these clubs came into existence.”
The Coalition of Surf Clubs was formed not just to compete, but also with the goal of cleaning the water in which they surfed.
“Everybody was having the same need, an environmental need,” Gale said. “By increasing our numbers, we became stronger and pushed for the changes we have today.”
Because strides were made on environmental issues, each club started doing humanitarian work that fit the passions of their members. Doheny’s club, for example, hosts events to benefit the Ronald McDonald house, assists local schools, awards scholarships, and spruces up the park when the state budget is tight.
But there’s been a shift in recent years, Gale said, one that could lead to the extinction of surf clubs.
Surf clubs used to be a way for families to spend weekends together, a chance for the kids not only to compete but to learn lessons about giving back to the community. Many of the longtime members are parents, some of whom don’t surf, who have stuck around long after their kids have gone off to college.
But the parents of many of today’s youths just want them to compete, without the labor of being a volunteer with the club, Gale said. They become “club hoppers,” only joining clubs where the kids have more chance of competing or standing out for sponsors.
So what’s missing are the volunteers who put the contests together, the people who show up for meetings, and the helpers who come out for the beach cleanups after the storms and get their hands dirty.
“The Coalition are mom-and-pop charity organizations, we are all nonprofit,” Gale said. “No one in the coalition gets paid. It’s all volunteer work. This understanding of what formed this stepping stone, they aren’t familiar with it.”
The Doheny Longboard Surfing Association, which has been around since 1988, usually has about 150 to 200 members. This year? About 40.
“What are we going to do to save this to make a positive impact on our community?” Gale asked. “It’s a constant strain.”
Some clubs are getting creative by adding activities outside of surf events, such as bowling leagues or miniature golf tournaments — extra incentives to encourage members to participate, mingle and have fun.
The Doheny club will gather Friday, April 19, to talk about dwindling membership and how to revitalize the club so it doesn’t vanish — so they can continue with the legacy of events, such as the Gathering of the Tribes.
“My hope is that we don’t have another galvanizing event that causes these surf clubs to form, such as beach cleanups and water-quality issues,” Gale said. “But now that the storm has gone by and we’re all having fun, the people thinking about getting involved will realize that there’s a lot more than just a surf contest that will put a smile on your face. You can join these clubs, make a difference in your community, and surf.”
As the first contest wrapped up, over the weekend, Windansea earned the top spot, with Oceanside Surf Club in second, San Onofre Surf Club finishing third, and the Doheny Longboard Surfing Association fourth.
Long Beach Surf Club came in fifth — not too shabby for a club in a town that doesn’t have waves.
The benefits of winning the title at the end of the 10-stop series goes beyond surfing waves, Gale said.
“The reward is more than a trophy that will be collecting dust,” he said. “You’re actually involved in your local community. That feeling is a lot better.”