Gone Surfing With...
Words by Christian Beamish
Lineage is important to us surfers, but lineage cuts both ways—where a person is from can give entrée or present barriers in our too-often territorial pursuit. Still, the old adage “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at” sets a more sensible tone. All this to say that my long time family friend, the woman who now calls me her brother (and she’s certainly a sister to me too), like me, grew up in Newport Beach. And Newport conjures a lot of associations, not all of them positive. It’s a town overrun by glitz and aspiration, seemingly driven by people’s desire to be seen as having it all. True enough, some of them down there are so rich they actually do seem to have it all, with a place in Montecito and another at the Ranch to boot. But what the hell, there happen to be wealthy people in the world—that, in and of itself, is not a problem. Yet having watched our hometown transformed from a rootsy (yes, the words “rootsy” and “Newport” could once have lived side-by-side) place of fishermen, boat builders, and a generally water-focused population to a region of virtually unchecked “luxury” development is an experience that has deeply affected both me and my friend, my sister, Morgan Coffey.
“Having seen what happened down there,” she told me recently, “was really motivating in my work with the Santa Barbara Land Trust, preserving as much of the Gaviota Coast as possible.” For 10 years Coffey met with ranchers, sitting down at kitchen tables to meet goals that included not only open space and natural terrain, but also the preservation of the culture of ranching, as these are aspects of a quickly vanishing California. Left to market forces, the coast will slip away in chunks until all a surfer will get, or any one else looking for the magic of the interface between land and sea, is a mere glimpse hemmed in by those same faux-Tuscan McVillas that now dominate the hills around Newport Coast Road, which, when we were kids (not that long ago in the scheme of things, in the late 70s and early 80s) was as wild as Gaviota, with bobcats and coyotes more a part of the surfing experience at the place we called Coves, than the Mercedes Benz SUVs are today.
Another part of Coffey’s past is her connection to the freak of nature that is the wave at the infamous Wedge. Holding her own as a bodysurfer there and engineering a combination of swimsuits that mostly stayed in place in the notoriously violent shore pound, endeared her to the crew, known from those times forward as “The Wedge Crew.” Of course, every break has its stalwarts—the devotees that form the culture of a spot, and The Wedge Crew occupy a particular blend of enforcement, hijinks and merriment centered on the art of bodysurfing (with a few exemptions given to certain kneeboarders over the years—sorry, no boogie boarders allowed). Like Santa Barbara, Newport also has an illustrious reputation as a party town and Wedge Crew parties, for better or worse, shifted the priorities of numerous attendees.
But out of this milieu—some crazed nights and punk rock exploits at the Cuckoo’s Nest on Placentia Street notwithstanding—Coffey developed an abiding connection to the sea, the clean sparkling waters of the Pacific and the running hills beyond. And with the Newport of her early youth when she led her dearly departed brother, the artist Glen Coffey, on many a skiff adventure under the bridges and through the docks of Lido Island, when sail lofts, Russell’s Brotherhood surfboards, and the Crab Cooker restaurant were the main concerns, when the Cannery was still a cannery, and in the days when John “the Duke” Wayne would saddle up to the bar at the Snug Harbor (is that place now one of those glass and steel structures like something you’d see in the “new” Venice?)—when the Newport she grew up with transformed around her, she did what a lot of folks from there have done (myself included): she packed up and headed North. Way North, to the forests of Marin County, where the fog is the reminder of the ocean and the redwoods make a world of their own.
…The Wedge Crew occupy a particular blend of enforcement,
The particulars matter, of course, and I’ll list them here: Coffey’s work in the natural health care industry that led to a vitamin company hiring her, which entailed a return to Newport (or Corona del Mar, to be precise) until her studies at Orange Coast College got her a scholarship to UCSB where she earned her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology, which in turn led to her work with Santa Barbara Land Trust. She is married to fellow wave rider Scott Leon, a product of the Goleta coastline and many generations of Californios right back to the land grant days. She calls herself a mermaid warrior, and with her current work as Development Director for Santa Barbara Channelkeeper it’s certainly an appropriate title. She loves Anacapa Island and knows the place well—as in, she knows every stretch of kelp bed and rocky nook of cove, swimming deep, gliding underwater on a single breath. A trained naturalist, she has led many tours there, helping others develop a personal love for the place based in knowledge and first-hand experience.
When she met Kira Redmond, Executive Director of Channelkeeper, to interview for the development position, Coffey said that both women just clicked and knew pretty quickly that their professional relationship would work. Putting on the Blue Water Ball each year—a gala event with speakers on the level of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Yvon Chouinard—is a major production that she handles with aplomb, raising money for the group she loves so well. “I joined the crew at Channelkeeper because of my love.My need for saltwater led me to work with the nonprofit with the most impressive track record for championing clean water and a healthy ocean,” Coffey related, “getting things done that matter to every person who cares about our beaches and the Santa Barbara Channel.” And there is a little Newport Beach in all that—the old Newport Beach.
Christian Beamish, author of The Voyage of the Cormorant – the account of his solo surfing expedition down the Pacific coast of Baja California by sail and oar in the 18-foot Shetland Isle beach boat he build – is a surfer, surfboard shaper, and writer. He lives in Carpinteria with his wife and two children.