Saying Goodbye to Surfer Mag; Fall Swells, October Love – The SandPaper

John Severson, Jon Coen The SandPaper

FROM THE SOURCE: John Severson, founder of Surfer magazine, at his ‘satellite office’ on the beach in California. Surfer magazine shut down this weekend after 60 years. (Photo Surfer magazine Archives)

Last week Liquid Lines was all about good news. This week, someone dropped a burning bag on the front porch, and we have to decide whether to step on it, knowing what kind of gross stuff might be inside, or take the chance of the porch catching on fire. The little flickers of hope (not the ones that might contain doggy doo) can be quickly extinguished in 2020, and I’m not even talking about the wild political theater of the past week.

On Friday night, Surfer magazine was shuttered, presumably forever.

This is a hard time for print media, The SandPaper notwithstanding. The truth is that our weekly beach paper here fills an important gap in community journalism that has been lost in the digital age, and our geographic location (somewhat isolated and underserved by the big regional papers to our north and south) keeps The SandPaper increasingly relevant. But you likely know the basic plot here – the internet has crushed print media. And if you don’t know the gist, count how many magazine subscriptions arrive in your mailbox each month. Probably not too many. Surfing Magazine, Transworld SURF and Eastern Surf Mag, all of which I had the privilege of contributing to, are now gone with countless others.

But Surfer likely hits the hardest, simply because it was a voice for 60 years. For a pursuit so commonly associated with youth, that might as well be 10 lifetimes.

When a person dies, part of the process of seeking closure is remembering our relationships with the deceased. And that’s exactly what surfers of all ages spent the early part of this week doing, sharing our connection with this long-running publication.

The death of a magazine speaks volumes (sorry, poor choice of words) specifically to the changes in our life brought by the world-wide web and, more recently, social media. When I say that pre-2000 a magazine was everything, I mean it was everything. Besides trips to the surf shops, Surfer was the message of surfing. It was called “the Bible of the sport,” and each issue was the word of god when it arrived in the mailbox.

Surfer was first published in 1960 by writer/surfer/filmmaker/artist John Severson, benefiting from the rapid growth of surfing for the first 10 years, documenting the radical change in the ’70s and the massive commercial boom of the ’80s. By the end of the ’90s, Surfer had four direct competitors, and all the mags chubbed up as board sports feasted on the fatty spoils of mainstream acceptance. The next decade saw massive shifts to digital and economic challenges, but Surfer survived them all, even Severson himself, who passed three years ago.

An iconic black and white photo of Severson shows him sitting at a picnic table on the beach at San Onofre, Calif., a ’60s surfboard leaning on the table; shirtless, he’s working at a typewriter with a VW van in the background.

I’ll admit this was one of the most important photos in my life, even if it was taken a decade before I was born. It told me that if you could find a way to present surfing in an interesting way to other people, to expand on the common feelings that riding waves gave us, there might be a way you could create a life around that, and still surf when the conditions line up. I have written for probably 20 surf-related magazines (don’t worry, I’ve done every other type of work on this glorified sandbar as well), but the features I did for Surfer were the most exciting to see published.

My early relationship with Surfer Mag was probably the same as for anyone of Generation X, and even boomers and some older millennials. That perfect bound publication (a little higher standard than Surfing, which was stapled together) would arrive every month, and we would gobble up every word. Like many others, I started reading it at about 12 years old. I savored every article, absorbed each photo and studied every ad. It may have been a one-sided relationship – what we used to be taught as “mass communication” as opposed to “interpersonal” before that whole paradigm blew up – but those writers, editors and photographers were speaking to me. I may have read the contest articles once, but every other story got triple read. And, of course, there was Wilbur Kookmeyer, the most classic of cartoons, which lampooned our own culture in a way we were too naïve to understand.

I read these mags in Forked River, 16 miles from the Causeway Bridge (24 minutes, which we would learn later we could shave down to 21, without red lights or regard for safety). But during the never-ending winter, Lacey Township Middle School might as well have been 500 miles from the beach. The places we were reading about might as well have been on a different planet. I assume it was the same for inland kids who summered on LBI. Even if you grew up east of the bridge, winter surf gear was never too accessible to 13-year-old kids.

It’s where we learned about the culture of surfing – the history, geography, customs, style, environmental responsibility, heroes, music and ways of the world; the scriptures of Steve Pezman, Sam George, Drew Kampion, Matt Warshaw and Steve Hawk. We learned the norms and the taboos, an education sorely missed in the water today. It also lit that fire in our imaginations. Along with a couple surf videos that would play at the local fire hall or, later, dubbed VHS copies, it created our world view. If television was the window to the world, Surfer Magazine was a periscope directed at the life we wanted to live.

Surfer even had a brief TV show, part of ESPN’s “Hot Summer Nights” lineup in the early ’90s. It was a half-hour program paired with a pre-recorded surf contest, or perhaps a beach volleyball tournament with copious bikini clips. We couldn’t have cared less about beach volleyball, but we’d watch it on Tuesday nights just to feel like we were part of the beach lifestyle.

For many of us who bit into, chewed on and digested every word from cover to cover, Surfer set our lives on unique paths.

The internet would change a lot of that. It wasn’t all bad. The mags had an online presence and a new revenue stream. The message boards were a testament to how vociferous the subculture still was. And web-only media could deliver content without the overhead of printing an actual magazine. The internet combined with the great recession, compounded by splintering demographics and an ailing surf industry, made it all very difficult. Parent companies laid off the staffs until they were working with skeleton crews. Surfer was reduced to a quarterly.

But what really killed Surfer was likely the fact that what we saw as the collective culture of surfing, some important guy in a suit saw as simply a “title,” another commodity to be bundled up, bought and sold by people who have never ridden waves. One media corporation that formerly owned Surfer had bought Surfing. Another parent company purchased Transworld Surf just to shut it down and eliminate competition. This wasn’t their Bible; it was simply another branch of media that either made money or didn’t. And that’s fair, but it still stings.

The bottom line is that Surfer Magazine is dead. Might someone buy it and revive it? Well, maybe, but despite this long essay of what Surfer meant to me growing up, I haven’t paid for a subscription in a long time. You probably haven’t, either. The writing was on the wall – sadly, not on the page.

WAVES IN THE FLESH: Can we just pause early October? Anyone else feel me on this? The last ripe tomatoes on the vine and goldenrod in the dunes! I love New Jersey from August to the end of December, but this whole September/October part is just way too fleeting. Since 2020 is so out of whack, maybe we can just hit Jan. 1, get a vaccine and go right back to Labor Day for a do-over of fall?

It’s not just the weather that has me all jazzed, but the waves, too. Granted it wasn’t all LBI proper this past week, but waves nonetheless.

What I am specifically referring to is the fun south swell that hit last week. The wind blew up a bit of surf on Tuesday, although there was really more fetch for it offshore. Wednesday was a perfectly crisp fall day with waist- to head-high waves.

The only problem on Wednesday was that the wind did a familiar little dance between southwest and west-southwest, which, because of the southeast facing angle of LBI, isn’t very good. We seem to be able to handle a hint of north/northwest much better. In fact, even when the wind seems to be westerly on much of our coast, the elements of south wind seem to dominate and really hurt the wave quality here. When you have the time in the off-season (far less traffic and gridlock), it’s always a good idea to have a plan to drive north up the Parkway for surf. Where you choose to surf up there is up to you. Obviously Seaside is the closest, but you can venture farther up for more swell in Bay Head, more protection in Manasquan and bigger jetties through most of Monmouth County.

From all the reports I got, spots on LBI were lackluster to “mehhhh,” with a few rights lining up. But from my own experience and everyone who headed north, it was perfectly groomed all day, and the waist- to head-high swell kept pumping. Plus the sandbars are far better suited for that size range up there between jetties.

Last Thursday was a smaller version of this swell, and again the southwest winds marred this. And actually while the wind stayed southwest to our north for more clean conditions, it went fully sideshore about three hours earlier here.

This isn’t to say that every south swell is a waste of time on LBI. We just have to look for the ones that are followed by northwest winds. These seem to come when the temps drop a bit more. The other thing to watch is the position of the low pressure center after it passes us and where we are in relation to the storm. The tiniest tweak in track can make the difference, and I could be convinced that the seasonal air and/or water temp might sometimes dictate the track of those low pressure systems.

The wind finally went offshore on Friday for tiny leftovers. But I did see a few clean little waves on the south end at the better tide. The weekend was mostly small with unfavorable conditions. We had a new easterly swell arrive, somewhat by surprise on Monday with a low to our northeast. The surf was really fun at dawn before the morning high, and then for a brief period in the afternoon on the outgoing before the wind came up strong from the north, making it pretty junky at all but a few locations. This lasted into Tuesday morning which was waist-to-chest high and as glassy as it gets, making for a very strong run of waves this past few weeks.

Long Beach Island, October The SandPaper

It’s been an awfully pretty couple of weeks on the Island. (Photo by Paul Boardman)

ROCKTOBER: I promise this isn’t a continued love letter to October. But the somewhat active pattern should continue somewhat.

Also, the surf temps are still in the high 60s, and there were several surfers out Monday with only wetsuit tops and trunks, which is great news if you’re hunting little barrels this next few weeks, not so good if you’re hunting striped bass in the surf, I guess. Talk to Jay Mann on that one.

October tends to be when we transition away from hurricanes and back to local windswells, which has seemingly already happened. But I am not convinced that tropical season 2020 is over, especially with Hurricane Delta and Tropical Storm Gamma in the Gulf of Mexico right now. And once again, there’s going to be another direct hit for Louisiana. We are now at 25 named storms this year, which is significant. I do think a more accurate account of the season is evident in what scientists call the Accumulated Cyclone Index, now at 108, or about 25 percent higher than average, with more storms possible. Right now there is nothing in the open Atlantic, but don’t think it can’t happen.

October is also usually good for our first big nor’easter, so keep an eye out for that.

ARE WE JAMMING?: We are now a full four weeks into the Jetty Clam Jam waiting period. What everyone was hoping to be an early Clam Jam this year has turned out to be a long wait. Not the longest wait, mind you. There have been some November Jams in years that the surf didn’t cooperate. In the case of 2020, it’s been swell all week and crummy weekends. But this weekend, there does look to be some marginal swell in the water. Just have to see if the winds will cooperate at all.

There still aren’t a lot of proper events on the docket, but this would stand to be the last of any significant distanced gatherings for our little sandbar until the Ship Bottom Christmas Parade, which is scheduled to happen Dec. 5.

But this weekend is the LBI Fly Kite Festival in Ship Bottom, which is always impressive. I just wouldn’t expect as many hands-on aspects for the kids this year. Attendees are asked to use common sense distancing. As we have found the last few months, beach gatherings do not seem to see a lot of transmission.

Should the Clam Jam be held in Brant Beach on one of the same days as the Kite Fest, which is using Long Beach Township lots for satellite parking, plan accordingly.

Also, on Saturday night Fantasy Island will do its Fall Fireworks Spectacular at 8 o’clock, an event that truly closes the summer season. It’s an indication of how impressively busy our shoulder season has become, even in an abnormal year.

Although a lot of us will sure be happy to see the traffic lights go off driving south.

And rest in peace, Surfer Mag. We all owe you a set wave.