Surfonomics and the Worth of the Waves

An early morning surf in Ventura. | Photo: Extra Medium/Flickr/Creative Commons License

My friend Bill Bones (yes I doubt that's his real name, but it's the name we all knew him by) had a simple way of quantifying a wave's value for visiting surfers. By visiting surfers I mean surfers who didn't live in our New Jersey beach town. How many teeth might the ride be worth? Bones was twenty years older than the rest of us, but he was also fit, large, and very quick. He didn't pummel every visitor who paddled out -- that would have interfered with his opportunity to catch waves -- but he made it clear that he might. His size, coupled with a propensity for sudden irrational behavior, kept the best waves at our local break largely to us, with visitors picking up the scraps. I am not saying I condone such behavior. I am just reporting how it was. Bones put a concrete value on waves, and visitors decided if their dental insurance was up to it or not.

Surfing is the main reason I moved from New Jersey to Ventura in 1985. I loved to surf then, and I love to surf now, and, with all due respect to the Jersey Shore (the place, not the TV Show, which deserves none), comparing the waves of Santa Barbara and Ventura to the waves of New Jersey is like pitting Kate Beckinsale against your sister.

Since those days with Bill Bones the popularity of surfing has skyrocketed, and it shows no sign of abating. When the surf is good, the waters of our Santa Barbara and Ventura breaks look like free sugar day at the ant farm. I doubt even Bones can fight off the masses now: there are just too many surfers, and by this stage he's probably exercising his dominion on the shuffleboard courts. Time humbles even the greatest warriors.

Now I am finding out that Bones, in quantifying the value of waves, was a visionary ahead of his time. The new science of "surfonomics" is now attempting to place a dollar value on waves. Any surfer who has ever ridden a shimmering wave at Rincon, the wave peeling off into the knee-jellying distance, knows innately what the experience is worth, but I doubt many surfers know that the wave at Mavericks (up north in Half Moon Bay) is worth $23.9 million annually. This according to Save The Waves who, partnering with economists at the University of Hawaii, the University of Oregon, and Stanford University, decided that, based on many, many parameters, the 420,000 surf-related people who visit Half Moon Bay each year spend an average of $56.70 a visit. Not all of them (wisely in the case of Mavericks) get in the water, but they all come to the surfy burg of Half Moon Bay to see some of the world's biggest waves. The 2010 study that came up with this figure concluded that the local economy benefited substantially from the wave at Mavericks.

The verbiage of surfonomics can be complicated -- terms like "the commodification of nature" and "non-consumptive natural resources" prove that economists can bleed the life out of anything. Its methodology and figuring is complex, too, at least to me, but the bottom line (sorry) that surfonomics folks are trying to work out is simple. How much money is a person willing to part with for the experience of riding a wave?

Those who still hold to the stereotype of the surfer as the guy who pays for gas with the lint in his pocket might find this question amusing, but those willing to come to grips with the real world might be interested to know that a recent study found that the entire U.S. surfing population is estimated to have an economic impact of $2 billion to $5 billion a year, and that, these days, the median surfer makes more than $75,000 a year. This is a lobby with some economic clout. If they could buy a wave, they would.

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For the surfer, or for that matter for anyone who loves the ocean, a price tag on a wave can be an invaluable and powerful tool. Prove that a wave is a multi-million dollar asset, and you might save it from ruin. This has already happened. In 2002 real-estate developers lobbied to build condos on the beach at Rincon (this Rincon on Puerto Rico's northwest coast). Surfers feared the construction, with concurrent shifting of the sands, would ruin the wave at Rincon. They enlisted the help of economists. Among other price tag items, the economists noted that visiting surfers were building second homes at Rincon (away from the beach), living there and contributing millions to the local economy. Local lawmakers turned down the development. They then went a step further, designating the wave, a break surfers call Tres Palmas, part of a protected marine reserve. Surfers won by fighting dollars with dollars.

I am happy about this because in my mind the world already has enough beachfront condos, and not enough pristine beaches, but it's the broader concept that really intrigues me. What is a wave worth? Bill Bones was willing to skin his knuckles. Puerto Rican lawmakers were willing to scrap a ritzy development, declining the jobs and money it would have brought. I once drove six hours to surf for an hour, before returning home. That drive cost me more than lint. I would do it again in five minutes, roughly the time it would take to throw together my gear and come up with a white lie for my wife.

Contrary to the camp of lint, surfers are an intelligent lot. Our local lineup is home to engineers, architects, teachers, and entrepreneurs who can afford to surf at ten in the morning on Tuesday, thanks to businesses that have made them millions. Along with being bright, these men and women are charming and eloquent, but if you ask them to describe their most memorable waves they will grow quiet and mildly glassy-eyed, and when they are finally able to speak, in their ardor and confusion they will trip over their own words as ably as Sean Penn's iconic surf-stoner Spicoli in the 1982 film "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Whooaaaaaaaa. Mr. Hand. Duuuuude. I can't answer that.

Here in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties we have lost our share of wave battles. A freeway off-ramp put an end to Stanleys (named for the resident diner), viewed by many as one of the best waves in Southern California. A jetty near the mouth of Ventura Harbor ruined a wave known for its fearsome take-off and knee-torqueing speed. Another jetty extension hurt the quality of another local wave that is still good enough that identifying it will see me keel-hauled if I survive the firebombing. Surfers can be passionate.

I am passionate, too, and so I welcome the efforts of civilized groups like the Surfrider Foundation and Save The Waves and their surfonomics number crunching, because as sure as tomorrow's dawn there will be developers who want to build homes right on the beach and people who want to live in them until the waves of the first big winter storm lumber through their living room. There is room for compromise. Surfers don't own the waves any more than developers do, but once a world class wave is gone it is gone for good.

I am happy that Bill Bones was right, although I am also happy that a more civilized calculation has since been attained.

But I am still left with a loose end that doesn't trouble me in the least.

There is a picture on my desk of our two sons. It sits in front of me right now. It was taken on the day they learned to surf. That is was Father's Day is merely an aside. They stand, eight and ten, barely able to hold on to their surfboards. There is a light in their eyes a surfer would recognize.

Since then, for almost ten years now, I have surfed with them on every kind of day and every kind of wave. Cold winter dawns when raw winds sweep down off the snow-capped Ojai mountains, grooming waves as big as barns. White-bright summer days of tiny, feather-soft tumblers. Today, with my youngest son, who now surfs far better than I ever have, cheering me on.

How much money would I pay for these moments?

Economics will never have the answer.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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