The anti-racist surf crew taking back LA’s beaches

The anti-racist surf crew taking back LA’s beaches
Turn the tide — ‘Color The Water’ is a different kind of surf crew. Formed as Black Lives Matter protests swept the globe, the Los Angeles collective is out to reclaim surf culture in southern California – one wave at a time.

A version of this story appears in Huck 74: The Action Issue. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue. 

It’s early evening in southern California. Ty Duckett, a stocky west Philadelphia native, lies on his surfboard in the ocean. Another man, wearing a bucket hat, stands nearby: he’s chest-deep in the water and gesturing with his hands. Ty, who’s 35 years old, nods in agreement as the ocean pulses around him.

A wave begins to crest. Ty slowly paddles his way into it and presses his torso up, forming, for a brief moment, a hypotenuse triangle between his body, his outstretched arms, and the board. He firmly plants his right foot, as his back leg does a full 180 degree sweep to the front of the board. Only then is it clear that Ty, a black man on a beach that was once segregated, is surfing with a prosthetic leg. 

The man in the bucket hat, now cheering at the top of his lungs, is David Malana, the founder of Color The Water: a Californian surf collective, made up entirely of people of colour, that sprang up during the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police officers. 

“I guess you could say I’m the founder of this thing, but it’s everyone’s, man,” David says, his tone soft. “It’s everyone who brings what they are that makes this special. I’m just a vessel letting it move through me.” 

A few hours earlier, I’m watching as the Color The Water crew ready their surfboards for the evening session. Everyone is hanging at the clubhouse (a makeshift surf spot, based out of an Airbnb property that David rents to house the group), which sits along the famed Ocean Front Walk of Santa Monica, where 100 metres of sand is all that separates you from the Pacific Ocean.

The lineup changes almost daily, but the mood here remains the same. There are artists, actors, dancers, designers, rappers, writers, programmers, personal trainers, nurses, restaurateurs, PhD students: anyone and everyone can turn up. Today, there’s even a shirtless toddler, who wanders around like he owns the place. Surfers don wetsuits, wax boards, attach leashes, all the while talking about the day’s swell, the price of TESLA, and why Drake is, ultimately, overrated as a rapper. 

A couple of crew members compare equipment.

David emerges from his room and strolls out onto the courtyard, shirtless and sporting a wry grin. The 38-year-old is a Los Angeles native of Filipino descent, who recently returned home after some time away. He bought his first board aged 21 and taught himself how to use it, but after quickly growing disillusioned with his local surf scene’s lack of diversity (“I was trying to find a fit in a culture that didn’t really have a space for me”), he stumbled across an article about surfers in the Peace Corps serving communities in remote locations. Enthused, he decided to sign up, and kept his fingers crossed for a posting near the ocean – but ended up in landlocked Kyrgyzstan. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was so naive,” he remembers. “I was trying to be some kind of brown white saviour.” 

He served for five years before calling it a day and immediately began making up for lost time, taking jobs in international schools and embracing different surf scenes across the globe. “It really rocked my world when I went to the Philippines, seeing dark-skinned Filipinos on boards in the ocean, not trying to fit into white surf culture,” he remembers. “That was game-changing.”

In 2020, shortly after a spell in India, he returned home to southern California. Back on the water where he first learned to surf, David was quickly reminded of what it felt like to be one of few surfers of colour at the beach. In May, when George Floyd was killed, the local surf community began hosting ‘paddle-out’ protests to show support. But David found, more often than not, they were hosted by white people. “It was nice and all, but it just felt like there was more I could do. I started thinking: ‘What do I have to offer?” 

So one day, when he was out in the water, he approached a fellow person of colour – a beginner – and asked if he could give her some pointers. The pointers turned into a lesson, and when a group of onlookers asked if they could join, the lesson turned into a group class. It continued growing from there: in July, when the first mailing list went out, there were 10 recipients. At the time of writing, there are over 100, and they go out surfing twice a day: once in the morning, once in the evening.  

David, 38, exits the water with his board and trusty bucket hat.

Today’s session is a particularly busy one, with people moving in and out of the club house as boards are prepped. One member spits a freestyle in the background, while another, who has put their wetsuit on backwards, is summarily roasted by the rest of the group. Once everyone is ready, it’s off to the water, surfboards in tow, with some members lifting two to help those who cannot carry their own. David, meanwhile, carries the child, who he seems to have adopted for the time being.

As they make their way to the usual spot, Lizelle Jackson, a 33-year-old surf teacher who’s been with Color The Water from the early days, recounts how, on a recent trip to a surf store, she was told that there wouldn’t be any women’s wetsuits in her size. “What are they saying about what a woman’s body should look like?” she asks. “What does that mean for female surfers?” 

A west coast native who’s always on the move, ‘Liz’ is known to switch effortlessly between English, French and Spanish at any given time. “I was always a water baby,” she says, making wide circles with her arms as part of the pre-surf warmup. “I grew up in the desert outside of LA, and my favourite time was when I got to visit my godmother in Oxnard, because that meant I got to go to the beach. I saw surfers, and it was always something I wanted to do – it looked so free and liberating.” 

At 14 years old, she managed to talk her mother into buying her a surfboard, which she remembers as being way too small for her. (“I probably tried to use that thing for three years, and I don’t even think I ever got up on it.”) Over time, though, she became more comfortable in the water, surfing whenever she could. After enjoying a professional volleyball career in Switzerland, she spent years as a travel guide, catching waves all over the world, before eventually returning home to the U.S.

Ty waits on the beach. The 35-year-old joined CTW after David reached out online.

She first met David in June, during one of the initial paddle-outs. A couple of months later, she saw the #ColorTheWater hashtag trending on social media and reached out to see if he needed a hand with teaching. It’s been “non-stop” ever since. For Liz, the crew is about addressing the idea that certain scenes only belong to certain people. “I feel like I never see people like me represented in any of the things I do. Travelling, hiking, biking, surfing… where the outdoorsy Black girls at?” she says. “I know we exist. I’m here.”

To really understand the ethos behind Color The Water, it helps to understand a bit of the history. From day one, non-white surfers have generally struggled to break into what remains a homogenous sport. When Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian competition swimmer, introduced the ancient sport of surfing to the world, it was to all-white crowds on segregated beaches. Over time, surfing became inherently territorial, colonial even. ‘Our waves, our beach, our spot.’ 

While white Americans were surfing freely, the Black community in California were restricted to a small strip of land pejoratively called Inkwell – less than a kilometre south of where the Color The Water crew currently surfs. In the ’40s, Nick Galbadon, a surfer of Black and Latino descent, was known to regularly paddle 12 miles from Inkwell to Malibu, surf the waves there, then paddle 12 miles back, all for the love of doing it. (According to most reports, he caught his last wave in 1951, after losing control of his board and crashing into the Malibu pier during a particularly large swell. His body washed up three days later.)

Of course, over time, there have been exceptions who have broken through. But even after segregation ended, the Ku Klux Klan in southern California played an active role in restricting beach access for Black locals, and those scars still run deep. Today, though, Color The Water gives people of colour permission to be wherever they want to be. 

Joi, 38, gazes out into the distance as she prepares herself for the evening session.

Joi Madison, who hails from Inglewood herself, has also been surfing with Color The Water since the beginning. As the group line up their boards on the sand, Joi, who is six feet tall, with dreads flowing past her shoulders, begins to lead everyone in a yoga warm-up. The gentle sound of breaking waves underscores the silence as they flow through a series of positions – downward dog, sun salutations, low lunges – before ending with a mountain pose: eyes closed, palms touching.

Joi, 38, used to own a fitness studio in South Central before deciding to change direction. “Most people knew what they should be doing to reach their goals, but they just weren’t doing it – there was something getting in their way,” she says. “So I went back to school to get my Masters in Clinical Psychology.” 

She now works as a ‘clarity coach’ – someone who helps clients find clarity in their “careers, relationships and life transitions”. She is scheduled to complete her doctorate in 2021 and, given her expertise, has become a key figure in the Color The Water group, always on hand to listen and advise as best she can.   

“My word for the year is surrender,” she explains, as the rest of the surfers begin to enter the water around her. “Every year I set my intentions on a word, and on 1 January, it was ‘surrender’. This is my first year really surfing, and part of the challenge for me was learning to surrender on the ocean. Cos when that wave wants to take you, it’s gonna take you.”

Joi leads the group in a brief bit of beach yoga.

As soon as the boards hit the water, it’s a non-stop celebration. As far as Color The Water are concerned, there are no traditions or rules that anyone needs to follow. Newcomers and experts share waves and wipeouts. David will always begin in the shallow section, helping those who are less confident, while the more experienced members jump straight in. Today, he’s busy giving a mini-lesson to a couple of first-timers. “Don’t forget to shuffle your feet,” he calls out. “There are stingrays out here.”

Joi catches the first wave of the day, and the ocean turns to a cacophony of cheers, claps, and whistles. Liz takes the role of quarterback, directing surfers with precision. She shouts out waves approaching like Tom Brady reading a zone defence: “Paddle, paddle! UP! Paddle into it! Pop up!” 

Sam catches the next wave. In his bright blue durag, you can spot the 34-year-old from a mile away. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, he always wanted to surf. When he eventually found himself living in southern California, it seemed like the perfect place to start. “I joined a Black surfers Instagram group, even though I didn’t surf, just looking for a way in,” he says. “That’s how I found CTW. From there, it just clicked.” 

Devante Deschwanden – aka Desch – also joined as a beginner. The 25-year-old declined a full-ride scholarship to the university of his choice, instead choosing to serve in the military. But he always dreamt of a “SoCal lifestyle” and, after completing his service, decided to give it a go in California. “As soon as I got here, I bought a surfboard off Craigslist. I wanted to surf so bad, but I couldn’t even sit up on my board at first. I would try to pick up tips here and there, but it was hard to [learn] from strangers.” 

“Being the one Black dude whenever I went to surf got kind of old,” he continues. “I was surfing a lot in Pismo Beach, and it’s a ‘locals only’ kinda place. One day someone literally said, ‘Who are all these fucking outsiders?’, and five surfers just turned and looked at me.”

Sam, 34, takes a breather. Although he grew up on the east coast in Richmond, Virginia, he always dreamt of learning how to surf.

It’s stories like this that speak to why David first started the group. The vast majority of crew members are still at the beginning of their journey in surf – there’s almost always a first-timer present – but Color The Water embraces everyone: there is no template for what makes a typical member, no ‘right’ way to enjoy the water. “Everyone’s body type is different, everyone’s pop-ups are going to look different,” says David. “That’s okay.”  

Joi echoes his sentiment when it comes to embracing individuality. “Like come on, can we have some fun out here? You know we like to stunt,” she says. “I feel like I can bring my personal style here and be celebrated rather than isolated. Out here, different isn’t a bad thing.”

After a few hours out on the water, the sun starts to set over the rocks in Malibu, turning the water pink and violet. “I’m not trying to stay out here after dark, I can’t see them creatures,” says Sam, who makes it clear that today’s session is coming to an end. “Creatures are anything in the water other than water,” he adds, by way of clarification.

Ty, meanwhile, is sat on the beach, sharing a pack of Cheetos with his son – the previously unidentified child from earlier in the day. “David found me,” he says, referring to his involvement with Color The Water. “I used to only surf when organisations that could assist disabled people hosted events. But David saw one of my posts and said I could surf out here with them. So I signed up for a surf lesson and the rest is history. I just loved it, I keep coming back – because CTW is family.”

The sun sets in Santa Monica.

A key pillar of Color The Water is that it remains free. No one is obliged to pay a dime, but those who are able to give back make sure to contribute. “Pay what you can, when you can, with whatever means you can,” says David. For some, that means bringing snacks and water, for others it means contributing teaching skills, and so forth. Everything about the movement is people-powered. “I feel like I have a legitimate community here,” says Desch. “This was exactly what I always imagined as a kid. Man, I get a little emotional thinking about it.” 

“Life is hard enough, and surfing is hard too, so the last thing we need is any kind of negativity, disrespect, or harassment,” adds David. Though he refuses to take credit, he’s cultivated a space where people can be themselves – whoever they are, whatever their background. In this sense, Color The Water has become way more than simply a place to escape. For many, it’s home. 

“When I was a kid, I’d disassociate myself with Filipino culture, because I never wanted to seem like a ‘FOB’ – someone fresh off the boat,” David says. “That’s what happens when your culture of origin is ridiculed. Surfing took me all over the world, now I’m back here to the place where I first shunned the identity that I now embrace. If I can give anything, I hope I can give the right, the comfort and confidence for everyone to embrace their culture, too.” 

Two surfers float together in the Pacific Ocean as dusk settles.

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This story is part of the The Outsiders Project.

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