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The Chairman of The Longboard

[whitespace] Boots McGhee Reach for the Skies: Ocean activist and surfer Boots McGhee limbers up before a morning ride in Monterey Bay.

Robert Scheer


Surfrider Foundation co-chair and longtime Santa Cruz resident Boots McGhee is slowly but surely galvanizing--and humanizing--the surfing community's environmental group

By Traci Hukill

WHEN DOROTHY McGhee set out from New York with her three children in 1951, she was already used to adversity. Her family had disowned her for marrying a black trumpet player named Howard McGhee, one of the most promising names in jazz, and the young couple had moved around the country, unable to find acceptance. When the marriage dissolved, Dorothy set her compass for home to raise her family on her own.

So "Boots" McGhee and his little brother and sister moved to Berkeley with their fearless mother, and there they watched the '60s unfold. Or, rather, they participated in its unfolding. Always adventurous, Dorothy joined in the spirit of the times and took to her own form of political demonstration. During People's Park, she hung a sheet out the window: "Welcome to Prague," it said.

In Berkeley Boots McGhee learned "what the issues are" and what to do about them. "Whatever happened at Berkeley also happened at Berkeley High," McGhee grins, remembering campus demonstrations during the free-speech movement. And on the days he ditched school and hitchhiked to Bolinas or Santa Cruz, he learned to surf.

It's been 32 years since McGhee moved to Santa Cruz, 13 years since he joined the Surfrider Foundation and two years since he assumed the official role of chairman-- and now co-chair--of the Santa Cruz chapter of Surfrider. He often surprises people's expectations of him.

A contractor by trade, he's also a committed environmentalist. A pillar of the local surfing establishment, he's also the welcoming committee for women and young surfers. His leadership style is stable and unassuming, a function of networking and leading by example rather than pursuing radical policies.

But McGhee's influence has sharpened Surfrider's focus as an environmental presence while coaxing the organization into more humanistic endeavors: a program that brings clothing and school supplies to the fishing communities of Baja, presentations on marine preservation to 40 local classrooms this year, an outreach program to introduce Beach Flats kids to surfing and the ocean right outside their front doors.

At first glance, Surfrider is a peculiar environmental animal--one a hard-core Greenpeace warrior fresh from a showdown with a Russian whaling ship might sniff at. Surfrider unabashedly exists to keep surfing safe--and available--for surfers.

It's even in the mission statement: Surfrider is "dedicated to the protection, preservation and restoration of the world's oceans, waves and beaches." This is an organization that stocks its war chest for legal battles against jetties that threaten beloved surf breaks.

In Surfrider's case, the means justify the end. In making the ocean safe for surfers, Surfrider makes it safe for everyone. The organization's best-known ambassador is the water-pollution index, obtained when Surfrider volunteers gather water samples at surf spots and test them for coliform bacteria.

Every Monday, the volunteers--most of them students--meet in a classroom laboratory at Soquel High and run their samples through a $3,500 Millipore U.V. Sterilizer to isolate the bacteria, then set the bacteria in a petri dish for 24 hours. On Tuesdays, they return to count the colonies. The reason for Surfrider's weekly regimen is obvious and surfer-centric: coliform and other pollutants can give surfers sinus, ear and respiratory infections, rashes, hepatitis and gastrointestinal problems. Nevertheless, Surfrider's testing has served a greater good by identifying pollutants within the region's watershed.

In 1993, for example, Surfrider found that faulty plumbing in the Safeway on Mission Street was diverting sewage from the deli into a storm drain at Almar Street, resulting in consistently high bacteria counts there. Safeway replumbed, and Almar regularly tests clean now.

Anyone who swims in the ocean benefits from knowing which spots to avoid, but surfers do especially. As McGhee says, "I think we're so dedicated because we are the canaries in the mine shaft. We're the ones who get infected."

9FT 1FIN
Robert Scheer

Vanity, Thy Name Is License Plate: Even on dry land, McGhee's car reminds everyone of his urge to surf.

Poo Fighters

ON A SUNNY AFTERNOON in April, McGhee watches the sets of a small northwest swell roll in at Cowell's Beach. Undaunted by a brisk wind, neoprene-clad surfers pad by on their way to the stairs, longboards under their arms or balanced overhead. Many of them smile and say hi to McGhee. He greets them by name, or else just grins and says, "You're out there!"

Still dressed for work--he's remodeling a kitchen a few blocks from here--McGhee looks a good 10 or 15 years younger than his 50 years. Canvas hiking boots, shorts and a T-shirt plainly show a short, stocky build with no flab in evidence. He wears a Stüssy cap that would look a little silly on most people his age. When the sunlight catches his blue-green eyes they're almost translucent, as if they've permanently captured the play of sun on seawater.

"Cowell's is a hot spot," he says. "That pipe"--he points to a black tube running down the cliff and ending a few feet above the water--"drains runoff from the streets and people's lawns. There's fertilizer, some organic matter in there.

"The other problem is Neary Lagoon. See that concrete slab at the base of the wharf? That's where they drain the lagoon in rainy season. Periodically they test their pumps without telling the public. People will get out of the water and then find out."

The Neary Lagoon pumping project was the site of Surfrider's first showdown with the city back in 1993. After Surfrider filmed 36 minutes of continual pumping that discharged a plume of foul-smelling effluent onto Cowell's Beach during a swell (McGhee estimates that 150 surfers were in the water that day), Surfrider started leaning heavily on the city to regulate the pumping of Neary Lagoon. Meetings with the Regional Water Board resulted in diversion of the pipe to the sewage treatment plant as well as testing of streams and storm drains leading to the lagoon.

McGhee is proud of the chapter's accomplishments. Since its establishment in 1991 it has stenciled almost every storm drain in the county, and now has city funding to help with this year's restenciling.

But he needs more volunteers. That's why the pollution index sometimes lists five spots and sometimes 15. It just depends on who shows up on Monday night at the lab with samples, and where those people went in order to collect them.

"Getting volunteers is hard," he says. "The people involved have been involved for a long time. I think apathy is our main problem here."

But that's an old story in the world of volunteer-based organizations, just as old a story as the one about the nonprofit officer who finds himself smack in the center of a thorny debate over funding from politically incorrect sources.

Recently, the chapter officers have come under attack from members and other environmental groups for accepting money--almost $20,000--from Geoff Couch of Couch Distributing derived from the local summertime sale of Budweiser products for two years running.

Couch pledged five cents to Surfrider for each case sold, and Surfrider, which until then had relied mostly on donations and T-shirt sales for revenue, couldn't turn it down.

"We decided we'd take a hit on this," McGhee shrugs, "and now for the first time, we're able to help other chapters with things like legal expenses."

Division within the ranks is nothing new to McGhee. The present controversy over a proposal to build a natural history museum at Lighthouse Field has produced a spate of agitated phone calls to Surfrider and a pervasive buzz throughout the surfing community. At a Surfrider executive board meeting two weeks ago, McGhee suggested suspending judgment on the project until more information came in. He also voiced his personal support of the museum. Some people, he says, interpreted that as Surfrider's endorsement. It's not.

Then there's surfing itself. McGhee talks openly about a split within the surfing community that falls roughly along surfing styles--shortboarding vs. longboarding-- and age.

"There's built-in friction because longboarders can sit outside the break and catch the waves before they break," he says, "while shortboarders have to catch the wave at the peak. And if the longboarders aren't paying attention, they'll take all the waves. That results in a lot of hostility. Now that's been increased because you have a lot of women in the lineup, and the baby boomers have kids who are surfing longboards."

Surfin' Turf Wars

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to separate Surfrider from surfing, or McGhee from either one. The division concerns him both in the lineup and on land, where volunteer participation falls mostly to longboarders.

"Many shortboarders feel that clean water is like a longboarder's or old person's issue--'They have time to deal with it'--or they treat it like Mom and Dad will take care of it," he says.

He lays the attitude of the young shredder set, which praises aggression and its own variety of machismo, partly at the feet of the surf-garment industry.

"You have 'No Fear' and the 'Bad Boy Club,'" he points out with ill-concealed disgust, referring to two popular name brands. "What do the surfing marketeers think? It really hit surfing a few years ago. But," he laughs a little, "with all the women surfing now, it's almost as if it's payback for all the idiots. The lineup is mellower now out of sheer numbers."

McGhee's inclusive attitude in the water translates into his policy as a Surfrider officer: hence the lectures at local schools, the project to gather donated surfboards and wetsuits for Beach Flats kids, and the Baja assistance program.

The idea is to reach out, to give something back. Of the Baja assistance program, which McGhee started with former Surfrider chair Sally Smith in 1994, McGhee says simply, "Surfers used to go down there, party, drink, leave their garbage behind. Now we find it's better to bring something with you and take your trash out."

McGhee's acquaintances say he's well connected and well respected. People listen to him in the water, a serious plus in a town where aggression in the lineup frequently comes to blows. One friend describes him as "a calming influence out there."

Sally Smith, who co-owns Paradise Surf Shop, chaired Surfrider from 1993 to 1994 and credits McGhee with connecting her to the surfing establishment. She's completely behind his current projects.

"He's got a big heart and lots of goodwill," she says, "enough to go around for everyone. The work he's doing with Marciano Cruz [the Beach Flats surfing project organizer] is something I've always wanted to see--the environmental community including Beach Flats.

"He's just got a real positive demeanor. He's been willing to put himself out there for people to see that it's okay if we go to city council meetings, it's okay if we get involved. He's willing to take risks, and it's worth it every time."

For three years running, Tom McCall has been the chapter treasurer. At 68, El Viejo, as he prods acquaintances to call him, still surfs, and he's working on the Beach Flats surfing project along with McGhee and Cruz. He's known McGhee for eight years and has some idea about what makes him tick.

"Boots looks out for people's rights, and then he took on the rights of the earth, and the ocean in particular," he says thoughtfully. "Concern for others. Sometimes I wonder if the causes might be his children. He and Carm [Carmelita, his wife of 24 years] never had kids. He might be nourishing them--the causes."

He thinks a minute.

"And I've never seen him get upset."

"I've been asking myself, 'What is it?'" McGhee says when I ask what he likes about public life. "It's like I'm honoring my mom in some way. I do think I have a gift with people, a gift for motivating them. And I think there's a need for it.

"If you're conscious of being conscientious, you're doing good things, because you don't want to leave a trail of crap behind you. I think you want people to miss you when you go."

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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