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Black surfers introduce new generations to the California Coastline
By Charlene Muhammad, Contributing Writer
Published April 20, 2017

Gregory Rachal, Jr. (left), with his father, Gregory, Sr. Both are lifelong surfers. (Courtesy Photo)

Black surfers in Los Angeles are introducing new generations to the sport and to the California Coast.

The Black Surfers Collective (BSC) grew out of the Black Surfers Association, which hosts surf outings every second Sunday of the month at the Inkwell, a historic beach for Blacks in Santa Monica.

Over the last five years, BSC has hosted at least 30 people every weekend through their completely volunteer program.

A highlight is their annual tribute to a surfing pioneer on Nick Gabaldón Day. Gabaldón, a surfer of mixed African and Mexican heritage, grew up in Santa Monica and was one of the first celebrated surfers of color on the West Coast, said Gregory Rachal, Sr., a founding BSC member and co-president of BSC, along with Jeff Williams.

Rachal, a long time surfer, says BSC promotes diversity in surfing through community activities, outreach, and camaraderie.

“It’s been wonderful. We bring kids out from the Boys and Girls Club in Watts and East L.A., and we bring probably at least 100 kids every year to that event alone,” Rachal stated.

Damien Baskett (far right) gives lessons to young surfers. (Courtesy Photo)

BSC sustains its programs with funding from L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas and sponsorships from other organizations, including Heal the Bay, Surf Academy, the Santa Monica Conservancy, and the Santa Monica Pier.

In addition to the surf outings, BSC has also engaged in advocacy around coastal access. In 2013, the group helped pass Assembly Bill 976, allowing the Coastal Commission to levy fines against homeowners that create barriers to the coast.

“It really dealt with the fact that a lot of these folks that buy up this coastal land, they don’t want to provide access for those that don’t live there. They block off some of the walkways,” said Rachal.

People who buy coastal homes often assume they bought the beach as well, he said, so BSC works to ensure public areas remain open to everyone.

Amy Hutzel is deputy executive officer with the Coastal Conservancy. She noted that groups like BSC help create new generations of champions for the California Coast.

Dedon Kamathi, who passed away in 2015, was a founding member of the BSC (Courtesy Photo)

“These environmental education and outdoor education programs can be really life-changing experiences for young people,” Hutzel stated, adding their efforts also help support the Conservancy’s mission of expanding coastal access to more Californians.

“A lot of our youth, they don’t know anything about beach culture,” Rachal Sr. said. “They know about their neighborhood, but the beach could be five miles away, and they’ve never been there.”

Another reality is youth have been to and seen the beach, but have never been able to enjoy the water, he continued. BSC and its partners try to expose children to all of that, and let them know it exists for them as well.

“The beaches are another park system that’s there for everybody, and we try to expose them to that in a safe way; let them know that the ocean is not to be toyed with, but if you experience it in a great way, it can really be an amazing experience,” said Rachal, who grew up near Dorsey High School.

“The fact that I grew up in South L.A. and learned to surf, it makes me want to bring people from our community out there,” he said.  Members of BSC know how fortunate they are to be able to experience the beach non-stop, and want to give back and share that with others.

Rachal (right) trains a young student to surf (Courtesy photo)

“We work on donations and volunteering our time, and it’s usually about appreciation and giving back, and a lot of that we learned from Brother Dedon (Kamathi),” Rachal said.

Kamathi, who made his transition Aug. 25, 2015, was a long-time surfer and founding member of the BSC.  He was also a member of the All Afrikan People’s Revolutionary Party and the Black Panther Party.

Kamathi loved introducing Black youth to surf, and started the annual Pan African Beach Day to bring youth and the community together.

Gregory Rachal, Jr., who like his dad is a lifelong surfer and instructor with BSC, said surfing helped him to cope with life’s challenges, and has allowed him to connect with other people.

“Going surfing helps me meet new people, and the ocean helps you deal with things …  It’s just a good place to get things off your chest,” said the 15-year-old.

His most memorable surfing moments include traveling up and down the coast with his parents, and catching his first wave at 6-years-old.  “I’ll keep that memory with me forever,” Rachal, Jr. said. “In the moment, I didn’t really know. I was just excited to get out in the water.”

He explained that he feels excited to teach now because he wants other youth to have the same experiences he has had surfing.

Marion Clark of the Surf Academy (left) poses with Gregory Rachal Jr. (Courtesy Photo)

“I know they don’t have the opportunity to get to the ocean as much as I do, but when they do, it just makes me feel happy that we get to teach them how to surf, and they get to learn.”

His mother, Marie Rachal said she saw a huge difference in her son after he began to surf.

“It’s like a cleansing, and it’s just been amazing to see him grow from 6-years-old up until now, where he’s out there with his dad and all his other buddies,” she said.

She added, “To see these young men and women come out, who’ve never seen the beach, it’s such an honor to be a part of giving these children this experience, and it’s a thing that they’ll never forget.”

(This feature was completed with support from New America Media.)

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