Editor’s Note: As a world renowned surfing town, La Jolla has its legends of the sea. We’re stoked to bring you their stories in this new summer series. If you know someone who should be included, please provide their contact information to reporter María José Durán at firstname.lastname@example.org or (858) 875-5951.
When asked, “Who is a better surfer?” Margo Schwab and Scott Johnston pointed in unison to one another. “That’s the most diplomatic answer I’ve ever heard!” she exclaimed in protest. “She dances ballet on the board!” he reciprocated.
“Let’s put it this way,” Schwab began, “we both have our own forté, I’m more into the style, I add a little ballet into it, which is sort of fun, and Scott is like, ‘Is there a bigger wave?’ ”
Schwab and Johnston (philanthropists and owners of The Social Diary) are a pair of surfers who came into the sport later in life — at age 36 and 43, respectively.
“It all fell into place very quickly, because we started dating and he said, ‘You know, obviously if I want to see you, I’m going to have to learn how to surf.’ So I taught him how to surf and from the get go, no problem,” Schwab said. “He’s just a total natural, he went at it and became addicted right away, which is great, because I love surfing, it’s so much fun!”
Although they met in 1993, this couple from La Jolla Shores didn’t start dating until the year 2000. “The time was right!” Johnston explained. They ride twin 9-foot wood-looking longboards, and when they go surfing together, Schwab’s favorite thing to say to him is “My wave!” right before she takes off paddling.
The couple has surfed together in destinations such as Hawaii and Mexico. One of the aspects of surfing they said they enjoy the most is the closeness to nature. They have stories about encounters with baby seals, dolphins, and even whales.
“Last year, I was surfing right at The Shores, and there was a whale with its calf, and it was breaching for like 20 minutes, and I was like 50 yards from it!” Johnston told La Jolla Light. “To be that close was kind of scary, but it was fascinating! It’s just wonderful to see that.”
Johnston, who is a retired San Diego Police Department officer, said although he grew up in the region, he hadn’t tried surfing until Schwab taught him the sport. “Rather than going to the beach, I’d be going to the mountains, camping, going to the forests, and I’d love it, it’s beautiful,” he said. “But once I started surfing, that’s all I wanted to do. Love at first sight.”
Schwab said she felt the same way. “From the get go, I could not stop. I surfed two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon, my arms were sore, but I couldn’t stop. The first wave and that was it; totally addicted.”
As to what they love about surfing, for Johnston it’s being able to choose the intensity of the exercise. “You can be so serene and Zen-like, be calm and still and take in the ocean, and on the other hand, you can turn the switch and work as hard as you like,” he explained, adding that he surfs most days for at least two hours, and then he “doesn’t have to go to the gym.”
For Schwab, surfing is “a nice juxtaposition to the real world.”
Johnston and Schwab arrived at the interview in narrow, four-wheeled electric vehicle with wood finishes that matched their surfboards. They call it their “Surfmobile.”
“One day we saw this electric vehicle online, and it had the woody look, and our boards are woodies,” he explained. “I thought, ‘This is a different take on the concept of a woody, it’s good for the environment, and it’s street legal.’ You can actually drive it on streets with speed signs posted for 35 miles per hour or less.”
When the couple were newbies on the waves, they had to learn surf etiquette. “One rule you learn pretty quickly is when you go out to a break, there’s usually what they call the ‘lineup,’ ” Johnston explained. “There are surfers who go there a lot, and if you’re new to the area, they watch you and they expect you to defer to them and not try to get in the way when they’re trying to catch the wave.
“Some are more territorial than others. For instance in Del Mar, we surfed out there once and they got very territorial with me. And the situation got to the point that it was going to erupt into a fight.”
Then, Schwab had to intervene. “I thought, ‘I came out here for Zen, this is not going to happen, this is my guy!’ I just said really loudly, ‘242 PC assault and battery, that’s about $40,000 in attorney bills and three months in jail!’ And everybody stopped.”
With a playful laugh, Johnston explained that he passed some of his hard-earned knowledge of the law onto his partner.
Johnston is a fan of what he calls “surfing hard” because “I come from 32 years of being a cop, I’m used to Code 3 here, getting somewhere fast and helping out people. I’ve been in four shootings, and a bunch of other stuff that led me to believe I have more lives than a cat! But the big guy upstairs has been watching out for me. What I get from the surfing is that adrenaline rush.”
The recipient of a Purple Heart, Johnston said he likes to catch “quantity” as well as “quality” of waves, but as far as moves go, he’s on the short side. “I can twirl around and ride on the nose, flip the board around … but I’ve never competed. If I had taken this up in my teens, that would have been a cool life to have, but I got into this so late in life that I just enjoy catching waves as much as possible, socialize with other surfers out there.”
Surf Term of the Week
- Drop In: When a surfer catches a wave without having to defer to lineup priority, for example, if there was another surfer already in the wave.