Tailgaters' make waves in community

By Joan Vesper

Special to the Light

“Surf well, spread aloha, share waves without judgment” is the motto written by La Jolla entrepreneur Jeff Grant and inscribed in the memorial at the foot of Tourmaline Street.

That memorial is just one contribution to the San Diego community spearheaded by a group of 13 local dudes (no dudettes at this time), ages 38 to 70, who call themselves the “Tailgaters.” Membership is by invitation and requires consensus of the other members along with annual dues. The influence of the group goes well beyond its numbers.

Started in 1992, the Tailgaters have been tethered for 18 years to two guiding premises, according to Roger Cook, a longtime participant:

  • Surf; and
  • Do things to support the community.

As surfers, they tend to migrate between Sunset Cliffs, Tourmaline, La Jolla Shores and Terramar and are in the water almost daily. After a session, they often share doughnuts from a tailgate, hence their name.
As community angels, they avoid making waves but lend support when they see a need and believe the recipient is deserving.

For instance, they contributed money for Summer Romero, women’s international long-board champion in 2004, to travel to France for a meet. They contributed to a surfing trip to Hawaii for Allie (surfers typically don’t know each other’s last names) before she died of breast cancer at age 31. They contributed to a party for Larry Gordon and Floyd Smith, celebrating their surfboard company’s 50th anniversary.

And this past June, they helped collect enough money to replace the burned-out 1971 faded yellow VW van belonging to Steve Ferguson, a shy, “very good knee-surfer” whose “water-top” homes include WindanSea, North Bird Rock, Hannamonds and Hairmos. Tourmaline is terra firma for Ferguson.

Surfers typically know each other by nicknames, how you surf, the make of your board and vehicle, and where you park. Ferguson became “Knee-surfer Steve” after he gave up hefting an all-wood longboard in the ‘70s.

“I was afraid it would come down and hit me,” he said. “And it was a drag to pull it up from Black’s Beach.”

At Tourmaline, Ferguson is “there for others as the need be,” Grant said. He watches people’s cars, keeps their keys safe, closes open hatchbacks when they forget to, and reports misappropriated property. His watchful eyes led to the return of this writer’s Surf Mule, wheels I use to pull my board around.

The day after Fathers’ Day 2010, Ferguson wandered with bare feet and sooty hands across the pitted Tourmaline lot.

“Where’s your van?” Julie Wong asked.

“It’s a burnt heap up the street,” Ferguson said.

The story emerged that Ferguson had been feeling tired the day before after two sessions of “beautiful waves” at WindanSea, so he parked under a tree. He heard clicking overhead and thought an opossum must have jumped from a branch and was dancing on the roof. A passing driver pointed excitedly.

“I know. It’s an opossum,” Ferguson shouted back.

The driver kept gesturing. Ferguson got out and saw billows of black smoke. He and a neighbor worked hoses for a couple of hours. Each assumed that someone else had called in an alarm. The fire department showed up too late to save the van.

Surfers listening to Ferguson ‘s story were immediately concerned. Wong walked down to the water and asked Dave Mills (“IRS Dave”), “Did you hear what happened to Steve?”

As soon as he heard, Mills approached Roger Cook, who he knew was a Tailgater and “they’re always spearheading something.” He asked Cook if he thought it would be all right to take up a collection.

“Yes, but only if Steve agrees.”

Next, Mills approached Ferguson. “We just want to check with you — would it be OK if some of us took up a collection?”

Ferguson replied softly, “Yeah,” adding that any help would be appreciated.

Immediately, several people gave cash donations to Cook.

The word spread — by word-of-mouth, e-mail, Facebook, a poster designed by Celia Hentschell of the Pacific Beach Surf Club. Checks came from far — Hawaii, New Hampshire, San Francisco — and near.

Within 10 days, approximately $1,900 had been collected.

“There are enough of us who love Steve that we could get that kind of response,” Wong said. Some would-be donors were turned away because “it’s been taken care of.” Meanwhile, the father of Dave Hazlitt (“Carpet Dave”) was willing to sell an ’88 Ford van for $1,500. (Its market value was closer to $2,500.) Cook and his grandson Jacob drove to Lake Jennings to meet Hazlitt, pick up the van, wash it, gas it up and drive it to Tourmaline.

Ferguson happened to be there. Without fanfare, they turned it over to him. Cook describes Ferguson’s response as one of “quiet excitement.”

A former mechanic, Ferguson “turned knobs, checked lights, looked under the hood. His words were, essentially: ‘I appreciate this. It really helps. Thank you.’ ”

When this writer asked Ferguson how he likes his new van, he said, “It’s OK for a Ford, but it needs some fixing up.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“It needs a better mattress.”