Breaking the waves

There's no finer way to mark an unexpectedly balmy January afternoon than with a trip to the beach. Last Saturday, I didn't even have to catch a ride out of town to do it, as the semiannual Surf Expo brought veteran clamdiggers of all ages to the man-made grotto that is the Orange County Convention Center to scope the latest in apparel and accessories for the waterlogged set.

The scenery, however, was pretty far afield from what you and I are used to from our own sojourns on the shore. The customary panorama of flab and tube socks was replaced by a coterie of buyers and exhibitors who were uniformly tanned, toned and fit, a living display of über-genetics that left me wondering if there isn't something to all of that "healthy living and exercise" mumbo-jumbo after all.

At the Body Glove booth, the company's Gary Mykles explained to me that most of the folks in the business are current or former surfers, which accounted for their enviably peak condition and perpetual-slacker garb. Mykles himself was something of an anomaly: Unlike most of the grown-up Moondoggies manning the rest of the tables, he favored an establishment mode of attire that better reflected the transition of what was once a subculture based on dropout rebellion into a multimillion-dollar industry.

That market, it was clear, has grown to include product lines beyond the pale of the expected boards and bikinis. Ancillary products on view included beach-related knickknacks, eyewear, wall art and bumper stickers. There was also a large inventory of licensed T-shirts featuring characters who, though not expressly surf-related, bore obvious appeal to practitioners of the hang-10 lifestyle. In the stars of the World Wrestling Federation, they could recognize their own bleached hair and outlaw postures. "South Park's" Cartman echoed their flagrant disregard for propriety. Bob Marley embodied a shared devotion to the principles of existentialist spirituality. Also, he smoked a lot of dope.

There's more to surfing these days than water, and street athletics were given their due as well. It was hard to miss the two-story skateboard ramp manufacturer Hurley International had erected in Aisle 100, nor the crowd of rapt skate punks that surrounded it all day long to witness state-of-the-art moves and punishing spills.

"Did you see that half-pipe?" a friend of mine later marveled. I honestly had no idea what he was talking about, wondering at first if some enterprising supplier had installed a communal bong in the hall's nether reaches. I'm so far out of the loop on this stuff that they're building me my own track.

The thong remains the same

For all of the industry's allusions to surfing as an "alternate lifestyle," gender inequity was as rampant at the expo as it is in just about every other strata of society. The booths that enjoyed the most traffic were the ones where beach bunnies provided continuous modeling of the skimpiest new styles, allowing the young (and not so young) guys in attendance to leer for hours without fear of reprisal. There wasn't a male figure to be seen until a group show later in the day, and the one toddler who lined up with her big-girl counterparts on the Venus Swimwear stage did less to make the expo family-friendly than to demonstrate where the next generation of spokesmodels is coming from. Think there was a plus-size runway queen anywhere on the premises? Forget it.

Over at the Reef Brazil booth, the scantily clad ladies in question weren't even promoting swimsuits, but the company's line of shoes and sandals. You wouldn't have known it from the adolescent worshipers who queued up to secure autographs, as they proffered posters emblazoned not with head shots, but close-ups of the "Reef Girls'" behinds, across which the happy stars of the moment eagerly scrawled their Jane Hancocks. Try proving the authenticity of those mementos, collectors. I don't know about you, but I need a face to make a positive ID.

Although Reef sales manager Jim Watson admitted to me that the surf business skews about 65-35 male-female, he dismissed the idea of adding some masculine models as "not our market." Female buyers, he swore, just aren't interested in ogling men in swim trunks. Maybe the disparity will be rectified at that upcoming Bifocal and Pocket Protector Show.

Besides, Watson acknowledged, the addition of the Reef Girls had done wonders for profits, drawing new customers who could then be counted on to purchase such unrelated products as a line of shoes with champion surfer Rob Machado pictured on the sole. As we spoke, the overhead P.A. announced that the latest in the day's long line of wave-riding icons would be signing his own posters in the foyer. Unlike the models, the sports idols on hand for Surf Expo were overwhelmingly male, kept their clothes on, and were allowed to sign their last names.

The tide goes out

As is its wont, the Sapphire Supper Club had done its best to accommodate the visiting 'boarders, setting up two special nights of music at which they and their followers could unwind. On Saturday, a fashionably late battalion of industry pros made the club an after-hours bastion of blond hair, carefully groomed goatees and trim physiques. In other words, there was no distinguishing it from any other night of the year.

Maybe they were worn out from the long hours they had already put in at the convention center, but the invited partiers never seemed to really loosen up the way they were supposed to, electing to clog the bar and down martinis instead of hoofing it up on the dance floor. I knew how they felt: I was knackered, too. This standing around all day is harder work than it looks.

The surrounding ennui ensured tough going for The Hamiltons, who did their earnest best to get the party moving with what they frequently referred to as "punk," but was actually just endearingly loose rock of the time-tested, beer-bar variety. Their short set was brash, loud fun, though a little too distracting for one of the assembled magnates, who struggled over the din to conduct a conversation on his cell phone while pawing at his pneumatic date's posterior with his free hand. These surfing people are the most gluteocentric bunch I've ever seen.

The tables that usually line the Sapphire floor had been removed to create a makeshift mosh pit, but no one ventured into it until the Hamiltons ended their performance with a make-or-break cover of The Stooges' "Search and Destroy." Even then, only a handful of the professional free spirits broke free from their upstairs exile to get closer to the sound of a true rebel anthem.

Feeling the waves of sleep hitting my own interior shores, I decided to call it a night. Headline act Absolute Featuring Christian Fletcher had unfortunately lost out to My Bed Featuring A Fluffy Pillow. Still, I didn't feel a bit ashamed. Even the best surfer has to get wiped out every now and then.

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