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The naked truth about Pirate's Cove 

Big development, sex scandals, pirate's treasure, and naked volleyball--it's all on the table for the people who maintain harmony at the cove

A quartet of multi-million dollar homes in vibrant shades of stucco--half hidden in squares of dense tropical green foliage--stick out from pale wheat-colored hills above Pirate's Cove. The effect is something like a freeway coming through an Amish village. The beach below, however, is quiet and void of any type of development, save a manmade wall of sand erected against the high tide--and maybe a volleyball net on the weekends.

The prospect of more houses in the area raises questions about the future of Pirate's Cove--already in more of a spotlight thanks to a recent nearby sex sting. Surrounding properties have been on the market before, but talks with the county about a sale never progressed. Now, with development potentially at hand, the beach's views, wildlife, inherent freedoms, and access have been called into question. But the regulars aren't worried.

Location, location, location

Officially, Pirate's Cove is an area of about 30 acres that includes a cave, a dirt parking lot, and bluffs above a beach that's little more than a sliver of sand curving softly around a tiny bay. It nearly disappears during high tide. The cove sits between Avila and Pismo, itself inside a larger south-facing cove that protects it from wind and most big swells. The private landscape has also created a haven for sunbathers who like to feel the sand between their toes and in all their cracks. The trails down to the secluded stretch are steep, but easy enough to scale with an ice chest--and the payoff is well worth the effort.

This little seaside jewel is owned by the San Miguelito Partners, a private for-profit group that's currently trying to sell four adjoining properties for about $10 million. The potential development could affect the views at Pirate's Cove, but it's doubtful that the beach would ever close. Pirate's Cove is well protected for the public. A historic use precedent keeps the trails open, even if a promised offer to dedicate the land as open space never materializes. And as for the beach--the actual sand is owned by the Port San Luis Harbor District.

A brief history of names

The history of Pirate's Cove--also called Cave Landing--is

click to enlarge VIEW FROM THE TOP :  Pirate's Cove is shockingly beautiful. Because of the rough terrain, landslides, and lack of fresh water, it has remained undeveloped. The county and state have considered purchasing the property to dedicate as open space, but a deal has never materialized. Last summer, four parcels connected to the cove were placed on the market to be developed. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • VIEW FROM THE TOP : Pirate's Cove is shockingly beautiful. Because of the rough terrain, landslides, and lack of fresh water, it has remained undeveloped. The county and state have considered purchasing the property to dedicate as open space, but a deal has never materialized. Last summer, four parcels connected to the cove were placed on the market to be developed.
#  steeped in unwholesome tales of pirates, East Coast smugglers (hence the former name of Smuggler's Cove), and bootleggers. Of course, it's not all fact, but the pristine stretch of coastline--and especially the cave area--still bears scars from some of those eras, as well as indentations left in the rocks by Native Americans.

A brief and informal history places Sir Francis Drake of British Navy hero fame (read: pirate) at the beach sometime around 1579, according to a pair of amateur historians who visited the site for years in search of a rumored $500-million treasure that Drake stole from the Spanish ship, the Cacafuego.

Although local historians have never adopted those claims as gospel, the prospect of striking it rich has brought countless treasure seekers to the area, all looking for the Spanish booty.

Beyond the gold loot, however, is a very real history of New England traders, who reportedly carved a set of steps into the stone during the mid 1800s.

By 1871, according to county records, part of the property was sold by the state to David Mallagh for $2.15. Mallagh then gave the cove his name.

Well hidden and well protected from the elements, naked sunbathers today can enjoy the same privacy that booze runners took advantage of during the Prohibition Era. By all accounts, the bootleggers are a part of the cove's true history. Throughout the roaring '20s, Pirate's Cove helped to keep Pismo in the booze, and guaranteed its place in local history as a destination for illicit activities.

The beach wasn't commonly called Pirate's Cove until the '60s, when it was aptly named by devious Realtors to stir up rumors about treasure and increase the property value. Since then, locals have embraced the name wholeheartedly.

The case for localism

click to enlarge DON'T BE A LITTERBUG :  A handmade sign above the cove offers directions, as well as a little insight into local customs. The beach functions almost without incident, and is maintained by the efforts of its regular sunbathers. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • DON'T BE A LITTERBUG : A handmade sign above the cove offers directions, as well as a little insight into local customs. The beach functions almost without incident, and is maintained by the efforts of its regular sunbathers.

# Pirate's Cove is a lawless sort of beach. You can drink, you can smoke, you can bring the dog (or parrot, as one regular does), and, best of all, you can get naked.

There are no restrooms, trashcans, or amenities of any kind. Even the parking lot is only a loose patch of dirt, but that's not to say it's a free-for-all. The peace of mind and freedom afforded on the beach are hard earned by a core group, who can be found on the sand, tanned and leathery, any day of the week. Aside from the area's natural beauty--and the patrons' glaring nakedness--the beach stands out as one of the best maintained in the county. It's spotless.

"We love this place," one sunbather said plainly. His name is Michael, and he's managed to slip away from work on a Thursday to soak up the 80 degree November weather. Michael's a pretty typical pirate. Friendly and intelligent, he reclined on a worn beach towel to wax philosophic about nudity, sex crimes, and the changing face of the beach.

 

"I've been coming here for maybe 18 or 20 years," he said. "It almost seems like people have a sense of personal responsibility down here. It's a very rare commodity, and when people leave here, they always pick up trash and move things off the trail so people don't get hurt. You don't see that at a lot of beaches, or parks, or any public places. This place really brings out the best in people."

For the most part, the beach maintains an enviable harmony. Incidences of violence or unwanted sexual attention are rare, despite the remoteness of the beach and the prevalence of alcohol. One regular, who requested anonymity, said that there's a loose code of ethics--unspoken, but strictly enforced through peer pressure.

In 1991, a group of the regulars formed the Whales Cave Conservancy and formally became the keepers of the cove. For the last 16 years, the group has organized weekly beach clean-ups, including the removal of poison oak from the trails. Their official mission is to maintain the area and modify behavior problems that negatively impact the quality of life on the beach. As for the trails, they accept no responsibility, should someone fall and decide to sue. They simply "make them happen."

The user-based management model is one that the group considers ahead of its time. They have forged alliances with the Coastal Commission, the Harbor District, the Sheriff's Department, and the Coastal Conservancy--among others--and essentially won the rights to manage the beach.

Negative perceptions

By some accounts, attendance at the beach is down, a phenomenon that regulars can't--or won't--attribute to any specific issue.

"When I first came down here, you couldn't find a place to lay your towel," said Pirate's Cove regular B.B. (not his real name).

B.B. sat inches off the sand in a low beach chair with half a

click to enlarge SOAK IT UP :  Davey Jones, shown next to his ice locker, has been coming to the beach since he was a kid. It hasn't changed much he said, but there are more scallywags (covespeak for clothed gawkers). - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • SOAK IT UP : Davey Jones, shown next to his ice locker, has been coming to the beach since he was a kid. It hasn't changed much he said, but there are more scallywags (covespeak for clothed gawkers).
# dozen other sunbathers forming a loose and boisterous mob around him. His tan--a burnt sienna in the Crayola 64 pack--and sun-bleached gray hair hanging in slack salty waves at his shoulders are testaments to his retirement and full-time status at the beach. Another half dozen people were sprinkled across the beach, leaving it nearly deserted--or nearly perfect.

One reason for the decline in attendance could be linked to negative press. The cove has suffered its share of image problems lately. In July, three men were arrested during a three-hour sex sting operation conducted by the SLO County Sheriff's Department. The men were apparently caught in compromising positions, allegedly soliciting sex from undercover officers around the trails that trickle out discretely from the parking lot. Reports of the bust played up a link between Pirate's Cove and the assumed illicit sex lives of the men arrested. In fact, the beach's regulars said, those men never hung out on the beach.

The Sheriff's public information officer, Rob Bryn, talked about the July sting, noting that the beach is essentially a different animal from the parking lot--and not the source of any problems.

"The biggest complaint that we hear," Bryn said about the parking lot and surrounding area, "is about solicitation. People who don't participate in those types of activities wander up there for the view and are solicited for sex."

He said that trash--discarded condoms, to be precise--also spawns complaints.

It's no secret among the cove's regulars that men often meet at the parking lot to have anonymous consensual sex, but the sexcapades rarely find an audience or a stage on the beach itself.

"It would be nice if the sheriff would come out here," Michael said. "I'm sure it would help, but once you've invited them into the parking lot, then that's an invitation to come down to the beach. It's not the people on the beach that are a problem, it's the people that stay up in the parking lot. They're not coming down here."

The cove-keeping community has worked hard for autonomy. To govern their own brings greater freedom for the beachgoers, but the negative press--even if it sends a message to would-be public masturbators and solicitors that they could be busted--also sends a message that Pirate's Cove is a place to get freaky.

"I think that there's enough of us that have an individual interest in the place, and we police the beach," B.B. said. "So I don't think we need more police presence. Maybe in some of the problem areas, like the parking lot . I wanna be able to drink a beer," he said gesturing with his silver can to a pile of its crushed brethren directly behind his chair.

The pirates have staked their claim. They don't visit the area to hang out in the parking lot, and--aside from its functionality when it comes to actually being used for parking--they seem fine with letting someone else deal with it.

"The things that happen down here aren't special," Michael said, about the sex bust above the beach. "Flashers and people meeting, having illicit sex--that happens all over the place. People just make a big deal about it here, 'cause we're naked."

Scallywags and rock monkeys

click to enlarge STAIRWAY TO NOWHERE :  This stairway, carved out of the rock, is one reminder of a bygone era at the beach. Some people believe it was built by Sir Francis Drake--and may be a clue to finding his fabled treasure--but more likely it was built by rogue traders during the mid 19th century. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • STAIRWAY TO NOWHERE : This stairway, carved out of the rock, is one reminder of a bygone era at the beach. Some people believe it was built by Sir Francis Drake--and may be a clue to finding his fabled treasure--but more likely it was built by rogue traders during the mid 19th century.

# A quick definition: A scallywag or rock monkey is a certain type of beachgoer. They are fully clothed, and fully voyeuristic. They can generally be found hanging out in groups of three or more on rock piles (the result of landslides), taking in more of the view than is permitted. If any one factor keeps the girls away from the sands of Pirate's Cove, this could be it. At a nude beach, remember, nudity doesn't mean sex--even if the guy with binoculars doesn't know that.

None of these "scallywags" could be reached for an interview. Although they commonly violate space boundaries and generally annoy the naked beachgoers, they are notoriously shy when approached.

"That is a factor," B.B. noted, reflecting on the beach's recent lower attendance. "And we have been trying to clean up the rock moneys. I've chased weirdoes off the beach, but that's not the norm. I've met tons of great people down here."

 

The issue of keeping people happy is taken so seriously, that for every pervert who would violate the comfort of another sunbather, there is another person to escort him off the beach. It's easier to be naked and comfortable on this beach because everybody else is naked, too.

"The beach is not clothing optional," B.B. explained. "It's a nude beach. If you come down here, you should be nude."

The future of Pirate's Cove

Despite the talk of negative press and potential neighboring development, one of the biggest and longest-running controversies at the cove is over the way volleyball should be played.

"Some people want to play jungle ball," B.B. explained, referring to the informal type of volleyball that focuses on getting the ball over the net, regardless of how many times it's hit. "For the most part, we play three-hit volleyball. There's just less chance of getting hurt that way."

He's not kidding. The pirates, like their historic namesakes, play for blood, only they do it on a slanted stretch that doubles as a water polo court when the tides are right.

"But there's a rule on the beach," B.B. added. "If some young people want to play, it's accepted that you pretty much play for fun."

Still, if the current development possibilities do prompt an occasional worry, visitors to the cove just have to look up to the bluff-top houses already in place to see a Jolly Roger flag in front of one, its skull-and-crossbones flying in solidarity with the beachgoers below.


Kylie Mendonca is grateful for cove regulars' tolerance of a snooping reporter--and their hospitality, too. Cheers! Send your thoughts to her at kmendonca@newtimesslo.com.

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