Did I leave it in the lock? Did I lock my door? Did I drop it on the ground?” Revelle College senior Brandon Kampschuur asks himself, borderline paranoid and panicking. He sits on his board in the water, preoccupied and sweating, but not because the La Jolla fog is beginning to clear, bringing the warmth of the emerging morning sun — he has something else on his mind. As perfect waves pass him by, he cannot focus on the glassy session at hand, instead worrying about the safety of his prized possession.
The object of Surf Club President Kampschuur’s anxiety was the three-inch piece of metal that is considered to be “the most valuable surf key in the U.S.” by Sport and Recreation Club Director Scott Berndes. It is the key to the gate at the top of the road at Black’s Beach, which is often the subject of much attention and urban legend, especially within the surf community.
So, what’s the big deal about this key?
This question is a no-brainer for any surfer or any one else interested in driving to the beach. As a world-class break, known for its shape and amplification of sand-bottomed waves, Black’s Beach is tucked underneath 300-foot cliffs, requiring a strenuous hike down one of several cardio-inducing trails to the beach.
As the manager of the key for the sports clubs, Berndes understands the worth of it firsthand.
“It’s been an interesting burden,” he said. “It makes me nervous to hold it. I know how valuable it is.”
On many occasions, Berndes has been offered large sums of money in exchange for the key, even $10,000 in one instance.
He consistently refuses these offers, maintaining the traditional allocation of keys. In the past, keys were usually given to residents of La Jolla Farms, San Diego lifeguards, select UCSD administrators and leaders and Scripps Institution of Oceanography clubs like the Surf Club, Ocean Awareness Club and Scuba Club, as well as the UCSD surf team.
Beyond these groups, however, counterfeit and unauthorized keys do exist.
UCSD Police Department Sgt. Edward Shinn is one of the infamous figures in the urban legends surrounding the key. His nice demeanor and cordial nature paints a different picture than the one derived from stories of him jumping out of the bushes to catch people who have unauthorized keys.
He has played a major role in the crackdown on illegal key usage, sparked by unauthorized vehicles blocking lifeguard access to the beach. Officers park off to the side, monitor those that access the gate and verify that those entering are authorized key holders.
Shinn said that the illegitimate keys he finds are either counterfeit or were reported lost or stolen by an authorized person.
Counterfeiting the key is a difficult task, considering how the key is copied. It is made from a special-order blank produced by Medeco, a high-security company known for its patented key control system that prevents the production of illegal copies. Attaining the Medeco blank is only possible through special authorization.
Yet, some manage. The most unique key that Shinn found was created after someone found the shank of a key broken off inside the lock. The person had welded the handle of another key to the discovered shank.
Considering the significant spirit of this item, the issues then arise: Who authorizes its issue, and who should get the privilege of possessing the key.
Recently, these questions have been brought to the surface. Earlier this year, the surf team key was confiscated after a member was caught using the key after drinking. A few months later, the Surf Club key was taken after an administrator heard that the Surf Club may have been planning a surf event involving alcohol. Now, key handling has been restricted exclusively to UC employees or volunteers, not students, a policy that has irritated leaders of both the surf team and Surf Club.
According to Berndes, these events also caused the university to scramble over who had real control over issuance.
It used to be that Mary Cabanding Garcia, the records and communications manager at the UCSD Police Department, had jurisdiction over issuance. But now the privilege belongs to Ginger Truschke of the UCSD Real Estate Development Department, who has created a written agreement defining the terms of key usage.
“[Cabanding] was very happy to pass that responsibility onto somebody else,” said Shinn, alluding to the stress surrounding the key’s management.
The question of privilege gets more complicated, however. What qualifies someone for this benefit? Is being a good surfer, heading a club or just having the connection? Some sports clubs and team leaders think that possession of the key provided an important perk for running their community-based organizations.
“There is a lot of work that goes into running the club and the team that nobody is getting paid for, and we are all students that have other stuff going on,” said Revelle College junior Nate Kauffman, the next Surf Club president. “If you are putting hours into a [surf] rec. club, a nonprofit organization … I think that it is a good incentive to offer the leaders of those organizations.”
Because of their rarity and benefit, stolen keys are not uncommon, according to Berndes, and he always emphasizes that point to key holders.
“I tell them every year that the bushes have eyes, that the hills have eyes,” he said.
In one incident, thieves broke into cars, leaving CDs and wallets untouched, instead snatching the one item they came for: the key.
Even though the key was used harmoniously within the Surf Club before it was confiscated, Kampschuur and Kauffman jokingly compared the key to the ring in the “Lord of the Rings,” reflecting on how it can bring out the negative elements of human nature.
“The key is too powerful and too much of a gift for any one person to control,” Kauffman said.