Black ball flag: if it's raised, you're not allowed to surf | Photo: Shutterstock

It's a surfer's nightmare, and there's nothing you can do about it. The black ball flag is a synonym for "no surfing," even if the waves are pumping out the back.

The black ball, or blackball flag, is a rectangular flag featuring a centered, solid black circle against a yellow background which is raised on Southern California beaches during the summer months.

The flag waves over the lifeguard tower and prohibits hard fiberglass/polyurethane foam surfboards and skimboards in the waters of that beach. The ban can be more or less temporary (for example, during the busiest hours of the day) and less or more restricted to a specific area (for example, 100 yards to the left of a landmark).

Black ball supporters say it represents a safety measure to protect beachgoers and swimmers from crowded summer surf line-ups. They blame surfers for hurting swimmers with their boards.

The concept was introduced in Santa Monica, California, in the early 1960s, and has always been in the center of a heated discussion between surfers, non-surfers, and local authorities.

Newport Beach was one of the first coastal communities to adopt the black ball and, over the years, discussed and implemented the black ball regulations on a regular basis. Home to the infamous The Wedge, Newport Beach is known for having a highly restrictive ban on surfboards during the warm season.

Beaches: should there be a zone for swimmers and an area for surfers? | Photo: Shutterstock

In some situations, bodyboards and finless soft foam surfboards may be allowed in the surf. In other words, and although they are all considered surf craft, some surf towns make a clear distinction between "hard boards" and "soft boards."

If you're a bodysurfing enthusiast, you'll be pleased to know that your swim fins are allowed in the waves.

There's rarely a win-win situation for surfers, bodyboarders, and beachgoers. Some parties defend that there should be no time limits on surfing or swimming; others will also say that declaring black ball should be left to the discretion of lifeguards.

The truth is that there are no optimal answers for the black ball controversy. There's no perfect formula on how to enforce the black ball flag.

In one hand, beachgoers have the right to enjoy the pleasures of swimming in the ocean. On the other hand, surfers should be allowed to catch and ride waves in public beaches.

On the opposite side of the black ball flag is the checkered flag. It tells beach users that they're in a surfing designated area, or zone dedicated to other non-powered watercraft users.

One question might not have a clear answer: should swimmers of surfers be given preferential treatment? The black ball flag debate ensues.

Explore the complete list of beach flags and warning signs.