Guest view: Reflections on surfing, life, and what exactly all this is
It was a crisp Sunday morning in late October. A faint glow of consciousness shone through the slatted bedroom blinds, tattooing the fin of my newest wave-riding vehicle with a spray of sunlight. It was 8:09 a.m. The sun had been up for an hour and change, and I was late. I knew as well as anyone that precious ocean glassiness was slipping away by the minute. I took a survey of what was in front of me: all six of my surfboards stacked on a custom rack in front of my bed gleaming ecstatically with the memories of what once was: beautiful waves come and gone through 15 years and counting of avid surfing. I casually glanced at an old 1950s advertisement for Walker’s Bourbon that I cleverly placed next to the nose of my spare 9’0. It shows a surfer riding a humongous wave on an ancient log with the caption of “It’s great to take chances, but not on your bourbon.” I agreed.
With that thought, I decided upon the board that initially caught my eye this particular morning: my custom 9’0 olive green single fin longboard, lovingly nicknamed Olivia. Olivia was my 27th birthday present to myself, and was the surfboard of my dreams. Olivia and I were a match made in heaven. Shaped with the primitive 1960s-style “log” surfboards in mind, this board was first and foremost a wave-catching machine. It has one large skeg fin, and absolutely no “high performance” features. Just the way I like it. Advancements have certainly been made in wave-riding technology since surfing’s historic boom period between the late 1950s and the release of Bruce Brown’s famous “Endless Summer” surf film in 1966.
More sophisticated equipment is available these days. Sure, that may make riding larger waves easier. I didn’t care. I had a leash, and that was more than the original crew had when riding 20-foot Makaha in the 1940s, AND they were riding 50+ pound solid wood boards (Tom Blake would shortly revolutionize equipment with his invention of the hollow surfboard.) The leash coupled with a heavily glassed fiberglass board rather than a solid wood plank was high tech enough. In my opinion, that original group of surfers, native Hawaiians and the first group to make the pilgrimage from California to the islands were the gnarliest group of guys to date. Nothing had been done before, lifeguards were nonexistent, no leashes, no safety, no money, no food unless you wanted to dive for abalone or turtle, and certainly no bullshit. I strive to be in that club, rather than a pawn of mainstream surfing’s current focus on “high performance” and gaudy showboating.
I kissed my girlfriend on the forehead, downed my utilitarian cup of coffee, and strapped Olivia to the roof of my worn yet reliable blue Scion. It was just another day of surfing, but “just another day” was as exciting as any. I turned the key, threw it in reverse, and headed to Del Mar, the DM SURF haphazardly and drunkenly bouncing over speed bumps with the comfort one would expect from riding an ancient wooden roller coaster. 180,000 miles and counting, the car has seen its share of wear and tear in the seven years I’ve owned it. The seatbelts are brittle with dried sea salt, and sand has found its way into every crevice of the interior. As I grinded onto the I-5 North and picked up speed, the rapid “fwap fwap fwap” of my surf rack straps seemed appropriate accompaniment to Dick Dale’s 1963 “Surfer’s Choice” album blasting through my car speakers. I pulled off at Del Mar Heights road, drove past my childhood street, and down towards the ocean. As someone as local as they come, I found a stray parking spot and hastily ripped my board off the roof to apply a fresh coat of Sex Wax, locked up the car, and walked to the sand, board in tow.
I walked down 15th street, through Seagrove Park, and down the concrete path that marks the location of the cobblestone reef break. Polaroid images flashed through my mind with sun-bleached scenes of memories long past. This is my home, my livelihood, and the scene of so much ranging from first dates, great waves, hundreds of burritos consumed, and even getting kicked out of the ritzy L’ Auberge Del Mar hotel as a kid for playing elevator tag. I had stood up on my very first wave at 15th street, 15 years earlier. Now 27 years old and with thousands of surf sessions under my belt, I was as excited as I had ever been to go surfing.
I waded through the shorebreak as far as I could, and then stroked my massive longboard through mountainous whitewater, years of experience uncovering the most direct route to the outside. I had made it, and so I sat patiently, knowing that patience was a critical aspect of the surfing experience. I caught quite a few waves early on, but none groundbreaking or notable enough to warrant a permanent spot in my Polaroid roll. Knowing the swell was building, I paddled far outside the 40 or so other surfers, seemingly into nothingness, as perfectly fine waves broke much farther inside for those looking for a quick fix. It was the ocean and I, its expanse seemingly limitless against the ruler-sharp horizon.
A pod of 8-10 dolphins surfaced at my feet, splashing me and circling me as if we were old friends from a previous era. In my decade-and-a-half of surfing, I have never been so close to these stunning animals before. In the craziness that is modern life, this experience was deeply soothing, as if they were there to recognize my passion and love for all things ocean. With a parting spray from their blowholes, they swam in unison into a rather large set wave, surfing it better than any human could. Their slick bodies skated in and out of the breaking wave, silhouetted perfectly against the crystal clear water.
As I turned around to face the horizon, the wave of the day came right to me. An 8-foot wall rose out of the depths, feathering at the crest. It was a steep and bold right-hander that towered nearly twice my height above the ocean’s surface. I looked around to make sure the coast was clear, realizing this was MY wave. IT CAME TO ME, and was a gift from the heavens, perhaps a cosmic reward for an accumulation of karmic points I had earned this past week. It was sent for me, and I had to graciously accept it.
I leaned back, swiveled the board around 180 degrees to face the shore, and paddled. I felt myself achieve liftoff and hit my feet. Olivia skittered down the face of the wave with increasing speed as I carefully navigated a sea of shortboarders on the inside, a skilled dart player shooting for the bullseye, making the section while not skewering a human being with a 30-pound missile. I raised both arms in the air and let out a hoot as I secured the drop and made my bottom turn. The behemoth pitched behind me in a roar of destruction, foam exploding with the force of an avalanche. Still on my feet, I casually stepped off the rail becoming the equivalent of a small piece of lint held captive in an industrial clothes dryer. There was simply nowhere else to go. My body hit the surface of the water like a brick hitting a storefront window. I rag dolled for what seemed like an eternity before the ocean quietly whispered, “you may go now,” and I emerged from the soup unscathed.
As I paddled back out, I was met with high fives and inquiries about “how was that” and “that was insane!” It was, and now I sat far outside with my mop hair dripping over my eyes trying to digest what had happened. That wave, and the few moments spent riding it was such an awesome experience that nothing else can possibly compare. In that moment, nothing, and I mean NOTHING else matters. That ride, that high, is so cosmic and so bitchin’, it’s very hard if not impossible to not want more. The memories of all those past surf sessions flashed through my mind, including that first ride performed RIGHT THERE in that very spot, 15 years prior on a 6’7 Bic funboard. Here I was, now a man in every sense, still doing what I set out to do so many years ago. The surf gods smiled down. I laughed, I cried, and for a moment, all was right in the world. The pod of dolphins laughed as they made their way out for another wave.