PSA: Don’t Swim or Surf After a Storm!

[Note: If you want to find out current water quality information, head over to http://www.sdbeachinfo.com/]

I recall my first days of surfing. I was young(er than now), dumb (as much as now), and certainly had no idea what I was doing. I would go out on a closeout six foot day, paddle until exhaustion, and give up as soon as my stubborn self had reached the lineup. Literally: I’d be sitting there after 30 minutes of non-stop paddling, and just wait for the next large wave to push me back ashore.

Christmas Day of 2011, I was in the water for an early session. It wasn’t bad, as the waves were nice and the lineup not crowded. I got out after a good two hours, got into the car, and drove home. There, my famished self had some lunch. Finally, I went out with friends for a Christmas dinner.

The next morning I woke up with sores in my mouth. Nothing tragic, just big pimples on the roof and sides of my mouth. They cleared up after a few days. So I thought nothing of it.

Today, I know those were surfer sores, the kind of infection you get when you decide to surf in dirty water. We get that here after a “storm,” which in San Diego means any rain beyond a mere drizzle. The sewage plants and storm runoffs are typically combined, so that whenever there is atmospheric water coming down, pipe water tags along with it.

It was Christmas Day of 2014. Quite a good day for surfing, as I recall. I spent the morning at Mission Beach – shouldn’t have, since the beautiful waves were mostly closing out. A bunch of guys were surfing, as usual, at Sunset Cliffs. I have a love/hate relationship with the place: the reefs and kelp forest make it a really fun break with lots of options; but getting in and out of the water is a major pain, since there is no beach to rely on and it’s a Cliff, after all.

One of the guys in the water that day, Barry Ault, got sick. It turned out to be a staph infection – just the same thing I had had a few years before on Christmas Day. He got much sicker than me, really sick, really really sick, and eventually succumbed to the infection.

Staph is not much of a killer, and speculation is ripe whether a valve implant may have made him vulnerable to the infection, or may have worsened the risk for him. Nobody can say. What we know is that two other surfers in the water that day got sick with him, limiting speculation about alternative infection routes.

I have spoken with surfers that never got surfer sores despite regularly going into the water after a storm. They tend to be young and to come from environments (like colleges) that expose them to different strains of staph all the time. This is a warning to you: More people have died from staph infections in the water than from shark attacks in San Diego in the past ten years!

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