The snow falling in the mountains is now measured in feet, not inches and the temperatures are so low (-10F) that I had to move my remaining boards into the utility closet, where the furnace will keep them warm. For now, it appears, I have to cut back on my surfing sessions while still not being able to drive up the mountains to snowboard (because of the feet of snow that block the freeway). A good time to reminisce!
I took up surfing late. I mean, I didn’t live in SoCal until 2009, but even then I waited years before I tried it out. Surfing, from the outside, looks boring: most of the time, surfers are just sitting in the water waiting for waves. Not exactly the most appealing thing for a hyper person like me.
One day I realized UCSD had cheap surf lessons and I decided to give it a try. Even if I didn’t like it, I’d still meet new people that were trying to have fun, how bad could it be?
Turns out the lessons were not so hot. Or they were too hot: in my ignorance, I had bought a 7mm wetsuit on sale and showed up on the rare fogless day at La Jolla Shores. To make things worse, Day One was on land. I think I may have overheated several times and had to jump in the water (much to everyone’s amusement) to just cool off.
Surfing is really hard, probably the hardest sport I ever tried. Yet I stuck with it, because it is much more of an experience than anything else I’ve ever done. Here some of my favorite moments in the five years of surfing:
I had just finished the beginners’ class and was a total noob. Not a kook, because the class had taught me proper etiquette and rules of engagement – which meant that I barely got a wave an hour to even try. To make up for the boredom, I had put an MP3 player in a plastic bag and listened to music through underwater headphones.
I was just sitting there, bopping up and down at Scripp’s, praying nobody would take the next wave. I hadn’t paddled in maybe 15 minutes and was bored. Once in a while, I would turn around to see how far it was to shore and how embarrassing it would be to paddle back.
It was in one of those moments that something hit my foot in the water. I panicked and almost fell off the board. I was sure it had to be a shark. Shark!!! It hit me again. Shark!!!
I didn’t feel any pain, though. I looked in the direction of the foot (the right) and expected a pool of blood to emerge. None of that. Then, a small shadow circling. Well, I thought, if that’s the shark, all it can do is bite my toe nails off. I looked closer and saw that the little thing circling me was a baby dolphin. I wouldn’t have known it was a baby as opposed to just a small dolphin, until the mom, bro, dad, whatever relation came along to chase it away from the dangerous toe nails.
Baby dolphin left. I smiled. Then, maybe ten minutes later, same boop again. Baby dolphin came back and was now staring at me, right in the eyes, from under water. I thanked the heavens (well, the seas) that it was a calm and clear day, because baby dolphin and I could see eye to eye. Then I realized baby dolphin wasn’t staring at my eyes at all, it was simply wondering about the noise that came from the same direction as my eyes.
It may have been a total coincidence, but the radio station I was listening to had been playing Madonna’s Ray of Light both times when the baby dolphin booped me.
2. Happy Day
I once was at Del Mar on a particularly good day. Del Mar is one of those places where a lot of people become territorial and the peak was generally crowded to a fault with veterans determined not to let anyone have fun but themselves. Generall, the peak is also the only place where you get good waves, much of the remainder of the place closing out badly.
What do you know, that day the waves had conspired to generate long ridges that would have closed out on any other day, but with the particular combination of swell direction, tide, and wind actually stayed with an open face for a long time.
The usual douche bros stayed at the peak, which was insanely packed. I wasn’t feeling the crowd, so I paddled randomly North. There was another surfer there, a kid in a red wetsuit – then still very unusual. Farther North, a lady in an unseasonable bikini on a longboard. The three of us had a stretch of a hundred yards to ourselves.
What do you know, the lady hit the first wave. She went left, as longboarders usually do, defying direction, and zoomed laughing past both of us. The red kid and I started at each other and started laughing, too. Joy.
The next wave came along and red kid bowed for me to have it. I jumped on it and carved it up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Rode on forever, and by the time I was paddling back, red kid was having his own fun on the wave that had come after mine.
It went on for hours. The three of us were having so much fun with each other, just being together and so happy not to have to fight for each wave. We’d jokingly offer the waves to each other and then jump on at the last second and wave a fond good-bye and good luck. Finally, bikini lady decided it was enough and left, breaking red kid’s and my heart.
3. My First Fifteen Footer
There are those days when Black’s is gigantic. Some of those days are typical Black’s days, with huge wave fronts curling up at the peak, leaving only the divinities of surfing with a chance to catch them. Some others are more democratic, with pocket peaks popping up depending on the swell combination.
It was one of those days. Paddling out had been the proverbial bitch, taking all of 30 minutes. I was exhausted and unhappy, the lineup being too crowded and me knowing I wouldn’t have the energy to paddle back out. I would get one chance and one only. If I missed my wave, I’d probably not be able to get back out.
I had to wait. There were lots of surfers there, and at Black’s they ignore all the rules when it benefits them. I missed a few good opportunities when the guy next to me jumped in my wave – and when I didn’t do the same to the guy next to me.
I cleanup wave was coming in from the distance, the crown of a good set. A bunch of guys popped onto the good waves, I was only concerned with the cleanup and paddled far out. When the big wave hit, the entire lineup was washed away and I was the only one left behind.
Next wave over was one of those pop up peaks, coming right towards me. I was in the luckiest spot: the thing was threateningly huge, but I was just to the left of the peak on an incoming left. Perfect position.
I was terrified. That thing was double overhead and more. On the plus side, it wasn’t a long wave and flattened quickly. I got into positioned and was undecided: should I paddle or should I chicken out?
The wave decided that part for me. It rose so quickly, it started carrying me forward without me even putting a hand in the water. The choice I had was whether to stand up or let things happen to me. Fifteen feet of things are not fun, trust me. So I stood up, determined not to look at the thing behind and over me.
I stood. I was so fast, I heard the wind whistle in my ears. My heart was beating so loud, I actually heard it in my head. I froze up on the board, riding it without as much as an adjustment in direction while the wave was carrying me, determined not to care about my feelings.
Just as the gaggle of washouts was paddling back in a unified front, the wave decided to release me. It slowed down, it petered out, it released me. I could just jump on the board, making sure not to hit it with my nose, and paddle back over the still fat shoulder.
It took the other surfers another five minutes to come out, because my monster had pushed them back to shore again. When they came out, a chorus of approval came my way. I knew it had just been luck, so I didn’t touch a single wave that day after this one.
4. Dolphin Boy
It was early in my surfing days, when I was so bad, I could barely paddle and would still regularly fall off my board when a wave came the wrong way. I was in the intermediate UCSD surf class, which I thought was the next step after the beginners’ class. Wrong: it takes years of surfing before you can call yourself intermediate!
In any case, Clayton the instructor was so embarrassed by my presence and so concerned about the ability of UCSD surfing to use the main peak at Black’s (where the class was happening) that he banished me (for my own good) to the South end. I was perfectly alone there, the day being a middling 3 foot day with a SW swell that didn’t quite make it that far South (because of La Jolla Point).
I was just sitting there for most of the hour of the lesson, looking at the other surfers having fun, occasionally. Then, a long lull affected us all and we were forced to just sit in the water for five minutes.
Suddenly, a wave rose up in the distance. We were all looking at it, since it was the only rideable thing in a while. It was coming my way! First wave of the day that would not close out on me. I was thirsty for it, I wanted it, I demanded it.
I saw a group of sharky surfers start frantically paddling my way to snake me, but they were too slow and the distance too big. When the wave hit, they were still dozens of yards away, impotent to catch even the far shoulders to get in my way. It was mine, uncontested and uncontestable.
I paddled. I tried to remember everything Clayton the instructor had ever said to anyone in the class. Focus on form, pop up early, bend your knees, etc. I felt the wave rising under me a little too fast. Maybe it would close out, after all. I popped up. I stood. It must have been in the first ten waves total I stood.
Then a sudden explosion. From the face of the wave, to my right and left, two dolphins leaped out, spraying me with water. I swear I heard them chirp at me, but it may well have been my imagination. I was so surprised, I almost slipped on my board, but held firm.
The wave did indeed close out, but only after a good ride. I ended up looking the attempted snakers in the eye when I was done. “Good job, dolphin boy!” said one.