January 10, 1996
It looks so easy. They lounge out on the water on their surfboards, bobbing softly up and down to the caressing rhythm of the waves. The California sun glistens on their shiny, black wet suits, gently blonding their hair and tanning exposed skin. Surrounded by the glorious blue ocean sparkling silver in the sun, reflecting a bluer sky, they wait for the perfect wave to send the adrenaline rushing throughout their bodies.
Heart pounding, the next in line sees his wave and paddles madly toward the shore. The huge ocean swells under him, dwarfing him, yet, exalting him higher and higher as he quickly jumps to his feet. He flies back and forth along the engorged wave as it speeds him toward the shore. For a moment, he becomes one with the mighty sea, capturing and possessing its power and magnificent glory. He is a modern Poseidon, riding his surfboard triumphantly atop the furious sea, for a moment. Then, the wave crashes with a climatic release of power, exploding boundless white ejaculate into the sky. The surfer dives into the white water, turns toward the horizon, and paddles out again.
How hard can it be?” I thought aloud to my surfer-friend Shawn. “The wave does all the work.” He shook his head and slowly smiled. “Yeah, you’re right, it’s easy,” he sarcastically sneered. “Why not try it for yourself then?”
Outwardly, I boldly stepped up to the challenge. Inwardly, I was terrified. Thus was the origin of my first, and presently only, surfing experience. That afternoon Shawn and I loaded up the “Porpoise,” his 1969 Volvo station wagon, and sputtered down Highway 1 from Monterey toward Santa Cruz. “This is where the heavies surf,” Shawn informed me, “but don’t worry, I’ll take you to a beginner’s spot.” I was worried.
Far from Gidget’s mellow Malibu surf, northern California surfing is a rough scene. Santa Cruz, about an hour south of San Francisco, is a proving ground for California surfers. With water temperatures ranging from 40-55 degrees, full wet suits are necessary year-round. Moreover, rushing currents, jagged rocks, and big, pounding waves demand respect from even the most accomplished surfers. Scariest of all, the infamous great white shark thrives in the cold waters of the northern California coast. In their black wet suits, surfers look like tasty food to sharks: They can’t distinguish a surfer from a seal or sea lion. Although attacks are rarely fatal, several surfers are terrorized and sometimes maimed by the great white every year.
Forty-five minutes later, we arrived in Santa Cruz. Nearly 30 years ago, the Grateful Dead jammed in a Santa Cruz house for one of Ken Kesey’s acid-test parties. Looking around town, it could have been yesterday. Home of the University of California/Santa Cruz, the town teemed with the young and extremely hip. Dreadlocks, tattoos, long hair, wrap-around sunglasses – everything screamed 1960s. Life here is slow by day and fast by night, and when the waves are hot, nobody worries about school or work; they’re all surfing.
Santa Cruz appeared to be a surfing paradise. Sunny and about 70 degrees, nothing indicated that it was December except the sun slung low in the southern sky. Strutting down the sidewalks, wet suits half off and carrying their boards, surfers were everywhere. Male, female, short, tall, old, young – no stereotypes prevailed. In the parking lot, sunburned surfers openly stripped and donned their wet suits. Some not so discreetly smoked pot in their cars. All of them were sexy.
An experienced East Coast surfer, Shawn respects the Santa Cruz scene. Mostly young male and a few young female surfers make up the “heavy” local surfing scene. The locals dominate an unofficial pecking order based on ability, local residency, or sometimes just plain attitude. The Hook, Steamer Lane, Weasel Reef, White Shark Beach, and Seven-Mile Beach are some of the Santa Cruz “homebreaks,” or local spots where advanced surfers surf. Surfers are expected to follow an unspoken etiquette. They line up in front of the surf, and each takes a wave in turn. Take a wave out of turn, and a local will call you out of the wave, or worse. “For an outsider, surfing Santa Cruz can be intimidating,” Shawn explained. “I once saw a bunch of local surfers throw rocks off the cliff into the water at a guy just because he stole a wave from another local. You don’t mess with these guys.”
We were headed for Cowell’s Beach, a tame, “family” surfing spot only a few hundred feet past the famous Steamer Lane, esteemed worldwide for waves that can reach 15 feet and higher.
Propping my rented 9-footer on top of my head, I worked my way down the sheer cliff to the narrow beach via several steep, rickety wooden steps. On each end of the beach, water dramatically crashed around points of tall, jagged rocks. Waist-high waves rolled in with regular, rhythmic sets. The water was dotted with about 50 surfers.
An eclectic group of fellow surfers surrounded me. A wetsuit-clad, 40-something mother paddled out beside her two preteen surfer-children. Standing next to me, a 60ish, white-haired gentlemen waxed up his board. The air sparkled with “cool.”
Following Shawn, I jumped on my board and paddled out toward the surf. Immediately, the extreme cold of the Pacific violently stung my hands and feet. I panicked. “Don’t worry, you’ll get over it,” said Shawn. He was right. In a matter of seconds I could no longer feel my feet or hands. Soon, Shawn was way ahead of me. I paddled and paddled, but just couldn’t catch up. Whenever I made a little progress, a huge wave would attack me and knock me off my board, sending me tumbling backward and dragging me back to shore again.
After “getting worked on the inside” for about 20 minutes, Shawn compassionately paddled back to me. “We’ll just stay here and surf the soup,” he relented. “That will be OK for you to learn on.”
He instructed me to sit up on my board and watch the waves roll in. When I saw a good one, I was supposed to turn toward the shore and paddle hard until I felt the wave carrying me. Then, I was instructed to grab the board with both hands and push myself up, planting my feet sideways on the surfboard as the wave took me for a ride. It sounded easy enough.
As we sat waiting, a small swell surfaced on the horizon, increasing in size as it rolled towards us. “This is it!” Shawn shouted excitedly. “Here’s a fat one! Paddle toward the shore, faster, faster!”
I quickly laid down on my board and paddled with all my might. I went nowhere. I felt like a cartoon character, arms swimming madly, but I didn’t move an inch. The ocean was like molasses against my weak strokes. By this time, my arms were two wet noodles, completely useless against the potent surge. I hadn’t a bit of strength left after attempting to paddle out. Motionless in the water, my wave raged over my head, lifting me up off the surfboard and dumping me in its wake. My board went flailing away form me, hitting a nearby surfer on the head.
I’m so sorry,” I gasped with a mouthful of saltwater. “That’s OK, dude” replied my docile victim, “that’s why those beginner boards are made of Styrofoam.”
After a few more frustrating attempts, Shawn decided to push me in front of the wave to compensate for my impotent paddling. Soon, another perfect wave rolled toward me. This time, it lifted me up, and rushed me along its smooth belly. I quickly jumped up onto my feet. For a moment of intense exhilaration, I rode the surf in silent solitude. I felt a complete absence of friction as I sped along the glassy water. I was totally in-sync with the wave. Melted together, we were one entity. Nothing else mattered but the ride. Seconds later, I jumped into the white water as the wave crumbled beneath me. For a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of the surfer’s world. I felt the speed, the freedom, the beautiful moment frozen in time that keeps them coming back for more. Happy, triumphant and satisfyingly exhausted, I called it a day.
Later, on the ride home to Monterey, I asked Shawn what surfing meant to him. “It’s about man and nature coming together to share a moment of beauty and power. It’s a rare thing.”
It’s also a dangerous thing. The next day, I learned that a female surfer died at Steamer Lane. Santa Cruz lifeguard and surfer Beth Pitts drowned after apparently being knocked unconscious while surfing. Locals said she was one of the best surfers around. Her peers performed a surfer burial ceremony for her. Several of them paddled out and joined hands in a circle and her ashes were buried at sea. Simultaneously, the same ceremony was held for her in Hawaii. She was a heavy.
Story and photo by Laurel Chesky