Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Stoked

I thought I had dreamed the banana-yellow single-fin-behemoth of a surfboard lying in the middle of my bedroom floor. My dad was in the dream, still in his sheriff’s uniform, shaking me and saying something about learning to surf. A strange dream I thought, drifting back into lurid, early-adolescent male fantasies. Yet when I awoke, there in fact was a single-fin swallow-tail surfboard, probably 8’ or so, laying deck-down next to my bed. I rolled out to examine it, rubbing my eyes while wondering what had possessed my dad to bring home such a thing. He had talked about surfing before but I never thought he would actually buy a board. I admired its lines and turned it over. I could barely lift it.
The town I grew up in, Hemet, was 60 miles from the nearest beach on the Southern California coast. Hemet was just far enough to make daily surfing nearly impossible, but close enough, that with some motivation and dedication, I could get out and learn whenever my mom or dad could haul me and my sister or friends to the beach. My dad had originally hoped to learn as well, yet after a few disastrous attempts that included a near-concussion, he left the surfing to me.
Like any kook kid starting out, I floundered about in the beach-break for months and months, riding walls of foam, getting an occasional reform on the inside that would, much to my surprise, suddenly have me shooting down a glassy face, the sluicing of the break at my heels and the soft, distinctive slapping and slicing of fiberglass against a curling wave ahead.
There was nothing like it. At 12 years old, surfing became a part of who I was.
                It was hard to get really good, surfing weekends and occasional weekdays in the summer and far less in the winter. There were trips to Mexico with my mom and sister after my parents split up, but mainly I surfed the beaches of San Diego County around Oceanside, Encinitas, and Leucadia, with occasional forays into Orange and L.A. counties.  By the time I was in high school I was a competent surfer… that is I could paddle to the outside fairly easily, my timing improved and I knew where and how to paddle into and even catch waves. By then I was primarily riding a Midget Smith 6’2” thruster that had replaced the banana-boat as well as an 8’2” Becker pin-tail egg that my step-mom gave me. I certainly wasn’t great, and I paddled after far many more waves than I caught. But when I did manage to pop up and carve down the face of a peeling break, the rush and excitement and sense of luck was like getting a girl’s shirt off as a teenager for the first time. In retrospect, I’m sure I caught more waves as a teen.
Yet even when I did get up, a fair amount of the time I would wipe out ½ way through my bottom turn. Of those times I successfully made that bottom turn and carved my way back into a wave that didn’t close out, pitch me off into the washing machine or otherwise peter-out, well, those were the endorphin releasing moments that elevated surfing beyond any casual hobby or sport. I understood what being “stoked” really meant. Hours and sometimes days after a good session or even just a good ride I would step just a bit lighter, my state of being floating in some Zen-like cloud of existence.
Spring turned to summer turned to fall in 1993. I was out of high school and navigating my way through a stint in the military. I spent most of the winter of 93-94 in Tennessee yet ended up in San Diego by February where I had a decent beach-break on Naval Station North Island essentially to myself. Point Loma did its best to block any west swells but a south would churn up nice sets on the military installation that would be mine alone to ride.
Later that year, in the fall of ‘94, I was transferred to Japan. I didn’t surf for a couple of years- the longest gap since I started at 12 years old. Full steam ahead in any one of the 7 seas I would sit on the port-quarter of the aircraft carrier I was based on and imagine towing into the massive wake left by the ship. A 9’0” or better would have been sufficient- hell, I had ridden smaller, sloppier surf on the Becker back in California. I imagined carving the frothy peak, following the ship for miles as it launched jets and recovered helicopters.
A friend in my squadron picked up a brand-new 5’11” pin-tail thruster when we ported in Perth, Australia in 1997. When we got back to Japan we paddled out at Enoshima, a decent break just south of Tokyo. I took my girlfriend’s sponge out, but my friend, Kenny, found the thruster too light and squirrely for him. I paddled out and had more luck with it and soon found myself catching the train from my base to the coast whenever I could skate out of work, Kenny’s board under my arm. The years of not being in the water and the hard-partying in the Navy left me soft. Just paddling out was exhausting, but within a few weeks of going regularly I got competent again. Just in time to get out of the military and move back to California: Huntington Beach specifically.
I ended up a 3 minute bike ride to Huntington Pier for a few years, renting a place on Huntington Street in the heart of Surf City. I started paddling out daily and began gravitating towards the Becker. The more I watched the innumerable longboarders that surfed HB the more I wanted to get my toes on the nose and, well, catch more waves. Let’s face it, the inconsistency of the sand-bottom break at the pier meant more waves with a longboard—much to the absolute enragement of the shortboarders. Challenges such as “I’m going to shove that tongue-depressor up your ass!” were common as longboaders were able to sit a bit further outside and pick-off the choice waves.
Not one to be discouraged by such hyperbole, I picked up a used 9’0” triple-stringer with a 2+1 fin set-up. I fought my way into the line-up and, although I always despised localism, was none-the-less eventually accepted as one due to the sheer fact that I was surfing the pier every day and pretty much lived in downtown.
It was around this time—at 23 years old in 1998—that I got good. Really good. I took to surfing a longboard like I never had on a shortboard. Something about the ease of catching the smallest, crappiest of waves and being able to deftly step foot-over-foot up the board, kicking up spray as I moved one, and eventually two of my size-twelve feet within millimeters of the nose. The thruster design allowed me plenty of maneuverability: it was a snappy, reactive board that I began riding exclusively for the years I lived in HB. Other than an occasional trip to Trestles, The Cliffs off Goldenwest or Bolsa Chica, I was a fixture at the pier. Longboarding suited me.
 Unfortunately my days of daily surfing were limited. Job, housing, and the life-situation as it were found me buying a place in Costa Mesa  just after the close of the 20th Century. I was close enough to the ocean to still surf daily but rather than hop on my bike I had to drive, park, etc, and some of the allure wore away. Unfortunately, I fell out of love with surfing. I chased my dream of being a rock star for a while and then went to college. In early 2005, I moved to Portland, Oregon.
There was a time when my life revolved around surfing- if I missed a day or two in the water I felt like a slug. The perpetual stoke would wear off after 3 days, and after a week out of the water, hell, I wouldn’t even consider myself a surfer anymore. I can distinctly remember my last proper ride in California. It was a left—the wave probably 4-5 ft. I was so wiped from paddling I took the wave in after only having been in the water 30 minutes or so. I didn’t catch another wave for over 5 years.
With a heavy heart, in February of 2005, I sold the Becker and the 9’0” to my neighbor in Costa Mesa as we packed the last of our belongings and headed to the Pacific Northwest. I wanted to keep the boards for sentimental reasons I suppose since I had no inkling that surfing would ever be in my life again. Alas, they wouldn’t fit in the moving truck.
I dreamed about surfing regularly; I would wake up almost feeling stoked. I would catch mythical breaks on fantastic beaches or struggle in storm swells on some imaginary coast. Anytime I found myself at the Oregon coast I would size up the break, daydreaming of how I would paddle into a wave. Right there- paddle,paddle- BOOM! I would imagine my bottom turn, pulling a floater, noseriding…
In 2008 I got back in the water. But it wasn’t Oregon. While stationed in Japan I met my future wife, and we visited her family with our 2-year-old son in the late summer of 2008. Coincidentally, my wife’s hometown is home to some of the best breaks in Japan- Shirahama near the town of Shimoda being one of them. My wife never surfed but was a surf-groupie of sorts growing up. She knew where all the breaks were and still had local connections—enough so to get me hooked up with an 8’0” single-fin egg for a day. I floundered. Paddling out wasn’t much of a problem- the surf was small and clean and the water bath-tub warm, yet my timing was off and my arms turned to noodles every time I managed to get in the sweet spot with enough forward momentum to catch a wave.  Rather than popping up I did old-man pushups as I slid down the face, pearl-diving more often than actually standing up.
I could say I caught 3 waves total that day. My balance was terrible. I didn’t so much as carve as cartwheeled my arms to keep balance as I haplessly plowed down the face of several semi-clean 3-footers. Being so out of shape it took me 3 times as long to paddle out as it did back in my glory days. After an hour of pummeling I was done.  I had been too long from the water. Regardless, as I dragged the board in from the ocean my face was fixed in a permanent grin. I certainly hadn’t killed it, but I had surfed again.
Fast-forward 5 more years. Again, I was beyond soft. I had put on 15 lbs at least. I was out of shape and had made a few feeble attempts to run, bike and otherwise get myself back into some semblance of shape through the years. And through it all, the dream of surfing again wouldn’t quite leave me. I was a few years from 40 when I finally got real with myself and made some serious lifestyle changes. I quit the nightly microbrews. I started training for 5ks (which, due to numerous knee and ankle injuries, I never quite managed to compete.) I biked almost daily and started doing serious core workouts. I changed my tune and started feeling the best physically I had felt in a long time.
It was around February of 2013 that I decided—I am going to start surfing again.
The weather was great for early May in Oregon, with temperatures in the 80’s in Portland and 70’s at the coast. We got a surprise taste of summer at a time of year when it was rare for a sunbreak or 70 degree day to roll in. I was shopping for a board daily, perusing Craigslist as well as the used inventory at the only surf shop in Portland. I made an offer on a 9’6” that was on consignment there but never heard back.
The next day I found it. The day before dragging my suburban brood to Seaside, Oregon for a quick overnighter. I found an ad online that read something like:
“surf board. 8’4” one small ding on the underside. $250”
Seemed like a decent deal—8’4” was a little smaller than I was looking for, but I when I opened the first picture online, I realized this guy had no idea what he had. It was a Robert August mini-longboard, epoxy resin, laid with balsa veneer. Aside from a garage-rash ding on the left rail, the board was in amazing shape. I later found the exact model for sale online in L.A. for $900. I emailed the guy immediately, and as the stars aligned, the next day the board (including a nice FCS board bag) was strapped to the roof rack of my urban attack vehicle (a Subaru Forester,) cruising out highway 26 towards the Pacific.
Looking out over Indian Beach in Ecola State Park I got that familiar tingle. There was a bit of an onshore breeze; the waves 2’-3’ and somewhat choppy. It looked ride-able at worst, with a few clean rights forming up that would amount to a good 10-second ride. With no booties, no gloves, and no hood, I paddled out wearing only my worn and torn 3 mm Victory fullsuit. The water may have been 52 degrees- it took my breath away as a plunged in and paddled for the nearest rip to help pull me out.
I fared much better than my last outing in 2008. Perhaps being in shape helped.  Even with the rough, choppy mess on the inside paddling out wasn’t much of a struggle.  The lineup was sparse, and there were more kook-newbies flailing about on the inside than there were guys actually beyond the break, waiting patiently for a well-formed swell to roll in and send them on a 5-15 second joyride. Just sitting on my board in Oregon’s stretch of the Pacific was an experience all its own. The frigid, emerald-green water so different from California—foreboding and commanding respect as it crashed along the rocky shore to the north.
I paddled after my first wave. It failed to materialize. I had forgotten how deceiving a swell could be—one moment you could swear a peak was about to spill over 20 or 30 yards further outside, yet as soon as you started to charge out, it might roll past you, breaking another 50 feet closer in to the shore.  I sat for a spell as the faux-wave rolled under me and turned to watch the shore—the protected cove limited the amount of cross-current that might pull you north or south parallel to the shore. I went after a few more waves until I finally found the sweet spot—I paddled hard, and soon felt the power of the wave take the board, my arms free to push myself up. I didn’t so much as pop up as struggle, but got up I did, taking a right as the much-faster-and-reactive-than I expected mini-longboard hurled me down the clean face of a 2’ wave.
It was a short ride. But it was a ride. As the wave closed out I managed to snap the board to the left and stepped off with a bit of finesse. I plunged headfirst into the water just ahead of the whitewash, much as I had in my more “talented” days, ending the ride with an “I meant to do that” finish.  Emerging from the foam with a gasp, I jerked my board back with a tug of my leash, snapped it around and under me and charged back towards the outside. I lasted an hour or more in the water this time, and finally, my arms burning, my feet numb and my teeth chattering, I rode in and walked up the beach, my face beaming and my soul alight. I was stoked.