The decision to immerse oneself into the culture of surfing isn’t voluntary. Ask any surfer and I guarantee they don’t remember what it was that got them hooked, but all they know is that they are “down the rabbit hole”, lost with the need- dare I say obsession of paddling out whenever possible. It’s something that takes hold of your soul and ties you to a life you may not have planned on. Because I live in Southern California, in a region that is quickly becoming more and more troubled with political issues that seem to be out of control, I frequently get asked, “Would you ever move?” My short answer (which would never have crossed my mind 10 years ago) is, “I can’t surf in (Utah, Nevada….fill in the blank with a landlocked state). The thought of not being able to surf every week is heartbreaking, and just not happening. To someone who doesn’t surf this probably sounds like an insane response, but to a surfer (beginner, intermediate or expert), it’s the only answer.
When I meet a new surfer in the water I am always excited for him/her. I can see their anticipation of understanding what it’s all about. I can see their drive to catch on, and I can also see the fear in their face that the next big wave is going to knock them sideways. Yet, that newness is the juice that keeps pumping them session after session, and ultimately leads to their new found religion. I was out recently in Santa Monica at dawn with my surf buddy, Greg (who has been surfing for 40 years). We were chatting about how he learned at Bay Street when he was 14. He had spent a summer mowing lawns to save money to buy his first board. I was thinking how incredible it must be to have several decades of surfing experience under your belt, and how comfortable this break must be to him. Meanwhile, in the same 20 minute window a guy paddled out with his board horizontal to the waves, getting smashed and rolled, as he frantically fought past the break. He paddled breathlessly to us and said good morning. He said this was his first time out, that he had just moved here from Kansas. “Kansas, what do you do in Kansas?” I asked. “Nothing!” was his reply. He was eager, excited and clearly had balls (because it wasn’t a small-wave morning). He asked us what the secrets were, what advice we could give him. Greg simply said, “Keep getting out, a lot!” He floated for a while and said he wanted to watch us for a bit to see if he could pick up anything. When we left, I said good luck, nice to meet you, and like many surfers I see in the water, that was the first and last time I saw him. Even though we had just met, I could tell he had the hunger to fall head-over-heels in love with surfing. It was an interesting situation because I was with a veteran surfer, a neophyte surfer and me (somewhere between timid intermediate and wanna-be awesome carver/trimmer). What is beautiful about it, is that the ocean has room for all of those levels. If you want to be there, you can be there, and you will find your way. It’s just a matter of time and dedication, and swallowing your fears, and turning them into courage and drive.
What I’m loving about spending more and more time in the water while I slowly improve is that I feel as if I’ve earned my place as a “kind-of-local”. I’ve written before about being alone while surfing, yet in the past few months I’ve been lucky enough to have my surf buddy, Greg. I always see people that are familiar (usually by the color of their boards or cars) and there’s always a “good morning”, but not a lot of repetition and conversation. With Greg, because we surf Sunset the most, and because we sit at the same spot, becoming friends was inevitable. As I mentioned before he’s surfed for many years and his surfing chops are well defined and admirable. He clearly has zero fear out in the water, which has helped me with mine. Rather than seeing dawn patrol as a challenge due to some of the elements that can be scary (dark,cold,alone), dawn patrol with Greg is just fun. It’s a comforting feeling to know that when I get past the break, my friend will be there. What makes me laugh about getting to know someone while I surf is that the waves are the first priority. We can be mid-sentence about something interesting and have to take off. By the time we ride the wave, wait out the set and paddle back out it’s been a few minutes. Therefore it’s hard to remember the conversation, and half of them get dropped mid-thought. My point to this is that I’m getting to know Greg in small parts, which is interesting in itself. Every time we are surfing together I get a little more information. I know that when he was a teenager he used to skateboard at the middle school I teach at. I know he’s a lawyer and a writer, and I know his mom was hot (I know this because of a trip to Panama that ended badly). The inbetween details lost between breaking waves aren’t important, what’s important is the fact that we are both starting our day with the company of the ocean (hopefully some dolphins), and some good banter.
It’s easy to spot someone who has gone “down the rabbit hole” and also someone who is about to. Greg was clearly lost years ago to the stoke of the sea, and I am happily falling down and down. I also have a sneaking suspicion our boy Kansas is well on his way.