Sunday, November 20, 2005

Slippery When Wet

It's easy to forget how dangerous surfing is.

Actually, I take that back. It's not that it's easy to forget how dangerous surfing is. It's just that we tend to focus on the spectacularly dangerous aspects of surfing - the really scary, sexy dangers that seldom happen (the sharks, the reef at 'chopes, the kickboxing wolfpack) - and forget about the stupid little things that actually do happen.

Think plane crash vs. car crash.

And it's those stupid little accidents that we should be afraid of. Just ask Jesse Billauer.

On Friday I had a nice little reminder.

It was super low tide, and getting lower. Probably -.5, with another hour to go. I was surfing without a leash, which I do a lot when the waves are small. As a matter of fact, there was almost nothing about the session that was even slightly unusual. Except for the fact that, because the tide was still dropping so fast, there was a fairly steady (but slow) current pulling straight out to sea.

So I catch a little waist-high right, do a few pumps, and then as it starts to closeout, pop a little backside kickout. I timed it a little late though, and while my board made it over as the wave dumped on the inside, my balance was off and I fell backwards over the falls.

Not a big deal. Like I said, the waves were small.

I pop up and see my board about 20 feet away. I start after it, doing the casual waist-high hop n' splash. But I quickly notice that it's steadily moving back out towards the lineup and that I'm not catching up with it. So I start swimming...steadily at first, then panicked as a wave starts breaking on the outside and I realize my board is gonna go right up the face and right in the way of the guy now taking off.

Now I'm swimming like mad, closing the gap, but it's too late. The surfer sees my board, gives me a disgusted, filthy look, and pulls out the back just a few feet before colliding with this six foot piece of blue flotsam. Still desperate to get it back under my control, I make one last mad sprint for the tail when I realize I'm not going to catch it in time. It tracks up the face and gets caught perfectly in the lip.

To quote a million cheesy action flicks, suddenly the hunter has become the hunted.

I stick my arms out to try and "catch it", but mostly I'm just blocking. In a split-second, it comes down with the lip, hits both my hands, accordions my arms like they couldn't bench-press a Harry Potter book, and, deck first, just CRUSHES me in the side of the head. I mean, it clobbered me.

I came up, not only seeing stars and convinced my head had been split open like a watermelon, but with such a crazy ringing in my head that I was pretty sure my earplug had been knocked deep into my skull, and was now bouncing around in there like a rubber pinball.

I start doing the slap n' look, where you claw at the damaged area, pull your hand away and inspect your fingers for blood, and then repeat about 50 times.

Amazingly, no blood, no crushed skull, and my earplug is still sitting where it belongs.

I started having flashbacks of another lowtide session, 15 years ago, at Carmel Beach. I had just done a failed floater on a head-high wave into 3 feet of water. Me, the wave, and the board all combined into a perfectly symbiotic fusion of vertical energy and just imploded there on the sand. I popped up first and immediately looked around for my board. Like the dude sticking his face over the egg in Alien (ALWAYS a bad idea), I looked straight down and my board popped straight up, knocking me on my ass and opening up a nice two-inch split next to my eye.

Damn, surfing is dangerous. No two ways about it. Ruptured ear drums, nose gashes, fin slices, head whacks, neck-breaking sandbars, pier collisions, leash tangles...you name it.

30 foot Jaws? Ha. I survived 2-foot HB.

The Colonel says, "Let's be careful out there."

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Surfing, Now New & Improved!

In the nearly 20 years I've been surfing, right now is by far the best time to be a surfer.

That thought hit me like a Scott's Creek cleanup set about 5 minutes ago while I was sitting on my living room floor, drinking coffee, listening to the Sprout soundtrack, and sorting our magazine rack.

With piles of "haven't read yet and still plan to" (Sunset), "haven't read yet and know we're not going to, which is fine because it comes every week" (The Economist), "have read but want to keep anyway" (Wine Spectator), and "haven't read but still like looking at the pictures when I take a dump" (Surfer), last year's Photo Annual slipped off its appropriate stack and opened up to an image of a single fin retro board sailing through the air. Next to it was a shot of some guy at Malibu, riding the nose, taken from behind.

With Ray Barbee jangling in the background, I had an overpowering thought:

"Oh man, I wanna go for a surf."

Followed by:

"Shit, this really is the best time ever to be a surfer."

Why?

Because this is the first time (in my surfing lifetime anyway), that WE THE PEOPLE have broken free from the ranks of the bro/brah professionals.

Think about your surfing 10 years ago, or 20 years ago. What were you riding? How were you riding? What kinds of boards were they selling?

It was awful. It was so awful, we didn't even realize it at the time. When I bought my first board in the mid-80's, I had three choices:

- 6 foot tri-fin thruster
- 6 foot tri-fin thruster
- 6 foot tri-fin thruster

Okay, so there were a handful of boards in the "used" section that dated back from the 70's. A couple of pin tails and thick railed-experiments, hocked for a couple of twomps, and left in the darkest corners of every surf shop, banished to decades of dust and ridicule - permanent drydock.

I remember paddling out on that first board, a 6'0" G.M. Corocroft (big GMC logo on the deck, gleefully referred to as the "Gay Men's Club" by my junior high buddies). I'll never forget the feeling of horror as I attempted to paddle out at low tide, glassy, nearly flat Hook at the end of 41st St. in Santa Cruz (actually Capitola, but that's like calling San Francisco "Central California" - technically true, but head-scratching to the masses).

It was the most awkward I'd ever felt. Nothing like the 10' foam board I'd paddled out on in Lahaina Harbor a year earlier. That was instantly fun...it felt natural. This...what the fuck was this? It was like balancing on a tightrope. I kept slipping from one side to the other, sinking forwards then sinking backwards. Thank goodness it was basically flat because even the knee high rollers that ambled through were like torpedoes in the hull.

And trying to catch a wave? And then stand up? Are you kidding me?

It took me nearly A YEAR before I could consistently catch a wave, stand up, and ride it. Granted, I lived about 45 minutes from the beach and only got to surf twice a month or so. But still, I was paddling, catching waves, standing up and SURFING within probably 20 minutes during my foamboard lesson on Maui.

"Yeah," I'd justify to myself after a particularly humiliating session at Pleasure Point or Steamer Lane. "But that wasn't really surfing. That was a big foam beginners board. It wasn't a REAL surfboard."

Fuck me it wasn't a real surfboard. If anything, that used, six foot Gay Men's Club heap of shit wasn't a surfboard. Real surfboards allow you to ride waves - TO SURF. I'm not sure what I'd call my weekly sessions of falling on my ass at the Half Moon Bay jetty, but it sure wasn't surfing. Floundering, more like.

And you know what? 10 years ago, it was probably even worse. For me anyway, I'd finally learned how to ride those tiny 6 foot thrusters (more or less). But for a newcomer, wanting to learn to surf...shit, can you even imagine clambering onto one of those flip-nosed, all-rocker potato chips that were all the rage back then?

And that's pretty much all they sold. Yeah, the "longboarding rennaisance" was in full swing, but thanks to the surfing media and the narrow-minded attitude of most professional and influential surfers at the time, longboarding was compartmentalized, ridiculed, and wholly excluded. It wasn't "surfing"...it was "longboarding". Like windsurfing and boogieboarding, the loggers were told to start their own magazines and surf at their own spots. A different sport altogether, matey.

It is ASTONISHING looking back on it now. It's like living through the civil rights movement and then looking back 20 years later and going, "Holy fuck, we thought black people were a different species of human...what the hell were we thinking?"

Thank goodness, our evolution - our civil rights movement - did finally happen. Things finally changed. A couple of guys started riding fish as a summer novelty. Guys like Joel Tudor showed they weren't just one trick ponies, and could smack a lip as easily as they could dangle ten toes over. Then the retro boys like Donavan took their love for vintage clothing to the next logical step - vintage boards. And finally, FINALLY, the word got out, a few movies hit the circuit, and everything changed.

THIS IS IT, my friends.

This is the best time to be a surfer...EVER. It's all available to you. Whoever you are, however your genetic code shaped you, wherever you live, whatever your style, you have finally won the right to have as much fun as Andy Irons, Kelly Slater, or Tom Curren.

Beginner? Take your pick of foamboards, longboards, funboards, eggs, retro fish...whatever the hell suits your body and suits your local break.

Intermediate? Sure, take out the shortboard...only now you can buy a board that's actually suited to YOU. At first they called them "hybrids" but that was only because shapers didn't know what else to call them. In reality, these "hybrids" were the first genuinely custom boards these guys had ever made. You may have ordered a "custom" board back in '92, but really you just got Kelly's board with your name scrawled on it.

Advanced? Sky's the limit. No longer are you shackled to that shortboard, avoiding small, crappy days because you don't want to grovel in the slop and look like the kook that you know you aren't. Take out the log, ride the fish...hell, get on the damn surf mat or go for a body whomp. Arch your back and drag your hand. Dip your head and do a layback. Stand up straight and stick your fist up in the air with a mighty, "Schnell!"

Anything goes right now, so please, get out there and enjoy it. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, surfing belongs to us, the 99.9% of us who weren't born in Newport's "hottest hundred yards" and who didn't grow up a block from Anthony Ruffo's meth lab.

The inmates are running the asylum, bros.

The Colonel says, "Let's paddle."