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All Points West: Let’s go surfing now
April 22, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
It was just one of those things on the to-do list; something I thought I should accomplish before the age of 40. Roughly 16 years ago, I learned how to surf. A 50-something balding newspaper buddy of mine named “Dougy,” in a gravelly voice, said everyone should, and volunteered to teach me. Almost stereotypically, he drove a 1970 yellow Volkswagen bus, always topped with at least a few surf boards he endearingly called his “sticks.” Once upon a time, all surf boards, and some shapers these days will tell you, the best boards were made of wood – redwood, cedar, pine, paulownia, or balsa, not fiber glass.

One must also note, there are roughly two classes of boards – short and long. Sure, there are sizes in between, modified mostly to accommodate comfort and style.

Doug lived in Manhattan Beach, California, in fact grew up there. The only thing keeping him from real trouble as a teen in the ‘60s was surfing, and even that wasn’t foolproof. Surfers on some beaches can be notoriously territorial. We’d had a few brief encounters, stare downs with the locals on the Palos Verdes peninsula in South Bay, looking off the cliffs which were incidentally, famous for mudslides with a habit of swallowing million dollar homes and sending them to their demise in the vast Pacific.

Surfing, for obvious reasons, probably won’t expand beyond oceanfront communities.

When I told friends about living the California dream, they said, “How do you like that? Some guy from west Nebraska, growing up surrounded by corn fields, learning how to ride a wave.”

Short boarding, as Doug described, is a young man’s sport. You’ll often see kids trying to emulate surfing heroes and legends the likes of Kelly Slater, big-wave aficionado Laird Hamilton, Rob Machado, and throwback personality Stacy Peralta of “Dog Town” and “Z-Boys” fame. Paddling in fast moving water takes short and strong bursts of energy. The long board, on the other hand, was made for more graceful performances and long rides, as opposed to the short choppy jagged turns made by short board surfers. The long board I used was 10-feet, 6-inches long, and if dugout, could have served as a canoe. Doug coincidentally called the surfboard Big Red, a virtually unsinkable tool. It was cumbersome on land, but on water, moved as smoothly as any sea life.

The first written recording of surfing was by British naval officer Lt. James King of the HMS Discovery in 1778 off the coast of Hawai’i. He wrote, “The men, sometimes 20 or 30, go with the swell of the surf, and lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plank about their size and breadth; they keep their legs close on top of it, and their arms are used to guide the plank. They wait the time of the greatest swell that sets on the shore, and altogether push forward with their arms to keep on its top. It sends them in with astonishing velocity, and the great art is to guide the plank so as always to keep it in a proper direction on top of the swell, and as it alters its direction.” Times, they don’t change.

After we made a stop at the local surf shop to buy a decent wet suit, which was more creature comfort than necessity (most locals needed only board shorts in 40-50 degree waters), Doug proceeded to instruct on the first lesson – the art of wave hunting and checking online surf reports with live cams scanning the horizon. We must have travelled miles along Pacific Coast Highway, more commonly known as PCH, weaving in and out of snarled traffic and half-clad pedestrians with wind-blown hair, and wearing sandals. From the famed thoroughfare, surfers could reach just about any beach. In particular, we started out at Manhattan, going south, we gazed over Hermosa and Redondo, then joined freeway traffic to Huntington (Dog Beach) and Newport.

Doug pointed out all the subtleties. The swells could rise gently and break in what he described as a “crumbling” fashion – nothing ever powerful enough to drag a surfer down. These waves were perfect for long boarders, designed for hangin’ 10 (toes) over the front edge of the board. They were usually waves that quietly dissolved into foam.

Then there were waves that rose and peaked quickly, most of them crashed angrily onto surfers or just mere feet from the shoreline – a short board surfers challenge. Managing and conquering a fast-pace set meant bragging rights later. Or, on the opposite end, surfers told their tales about gnarly wipeouts.

Like Lt. King’s description, the lessons aren’t much more. I’ll never forget catching my first wave, feeling the pull of the ocean from underneath, and listening to other surfers close by.
“Paddle, paddle hard, like your life depends on it,” they yelled.
This I learned was the key. Getting ahead of the swell, the nose of my board dipped down. Popping up and standing on the board was the next step. Putting my weight on the back end of the board, allowed the fins to dig into the wave, and the nose to rise up.
If there’s anything close to actually walking on water, this was it.

The wave was only a three footer, but high enough that I was looking down at other surfers paddling by.

No longer a virgin to this type of adventure, I learned to scout for waves, tasting the salt, feeling the warmth of the sunlight bouncing off the glossy surface of the Pacific.

Among several lessons was respect – finding a way to harness the power of the ocean, by going with the water’s flow and rhythm, and finding peace and harmony instead of cutting across currents, or paddling against the wind. But isn’t that life?

Floating on my plank of balsa at the end of a day, experiencing a good kind of tired, the glowing orange sun sank low, and the swells petered out stretched by the tide. Often, dolphins would playfully swim by, like a mocking reminder this was their domain.

On those days, I smiled, thinking Doug was right about surfing.

Everyone should learn.
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