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Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Waves

The Waves

The waves and the ocean have always been important in my life. Bodies of water in general have always had a special appeal, but the ocean is magical. The vastness of the Pacific which has been my favorite playground over most of my life, the Caribbean that I was lucky enough to experience for several months in the late 70’s, and the beautiful Atlantic that seems like a huge foreboding obstacle between the Americas and Europe, have all had influences over the years.


I’ve always loved the ocean, always gravitated towards it, and in fact wanted to surf for almost as long as I can remember. That’s only semi-true … I can remember back to about a year old and can vividly picture looking out from my crib and seeing the ever-present Susie Girl keeping watch and waiting for either my grandparents or parents to come and fetch me. If Susie was there, it means I was at my grandparents, since she was their dog. I grew up with Susie and have fond memories of the little girl for the first 10 years or so of my life. I remember asking my grandmother a few years before she died, what kind of dog Susie was. Her answer was simple, and I can still picture her saying it … “Oh, well Susie was just a VERY NICE dog!” They’re the best ones, of course. Susie was stellar. Mickey preceded her, Timmy was next, but Susie was my buddy growing up in Felton and Santa Cruz.


Here’s a real-life confession. And a bad one that I won’t hear the end of, most likely. My fascination with surfing started with Gidget. See, I told you. Not the first Gidget actually, but the sequel “Gidget Goes Hawaiian,” with young, cute, and pretty much long forgotten Deborah Walley in the lead. Unfortunately, the role didn’t lead to a tremendous movie career. It was 1961, which would have put me at 10 years old.


Side note:  December of 1961, right after Christmas, and my mom was very ready to deliver the youngest of my five younger sisters. This being a different era, I’d spent the whole day on my bike, accompanied by a couple of friends who I still see today. We rode from Daly City, down Skyline Boulevard, out around Lake Merced, into Golden Gate Park, all over Fleishhaker Zoo, along Ocean Beach, and home … three of us, alone with our bikes. We were 10. I arrived home about 5 o’clock to a note, which my parents had left in the kitchen. Something like “we’ve gone to the hospital to have the baby … make yourself some dinner and we’ll call you later.” I believe I sliced and heated a couple of pieces of ham and had some leftover scalloped potatoes. I was apparently cooking for myself and already ridiculously independent at 10!


But the sickness of surfing had struck, and there would be no turning back. I read everything I could get my hands on about surfing. I could tell you exactly where all the famous North Shore spots were located, who the top surfers were, what kind of boards they rode, and probably could draw the board logos. I’ve never excelled at anything resembling art, but for some strange reason I was able to draw virtually all the surfboard logos.


My first encounter with a surfboard in the ocean happened purely due to the luck of an 11-year-old kid who was dying to try his hand at Duke Kahanamoku’s sport of kings. My friend Mike and I were body surfing at Kelly’s Cove, which is at the north end of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, just under the Cliff House. It was a rare warm summer day (probably September and right after school started up, which is when we always get our real summer weather). I was about waist deep in the ocean, swimming and watching the surfers, and a stray surfboard was heading my way. It was a “Bragg,” which was one of the better local customs in 1962. I was able to stop it, jump on it, ride the whitewater for about 20 feet, and managed to turn it around and push it back to its owner … before my little cheater ride was noticed. In surfer’s jargon … I was totally stoked.


Christmas of 1964, I was 13, and my “big present” was an envelope with a receipt for a down payment on a surfboard. I had been given permission to begin an odyssey that would continue to this day. The gift certificate was for a type of board we called “pop outs.” Cheap, mass marketed boards that weren’t worth the hundred bucks they wanted for them. I opted to put the money toward an Abe Schuster “kit,” which cost all of $68, and afforded me the enviable opportunity of making my own surfboard. I don’t recommend this for the timid, and in retrospect this was a stupid thing to do. But I did it. I applied the several layers of fiberglass, mixed resin and catalyst, created a fancy color design, mounted the skeg on the back, and created a 9’7″ 45-pound monstrosity. But it got me into the ocean, and I learned how to surf on this beast.


Surfers go through surfboards. Designs change, you outgrow them (we were young, remember), new shapes promise better takeoffs, faster turns, better maneuvering in the pocket, and we succumb to the ad hype and buy new ones. Some claims are legitimate; some were just a way of preying on young Californians with an amazing amount of expendable capital. Surfboards ran about $150 in the sixties. Not chump change, but certainly attainable for anyone with a paper route or part time job.


My second board was a used Gordon & Smith, which I believe was 9’10”. It was a big green board with redwood stringers and a spiffy laminated tail block. Someone had decided to move on to something new, and I was the benefactor. Cost all of $100, as I recall. Then came my first new board, which was a gorgeous board from Hansen, called a Superlight. My 9’10” beauty featured a unique blue foam stringer that went 3/4 of the way up the board, as opposed to running the length of the board. The idea was that when the rider stood on the front of the board, it would “flex” and plane better … faster speeds, better nose rides. Made it a snap to hang 5 or 10, although the latter was rare. But hanging 5 toes over the nose, or at least doing a “Cheater Five,” which was a move perfected by Paul Strauch and pictured at the right, was a regular occurrence on the Superlight. I believe it cost about $175 new, and they’re worth about $2500 today. Smart move selling that one … right!


Everything changed in the world of surfing in the summer of 1967 when the short board hit the scene. People were riding 9 1/2 to 10-foot boards with subtle variations from board to board, when out of the blue came these (relatively) little boards with deep V bottoms, multiple fins, and much lighter materials. I still remember walking into our local Pedro Point Surf Shop and spotting the first board I really lusted over … it was an 8’4″ Gordon & Smith Midget Farrely V-bottom. Beautiful blue board with black pinstripes, and probably 10 pounds lighter than my cherished Hansen Superlight. I remember it costing $185.00, which was a lot of money that somehow I had to come up with. This would ultimately become my favorite board ever.


First couple outings were at Pedro Point, but it was only a couple of weeks into the new / short board, when my buddy Marty and I headed south for our first of many surfing safaris to the Mecca known as Southern California. Marty’s brother Wayne was stationed in San Diego and lived in a big house at Imperial Beach with a bunch of crazy sailors. They were also 20 minutes from Tijuana which could only be a big party waiting to happen for two naive 16-year-olds.


Our first brush with the So Cal ocean was a quick paddle out at Malibu, which was flat, but we had to do it just to do it. Then it was on to a very strange late morning at the Huntington Beach Pier. Surf City USA, they like to call themselves, although Santa Cruz has as much claim to the title, and it’s an ongoing friendly joust between the two beach towns. The surf was running 4-6 feet, breaking left and right (I like left-breaking waves because I’m a leftie, and ride “goofy-foot” with my right foot forward), so we waxed the boards and headed out. Marty on his Con “Ugly” and me on the G&S V-bottom.


After catching a couple of waves and doing ok on them, the day’s comedy-of-errors began. First, I was clobbered by a big set of waves, and ended up swimming in, being stung by a jellyfish in the process (boards did not have “leashes” then, and would usually end up on the beach, following a wipeout). Marty came in, and I stood my board up in the sand, jamming the sharp new skeg into my foot in the process. We were distracted by some action on the pier, which we found out had been some clown jumping into the water from the pier, and rescue people going in after him. Brilliant. We returned to the car to discover that one of us had left a bar of wax on the hood of the Country Squire, and it had melted into a three-foot circle of muck. To top off the perfect morning, he drove into a traffic piling on the way out of the lot. Time to head south.

We hit a couple famous surfing spots on our way to San Diego, mainly to say that we’d done so, as this was a typically flat Southern California summer, at least in the area north of San Diego. But we had to at least “paddle out” at Malibu (way north of Huntington), Hermosa Beach, San Onofre, and Redondo Beach. No waves, but we could now brag that we’d surfed all of them.


San Diego was a different story. Tourmaline was a little local spot near Crystal Pier, and it was an immediate hit. We spent the entire afternoon surfing fun 3-5-foot waves in 75-degree water. We’d died and gone to heaven (Santa Cruz and Pedro Point hover around 50 degrees, year ’round). Our second day in San Diego brought us to Encinitas, and a spot that became and has remained my favorite wave in the world … Swami’s. So, named for its proximity to the Self-Realization Fellowship, which was built for Swami Paramahansa Yogananda in 1937, and now overlooks the right-breaking reef swells that provide some of the best surfing anywhere. During my brief stint as a student at San Diego State University, I’d surf this spot 3-4 times a week. Absolutely gorgeous location, and the idyllic early mornings can be almost ethereal … you’re truly transported to an other-worldly place.


Returning once again to my younger days, probably in the same 10- or 11-years old period … Seeking an escape from my five younger sisters, I’d commonly ride my bike to a “secret spot” below a cliff, overlooking the ocean just south of Thornton Beach. From here I could watch (study was probably a better description) the waves … the patterns, frequency, effects of the wind … offshore variety would hold the waves up a little longer, onshore would cause them to close out. I’d observe the frequency of so-called “clean up sets” that are inevitable virtually anywhere on the west coast. Three or four waves that are considerably bigger than the average occurrence of that day, seemingly with the intent of cleaning out all the unsuspecting surfers in their path. I’d spend hours in this private spot on the cliff, where I could see everything from Ocean Beach to Pedro Point … a 15-mile span of ocean … beaches covered with shells and sand dollars, cliffs, waves, surfers, and the ubiquitous California gulls (Larus Californicus) that are pretty in flight, but in fact are more like flying rats that scavenge anything that will fit into their crooked yellow beaks.


Once I was granted permission to start surfing, there was no keeping me out of the water. For the first few years this meant bumming rides or hitch hiking to the beach with a 40 pound, 10′ foam and fiberglass board in tow. All of my own cars would have to either swallow up boards in the back (station wagons) or were adorned with Rincon surf racks year ’round. We surfed in any kind of weather the Bay Area wanted to throw at us. Choppy surf, wind, rain, fog and 50-degree water were taken in stride. Three or four times a week, more in the summer. This is a highly addictive pastime.


Sailing, which I’ll save for another article, became a logical extension of this love of the sea. Our local Lake Merced and later San Francisco Bay became the “learning ground,” and was the perfect preparation for moving to St. Thomas, where I sailed some sort of boat every day. Sunfish, Flying Juniors and Hobie Cats comprised our beach rental fleet, and a couple of times a week I served as deck crew on The Feather, a beautiful 38′ sloop. We took six lucky people per trip, skirting Jost Van Dyke and Salt Island on our way to Honeymoon Beach on St. John Island. Two other boats in the harbor was considered “too crowded,” and meant we’d continue around the island in search of something more private for our guests. And it wasn’t uncommon to venture around the bend to Virgin Gorda and drop anchor at The Baths. To repeat an overused phrase (and thank you JB) … “If it gets any better, I don’t want to know about it.”


Moving to Bend brought about an adjustment, since it was no small matter to get to the ocean, which is 150 miles of several circuitous mountain passes away. But amazingly I found that it’s the proximity to water that mattered. Having the Deschutes River across the street provided all I needed for my fix. The graceful ospreys sweeping down from their nests that are commonly built at the highest point in a riverside tree, gracefully plucking their dinner from the fast-flowing stream. The occasional group of deer on the opposite bank, out for a snack at dusk. Locals walking their dogs along the river path that meanders into town, 2 1/2 miles away.


The Deschutes provides a constant sense of wonder and beauty, flowing atypically from south to north from its source, deep in the distant Cascade Lakes, ultimately ending in the Columbia Gorge. The patterns in the river, the way the rocks interact with the oncoming flow, and the intricate locations of the riffles, provide a virtual heaven on earth for anyone who’s ever picked up a fly rod. The lure of the ocean and the waves are ever present, but for now this river provides the same sense of fascination as my secret spot on the cliff, so many years ago.


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