It’s generally a sin to give away surf spot locations. But none of these are secrets. So here are some Maps for ya.
28 June aka 25 (actually, 1) – Middle Peak/Indicators – belly button high
Ok, who was I kidding that yesterday was my last day. The swell was dropping fast, but my before lunch meeting ended a little early and you gotta eat lunch sometime, right? At this rate, I might just be able to arrive in Ithaca with my wetsuit still wet.
The waves were few and far between today. Mostly knee-high and wobbling over the wave graveyard to spill on the reef rocks and their cushions of feather-boa kelp. But then a chest high set showed up and gave us hope. I only got one wave of interest, but it was the perfect kind of thing to go in on. A little peak standing up out of the slick water, Heerman’s Gull sailing over it, no one else in sight, shoulders sloping like Nevada ridgelines. One of those no-effort takeoffs, bring the board around down the line as the shoulder becomes peak, then lip, then falls away in a froth behind me. Cut it back and realize it’s going to reform despite the tide. Three cutbacks, loose arm trailing, and finally two steps up to the middle, another step to the logo, and steering the knee-high remnants in along the cliff, close enough to see the barnacles. Paddled back up to the stairs and laid in the cold salt water for a minute or two, trying to picture nudibranchs holding on for dear life in the rushing currents. At the cliff, no one knew it was the day before the flight back east. People had videocameras set up on tripods. An elderly couple in sunhats sitting on the memorial bench. Old surfers with mustaches talking about ancient history and leaning over the barrier, elbows on the railing, eyes on the surf. A young surfer in a t-shirt talking earnestly to somebody, hands spread as he makes his point. He was saying, “…a super hot chick. And when you’re with a hot chick, dude, the hot chicks just come to you.” A 12-year-old was skateboarding alongside his grandma on the walkway. He tried a 180 ollie, missed it, and said, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go.” There was an enormous regatta of tiny daysailers way out toward Monterey, their little sails glittering among the whitecaps. I thought, I want to live someplace where, when people visit it, they stop and take a selfie with the place for a background. I leaned the bike over and turned left at the statue. I glanced back over my shoulder at Middle Peak, just going behind the cliff. There was a set breaking.
27 June aka 26 (actually, 2) – Middle Peak/Indicators – head high+
The tide was lower and the WNW swell was still pumping. The morning had been our last minus tide of our year, so Mea and I had headed down here to look for nudibranchs. They were all gone, though they had littered the place in the winter. We poked around for a half-hour and eventually, in the last pool I looked in, we found two three-lined nudibranchs, their white bodies with three electric-white racing stripes underneath waving orange fringes. Later in the day I came back and went surfing for probably the last time in the foreseeable future. I walked down the riprap and someone had devoured a pack of SweeTarts and left the wrapping everywhere for some sea turtle to choke on. I picked it up and tucked it into my bootie. Is that why the first wave came my way in less than 5 minutes? They were cleaner today and the board took off down the line and offered up another one of those toes-in carves across a flawless shoulder. Those smooth curving faces, the look down the line as the board comes around. My second wave came almost immediately after. I hadn’t even got up past Indicators yet when a head-high set came through aimed squarely at me. This one kept shaping up—a crouch down the line and then a series of cutbacks with my left arm swinging forward at the bottom turn and then up and out behind me, as carefree as if it were doing something of its own idea, as the board came around and climbed the face. The second steep section through Indicators I stepped up and steered from the nose, feet planted next to each other, and stepped back down to finish the last few meters of wave at the statue. This time I did walk back up the sidewalk and went and sat back at Middle Peak, where the pack was starting to froth and a couple of loose cannons were starting to yell at each other over perceived slights and infractions. In between sets I looked at shadows on the horizon and said, will this be my last wave in Santa Cruz? I even got my last respectable wipeout. I was at Middle Peak ignoring the squabblers when a set loomed outside. I made it through three of them, pushing the trombone through the vertical face and into the safe green water behind it each time. The fourth one I was in position for, arguably. I turned and went for it, and even though I was at the backdoor I was committed to cutting right, getting around the peak, and finding the shoulder. I should have gone left. Or drawn out the bottom turn. I popped into a crouch and tried to get into the bass clef and as I looked down the line all I saw was waterfall. It shoved my board sideways and I took the opportunity to launch off and away from the board. I hit the water, went under, felt the leash pulling on my ankle and pulling me down behind the board. Then letting go, and I came back up. I stayed out for a while longer. The last wave was a smaller one. The yelling was getting too much at MP, and I was at outside Indicators. A kid was coming through from the Slot but the wave was sectioning. I paddled into it and tilted the rail with a pull of my left hand. The bass clef pushed up into my vision, and then the crinkled surface of the shoulder, relaxing even as I relaxed. I stood up out of my crouch, carved the board around and then back around again, stepped up to the middle, then to the nose, skirting the cleft cliffs and ending at the culvert. I climbed onto the first boulders where the sandcastle worms and then the mussels poked into my boots, and up the riprap and onto the parched dirt and the cheatgrass and iceplant, with the ground squirrel burrows and the pigeon guillemot nests and, overhead, the young pelicans soaring way up high, nothing better to do, white bellies against the white sky. Down at the statue a girl in a red bikini on a thigh-high wave was cross-stepping on a longboard like it was nothing. I climbed over the barrier and walked back to my bike. It was probably my last wave in Santa Cruz. For now.
26 June aka 27 (actually, 3) – Middle Peak – head high+
I had given up hope on surfing when the Surfline report came through with the email header: “Forecast: Pacific serves up all kinds of swell.” Sure enough, a WNW groundswell was building all day and I went out in the evening, in the hot sun, to find real waves bowling in past the Point, past Middle Peak, even some lines aiming square at Indicators. There was a hell of a west wind and the lump carried through into the lineup. I got almost immediately into a churning head high line cutting through the 3.0 foot tide and heading down through Indicators. I made the bottom turn and came up midface… and something inside me said, try to take this in. I stalled and looked down the line at the shoulder forming, the steep face slowing and steepening and the outside catching up to it to turn into more wave. I looked down at the flat water and the kelp at the bottom of the wave. I looked up at the lip and the green face like bottle glass, with the wind lump adding extra curvature. I looked at the tan-orange cliff with the iceplant falling down it and the rocks at the bottom all bristled with mussel shells. I looked back at the board and leaned the rail into the wave and picked up speed again. The wave was lumbering in the full tide and it was hard to find the rhythm as I navigated lumps and as the shoulder kept fattening up. But it was more than I had any right to expect. I kicked out at the statue but realized my surfing days were numbered, so I didn’t walk the sidewalk back up; I took the long paddle and tried to enjoy the kelp. My last wave was a beautiful clean peak bearing down on Middle Peak. I paddled out to meet it, spun, and took off. A whole pack of surfers were out wide and paddling clear of the shoulder. I had great speed and a nice arc down the face and making full use of the shoulder. I realized it was a replay of the time I hit the Kahuna, though fortunately less offshore, shooting straight at the nearest longboarder on his way around the shoulder. But this time I was on my marks. I had the inside rail set and carving out onto the shoulder, and I just rolled the board over onto my toes, leaning out over the water and driving around feeling the weight on my back foot and the trombone’s sharp rails biting into the face. It was a long, low carve that for all I know was close enough to give that longboarder the shampoo treatment. The rail hung in the wave in one smooth figure-eight flow around and back into the whitewater.
11 June aka 41 or thereabouts – the Point – up to belly high
So small there was nowhere to surf but the Point. Everything else was lakelike, but of course the Point was doing what it does and there were occasional lines coming through with shoulders and everything. There were barely any real surfers out, just a couple of kids snaking each other on shortboards, and a bunch of vaguely surfable tourists floundering around. The tide was low enough that Table Rock just off the cliff was not out of the water, but it came up flush to the surface on every pulse and ebb, like a piston in a cylinder, leaving a boil on the surface as it went back under. I took a couple of waist high waves down and around it, trying really hard not to wind up bailing onto flat rock. Later it got more crowded, but still not with any real surfers. Just an old guy on a longboard who paddled with focus and pretended no one else was out there. He had style, crouching in his popup and making the most of the lines. I left. I just don’t like all the jockeying and getting in the way and trying to both give people the right of way and put up with getting snaked or backing off waves that the guy inside of you doesn’t end up catching or doesn’t make the bottom turn. Especially at the Point, where you know the locals are looking down and passing judgment. I was struck with paranoia that Ribsy, the local’s local, would be up there and me not on my best game. I paddled in and of course just as I was heading over the reef I saw, over my shoulder, two little belly-high A-frames peel in the glassy water over Middle Peak. Was the spot turning on? Could I really go in without getting one of those? Of course I couldn’t. So I turned around and paddled back out and spent the next 30 minutes sitting in the sun by myself with absolutely nothing shifting the surface of the water. Had to paddle back in on my own after all.
10 June aka 42 – Middle Peak – up to chest high
I almost didn’t go out today. The swell was dropping and the tide would be higher than ever—a 2.8 at about 7 p.m., and what kind of wobbly leftover NW swell would break in that depth? Steve was in the driveway with a friend and he all but sneered as I told him I had no choice but to be optimistic. “It’s June 10 and I’m leaving on June 29,” I said. “I’ll take anything there is.” As it turns out I was right to go, and I stayed out two hours. The south swell remnants were hitting the point and the usual pack of young hotshots were ripping it to shreds in their stylish colored wetsuits: gray and red, green, blue, blue and yellow, purple and green (a girl). The walls were throwing lips and I saw more than half a dozen people tuck into small but open barrels. One guy pumped desperately down the line to get around the first cliff edge, then the second. Another guy on an orange board would carve up to the lip, half-ollie and flip his board 180 under his feet, then start coming back down and slide 180 out of it so that his board was again pointed the right way and he was riding switchfoot. And everyone was boosting airs. Over at Middle Peak it was a quieter affair, but most of the time I was alone and every 5 or 10 minutes a plucky little A-frame would rear up out of the still water. A couple had actual size and shape to them. I was on the trombone and took off early. The first wave was waist high and I rode it crouched, one knee to the board, so I could see down the curve, then stood up and carved back down. But later they got bigger and I was surprised to get a couple actual glassy walls, and I kept paddling back out after them. Lining up on the waterfall of purple ice plant blooms coming down the cliff, keeping the lighthouse well to the right. In between sets the cliff swallows were skimming a hands-breadth over the water. They looked like storm-petrels. A couple of caspian terns harassed the lines of pelicans. Their voices were hoarse and their sharp black wingtips looked like the fire-hardened tips of stick arrows we used to make in campfires. The sky was dark over by Marina and Moss Landing, lightening to a creamy gray lit up with white sails. Another of these surprise Middle Peak waves shaped up and I eased over to it, took off, and dropped down the face. It was so glassy and bright that the clouds just slid up its face and over the back, and I made long, lazy turns in complete silence. I could still clearly hear the set waves beating against the cliff as I took the trombone all the way out on the shoulder and brought it back around.
9 June aka 43 – Middle Peak/Indicators – head high
Still hacked up, not quite as large, and with a marginally higher tide. Out of some sense of decorum I took the 8-ball out. I had about an hour before I needed to be back to call Dad for Father’s Day, and I enjoyed my time, although much of it was spent jockeying with longboarders and trying to decide to wait at the top end of the wave graveyard for the larger sets or to hang back at Indicators for the smaller ones to reform. Seemed like most of the time I was wrong.
8 June aka 44 – Middle Peak/Indicators – head high+
Something happened to the gorgeous south swell overnight. It got hacked up by some serious NW windswell and the Lane was a mess of big Point waves and lumpy head-and-a-half peaks wandering around Middle Peak. I had sold the trusty red Golf with the Porch Surfers stickers on it just that morning and so it didn’t matter how much cleaner it would be over on the Eastside. I suited up and jumped in on a 2.5′ afternoon tide and tried to stay on one side or the other of the wave graveyard. I actually got a few great waves, better than any right to get in June. I had been feeling down lately about surfing: I knew that the best waves of this year were behind me, and not only that but I’m not even in as good shape as I was earlier in the year, and so anything I can scrape together on these last few surfs are charity rather than progression. With little assurance of when the next chance for progression might come. So that was why the last couple of days had been such a great surprisea—not just waves but a couple of great waves. And today, a little more. A somewhat run-of-the-mill head high race through Indicators with a couple of cutbacks, and then a rather ungainly but successful smaller wave that ran through the inside. As I came down the shoulder and the wave regrouped from chest high to waist high, I stepped up to midships and the whitewater tried to throw me off. I rode it with my knees and hips loose. I felt a sphere of off-balancedness bobble up from my knees to my waist, and I arched my back to let it rise even farther, and then unwound an arm and flung it out behind me, letting that ball of clumsiness just keep rolling up the length of my wetsuit sleeve and finally tossed it off the ends of my fingers. And then stood back up, free and clear, and rode the rest of the wave from the nose. Like it was tai chi or something. The last 45 minutes was slow—waves kept backing off; or I wasn’t paddling as strongly; or the crowd built up, or all three. Waves were coming in double-ups. You’d see something big approaching, but it wasn’t a big wave, it was a three-foot wave that happened to be climbing the back of another three-foot wave, and when they separated again there was simply no chance of them breaking anywhere near you. But just before that came a classic wave—a little ugly, rising out of the chop, but large, and with a double peak joined by a couple dozen yards of wall. I was in the right spot, just barely backdooring the first peak and I was in. The highline drew me like a magnet; there was plenty of crinkled face below me, but if I cut down to it I’d never make it past the section. I took the barest of angles down, letting the wave drive me forward, and then angled back up to the next peak. I met it at its highest point, with the first few drops of water starting to fringe backward off the lip, and then made my carve down the face with six vertical feet of potential energy to work with. It seemed like I doubled my speed. An optimistic longboarder was just hopping onto the shoulder and I hooted at him. It was a reflex move. I didn’t really mind him getting out ahead of me, but he probably didn’t think I had made the section, and anyway I was coming down on him like a torpedo. Normally a hoot is just a short “whoo” to get the guy’s attention but the wind kept my mouth open and the breath kept coming out of me, and my chest decompressed with relief and exhilaration, and it turned into a long, sweet sound like a train whistle in a tunnel. The guy drifted up toward the lip and I held my rail as I passed him by.
7 June aka 45 – Sharks/Privates – head high+
Fairly epic south swell in town today. The Eastside was reeling from Pleasure Point straight through 38th, the Hook, down through Sharks and Privates and still head high at Trees on the larger sets. I got in at Sharks and milled around in the crowd, watching head-and-a-half sets at the Hook. There are enough sections here that opportunities opened up, it just took some careful watching to know when someone was going to miss a section, or somebody else who looked like they wanted a wave was going to come off the back. Still, soon after I got in I got my first and then my second waves, nice solid head high walls with the slightest texture from the wind etched across the light green surface. I didn’t think I’d hear the trombone’s fins hum again this year, but they did as I hit warp speed on my second wave, watching guys pull back from the lip as I make one section and then the next. Cutting down the face to dodge an older longboarder raising his hand in the soup to make sure I see him. Taking off and swooping a bottom turn wide to miss a girl sideways on a longboard, then back to the lip. The swell angle means the waves race down the beach and, not to overstate or anything, but this is probably the closest I’m ever going to come to surfing J-Bay: get into the wave, set a line, and start making powerful, shallow, wide swooping turns down the face, always watching that next peak, that next high section. After early success there was a lull and I got pulled inside on some smaller waves. When the real sets returned I paddled over one, two, three, as the guys up the line from me got theirs. Still there was one more coming. I gauged it—the stand up for so long that I didn’t want to paddle too far out and then come off the back of it. But the opposite error is worse, and that’s what I did: turned and paddled into the wall just a little too late. I was in the lip as it flipped forward and for a moment I was slightly off my board, both of us free falling, together but not touching, nose dipping, and then plunging into the trough. Fortunately the water was deep because I went in head first and then the rest of the wave came down on top of me, and was moving so fast that it was soon gone. I shook the water out of my ears, grabbed the board, and went back. The young shortboarders who had seen me go over were looking at me with a mixture of disbelief and derision, so I gave them a smile back. The crowd had been thickening for the last hour and there were at least 50 people just right here at Sharks. I paddled down to Privates and got a few small ones through the closeout sections before the big sets returned. I was getting tired. I ceded the first set waves to the guys who had been here a while, and then pulled into something unexpectedly large, considering that I think of Privates as a knee-high wave. It was shoulder high and the wall stretched down and out in front of me, the whitewater roaring over my left shoulder. I reflexively popped into a crouch with the hand on the rail, leaning way over toward the face, feeling the tail bite and the back end squeeze around. Then I stood up on the broad middle of the board and started pumping, driving the rail with my front foot, looking ahead at the sections I needed to make. The board made quick, fluttering turns along the horizontal, like a swallow. I don’t know how fast it was going. It was all I wanted. Back up on the cliff, on the long walk back to the car, it was Eastside surrealism. Moms in yoga pants walking hand in hand with their daughters. A girl in a wetsuit went by on rollerblades, talking about boys with her friends. An older guy with a deep tan and a belly pushing against his Hawaiian shirt stood for 15 minutes and talked about July 4th with an acquaintance, gesturing with a hand out of which dangled a glistening plastic bag of fresh dogshit. Two Japanese guys talked unintelligibly with each other as they changed out of their wetsuits. I saw a long haired dude with a blue shortboard I’d seen in the water. He was across the street, tiptoeing out of his wetsuit and trying to manage his towel (Nightswimming: they cannot see me naked), the hatchback of his Prius raised to reveal his skateboard all ready to deploy next. A guy with his face whited out with sunscreen rode by on a bike with his longboard on the side. We’d seen each other in the water and he smiled and said hi. Later, I walked down into Capitola to get some sustainable sushi for Mea (locally hand-caught king salmon served sashimi style in big fatty chunks). There was a line of cars a quarter mile long trying to get into the maze of streets in the village, and I walked past them all. People were smoking pot in the pullouts along the road while the CHP drove past. A guy rode by in a wetsuit and bike helmet, pedaling a modded bike with a super long back-end full of panniers. I sat and watched the surfers at Capitola jetty getting big, mushy rights and lefts. A skinny little kid was dropping into the lefts on a shortboard and making valiant backside hacks on things that, for him, were double overhead. It almost looked like his legs were too skinny to drive his board.
6 June aka 46 – Sharks/Privates – chest high
Out with Jon as the first signs of the South swell that lit up Cloudbreak last week start to show. Masses of people out on the Eastside and we have just an hour or so. We get in down the new, wide concrete stairs at the Hook, walk down the beach and then paddle out to Sharks. Jon’s softtop is waterlogged so he has brought an even smaller board, a skinny 6’6″ Channel Islands. I’m on the trombone again and despite the crowd I get in to a couple of fun ones early, both pushing down the line with a near-perfect Eastside shape, then sectioning 50 or 75 yards ahead. One was chest high-ish and Jon’s eyes widened as I dropped in and went past, chasing one guy in front of me. Eventually we move down to Privates for some crowd control. I swapped boards with him as he was hopelessly under-foamed, but he seems to like crowds even less than me, and he drifted even farther down the shoulder. Eventually we swapped back and that was when the set came, lined up perfectly on both of us. We both caught it, he a little farther down the line than me but dropping in perfectly on the shortboard, and we went in happy.
4 June aka 48 – Waddell Beach – waist to chest high
One of those glassy summer days where the winds forget to show up and the whole Pacific is spread out like crepe as far as you can see, all crinkled in the sunlight. The waves were small windswell and the tide was fairly high; it was hard to get into them on the 8-ball. But it was gorgeous, the water had that quicksilver quality under the overcast sky, the waves sliding toward me in smooth flat slabs, going gray to silver to white and an occasional tatter of blue leaning in. Got a few mushy rights and then, near the end, took off on a small left, standing up while still high in the wave as it bulged and stretched and steepened, pumping down it frontside for twenty yards. There were three big black dolphins just outside the breakers and masses of pelicans squadroning north along the cliff tops and out over Año Nuevo bay. Some of them were young and kept gliding in low over the water, then shooting up in formation, wings spread, up to the stall angle, and shaking their heads before dropping down to glide again, looking like rearing horses.
21 May aka 62 – Trees – knee to waist high
Went with Jon to one of his favorite untraveled Eastside spots. It’s three coves down from the Hook, past Sharks and Privates. The best way to get to it is to park at a meter on the cliff above Capitola, walk down to Capitola Beach and as far up the coast as the tide allows, then paddle 200 meters to the break. That’s why it’s so uncrowded. Eventually, you paddle up the point to Privates to get out and climb the stairs to the locked-from-the-outside gate. Jon is fun to be with, talkative, very mellow, and strangely both amped about surfing and reluctant to go after anything more than about waist high. When we got out he sat on the shoulder and took small rights around the corner while I sat farther up the reef. The waves there were only waist high or a tiny bit higher, but the section was fast and short. There were long waits between sets as the wind buffeted over the tall cliffs and skittered down over our heads. Jon was resolutely riding a 6’6″ softtop quad despite the abject longboardiness of the setup and the swell size (I was on the trombone.) Though he didn’t like the look of the peeling set waves at Trees, he was excited by the prospect of thigh-high drainers peeling across the flat sand right in front of the Privates stairs.
20 May aka 63 – Middle Peak – waist to chest high
It’s amazing the way the Point picks up south swell and Middle Peak doesn’t. The Point was hitting a couple feet overhead with excellent lines slanting into the distance. This is the swell that was maxing out Teahupoo last week and you could tell it had power behind it. Still, they typically shouldered off before anything reached M.P. I heard the grizzled guy from Pt Arena saying on the cliff as I rode home, “That’s their spot though. I don’t like to go up there with them, cz I’m a visitor—even though I’ve been coming here for six years.” There was some high-quality surfing happening all right, with about 20 people at the Point, some looking for opportunities to ramp airs off the end sections and one guy stalling into a surprise barrel. Then a handful of shortboarders strung across the Slot and a parcel of longboarders where M.P. grades into Indicators. And yet the mood was remarkably light given that this is the first significant swell of summer.
I was on the 8-ball but got into a few slopey peaks and even a couple that opened into sluggish lines that I longboarded as best I could. A guy was out on one of those faddish new shortboards that looks like the front half of a longboard with no tail whatsoever. He paddled for a nicely shaped, tapering peak and I let him go, but he came off the back. So when the next set came through and I found myself just down the line from an elderly guy on a yellow-and-red longboard, I decided to go and just see what happens. He was paddling for it, and the wave was definitely going to be steep enough there was no way he could miss it. Still. So I took a couple strokes and popped up as the section came down. I coasted the board in a sort of half-slip down the face and then back up into the highline. Out of the corner of my left eye I saw the longboard launch down the wave and keep going straight. The whitewater cleared and the wind-streaked face curled back up into that bass clef shape for a moment. I stood up all the way, carved back down to the whitewater and back off the bottom, and realized that this wave was going to stay steep through Indicators. I pushed for it down the line and made it almost all the way to the next section. It was the best wave in weeks.
I paddled back out and apologized to the guy I’d dropped in on, for form. “Ah don’t worry about it,” he said. “There was a little bit of a section in between me and you anyway.” I kept paddling up and I saw the half-longboard guy bottom turn off a nice peak and then completely spin out on a mid-face carve. I asked him if he was riding a finless board but he said no, the fins were just way too small. Good practice for using his rails. Meanwhile, the NW winds made a hazy whitecapped mess of Monterey Bay. People who live in Santa Cruz must get this mistaken impression that you can surf any day of the year. It’s only when you look at the wind forecast for the rest of the Central Coast that you realize what a special place it is. On the bike, on the way back down the sidewalk, I passed the longboarder dude. He was walking back up from the statue, must have gotten one that carried him down the cliff. He waved, and I waved back.
16 May aka 67 – Middle Peak – knee to belly button high
Slow, small south swell wobbling in, looking a lot better at the Point. Only three people out, me, the laidback Asian guy who had remarked on the time I got nailed by that French guy, and a chunky girl on an ancient longboard. She was learning, but good enough that she was never in the way and made all her waves. We actually took turns, sitting in a rotation and waiting patiently for something to come along and break. The Asian guy had a good eye and saw the sets early. I was on the 8-ball but I rode it like a longboard, the peaks that came through generally let you in easily enough and then you just had to try to stay with them and hold your breath to try to get over the lumps of kelp. One corker did come through, probably almost up to my belly button, that allowed an actual carving bottom turn and a turn at the lip. I went back out for one more despite my better judgment, as the tide was rising. big lines of pelicans were coming past and the pigeon guillemots were making a ceaseless racket from halfway up the cliff face by the lighthouse, or dithering and diving in little groups above the kelp.
4 May aka 79 – C Street, Ventura – knee to waist high
Dawn patrol with Joseph. He greeted me and then took a moment to “make the rounds” since he knows everyone at C Street, even the people who just pull up to sit on their tailgates and talk shit. A guy was making coffee runs, bringing back little cardboard jugs of Starbucks to share with the peanut gallery. The waves were similar to yesterday, but I was on Joseph’s fish this time. It took me a while to figure it out because it had so much foam and the length was awkward with the small waves. “You’re going to want to walk up to the middle on it, but it actually surfs better from the back,” Joseph had told me. After about a half-hour I figured out what he meant. There’s one spot where your back foot goes and the rest of the board will just pivot underneath that point. But anywhere else on the board and you are not going to get much turning done. It was hard to resist walking up to the front of the board on these slow waves. Once the board was trimmed down the line it would really pick up speed if you got up past the midpoint. You just couldn’t really turn. Joseph has a nice relaxed style, paddling into waves on the 10’0″, making an arcing entry down the wave and up onto the shoulder, then an immediate cross-step up to the nose to see what else the wave has in store. There was a black guy on a shortish (8’0″?) but very, very thick board that I had met in the parking lot. Mike, I think. His board looked goofy but he could catch anything on it, and he turned out to have pretty good style too. In between waves he talked to anyone within earshot about board design and foam dimensions. I caught one decent set wave and brought the fish down through a bottom turn and up to the shoulder, spun it around at the lip, and into a re-entry right in front of him. I watched his eyes watching me make the turn and glide past, and it was probably my wave of the day. Along the rocks where Katie had walked in last night, there were three Ruddy Turnstones in bright feathers picking at the water.
3 May aka 80 – C Street, Ventura – knee to waist high
A bit of hot work in the cliffed-out chaparral, some quality views of condors, and we were back at the sweet Pacific Coast, with little rollers welling up out of nowhere and shuffling into the riprap. Dreadlocked condor dude Joseph Brandt took us out at his favorite spot and we stayed out through the sunset with the palm trees and the hula hoopers and the skateboarders running their dogs along the promenade. Charles took out an 8’4″ fish that someone had given Joseph and he paddled it heroically. I saw him jump to his feet on a couple of waist high set waves—excellent wave choice. I was on the 8-ball and easing into the mellow waves but needing a bit more flotation to milk them down the line. Eventually I got a couple of fun ones to open up along the line and into the cove. Amazing to watch Joseph carefully tend to Katie, who is just learning to surf, as she paddles out through a set or trying to get in over the rocks, given the bickering back-and-forth that happens so much out in the field. At the end, in the dusk, she was standing in knee-deep water trying to figure out how to pick up her board. A set was on its way in and who knows what it would do to that unwieldy 10’0″. I eyed the situation but was kind of frozen in the rocks, needing a good spot to put my board down before I could go out and help her. But Joseph, who was farther up the rocks than me, didn’t hesitate. He took two long steps down through the cobblestones, then dove into the water, surfaced at her feet, and took the board from her. Held it up as the first of the set waves arrived. Katie walked onto the shore.
1 May aka 82 – Middle Peak – waist to chest high
The fin gash day. Weird bumpy windswell breaking all over Middle Peak. I went for a wave and pulled back as somebody deeper took off. I turned around to see something bigger coming. Scratched for the horizon. A young guy on a shortboard was sitting just inside of the peak and he started to paddle for it. He had to see me, right? I was directly inside from him, staring him in the face, 25 feet away, maybe. He looked right, like he was going to backdoor the peak. I paddled to my right to give him room. Oh, now he’s looking left, like he’s going to take the left. So I switch to paddle to my left to miss him. He straightens out. Ah, he’s just madly oaring his arms to try to get speed up, and his board is yawing back and forth because of his awkward strokes. And no, he hasn’t seen me, turns out. The wave picks him up and he starts down the wave. He looks ahead for the first time and his expression changes. At this point I’m so close to the shoulder that if he weren’t in front of me I wouldn’t even duck dive. But as he’s clearly not going to miss me I make an emergency dive and I hear his board hit mine as I drop. When I come up, my board is trailing behind me and I can already see the ripped fiberglass shining in the sunlight. He surfaces in the whitewash and thinks it’s appropriate for him to give me a dirty look. I tell him, “I tried to get out of your way, dude,” but in a hard tone of voice that tries to convey I would have gotten out of his way if he hadn’t paddled directly and blindly at me. He doesn’t say a word. There’s a slice through the entire rail of the Silver Lining, from bottom to deck, and three inches deep into the foam. Yes I’m glad it wasn’t my shoulder blade, or my skull. But again, the general assholeness of the anonymous pissant Lane youngsters. I had taken the Silver Lining out because I’d been planning on taking it down to Ventura later in the afternoon. Looks like it’ll be the 8-ball.
25 & 26 April, roughly aka 87 & 88 – Middle Peak – waist to head high
Lost track of time for a while as finishing the Iceland/Grettir story hit. I had one poor day and one middling day in pretty weak Middle Peak south swell, the generally gutless conditions thrown into relief by the macking waves coming through the Point and the Slot, some of them going a little overhead. That’s just how south swells work, they only rarely swing out to Middle Peak. It also makes the lineups up at the point into a pretty tense affair, especially when a whole bunch of eastside high school and college rippers are out because it’s flat over at Pleasure Point. I swear at one point Nat Young himself was out there, carving up into hanging lips and throwing spray not off the back so much as straight up, 15 or 20 feet up into the air. I watched the silvery drops fly up into the sunlight, and he was already gone by the time they came back down. There was also a kid in a half-green, half-gray wetsuit, one of that new kind that looks like Star Trek Next Generation outfits. He was ripping, and getting wave after wave off the Point all the way through to Middle Peak, but none of it was good enough. He screamed and groaned and grimaced and muttered “kook” if anyone had gotten within 10 feet of him, as he hung his head into the water and paddled back to the top. Poor guy, must be awful to have to endure 15 set waves in an hour like that. Earlier, I had taken off on a Middle Peak bump. To my left I saw a guy over by the Slot taking off, two sections closing out in the space between me and him. But somehow he found the gas and by the time I had dropped in he was right on top of me, zipping into my peripheral vision and then right underneath my board. I cursed, bailed, and he bailed too. More dirty looks as we paddled back out. This I considered an honest mistake—I was truly bewildered at how he had managed to get through those sections so fast. But I was also tired—tired of so many traffic jams and hard stares and contested waves and waves left uncontested that didn’t get ridden, and the general feeling at the Lane that it’s so anonymous and so crowded that you can throw stinkeye at anyone and make up some permutation of the rules to justify it afterwards. And it’s spring, virtually summer, the winds are up and there’s nowhere else to surf, and it’s all going to be over at the end of June, and am I going to get back in the water after that, while I’m still in my 40s?
23 April 2013 aka 90 – Middle Peak – about waist high
Middle Peak in name only. There was a weak windswell coming off the vicious spring winds that have been whipping down the coast. Things that were essentially large ripples wandered in and out of view and occasionally something large enough to break peaked up. Off to the inside three middle-school-age girls in blue-and-gray wetsuits caught the small stuff and ripped a couple of turns. Over at the Point, where I just don’t go, some hidden portion of the swell was showing, wedging up against the far cliff, and going all tinfoil-colored in the afternoon sun and the offshore breeze. Guys were dropping in to shoulder high faces that sloped off in front of them and said, Carve Me. Over at Middle Peak there was a skinny guy on a longboard who was getting in early and showing some style. Also the clueless New Zealand woman who has been sprawling across her blue-and-white longboard on the inside all year long. She’s so clueless that she’s kind of endearing, even when she looks at you as you’re riding in toward her, and she still turns and paddles for the wave. Another dude with loose blond ringlets came out on a fat longboard with a GoPro turned around and looking at him. He started to work at getting in on the sets—he could get the board moving plenty fast but had trouble getting the rail to carve once he popped up.
There were long lines of pigeon guillemots flying past in one direction, and pelagic cormorants in the other. White on black, black on white.
I caught a half dozen waves in an hour. They were small, but empty. Typically they offered up between zero and one turns. One rolled slowly in to the cliff and I stood flat footed on it watching the water go by. The water was clear and the wave was flat and I could see the strands of kelp ascending from the rocky floor up to the surface, where my fins caught on them. It was like driving slowly through a grove of saplings. On the riprap someone had set up a cream-colored faux-leather recliner and a guy with shoulder-length gray hair was smoking a joint with a middle-aged mom in a hot pink tank top.
12 April 2013 aka 101 – Middle Peak – chest to shoulder high
Some days you surf good, some days you don’t. I planned to sneak out on the morning low tide and grab the last of this WNW swell before it dropped away for the weekend. But ach, work got in the way and by the time I got out there the whitewater was slapping up against the riprap and already knee-high as soon as you took the last step down onto the cobbles. Worse, there were about 30 people out—beautiful Friday I guess. The swell was mixed up but most of the sets were either swinging just wide of the Slot or coming in narrow on Middle Peak; in other words, longboarders to the left of me, shortboarders to the right. The Yorkshire lass on the longboard was there again, as well as the creaky old Santa Cruz ex-hippie with the stringy hair who kept complaining about cactus thorns and poison oak. Well at least she didn’t have a problem getting into set waves on her longboard.
Me, I didn’t really have an excuse. At one point I got into three or four waves in a row and somehow fumbled every one of them. A funky bounce as I was getting to my feet, even on one beautiful peak with lots of face to work with. I don’t know what I was doing wrong, but I hope I don’t keep doing it.
And of course just as I was getting fed up with my performance I see a shortboarder bearing down the line from the Slot, coming down into a deep bottom turn at the steep section, then swerving effortlessly up to shear the lip. He looks down the line, I recognize him, he recognizes me. It’s Ribsy again, saying “hey, brah…,” laughing, wondering what the hell I’m doing sitting so far inside.
The two best waves I got this morning were lefts. I tried to remember to lean in to the forehand turns.
11 April 2013 aka 102 – Middle Peak – head high
Yesterday it was sea otters bobbing in the faces of the set waves. Today it was dolphins swimming through the back. A group was around the whole time; at one point two of them surfacing 1 1/2 kelp patches over from me as I paddled back out. A scratchy call sifted down from overhead and sounded out of place. The silvery strappy wings of a Caspian Tern helicoptering down toward some fish like a maple seed, then calling the whole thing off. Long strings of scoters heading around the point and then a loon flying south. And then 5 loons heading north, and another one flying south.
Calm and clean, with swell energy pushing well through Indicators. A couple memorable waves, and a general sense of being right where I needed to be on the 8-ball. On one nice long wall I leaned hard on my back foot into a bottom turn and then at the lip had the presence of mind to keep the rail carving around while bringing the front of the board around with a wind-up and release in the torso. The board actually accelerated through the cutback, like they do it in the movies.
Back down the wave and up into a late top turn morphing into a brief float along the lip, and back into the trough. Set the carve again but the rail didn’t bite. I fell backward as I watched the next section pull up into another deep curl.
10 April 2013 aka 103 – Middle Peak – shoulder high to a foot overhead
The kind of day where you see guys paddling into set waves while sea otters backstroke up the face. A little less wind today and a little more swell. Unfortunately there was a fairly tight pack of grumpy shortboarders mixed with a smattering of longboarders. One on a softtop with no sense of decorum, paddling into absolutely everything. Another guy on a trim blue longboard with beautiful styling and position on the wave. At first I was sitting in some kind of perforation in the pack and waves were just filtering right in at me, somehow missing everyone else like a bowling ball going straight through a split. I posted up by a lethargic longboarder, he a little too far inside and me maybe a little too far outside for our respective board lengths, but here came a peak not 5 minutes in. The waves had a little more oomph than recently and allowed a few midface cut backs through the inside. I kicked out next to a couple of wobbly SUPers.
Then the offshores kicked up again and the whole mood changed. People started getting blown back off waves. There was a lull and then a step-up in set size. Everyone was caught inside but that didn’t stop a couple of people from taking off. I was paddling for the shoulder and preparing to duck dive. A shortboarder had dropped in on another guy and was sprinting for the shoulder. He shook the saltwater out of his eyes and realized he was running over another paddler, about 10 feet in front of me. He bailed, the paddler duck dove, and I buried my board in the wave and then held it up in front of me. Both surfer and paddler somehow ended up behind me without hitting me, though I think they hit someone else. That sort of set the tone, with people getting out of position, a small pack vying for each wave without really sorting out who was going to get it. I was ranging left and right on the 8-ball trying to get under peaks without getting in people’s way. A set was coming and I was under it but too far inside. I squeaked for the corner as a latino girl on a longboard made a last minute decision to go for it. I was in position, and the wave was about to lip me. I looked left at a guy taking off hopelessly under the peak and saw him getting circular-sawed. Just then the longboarder came screeching through, somehow over my board, sending both of us tumbling down the face. When I came up some young shortboarder was sitting on the shoulder looking vacant. My board popped up out of the water and fell over, catching him on the cheek. I apologized and he looked offended.
I caught one in. Found myself in the middle of another pack with a peak bearing down to the outside (or surfer’s right). I figured there was only one guy who was really going to catch it and he was to my left, far enough off the peak that he would have to go left. I was going to have to backdoor it as it was. I stretched my arms for it as it stood up, a half-decent set wave it was turning out to be. I pulled down the growing face set the rail, and ducked under and back out from the lip. Rode it until the shoulder faded and then cut it back left through the whitewater and into the rocks.
Big strings of scoters moving far out to sea today. During the lulls, I watched a plane making a contrail as it headed off to LAX. The weird thing was that it was exactly tracing a dim gray line across the sky, arrow straight, straighter than the plane’s own contrail, pointing straight over Monterey and down the coast. I watched it for 15 minutes and the whole time it looked like an Etch-a-Sketch when the pointer is going back over itself.
9 April 2013 aka 104 – Middle Peak – chest to head high
Smaller, with stronger offshores that were dead offshore. The flag was standing straight out from the flagpole and pointing dead at the lighthouse, that’s how offshore it was. In between waves you could just watch guys getting blown back off of waves. After missing waves myself, it was cool just to sit in the blowback, as the wind ripped water off the wave and pelted it into my back for 3 or 4 seconds. As the drops flew by they formed rainbows, the most complete rainbow I’ve ever seen, something like a 300 degree bend from one side of my surfboard nose to the other.
There are always so many good surfers at the Lane and some of them were finding epic poses and carves along the sculpted walls. But the coolest thing about today was a single western gull. It came from over by the cliff, ghosting along in the quiet air behind a set wave, at a flat but barely overtaking angle. A guy got into the wave and started working down the line. The gull took a look at him and coasted up over the peak, stalling ever so slightly as the updraft hit him. Then he flexed his wings just a hair, set his line, and dropped in. He accelerated down the face, passed me, and dropped out of view under the lip. The guy didn’t make the section.
8 April 2013 aka 105 – Middle Peak – up to head and a half
Strong northwest winds had been whipping the camellias back and forth outside my window all day. Even the surf report broke down, telling readers that basically the only spots working today would be in Santa Cruz on account of the spring blow. The view out to sea was a mess of whitecaps slopping over on their sides and almost catching up with the wave in front.
But at the lane it was solid offshore perfection. The waves were standing up for so long they turned green and you could see light shining from within them. As they broke, the wind sent spray straight up into the air 15 feet and then curled it over and the drops fell like rain on the calm water where the wave had been.
Days like these are what surfers dream of because they groom the waves into long, smooth, hard walls. But they’re also challenging because the takeoffs are steeper and you have to battle the wind rushing up the face as you get into them. Saltwater dashes your eyes until you can’t see anything and have to take the drop by feel, blinking out the stinging water as you go.
I got into a smallish one almost as soon as I got out and the 8-ball worked great. The swell was still offering mainly peaks and weak shoulders, but this one opened up for a few turns back toward the cliff. Later, I paddled into a few beautiful peaks but had to dodge kelp and paddlers and wound up with no shoulder left to work with. The wind had hardened up the surface and then pushed up little ridges of water, nascent wind waves, like lines in the sand. I got a set wave and dropped straight down through the beautiful long curve of the face. The board was going so fast it made a sound like a car going over rumble strips.
Those fast takeoffs carry with them the possibility of big wipeouts. With these offshore conditions you have to pluck up your courage and take off under impossibly steep peaks, where everything inside you is yelling, Turn and duck dive! Turn and duck dive! But that peak is going to hang up there forever, whereas the shallower faces are not going to stand up in time to catch them. Although “forever” is not quite accurate either. At some point the whole thing comes piling down at you. The longer it stands up the more water there is to come back down all at once. I took off on a set wave stood up, and tried to get under and away from the curtain that was coming down after me. The lip hit me on the head hard enough to make me pick one foot up off the board. When I put it back down again it was in the water, and the water was going in a distinctly different direction from me. My leg whipped out behind and I was briefly airborne, out over the face, and then underwater. This is when you realize how it can be that the whitewater on any wave comes up about as high as the wave itself. It just keeps pounding down in cauliflower heads. I was out of breath from paddling and hadn’t had time to take another before I was under the green ocean. This was one of the few times this year when I really started to wonder if I would have enough breath. I started to kick way too soon and told myself to relax. Eyes closed, you have no idea when you’re out of the worst of it. This is always a good time to say to yourself, Relax, Relax, and remember all the times you’ve held your breath while driving by graveyards and how there’s always more air in your lungs than it feels like. A couple more solid impacts came down from above and forced me down further. I could feel my leash leading up to my board somewhere above me. And then I was out. I kicked up to the top and hung on my board for a couple of seconds. There was another set wave coming.
I sat around forever for my last wave but it was worth it. I scratched in beside a bowling peak, stood up early, and made a big carve out on the face and back. The wind had dropped for 20 minutes or so but had picked up again, finding some definition in the shoulder. For once there were no kelp beds and no errant paddlers down below me. The wave kept offering up troughs to drop into and lips to carom off, and for once I felt right in the right spot on the 8-ball and with all the time in the world. At one point I looked down and a shortboarder was right in the way, no idea which way to go, and starting to whimper, as if I hadn’t seen him. I cut down the wave, trimmed the cutback until I was just above him, then cut down and away, back out to the shoulder. It had lined up all the way through to the statue.
4 April 2013 aka 109 – Middle Peak – waist to shoulder high
By the time I got out the rising tide was damping things while a new swell was picking things up. It started out with a ridiculous number of people out considering the wobbly conditions, but people apparently got fed up and left, so pretty soon the crowd was manageable. A couple of older guys on longboards, one pink, the other green. A few kids on foamy hybrids who were tentative, one skinny one on a softtop paddled easily into waves, popped lightly to his feet, but hadn’t really figured out how to turn yet. A tiny, cute girl visiting from Mexico was up at the front. She was on a tiny shortboard that only floated her up to the narrowest part of her waist, but she was paddling into everything and making the waves look bigger each time she and her little board dropped down from the peak. Meantimes she just sat and stared out with a perpetual smile on her face that made you glad to be surfing.
It was calm but the swell was junky and mixed up. Slabs of silverish gleaming water were pitching and wobbling at all angles underneath a flat expanse of gray overcast. It was almost like the scenery was upside down. The waves were defying logic again, peaking up in the distance and then, as they approached, somehow shrinking without ever seeming to flatten. The peak was still there, it just seemed that the ocean surface was rising up to meet it and suddenly something that looked like it was head high was only waist high, or knee high, and not even breaking. Then there would be occasional wide lines from a different, swell, out of the south, and those had a bit more business about them.
I got into lots of waves on the 8-ball, mainly because the crowd was nice and thin. The lefts were actually working better than the rights, with more juice. I got into a few of them and marveled at my inability to ride on my forehand. With so many rights under my belt it’s like trying to cut your hair in the mirror—everything looks familiar but things refuse to happen the way you think they are going to. I find myself leaning on my heels to much, from going right so often, instead of on my toes and leaning into the wall. Still pretty though, to see the whole of the shoulder curving in to me.
I got one nice shouldery one at the end—most were a peak and then flat water on either side. On this one I dropped in and carved out on the face, made a cutback with enough speed that I came charging back around at the whitewater. The light was good and the silvery water had a clarity to it, and I could see the bulge in the wave—I was out on flat shoulder but was catching back up to the steep face, went over it like a skateboard going over a rollover, and back down into the action. A few more turns and I was halfway down the cliffs with a hard paddle to get back up around the guard rocks and back to the stairs.
Halfway through the session a peregrine came over, high in the sky, emerging out of the billowing white sky of Monterey Bay and at first looking like a gull with a lot of determination. And sharp, sharp wings. Then it straightened them into a glide, pulled the wingtips in just a shade, and accelerated around the point and was gone. He didn’t quite have his timing down today, though; about thirty minutes later came a flock of brant on the same trajectory.
2 April 2013 aka 111 – Middle Peak – head high+
Sculpted offshore lines—and the crowd to match. Whereas the lunchtime crowd is often made up of talkative longboarders scattered along the shoulders, there were 30 mostly young shortboarders out, presumably just back from their spring break surf trips and determined to get the most of whatever swell we still have in store this spring. I’m more and more convinced that the two most fundamental parts of being a decent surfer are paddling speed and crowd management. I’m not particularly good with either, so I roamed around the pack trying to find a hole in the lineup while sets shifted from the Slot to outside Middle Peak. It was beautiful, with that silvery glint and fine etching from the offshores. I got a left and a weak right, and was happy enough. The kahuna paddled out on his big plank and soon found himself taking off on a set wave. I was to his right and I didn’t even paddle for it. It was like that: enough guys deep enough in every wave that there was no point in even starting to paddle from the shoulder. Three guys were shoulder to shoulder under every peak and one of them was definitely going to get it. One guy with super long 70s style surfer hair was easing into waves with no discernible effort, as casually as exhaling. A couple of meager paddles and the wave was picking him up. He had good position, but there must have been something about board trip working for him too. The offshores had the waves standing up forever before they broke. One guy at the slot pulled in to a tiny barrel and I could see his face clearly inside it, 40 meters away down the line. Out through the doggie door. Because they were standing up, the takeoff zone was really stretched out depending on your board and the size of the set. When guys caught them outside this entailed a bit of scratching for the shoulder, and the casual dude did a nice slalom around two of us, cutting up to the lip and around one guy, angling his board down the face directly at me, and then dipping his rail in one sudden carve. That was the last I saw of him. After a long wait a wave finally singled me out. The casual dude was in position again, outside of me, but a little too far outside and he didn’t catch it. Either that or he just let me have it out of sheer generosity. I had paddled for it with the intention of going left if he went right. But he was out of the picture, so I set the rail and ducked under the peak and down. The wave sectioned but my bottom turn carried just enough juice to arc around the whitewater and back into the pocket. This wave kept offering shoulder, and the board was carving like a spoon emptying out an avocado. Up on the lip for the second or third time, I looked down and saw a paddler in the flats below me. It was the kahuna on his way back out. He looked at me with a half-smile that said, Are we going to do this again? But I was already coming back around and threading the n narrow gap between him and the whitewater. The board felt loose and ready under my feet and I laughed at the joke that was hanging there, then looped back around behind him close enough to watch his leash slide past me. Paddled in to the rip rap below the culvert, and scared up a turnstone and a few surfbirds in fresh new plumage. Rich spots and blue-gray backs with flecks of rufous.
1 April 2013 aka 112 – Middle Peak – head to head and a half
Hit the east coast lunchtime session and the swell had notched solidly upwards. Occasional big west sets with no right shoulder lurching up at outside Middle Peak. The tide was still minus and the kelp was ridiculous. (On the plus side, saw a couple species of nudibranchs in the tidepools before paddling out.) Take off on waves and listen to the sound of your fins snagging, releasing, snagging, like ripping fabric. Paddling out, in places, was just laying your arm on a buoyant carpet of brown fronds and pulling across. I got a few good ones and fumbled a few, but I did get one lovely bottom turn on an overhead set wave where somehow it came together without thinking. Dropping straight down the face, easing back onto my back foot and cranking the board up on rail in the flats. Look behind me – like checking your blind spot – and then up, up at the lip and the spot where the wave was peeling. In no time I was there and bringing it back around. After that I started thinking about them too much – the drop, where my feet were, where the kelp was, where I wanted to be on the wave . A little later I took off with my leash wrapped around my front foot and it was actually a bonus. I couldn’t reposition my feet and so I surfed it from the back through several linked turns and into Indicators. In amongst it all, as I tried to find the right spot to sit, I took some prodigious sets on the head considering it’s April. At one point I was driven well back into Indicators despite having been sitting out even with the Lighthouse, as wave after wave reared up in broad A-frames and veered at me like an ICBM. Diving under pretty serious piles of white water and just trying to hold onto the 8-ball with two hands and a foot. Typically getting spun around on two axes with my arms ready to separate at the shoulders. Finally, the 8-ball got ripped out of my hands and I surfaced, but the wave still had the board buried and planing underwater, and the leash at full extent, and it dragged me back down under the water a couple of times before it let go. All in all a fun middle of the day. The sea lions were littered all over Seal Rock with one giant bull claiming the top spot, chest thrust out to sea and head tilted back in the sun, nose jaunting upward. He looked just like Alfred Hitchcock.
31 March 2013 aka 113 – Middle Peak – head high and junky
7:30 a.m., Easter celebration going on at the Lighthouse, live amplified acoustic guitar music and coffee urns and everything. So few people in the water that I started worrying I would be sacrificed by some Christian surfing cult if I went out there. The swell had come up but it was really junky. Peaks reared up everywhere and the tops seemed to be going faster than the bottoms. You might paddle into one only to find there was nothing underneath it except flat water. I stayed out a long time. Mea was in the tidepools looking at nudibranchs. The waves were coming in like somebody trying to walk down a corridor at night. They’d wobble and wander, searching out with their feet for the right direction to go in. Eventually they’d settle their attention on one part of the reef and then you could see the bowl start to form, often as not to your left or right, but occasionally standing up right in front of you and beckoning. I got out at the culvert, stepping past the black turnstones and climbing up over the mats of mussels, across the riprap and over the railing in front of the tourists. Walking past the parking lot and there’s Ribsy again, grinning as ever, big truckers hat and shades, and he’s already spotted the 8-ball. “Will that thing even float you or what?” Maybe that’s where “Ribsy” first came from, because he loves ribbing people, always good naturedly. Still, underneath it, he seemed mildly shocked that I was on something pointy but didn’t press for details. I met his two new dogs, now 7 years old. Two blue heelers named Izzy and Sometimes.
29 March 2013 aka 115 – The Slot – knee to waist high
Virtually flat and no one out except a couple of couples (one apparently Russian, the other tattooed but pasty) and a young kid with a scruffy attempt at a beard on a softtop that he knew how to ride. I was the only person out on a shortboard except for one guy out at the Point, under the lighthouse, getting a couple nice ones early in the session and then the spot shut down. I started at Middle Peak and drifted over to the Slot to make use of the wedge against the cliff. People on the railing taking pictures of themselves again. Waiting for the surfers to do something. Got maybe one fun one, with the 8-ball dropping nicely into an arcing dive and climb and that was about all the wave had oomph for. But it was nice, calm, clean, warm, all the same.
28 March 2013 aka 116 – Middle Peak – chest to head high
Snuck out for a 30-minute paddle session between meetings this morning. I figure, if I start working at 5:15, then a 7:30 low-tide session is well within the realm of a mid-morning break. Especially if I’m still tying up loose ends at 5:30 p.m. The 8-ball continued paddling beautifully into this remnant, crossed up swell. I took one through Indicators, hooked around this older kiwi woman who’s often out, cluelessly, on a blue-and-white softtop, and next thing I knew the wave had picked her up and thrown her back past me, almost underfoot. It was like having the rug shoved under your feet. I got out at the statue. Washed in to the bottom of the stairs with the current, then stood and braced myself as the thigh-deep water reversed direction and drained back out. Ran up the moss-green steps as the remnants of the next step rumbled in. Six or seven steps up as it hit the stairs and sent a tongue of whitewater licking up the steps after me and around my ankles. It always feels like an action hero outrunning an explosion.
27 March 2013 aka 117 – Middle Peak – chest to head high
Enjoying the 8-ball. 14 brant over the water in a V, and a couple of pelagic cormorants so close you could see the red in their faces. After I got out, I saw a gray whale and calf slip by just outside the slick water that marks the kelp line. The big black back came up and down again. I was so excited to see it I stopped a guy and pointed it out to him. He didn’t know what to think, but the whale never came up again.
26 March 2013 aka 118 – Middle Peak – chest to head high+
It finally happened. I hit someone with my surfboard. For the first time ever in my surfing career. And not just anyone: the kahuna. He had caught a wave earlier and was paddling back up, skirting close to the shoulder. I paddled into a set wave, offshores in my face, and stood up with salt spray whipping into my eyes. Started down the face and saw two guys in my path: one farther out on the shoulder, so I dodge down to miss him and straight into the path of the kahuna. I should have gone high, leaned the board back up the face and shaved above him. But I was still getting my balance from the takeoff and I was cutting back anyway. I brought the board around but not fast enough. When I came to the surface he was underwater. He surfaced, I apologized, asked if I’d hit him. He was calm, said I’d got him just under the shoulder. We treaded water for a while. He took it well, even said, “You know, I knew I should have just taken the whitewater and given you the whole face to work with. So I’m willing to take a little bit of the blame for that one.” I kept apologizing and eventually we paddled back on our way. Got back outside and a set wave loomed and he was on it.
He paddled back past me. Said, “It’s fine. Don’t let this keep you from taking off on any more waves.” Still I felt crappy. Best waves of the year are behind me, and now it’s just crowd management, and me leaning on the trombone and finding an out of the way place where people won’t hit me and I won’t hit them. I can’t even abdicate from the Lane and head up the coast because it’s spring and the wind is 20 knots all the time. I want to keep surfing, but I want it to be like it was. And now the trombone has a third set of dings to be attended to.
(Too sick with the Ben Zipperer virus all last week to surf.)
12 March 2013 aka 132 – Middle Peak
Dang. It looks like WordPress somehow lost whatever updates I wrote for this week. I know I surfed a couple of times before we left for the Mojave, but now I can’t remember a dang thing about them. Which is why I keep this in the first place.
2 March 2013 aka 142 – Middle Peak to Indicators – chest to head high+
My best day surfing in a couple of weeks; a good way to leave for the east coast. Got in the water just after morning low tide and the crowd miraculously held off. Plus it was more the weekend warrior crowd.
Dry-hair paddle-out, soft gray dimples on the water, total lack of current, warm sun filtering through the high clouds.
A standup paddleboarder was wobbling around Middle Peak. Almost nobody on a surfboard looks as smooth as they think they do, but it’s worse for SUPers. There they stand spread-legged on their boards, holding the long shaft of their paddle and gazing off at the horizon like Laird. This guy had just a bit of a potbelly sagging out from the front of his wetsuit. He was wearing a baseball cap and big boxy glacier glasses, and his cheeks were whitened with sunscreen, true warrior style. A bit of sidechop unsettled him and he splashed into the water.
He dropped in in front of me and stalled out on the wave, paddle forgotten, grinding along the wave like a truck going up a mountain pass. I don’t think he ever saw me. I stalled as I came up behind him and watched him in his bent-backed-crouch as the wave sectioned between us.
A little later I came off a wave to see him on the one behind. The wave was dying and he was edging his board around to get back to it. He was going to try to carve it past me and come inside of me, but he didn’t have a lot of confidence in his lean. The thing turned like a cruise ship and pretty soon he was bearing down on me. He kept it together and brought it on past, missing me by a couple of feet. I yelled at him anyway. Definitely still jumpy around other peoples boards.
Later, he almost ran over a shortboarder, then turned and paddled away without a word. This guy wasn’t having it and paddled after him, caught him, and knocked him off his board. The SUPer said, “That’s assaul! I’m going to get my lawyer on you.” A shouting match ensued. The shortboarder exhausted his imagination with curses. (At one point: “Nice fucking glacier glasses, asshole. Too bad they don’t give you any fucking common sense to get out of here.”) The guy just paddled around awkwardly, silently, raising no defense but too stubborn to go in. I commiserated with the shortboarder and caught one more in.
15 March 2013 aka 129 – Middle Peak – chest to head high
Magically the waves came up this morning just in time for an East Coast lunch break with the tide at around half a foot. Clean, clean, clean. The trombone just cruised into healthy peaks and the tail carved around and back, around and back.
Today was my locals day I guess. Ribsy in the water, doing his best not to look at me at first. Riding his seafoam-green 5’10” presumably in protest to all the longboarders and hybriders catching waves on big equipment. The shortboarder from the SUP incident was there, called over and asked if I’d seen him since. Best of all, though, a guy called over to ask if I was all right after the collision with the French guy. It was the Asian guy I see here all the time (not the grumpy one from Monday). “I thought I was seeing your death a couple weeks ago,” he said. “Every year there’s a handful of really dangerous incidents out here, but that one was up there.” He said he’d watched me go back up the steps to see if I was okay, then went and talked to the perpetrator.
A set wave was coming, a beautiful thing with a big rounded peak and strong shoulders. Ribsy was going for it from the backdoor. I tentatively paddled for the other side of the peak. His 5’10” hadn’t been getting him into a lot of waves, but I was definitely not going to drop in on the local’s local. Thing is, I was lined up so perfectly that even with just two lazy paddle strokes I was almost in the wave. I saw him come off the back as I was sitting up and pulling back, and even then the board was trying to go down the wave. But I let it go.
A long lull. First pigeon guillemot of the spring, first heard calling, then saw it circling in near the cliff. Another set with one fewer wave in it than I needed. Then my wave, as I was just starting to worry about getting back. And what’s this? Ribsy on the shoulder – turning to go for it in case I came off the back. I snuck in late, popped up and carved, rail-grabbed down into the bass clef. That was the last I saw of Ribsy in the water. Stood up and brought it back around.
By the statue, a dark-morph Red-tailed Hawk perched on the lamppost. Ribsy was coming up the stairs so I pointed it out to him. “You don’t see those every day,” I said. He smiled in that old way he has of not being quite able to believe a dude is telling him something like this. But he was halfway interested.
11 March 2013 ada 133 – Middle Peak – waist to head high
With the swell predicted to go flat and daylight savings time on, it was crowded in the afternoon. Clean when you could get into the waves. I took all mine for everything they would give me. Took off in front of a tubby Asian dude and apparently pissed him off when I had to deepen my bottom turn around a pack of paddlers before coming back off the shoulder. Next wave I went for I heard him say “kook” softly but distinctly, right before I took off. Really? I went back and sat next to him in case he wanted to say anything else.
I mean, I’ve got Massachusetts plates on my car. I’m not going to claim any locals rights. But I’ve been paddling out here pretty regularly this year and this was the first I’d seen of this grumpy dude with the fabulous hair hanging down in his eyes. So I don’t think he qualifies for any locals rights either. It’s a crowded day at the Lane: you paddle for waves and if someone gets in behind you, you slide off the shoulder. Better than watching them go unridden.
I got one deep into Indicators. It was little, about waist high, but it straightened up. I stepped up on the board but it was still slipping backward off the wave. I stepped all the way up. Both feet in the V of the nose, and it took off again, sliding straight down the section.
1 March 2013 aka 143 – Middle Peak to Indicators – waist to head high
Rode out for an east coast lunch break under the bright spring sun. First of March and there’s already an early south in the water. Locking up my bike at the racks and some classic Santa Cruz surfer type was sitting on the backrest of the bench, 6’0″ in his lap, truckers cap, tight white t-shirt, shooting the shit with some minion. I heard a particular crack in his voice and I knew it was the famous Ribsy surveying his domain. Decided not to say anything, but Ribsy is as observant as any skilled surfer. “Is that Hugh Hefner over there?” He hadn’t seen me in 5 years but I guess I haven’t changed that much either, still riding a 7’10” with an obscene amount of foam in it, by locals-only standards. We slapped palms and shot the shit for a while, caught up a little bit. He’s no longer repairing the fiberglass on wind turbines in the Midwest; now he’s into solar, installing it all the way down the Central Coast, working 4-10s and surfing all weekend. Looking to build something on the plot of land he’d “bought” in Baja last time I saw him. It was good actually.
I hoped that flash of skin contact with the great Ribsy might dispel the bad charc that has settled on me the last few weeks. But I still had to deal with my aversion to crowd. The swell was small and though there weren’t a lot of surfers they were all collected around the Middle Peak takeoff zone. And now the swell was going lully. The problem compounds itself. You don’t catch waves for a while and you lose the confidence to battle it out in the picket fence of other surfers. So you pick a different takeoff zone, but that means you don’t catch waves. Added to that is my strong interest in not stopping another longboard with my body. Fortunately there were no cleanup sets to duck dive, and I was able to slide inside for a couple of small peaks to myself. After getting back on the trombone I’ve been relying on the foam to get into waves, treating it more like a longboard, trying to get a runup on the waves. Today I tried to focus on positioning. Watch the section stand up and just try to be at the peak and put on a burst of speed and let the steepness do the rest.
Brandt’s cormorants have their blue throat patches and white whiskers. Pelagics fly by and their white flanks reveal how bad I am at judging them by size and silhouette alone. Sometimes they look so thick bodied like the Brandt’s. An immature double-crested came up with a rockfish bigger than his head. He gulped it down and it sat bulging in his throat for a while.
28 February 2013 aka 144 – outside Indicators – shoulder to head high+
I put on “No Expectations” while I was changing into my wetsuit, which helped set the mood. There were more unruly peaks coming through Middle Peak that I didn’t want to jockey for. So I sat in the no-wave zone and spend a bunch of time paddling around the set waves and out onto the shoulder. Once or twice I pulled into something glassy, set a rail, and made the most of it. At least I was taking off on something peaklike. It was very slow going though.
There’s a big Hawaiian dude who surfs here, he’s a dark brown, globular kind of guy with long graying hair tied back into a ponytail that drags down his back like a wetsuit zipper. He probably weighs 300 pounds and paddles a big broad manila-colored longboard. He sits out at Middle Peak and catches set waves. His style is relaxed, smooth, with none of the showy deep carves or high-stepping footwork of the skinny young (increasingly mustachioed) longboard stylists you see out here.
Yesterday I had caught something like my last wave and it had dropped out on me about halfway down Indicators. I turned to look for something to catch on in, and here was the Hawaiian guy coming down on the remnants of a set wave. A white wake spiraled up off the back of his longboard along the blue face of the wave and disappeared into the whitewash. The wave was walling up well ahead of him and he stepped forward on the board, casually, standing straight up, like a person on the street who’s stepping up to the curb and thinking about catching a taxi. When he was a couple feet back from the nose he put one foot in front of the other and stretched into a soul arch. He kept stretching, putting both arms out in front of him to track the wave and eventually leaning all the way back, way back over his back foot, his eyes staring up at the sky and his ponytail hanging straight down toward the deck.
On pretty much anybody, that kind of pose would’ve been just too much cheese. But this improbable surfer had just enough to make it mystical. Hoots rang out and his board plowed straight on down his line.
27 February 2013 aka 145 – outside Indicators – head high
Sometimes you’re the wave magnet all right, you’re just the wrong end.
26 February 2013 aka 146 – outside Indicators – head high +
Put the final layer of glass on the trombone’s reconstructed nose at lunchtime. Left it in the sun to cure, and sanded it down after work. Headed out to the Lane, where there was a thick new swell, a ripping current down the cliff, and a nasty southeast wind putting a chop on the water. It was terrible conditions for paddling—the wash and then backwash of the windchop crossed up with the smaller, shorter-period swell lines coming in from the west, and then all that lurching into the reflected waves of the big swell lines coming back off the cliffs. All in all it rocked the board in three directions alternatingly. Each time taking a little off your forward progress. Eventually the wind slackened a bit. The shape was still classic west-swell monotony: peaks breaking far out at Middle Peak and then folding hard toward the cliff, with barely a catchable shoulder. So you either scratch your way out to Middle Peak and take your chances getting into 2.5x overhead peaks (and duck diving the ones that catch you out of position). Or you sit inside and leave it to luck to bring you a shoulder. The way my luck has been going, that wasn’t many. But this was the trombone, so I got a few. At least the nose looks good enough that I have to think twice to remember which side is the rebuilt one.
I came in at dusk, like 6:30 dusk. Walking back up I could still see Middle Peak bombs going off. One wave breaking outside and another behind it, foam blowing off the feathering lip. The white was just about all I could see; the faces were the same gray as the night. Two guys were out there and they split the outside wave, one going left, the other right. The only thing you could see was the white wakes of the boards as they made deep drops and beautiful top turns, carves out onto the face that spiraled back upward as the wave churned through. It was like watching sparklers.
23 February 2013 aka 149 – Middle Peak – head high +
Last day on the 8-ball for a while? The trombone is nearly back in action. I had thought I would take it out today, especially after Steve lent me his orbital sander. Much easier than hand-sanding all the filler I’d had to pour on to give the trombone back its symmetrical nose. Still, I found out that you need to be really, really careful with an orbital sander on 4 oz glass, and that even though 120 grit sandpaper is labeled “fine,” it’s not fine enough to do detail sanding with a power tool. I’m going to have to rename the trombone to something frankenstein related given the number of lacerations and scars across it—fin slashes from that longboard incident in the fall; the impression of his rail as the boards collided; and now the scratches from the riprap daydreaming incident. I rigged up a system to lean my board against the racks on my bike so I could tilt the nose up at the proper angle, and then made a form with masking tape to hold the filler as I poured it in. I stuck a shovel in the ground to brace against the board and keep the rail pointed straight up. I ended up with a rectangle of filler that contained within it the potential to be a new rail. The orbital sander made quick work of the outline and I finished it by hand. But I realized I needed another round of filler to bring out the fullest part of the rail. Got the bike and the shovel and the masking tape back out, and did it all again. At least the sun has been out and the curing has gone well. Anyway, that’s why, as sunset approached, I grabbed the 8ball and snuck out. It was beautiful. I didn’t get many waves. At one point I thought to myself, zero waves, zero collisions, I’ll take it. A girl on a longboard was turtling a wave and lost her board and came up in the soup next to me. She apologized immediately, and I was so glad I hadn’t been hit that I gave her a cheerful, “Hey, no problem.” I still was on the 8ball, and the Pacific was still determined to send waves every which way but toward me. So I paddled around forever and eventually took off under the foamball. By the time I struggled, drowned cat style, to my feet, a shortboarder had taken off on the shoulder and carved back toward me. I felt his rails graze my fingers as he went by and that was about the time he saw me and bailed. Given recent events I didn’t count that as an impact. Shortly afterward I got a couple of dribblers and tried to concentrate on the sunset and the pink eraser lines streaking up past the lighthouse. Greater than zero waves. Less than one collision. Just try to stay positive.
21 February 2013 aka 151 – Middle Peak – head high +
Crowd being the number one spoiler for me in terms of conditions, I snuck out on the early side of lunchtime to see what was happening at the Lane. The swell had dropped but was still producing respectable peaks, if somewhat inconsistently, that stood up in the stiff offshores. The wind was coming almost out of the east, from over by the boardwalk, which meant that there was enough fetch to create a little bit of bump on the surface. From eye level while paddling, it looked like glitter on the water.
I paddled around making a bunch of the same mistakes as the last few days before starting to find a rhythm. It’s challenging when it’s offshore—the waves stand up higher and then break faster, so you need to be in with extra speed, and the wind gets under your board and tries to blow you back off the wave.
There were a bunch of silvery haired longboarders out there trying to get into the fat smaller waves way before they hit Indicators. They looked over their shoulders, then settled themselves down on their boards and started waddling and huffing the thing up to speed. They looked like nothing so much as executives trying to hump their skinny-assed trophy wives. I got into a nice steep wave and popped up with a piece of kelp under my foot. Trying to make the drop while extracting my foot I started carving hard onto the shoulder. I still hadn’t got my balance back to bring it back around and I was heading for a straggly haired French dude on a red-and-white longboard. So I dropped off the 8-ball and tucked my arm around it so I could pull it back toward me and away from him.
We both started paddling back out and I stopped paying attention to him. A set wave reared up outside and I set my course to duck dive under the peak. The longboarder was still just ahead and to my left, chin on the deck with his feet waggling behind him. I had a fleeting thought, don’t let this guy hit me after I just bailed on a wave to avoid him. The lip was above us, feathering, the first of it turning white and starting to drop. I pushed on the nose to start my duck dive. The guy was turning. He was sideways to the wave. He had managed to turn around to go. The wave was breaking behind him. He was going to go over the falls.
But before he did that, he leaned up off his board and flicked it to his left, away from him. Toward me. Down at the deepest part of my dive, my thigh stopped the full weight of that god damn longboard, picked up and pile driven by a 6-foot wave. I had a fleeting second of being glad it wasn’t my skull and then I just yelled.
I yelled “Motherfucker” at him as he scrambled for his board in the soup. I couldn’t really swim yet. He said “Sorry, man,” in his wussy French accent and paddled away as fast as he could. I don’t think he knew what had happened. All I could do was yell “Use some common sense” back at him and hope the other surfers would lay the stinkeye on him.
My leg hurt like hell. I paddled back in to the stairs by the lighthouse and limped up the rocks. I went home had some ibuprofen and coffee, thought about starting to drink, and walked around until the pain dropped off a bit. Then back to work.
So, pear-shaped still.
20 February 2013 aka 150 – Indicators – little bit overhead
One of those days with a strong west swell that looks good from the cliff, but in the water is just wretchedly fickle. Anything that doesn’t break at outside Middle Peak warps toward the cliff and I swear they don’t break until they get there. The peak shifts away from you at precisely the same speed you can paddle toward it, luring you inside so you can get cleaned up by the main sets that come through. Even out at Middle Peak it’s shifty and no one can seem to get under the peak. If you stopped to watch from the cliff a bit, you would notice that nobody is ever taking off on clean peaks. Everybody’s hopping into the foamball and then running the lottery about whether it will reform into a wall through Indicators. Which also makes it impractical to sit inside at Indicators, because virtually every wave that does come through has somebody emerging round-shouldered and hunched from the foam to take ownership.
Most of the people who are catching waves are on longboards because they have the mobility to get over to the shifting shoulders. The trombone is still in drydock having its nose repaired, so all I had was the 7’2″ 8-ball. Of course, there were plenty of shortboarders out there in the right position catching shoulders, but I wasn’t one of them. I got into a few wobbly ones and had the usual things go wrong: either fading out on me or dropping me off the back. Plus an oldie but a goody I hadn’t had in a while, wherein I was hauling ass down the face and ran into a couple of very thick patches of kelp. They had to be thick, because the 8-ball’s fins are only about 4 inches deep and they stopped it dead. I flew forward off the board and into the space in front of the wave, my body making a neat C-shape with my head at the bottom and my legs leading the way off the top. It was actually kind of fun.
But yeah, two hours of paddling around chasing a bunch of lumpy waves that were forever going pear-shaped. I was just trying to stay positive. There were, after all, pelicans in crisp breeding plumage skidding to a soft landing next to sea otters, which were cracking crabs on their chests. So.
19 February 2013 aka 151 – Middle Peak – little bit overhead
It’s great what a little hail can do for the crowd. The afternoon surf report was stuck at poor to fair owing to an early spell of south wind, but by 2:30 it had clocked around to offshore. The sky veered from silver-gray to dark gray to broken and blue. The water was dappled by the offshores and gleaming under the overcast, turning frosty blue as the sun passed out from a cloud. There were about seven guys on Middle Peak when I paddled out.
There was a 3 ft 20 sec swell coming out of the west. Small but super long period. The tide was lower than yesterday’s session, but the small swell height only occasionally felt the Middle Peak reef. The long period meant the waves had lots of push. I started paddling into an early wave without any real thought it would be catchable, and felt the wave throw me forward as it rose under me. So it was lully, and then a low wide line would appear, warping and building until it broke somewhere near one of us.
I caught a few waves but didn’t get any long rides. I muffed two big lefts—still can’t get the hang of them since I ride them so infrequently out here. On my second one, in particular, I was in perfectly, dropping in from just beside the curling peak. I looked up as the shoulder built above me and as I dropped below it. I set the rail to carve into the face, which seemed so much closer from this point of view. But the board was still dropping down the face… the face was still dropping away from beneath me, forming the trough, and I came off balance and crashed into the gorgeous face.
Early on I felt great. With such a thin crowd I picked where I wanted to sit and ranged right or left after shifting peaks. I got in just barely too late on a couple of rifling rights. One came at me in a big wall just a little too outside for me. I went anyway, and popped up and drove into the hollow between the trough and the lip. For a few seconds the lip came over and I kept my eyes on the light, but it wasn’t like yesterday. I couldn’t keep driving down the wave and so the curtain came down and put an end to Act I. On the paddle back out some guy asked me if i had made it out from “behind that thing.”
There was a long, long lull during which I lined up next to a sea lion that was just lounging in the water, vertically, raising his head every few seconds. Each time he flared his nostrils with a hissing sound as he breathed out, and he pulled his mouth back and showed his yellow teeth like clothespegs.
During the lull everyone and their brother came out. Pretty soon I was looking at 25 guys in front of me and 20 behind me. I sat inside and did the usual: snuck inside, got caught inside, duck dove the sets, watched the same couple longboarders jump on the waves that made it past the picket fence at Middle Peak. It had been a good day. I was warm from paddling despite the cold, steady offshores that had built up. I saw the next line of set waves coming through, the green faces set apart from me by a good 40 feet of whitewater.
So I did the smart thing. I turned around and bellied the next one in to the statue. A guy in a black t-shirt was standing next to the statue with his girfriend, wearing knee-high black leather boots and a short gray wool jacket. They were taking a self-shot with the beautiful Pacific in the background. It’s still early in the week.
18 February 2013 aka 152 – Middle Peak – head high
I took a few days off to let the swelling go down on my rip-rap bruised vertebrae and to rethink my approach. I sanded down the cheese-gratered wound on the trombone’s nose and bought some more resin from Arrow. It was a 70 degree weekend and everybody flocked into Santa Cruz for some weekend surf. I went birding with Mea.
Today I wasn’t going to go out, but by the end of the day the Presidents Day crowd had split and gray clouds were looming offshore and the swell was still rolling in, and the tide, though going high at sunset, wasn’t going very high. I had nothing to bring but the 8-ball, so I strapped it on the Fuji and took off. At the bike racks an Asian dude was so jazzed about the board racks on my bike that he asked if he could take a picture.
Out in the water it was just barely wind-dappled gray water with the occasional line marching in. Five sea lions in a row swam up out of a set wave and pushed their noses up into the air just beside the peak. Only about a dozen people around Middle Peak. More at the Slot, which is where the remainder of the swell was pointing its energy. I love it when the crowd is small and I can focus on positioning, paddling, and, with any luck, taking off.
Still feeling a bit tentative, I got my first smallish (shoulder) wave and the 8-ball made the drop, got up onto the shoulder, and looked back down at the next turn. Once again, I wasn’t really thinking, I was just doing and letting the board run. The wave fattened up halfway through Indicators and I unconsciously stepped up onto the nose. Up there by the logo. I steered it back into the section and was still wondering how long it could last when the wall stood up again and the lip smacked me straight across the shoulder blades.
There wasn’t much chop and the 8-ball felt good underneath me, making way over the gleaming surface. I caught another one and saw the wave steepening up, stepped forward on the board and dropped into the bowling section for a bass clef moment. In between there were long, long waits. Surfers placed their bets on where the set would arrive, mapping the imagined distribution of peaks through their choices. It’s all a matter of outliers, and which particular outlier you want to be yours. You can sit in the throat of it and fight it out with the rest of the pack. You can sit way outside with the longboarders and hope you have the arms to get into whatever shows up. You can sit wide of the pack and hope that an errant Indicators peak will wrap over toward you and you can get in on the backdoor shoulder. You can sit in toward the cliff from the pack, halfway over to the Slot, but then you’ll have to duck dive the acres of whitewater when they arrive. Or you can sit inside, in the wave graveyard, and hope for a kinda big wave that has enough to break in the graveyard but not so much that everyone gets into it ahead of you.
The older dude with the tie-dye helmet with the cross on it, on the beefy but not ridiculously beefy orange shortboard/gun was out again. I had seen him all last week, paddling out at low tide, commando style, with his board upside down so as to keep his fins off the reef, then sitting out at Middle Peak while the current ripped through Indicators. He was getting into those big rollers so early he had to push down the wave to get anywhere. After one session he stopped me on the sidewalk and asked if I wanted to sell the 8-ball. “That’s a perfect board for me, like bigger than my shortboard but above that I got nothing shorter than a 9’6. What is it like a 7’6″?” He was it was a 7’2″. Today he was sitting outside and still getting waves, but so was I.
My last wave came through. A stand-up paddler was unaccountably inside of everybody and got in early. Bad form as those giant boards typically stay to the outside so they don’t wipe out and bulldoze anybody. This was a long peak of a wave that I was pretty sure was going to section on the guy. A shortboarder inside of me pulled back. I got in, looked left at the lip starting to come down. No sign of the SUP and there was no turning back now. I stepped forward on the board again to get the wave biting down in the face. The board ramped down and into a deep, long hollow of wave. On a gray-on-gray day it was dark blue down there in the deepest part, as if that’s where the ocean had been keeping the color until the sun came back out. I stayed on that line so long that the peak started overtaking me, the face starting to shoulder in on me, and I pumped the board, a quick rise onto the face, a little deeper crouch, and then a carve back down to gain speed. Another quick rise onto the face, another glide, and I was out onto the shoulder and into the cutback. Down the line the second peak was forming up. I swept down from the shoulder, crouched, and let the whitewater crumble down on me, and I was out again, still looking at a line stretching down away from me. The 8-ball on the water felt like a frosting knife gliding over a cake.
I came to a stop at the culvert. I looked at the riprap and the approaching whitewater. Hair of the dog seemed appropriate, so I paddled over instead of heading down to the statue. I looked over my shoulder and turned to duckdive a reform just before it broke. Grabbed the board and stepped up onto the sandcastle worms, onto the mussles, onto the snot-slick upper rocks with their thin coating of algae. Waited for the next two lines of whitewater to break, and then climbed up the side. Hopped the railing right in the background of a couple of tourists’ picture.
13 February 2013 aka 157 – Middle Peak – a little bit overhead
So far this week, first the ocean seemed to have it in for me, and then, yesterday, the pack showed no mercy. Today it was me. I took an early lunch break (East Coast hours) as a way of stepping up my crowd avoidance. There was a max of about 18 people out. The surface of the bay was calm and gray. The waves heaved up out of the water with a texture of crepe, reflecting a pewter sun under an overcast sky. It was a mid-tide going to high, and the peaks stood up in sharp A-frames at Middle Peak.
I walked down the steps by the lighthouse, over the riprap, putting a hand on the halfway boulder and lowering my foot into the carved-out notch in the next rock down. Stepped carefully across the mossy lower rocks and sat down on the last step to drop myself into the water. Storms have brought another load of sand around the point and it’s just a half-leap down. The last few days, going out at minus tide, this has all been beach with room enough to lay your board down dry and put your leash on. Today I had to time the entry to miss the whitewash.
I had a couple of fun waves, though it was soft all the way through Indicators because of the tide. Another wave offering long arcing turns along the face. A couple of fairly early drops on sluggish Middle Peak waves. These are ones to act the hero on, because they are starting to back off even as they peak up. You can catch them and they’ll actually get less critical as you start down them. I was just glad to be chasing down some peaks without a bunch of longboarders getting in early or shortboarders getting late.
That’s the way my last wave was—a respectable overhead peak that went immediately nowhere. I kept cutting it back toward the cliff and waiting for the reform, but it never reformed. I took it all the way to the culvert, and eventually just stood flat footed and looked around me as the whitewater eked out its last. And this is when I started to sabotage myself. I knew I should call it quits and go back to work—it had been almost exactly an hour—despite not wanting to end on a ho-hum wave.
I dutifully caught the next whitewater line and rode it around the statue and in toward the stairs. For some reason, I was thinking that I had regained my mastery and now was the time to demonstrate it. I’ll take this curler all the way to the edge of the steps, hop off the wave to my left, grab the board, and skip up the steps in one fluid motion. Kind of like how you turn your bike onto your home street, swing one leg off the bike and stand on the pedal, bank into your driveway and hop off at the last moment.
I don’t normally come off my board to the left. It’s as weird as trying to pop up switchfoot. Seems easy, but doesn’t feel easy when you try to do it. Not only that, but the whitewater train I was on was not dying down the way they normally do. It was a higher tide than normal, and it wasn’t even feeling the bottom yet. I wasn’t even able to get a foot off the board and onto the bottom. The trombone went piling straight into the riprap. The left side of the nose cheese-gratered straight into one of the low rocks.
And the wave was still coming, I realized. Water piled up on the top of the board and swept me off it, over the handlebars, so to speak. I rolled and came hard up against the jagged rocks with the small of my back taking the most of the impact. The heel of my right hand did its own cheese-gratering and went numb and had little flecks of sea lettuce ground into it.
I’m ashamed to say the first thing I did after I regained my footing was look around to see if anyone had seen. (They hadn’t.) Absolutely worthless behavior. Could I really be so desperate to prove something, to hatch some kind of fantasy plan while bellying in for the day, and so quickly accept it, believe it, begin congratulating myself for it, all in time to get dashed on the rocks? Now I have a major ding to fix on the trombone, a grapefruit-sized goose-egg on my back, and the 8-ball to prove my next brilliant point with. I stood in the water in disbelief and cursed. At myself.
12 February 2013 aka 157 -Indicators and Middle Peak – head high+
The last couple of days it has seemed like the ocean was out to get me with its treacherous currents and shifting peaks. Today was also a bad day of surfing, but the people were to blame. I hate surfing in crowds, because politeness gets you nowhere. And this whole week the water has just been packed. Maybe it’s that the kids are all back in school. At about 5:30 p.m., as I climbed the stairs for the last time, there were 90 people out.
It started off as just normal traffic control. I posted up at lower Middle Peak next to a girl with tangled blond hair. We went for the first thing that came our way, and she had position on me. You need to go for these, because you never know what the person inside is going to be capable of. But she took off ably, and I was dropping down at a guy still paddling back out. I popped halfway up and wrenched my board to the right to miss him and just kept coasting down the face on my ass. After that it was pretty much every permutation. I got in early on a big shoulder and was gliding back down the smooth face waiting for the reform. A guy had jumped into the foamball after I took off and popped to his feet. Now he was technically in position, even though I was on the wave earlier. He did the immediate carve to the shoulder that’s like saying “My wave!” and I did the just thing, which was carve off the face. Next time around, I was on the inside and carved out toward a guy shoulder-hopping in front of me. But he just kept going straight. So I bailed.
Then one of the lamest moves I’ve ever seen. I was under the peak on yet another set wave, going right. A kid to my right popped up on his shortboard and immediately took the wave left, backdooring the section. He nearly took the nose off my board. He was technically out of position for going right, so he had decided to surprise everyone and go left, thereby giving himself right-of-way in his mental traffic map. I bailed in order to miss him and I have no idea where he went after that.
I took the next two waves on the head and wound up in Indicators. Something was shaping up toward me so I took it and got the only decent ride of the day. A mellow Indicator wall where I can steer from my back foot and make long flowing carves at a shoulder that’s always firming up.
The crowd had thickened. A chubby guy out on a longboard, trunking it to prove a point. His skin was flushed pink from the cold water and cool air. I give him credit for lasting more than an hour, and getting waves, but he was a passive surfer once he was up and riding. There was a dude who had his pretty blond dreadlocks tied up in a bun. A guy with GQ scruff paddling into everything on a softtop. Some chunky girl with pale skin and a scowl looked like Robert Smith with a hangover.
I got back up to Middle Peak where everyone who wasn’t getting the outside bombs were hopping the foamball, bouncing down a messy face, and waiting for the wave to reform in Indicators. Classy. I usually resist doing that because it’s so much cleaner to get in under the peak, or at least on an unbreaking shoulder, and making a real drop instead of clambering to your feet in the safety of the trough as the wave trundles in toward the cliff. But also because when you take off in the foam, you can’t see a damn thing and you don’t have much control over what happens to you.
I was paddling out around the shoulder when I saw a college kid on a green shortboard jump into the foamball that was bearing down on me. I was headed around but I wasn’t going to make it all the way, and he was bouncing down the face with saltspray flooding into his eyes. As he got closer I realized he wasn’t going to see me. When he was about five feet away he shook the water out of his eyes and flexed his arms to stand up. I pushed my board up in the air and dove. He plowed into me and either his board or mine smacked into my leg at full speed. That evening I had a straight-line bruise across my thigh from the rail.
He sputtered in the water after it was all over and said, “Holy shit, I didn’t even see you.” I paddled back inside, where there was nothing getting through. It was one of those classic days where you paddle way inside near the cliff to have any hope of getting a wave to slip in under Middle Peak. But nothing comes through with any chance of breaking, and eventually one of the real sets powers in and you get to alternate duck dives with watching guys surf beautiful head-high walls all the way through Indicators. It was truly amazing to duck dive some of these whitewater lines and come up in time to see that I was still entrained in the end of the wave, being pulled backwards and watching the foam trails scoot past me, toward the lighthouse. I give myself credit for realizing nothing more good would come of the day, and taking the next foamball in before it got dark. That didn’t stop me from standing in the waist-deep water at the statue and cursing a little bit though.
As I left, the goth chick was standing on top of a camper van and changing into frilly orange bloomers.
11 February 2013 aka 157 – outside Indicators – head high+
Kind of a middling session, with one of those waves right in the middle of it that is like the distillation of everything you have learned up till now.
Then, in the dusk, a western grebe paddling away from a handful of surfers. Reluctant to fly for some reason, it’s just a half boards-length away from me, paddling in a zigzag as it tries to figure out which surfer it wants to be farther away from. Close enough despite the fading light that I can see the fully feathered black cap all the way to the eye, and even the dim greenish tinge to the bill that signals: not a Lewis’s. We all paddle up the face of a set wave together.
The last wave of the day was a middling one without much shoulder. Paddling was working again, and I got in early for one sweet long glide down the curling section. I’ve been trying to think of a good description of that view, where the wave face forms a continuously changing curve, and I realized it’s like looking out from inside a bass clef. I stood up out of my crouch on the other side and casually brought the board back around.
8 February 2013 aka 160 – outside Indicators – head high+
There was a blizzard in Ithaca and everybody got sent home at 10 a.m. Pacific time. I was in the water by about 2:30. Armed with the trombone I was determined to stay in the water just as long as I wanted and to get as many damn waves as I wanted.
The sun came straight down between the clouds and hit the glassy water. The surface was a mix of blue sky and white glare and as smooth as fresh aluminum foil coming off the role and just starting to dimple.
Things started so well. The waves didn’t have as much push today, and I got a few easy ones down the cliff. Walked up the stairs and back up past the parking lot to get in again, where grizzled locals post up and talk about the old days and check out the swell and point out bad surfers or good surfers, and hang their towels over the railing to dry, and maybe smoke some pot in the cab of their truck, and set their surfboards out on the pavement, and generally while away the afternoon.
A group of three were perched on the hood of someone’s car, and damned if one of ‘em wasn’t the legendary Ribsy. Chris Ward, scion of Swift Street, ripping good surfer, ultimate local, namesake of the local hardcore band Ribsy’s Nickel, married to Maya, the heiress of the Ukiah pot-growing fortune. The guy who got so good at fiberglass repair from fixing his own dings that he got a job installing wind turbines in the Midwest, invested the money in the stock market, bought into beach property in Baja south of Todos Santos, and inherited his mom’s house on Swift Street, a block and a half from the primo breaks of the western West Side.
I was walking up on him from behind and wasn’t sure until I heard his voice. He’s your basic short, square-shouldered, brown-haired surfer dude in a plaid flannel jacket. Somebody was saying “So are you thinking about having kids?” and Ribsy answered in his ultra-laid-back, laughing at everything manner. “That’s still in negotiations,” he said. “I got a lot a clauses in my contract.” So has it happened to you, too, Ribsy? Like the rest of the Sacramento crew, you got snared by one of those same girls that used to occasionally come in and liven up the sausage parties, and now you’re in negotiations as to how much time can be spent in the water?
I had a 7’10” with 2 inch rails under my arm. I kept walking.
I spent 3 hours out that day, but the last half of the session was completely worthless. It became one of those perverse days where you just can’t do anything right. The tide was dropping to a minus 0.9 and the currents sheeting off the reef were crazy. And they seemed to be targeting me specifically. I would sit up for a few minutes and watch myself getting swept out of position. Even in relation to the other surfers. I couldn’t figure it out. They weren’t paddling more than me. All of a sudden it was like I had found some tongue of current and I watched a whole pack of guys slide to the inside of me as some unseen force sent me 100 meters in the wrong direction.
The only thing that happened was my neck and shoulders got stiff and my arms, after six straight days in the water, proved incapable of getting into the few waves that did come my way. Take the weekend off, try to remember not to take it personally.
7 February 2013 aka 161 – outside Indicators – head high+
Well, getting in touch with your inner shortboarder is great, but it was the end of the day and one look at the surf cam told me the trombone was the call if I was going to get any waves. What a feeling to put that beefy board underneath me as I waded over the reef and bounced over the first roil of whitewater. It presses back up against you and then takes off over the water without all the wallowing of a shortboard.
I managed four waves in the hour or so between 5:15 and darkness. There were big sets rolling in through Middle Peak interspersed with only slightly smaller ones that delighted in making you guess where exactly in the graveyard they were going to stand up and topple. A little bit of an offshore breeze was blowing up the faces and getting under the board and pushing me back off. On days like that you have to have faith and get under the faces as they stand fearsomely straight up before breaking.
The offshores etched crisp diamonds onto the gray faces of the set waves. I was paddling around the set of the day, board headed toward Moss Landing and trying to get around the corner. The sun had gone down behind the point and even the golden corona that silhouettes the lighthouse and the bikes parked against the fence and the guys taking pictures with their girlfriends, and the drum circles and yoga dancers and roller skaters, even that glow had faded, and all that was left was a big pink cumulus cloud way off on the far side of the bay. As I paddled for the edge I was looking straight down that graphite face. It was all streaked with rose-pink until I turned and pushed the trombone’s nose under the wall and stuck my foot on the board to push it through the back.
The trombone proved again how well suited it is to the Lane. Cruising into those glassy peaks, not shoulder hopping, setting a rail and then looking ahead as the arch rose over my head, or hanging for a moment at the peak and then dropping deep into the trough, pausing a second and then carving into a bottom turn. It works so well now that I find myself having time to think about what I’m doing, which is a mixed blessing. Analyzing aspects of style in the back of my mind, am I too upright, did I carve the top turn too soon, when am I going to try cross stepping for real. When as with anything creative, flow is what’s important. On the other hand, I found myself looking down the line to see what’s coming, choosing to let the trombone run along the wall or come back to the whitewater depending on the section. These waves were rifling through Indicators and the trombone was simply ripping down the line. I love it when the fins let out their quick hum as if to say, let’s go.
Last wave in a blue dusk, taking off in slick water on the left side of the section. As I popped up the arc of the wave was just starting to put lines into the face as it stretched the water up and around. A quick grab and that now-familiar tunnel vision, maybe a second, second and a half of it, board picking up speed, angling down toward the shoulder, beyond the curve of the peak. This time I stand up early out of the crouch and push with my toes to steepen the angle, then up again to the lip. The wall is long and the trombone flows into a long, carving turn all the way back around. The whitewater comes back into view but there’s still room on the face, so I keep the carve going back around to the right, mid-face, and down into a bottom turn, like some kind of cinematic tracking shot.
6 February 2013 aka 162 – Indicators – chest to head high+
Under the midday sun, the blue bay was covered in aluminum dust. Big waves were breaking out at Middle Peak and no one was lining up for them. Once in the water – on the 8-ball again, for my own good – it was apparent why. Fighting a ripping current the whole way from the lighthouse down the cliffs and far out off the rocks. It really makes you realize how big the playing field is out there. You have to try to paddle up past where you think you want to catch a wave, then sit and drift down onto the takeoff spot and hope a set arrives. If it doesn’t, or if you miss the wave, or if you wipe out, you have to paddle back up to the top again. It took a long time to get waves even though the crowd was light.
The shape was weird. It was a minus tide and every set was leaning hard over onto the reef—very few wideswingers. The peaks were wedging so strongly that they’d break once, way out at MP, and then die back almost to nothing as they rolled through the graveyard. It’s so weird to watch the water when that happens. The wave peaks up into a big triangle, breaks at Middle Peak, and then backs off to a straight line again. It’s surgey for some reason, and at times the bottom of the wave comes up toward the top of the wave rather than the peak standing up any further. The wave actually gets smaller. As it rolls on, it starts to split its focus between the upper (Slot) reef and the Indicators reef. The swell line starts to divide and there’s actually an area of higher water between the two. If you’re on one side of it and the curl is on the other side, you actually have to paddle up over it to get into the wave. Which is hard.
But it was so consistent that I realized I could be fairly committed to sitting far inside—where normally you would end up eating Middle Peak sets on the head. That was how I got my three waves of the day. It took about two hours.
The 8-ball, once in, was smooth and fast. It’s a great sensation feeling that thruster setup respond under your feet. Leaning onto the front foot to cruise along a wall, lean to the back foot to carve back into a turn, with what sounds like a roostertail coming off the back.
5 February 2013 aka 163 – Indicators – chest to head high+
Get back on the horse day. I stole out just after closing time, East Coast, for some midsized, midafternoon, light-crowd action. The waves were smaller, crumblier, but still respectable. I put the 8-ball back in the foam bike racks figuring if I didn’t paddle it today I might never pick it up again.
My back was stiff and both shoulder were sore, the inflamed kind of sore you get when you’ve been throwing a baseball or a football harder than you should. I decided it was important just to take it easy.
Out in the water the easy approach was not working. It was like I didn’t know how to paddle. So much of surfing is confidence, and I felt like I had to work back up to it. At first I couldn’t get into waves, or I was constantly out of position—breaking to my left, or inside of the big walls. Some of the whitewater lines – the grinding shoulders – I couldn’t even get into. The kind that you’d be sort of embarrassed catching at all, not to mention coming off the back of it.
Eventually, though, I sized up an incoming line, just slightly over head high. A big section was forming a little outside, but the shoulder was already showing signs of fading. I set my eyes on the curving blue hollow that represented my best chance at making the wave and turned my board around. A flurry of paddle strokes, the first deep and the later ones shallow and quick, and my chest was starting down the face. A boil or a lump was forming on the lower face, but I was on my feet by then. The 8-ball skipped down it and started the climb up the face. The wave lined up through to the statue and I relaxed a little. Carved around a whitewater section and made it back to the face, climbed to the highline and swept along it to the next peak. Eventually I fell, and somehow the wave, chest high or smaller by then, picked me up by my feet and pulled me along like it was a ribbon gymnast and I was the ribbon. My body made kind of a neat cursive e, led with my feet, followed by knees, legs, hips shoulders neck and finally head. I came to a rest with my feet in the kelp. I had been out about 45 minutes. I wasn’t ready to go in, but I had done what I set out to do. I climbed the stairs and went back to work.
4 February 2013 aka 164 – Indicators – head high to a few feet overhead
Put in my place. I took the 8-ball out in the mid-afternoon, thinking it was time to start riding a shortboard at the Lane every now and then. I did establish without a shadow of a doubt that the trombone is the optimal foam ratio for me at the Lane. By the end of the day I was completely exhausted and had missed waves in pretty much every way—fair, unfair, valiant, and ignominious—that you can miss a wave.
It didn’t start out that way. In fact, I think the second part of the day may have grown out of the smugness of the first part of the day. I paddled out, noticed the ripping current was there again, and set up at the top of Indicators. Almost immediately I caught a nice lined-up wave through to the statue. The 8-ball was great—nimble, smooth, making sharp carves, almost snaps, where the trombone would need a little time to arc around. I was in the pocket all the way through, with quick darting drops followed by a turn back up to the top or a stretch out along the face. I got out at the statue and walked back up in the sunshine and got in again. My second wave was almost as immediate, and just as flawless, as the first. I got out at the statue again and idly wondered how many more of these walks of triumph I was due today. Turned out none.
By the time I got back in the crowd had doubled. Guys off work and kids out of school. All kinds of longboarders (and, let’s be honest, extra-foam, trombone-esque hybrid riders) were dribbled along the froth line between Middle Peak and Indicators. The swell seemed to have shifted its focus, and most of the waves were now hitting the Slot and lining up all the way through Indicators. The Indicators peak was no longer its own starting point.
I came off the back of the next wave. I adjusted, took a couple on the head, paddled back into position. The 8-ball is about 8 inches shorter and considerably thinner than the trombone, so I was feeling the paddling already. I went for the next wave but a skinny kid on a big scoopy hybrid had me on the inside. Another wall stood up and I paddled for it. I was starting down the face when the lip cracked early, smacking me on the head on the way down like you see when a policeman puts a suspect into the back of his car. My leash was fouled on the next wave and I couldn’t get my back foot up. I kind of tumbled cross-legged over the front of my board. By now I was back on the inside of Indicators and fighting for waves with a couple of middle-school girls. They were beating me in. I paddled back into position in time for a couple of sets to hit Middle Peak proper. When this happens, big wide walls of foam come bulldozing at you without a way to get around them. People up ahead inevitably decide to hop onto the foamball hoping it will turn into a rideable wave, so now you have a wall of whitewater with a couple of churning surfboards buried in it and barreling toward you. I kept duck diving, duck diving, duck diving, trying to get under these big turbulent walls. It’s way harder to duck dive the foam ball than to duck dive the green face of a wave. The green face has orderly motion, and the back of the wave is heaving upwards so there’s something to hook your board into. In a foam ball the wave is going every which way. Holding onto your board is like trying to pull a chewtoy out of the mouth of a very excited dog.
At one point I had duck dived about three of these in a row and the sets were still coming. Up ahead, a guy on a green shortboard was lurching down the face of the wave, frozen halfway through his popup and heading straight at me. He was about to be demolished by the whitewater. With only half a thought I pushed by board out from under me, in his direction, and tried to get under and away from his board. Even while I was still underwater I knew this was wrong. You should never let go of your board, especially on a crowded day. Sure enough, I surfaced and an old guy behind me was washed up in the soup with my board right next to him. I apologized and all he did was grit his teeth.
At that moment I knew I should go in. It was like when I was a kid and did something stupid, like tie the wrong knot on a belay, and my dad would put a halt to it all. If you start doing stupid things then you need to call it quits. But I didn’t take the next wave in. I tried to salvage the session by paddling back up to the top of Indicators. Am I really just another old guy with just enough foam in the trombone to get into waves ahead of all the honest shortboarders? Is my sense of fitness as the trombone glides into a set wave just an illusion? The Lane offers one of the most gradual takeoffs in surfing. If I’m getting tossed off the lip on the 8-ball, it means I’m not paddling well enough.
And so for the rest of the evening, as my back tightened up and my neck pinched, I went off the back of wave after wave, I watched kids and longboarders take the last wave of the set from a position just inside. I bounced and bailed down the faces of closeouts. I eventually hung my head and paddled for the cliff. Not even the dribbling lines of whitewater would pick me up and shorten the distance to the statue. Finally I got into the curl of a knee-high wave in past the culvert. I popped up just in time for it to peter out and leave me flatfooted with the yellow and blue of the 8-ball sinking into the kelp. Then I still had the current at the stairs to deal with. I stood at the bottom and cursed for a while.
3 February 2013 aka 165 – Indicators – head and a half high, D.O.+ at Middle Peak
Superbowl Sunday so the crowd was light. The sky was gray and new swell had been slamming into West Cliff Drive for the last 24 hours. I took the Trombone down the steps and over the riprap and into the soup washing up against the rocks at the bottom. All the sand that had been washed in by the first storm of the season has been washed out again, and it’s back to cobblestones as you drop down the last three feet from the rocks. There was a hell of a current coming in along the cliff so that as you make the paddle-out you’re essentially ferrying across the current and duckdiving waves at the same time. By the time I was outside I was almost down to the culvert.
Today was more delightful trombone waves, with a conservatively estimated shit-ton of paddling in between. Near the end of the day, as it started getting dark, I found myself down by the statue. As always, I decided to try for just one more and started the long paddle back to the top. To pass the time I counted paddle strokes. About 600 later, I was up at the top of Indicators and the neoprene between my chest and the board was burning. In one of those moments that feels like someone is rewarding you, the next wave came for me. More trombone magic. Back down at the statue, I found myself paddling back up from the cave trying to reach the stairs. I felt there was an imaginary eddyline that I could paddle along and make headway, skimming along the edge of the longshore current. It worked for a while, but a current in the surf is like a river that switches directions. It took ages to get back to the steps.
1 February 2013 aka 167 – Waddell Beach – knee to waist high
Worse than yesterday, because it was onshore. Note for the future, when you find yourself standing behind your car to change into your wetsuit, on account of getting some relief from the chilly wind blowing in off the sea, take note. Also, it was foggy, so not pretty. Still I went out from some conviction that paddling the silver lining around in a bunch of windchop would be good for me. Also, a gray whale spouted shortly after I pulled into the parking lot, and you can’t really turn down that kind of invitation.
The ridiculous sandbar-and-current situation was unchanged from yesterday. I got out to the peeling left to find that the waves would peak up and break, sluggishly, on an outer sandbar, and then back off again, reeling back in the whitewater like a drunk person who wakes up just in time to slurp the drool back in their mouth. Eventually I got pushed all the way down the beach past the parking lot again, and I sat and marveled at the epic flatness of the ocean, with the exception of all the sloppy wind waves that slapped my face as I paddled. I moved inside a little ways and sat up on my board. Finally a wave approached, sucking water toward it, and then I felt my feet drag along the bottom. I was over the sandbar and floating in knee-deep water.
Water would come in over this broad flat inner sandbar and then sheet off either side of it, and that’s what set up the weird rip. I paddled back south down the beach and across that main rip. I sat up and spent the last 10 minutes before I went in cursing at the ocean. I tried to do it in a lighthearted manner, though, because you don’t want the ocean starting to take things personal with you.
For about 20 minutes a common loon floated about 15 or 20 yards outside of me, long enough for us both to be swept down the sandbar and back up again. It had a square forehead and a big stout bill, and a snaky neck with a stuttering band of white venetian-blind-ing its way around the neck. I wasn’t having any luck but it was, spending most of its time with its head stuck under the water looking around, and the rest trying to swallow the large fishy things it was catching.
31 January 2013 aka 168 – Waddell Beach – knee to chest high
And just about as bad as small Waddell can get. Actually the shape looked good at one peak just a little south of the parking lot, with an especially shapely left peeling off of it. Unfortunately, as it turned out there was the worst longshore current I’ve ever seen at Waddell out there today. And it was setting up just in front of the peak. I’d paddle over to the peak and keep my eye on one particular telephone pole on Hwy 1. Line it up with the deepest part of the Rancho del Oso canyon and I’m in just about the right spot. Then, while you wait for a set, you can watch the canyon slide to the right behind that telephone pole at a clip that’s almost as fast as you can paddle. Pretty soon you look up and you’re dead in front of the parking lot and 50 yards farther out to sea than you used to be. So you start paddling back over, back inside, with your eye fixed on that damn telephone pole again. Take one of the lefts, or get caught inside, and next time you look around the entire parking lot is off to your right and you’re 200 meters from the peak. Outside it’s glassy, but there’s so much water moving around the inside channel and the sandbar that there’s chop moving every which way. Little wave lines breaking at a 45 degree angle to the beach, just from two invisible water masses bickering. There were two longboarders out as well. One cheerful girl who was catching waves and riding them on her knees all the way to the sand. And her boyfriend, with that kind of stringy, vaguely mustachioed look of a surf rat, who spent the whole time whining about the rip and how it didn’t make sense to bring a longboard to a beach break. It was bad form, but I had to admit, after an hour of battling the current, that he had a point.
At least it was pretty. It was one of those acetylene skies with the sun going down like the tip of a welding torch, and the water was green, and a couple of times I even got into a wave on the 6’8″ silver lining. Super squirrely after being used to digging into the tail on the trombone. Each time the current dragged me over in front of the parking lot I foolishly went for a wave. There was no peak here, just a big long closeout with a bad personality. The swell was only waist high but somehow it had a way of breaking in which the whitewater just kept going down and down, dragging you along like one of those old timey roller contraptions that passes laundry from one set of pins to another. After a while I realized I was running out of breath and my legs were kicking among the heads of the zombie army* down at the bottom.
Eventually it got dark and I paddled in without a wave in sight. I got to the sandbar, and coasted on foam into shin-deep water, and then into the inside channel, still 30 yards from shore and the water over my head, and paddled through that, and then stood up on the corrugated reef and tried to pick my way in without breaking an ankle.
29 January 2013 aka 170 – Middle Peak – head high+
Size was holding. I got a sweet small left about a minute after I paddled out, just a drop and a fade off the shoulder and that was it. But always good to get a view from frontside every so often.
The rebuilding continues. On such a lully day as this one it’s hard to believe I could get caught inside so many times, on such long sets. Or that the last few head-and-a-half sets could roll in at just the moment when they could crack on my head. I know one of the worst offenses as a surfer is to call waves larger than they actually were, but let’s be serious: those Middle Peak frames were well overhead, even if the shoulders sloped away dramatically.
Late in the session I was paddling up one for dear life. I pushed the trombone’s nose under the lip at the last moment as the whitewater came tumbling down. I was caught in a cloud of whitewater and skydiving. My back went from convex, arched, to concave as my center of gravity dropped down toward the real surface of the water. My legs sort of fluttered above me, they hadn’t started coming down yet. My stomach turned over a couple of times with the changing vectors and then I hit the green water with the white water piling down from above. My head spun into the water, catching the curling surface like sticking your hand out the window of a moving car, and I started somersaulting. Sweet. Just try to relax.
I made it back to the top position at Middle Peak and something large was coming. I scratched for it. I had been going in too leisurely on the last few, used to the extra power from last week’s swell, and getting in too late. So I went extra hard and popped up just on the wrong side of the peak. Barreled down, down the face and saw the lip drop over on my right. I leaned into the hardest bottom turn I’ve ever attempted. Both feet pushing in, a little extra on the left foot over that big back fin. The board leaned over on its side and bit in, spray coming up off the bottom turn, channeling speed and projecting out in front of the worst of the foamball. Miraculously I was back in the pocket, outrunning the last of the foam and carving back into the section.
Paddled back out through the sunset colors. Kelp bulbs were bobbing to the surface to sit next to foam bubbles waiting to burst. Down below them were the clouds and the rest of the deep sunset blue. Posted up at Middle Peak and sat through the longest sunset lull I think I’ve ever seen yet. The waves just turned off. No more A frames. Even the walls heading for Indicators wouldn’t quite steepen up. It was like the swell was idly pushing water against the reef and the reef was pushing it back. The swell lines started to get surge-y, standing up, but backing off.
It got dim, and then it got dark. There were still four guys out stubbornly waiting for a wave. I waited them all out, then got suckered by a peak that broke behind me. I knew it was a bad sign when two Western Gulls emerged out of the blackness of the wave just before it hit me. They were coming at me like TIE fighters. Over the falls again, but gently. Retrieved my board and found one more swell line heading my way. Got in early, grabbed the rail for the steep section, and then the trombone was howling away down the line. Got out at the statue.
28 January 2013 aka 171 – Middle Peak – head high+
There was still some size but the swell was junkier and less emphatic. Poorer conditions notwithstanding, the crowd was bigger. The waves weren’t standing up outside of Indicators and so my spot was gone.
This time I was reminded what it’s like to not be the wave magnet, but to be near the magnet. This one younger guy with short dark hair and a scraggly bit of beard was scratching around on a scoopy, eggy shortboard. Plenty of foam for him. A couple of times I was sitting next to him when a peak came through and he was in position for it. Then I’d paddle inside and he’d stay outside, and a set would come through and I’d watch him take off as I prepared my duck dive. Or he would paddle inside toward the Slot and one of those inner bowls would wrap through while I sat out on the shoulder. Or I would paddle outside to wait for a set and then watch the tweeners roll through and peak up over his head.
I guess I got a couple. But it was definitely feeling like I was entering a regroup, recharge phase after such an exceptional string last week.
24 January 2013 aka 175 – Indicators – chest to head high+
Thick gray overcast, light rain, gray-green water flecked with seafoam. Normally it’s a bad idea to post up in a spot that still has foam floating on it—it’s there for a reason. But today was big and consistent, setting up the Lane’s notorious longshore current and scattering foam across the infield. Between sets all I could hear was the soft whoosh of far-off breakers and the high sizzle of air bubbles surfacing all around me, driven under on the last set.
Swell had built from yesterday—a new swell that was a little less clean but way more consistent. It was targeting the Slot and Middle Peak, and the infuriating “grinding shoulder” was in full effect. That’s when a big wave peaks up at Middle Peak with a hefty shoulder off to the surfer’s right. As it plows through the wave graveyard the peak bunches toward the cliffs and the shoulder shrinks and backs off. You wind up in a paradox: there’s a big foamball grinding away that will smack you in the face if you can’t get around it, but the clean face right next to it is not catchable.
I had a long, lully session bookended by two barn burners. The first one came through less than 5 minutes after I paddled out. A guy on a shortboard blew the takeoff on the first wave in the set, so I put the trombone underneath me and took the second. It was nicely overhead and the trombone went at it so hard the fins started humming.
The paddle back up to the top had my arms complaining about six days of straight surf after a month off. No mercy. But because of the swell angle it was harder for Indicators waves to come through without getting picked off by someone at the Peak or the Slot. I started coming off the backs of waves.
I went all over. I dropped back to Indicators proper to look for little ones; I went up to the tail end of Middle Peak; I went too far inside and started duck diving. Way up in the rolling whitewater at the top of a lip I saw a strand of kelp come churning down like a dismembered arm in a wetsuit. I duck dove through the foam and headed outside. The next one I duck dove through green face and came up with the wind blustering into my face. It was still as glass out there today; that was air stirred up by a 9-foot hunk of water doing somersaults.
The day stayed dim and gray-white forever, and then abruptly it was dark. I somehow wound up back at my trusty takeoff spot, and here was my wave. It started fast, a couple of big turns off the bottom, and then as it lined up through main Indicators it turned into a little more of a race along the mid-face, looking for the second peak. I flew past the pack at Indicators and then eased up through the next section. Stepped up on the board and relaxed, kind of tai chi pose, straight back, bent knees, steering with heel, toe, knees, and hips. The wall kept connecting. I flew past the stragglers at lower Indicators and on past the hopefuls at outside Cowells.
The wave faltered and I dropped to my belly, paddled back into it and what the hell, popped back up and rode it from the nose until it died.Laid in the water on my back for a long while, staring up at the place where the stars would have been. Picked my way back up the rocks, past the cave, and back around to the statue. Waves were still spoking through Indicators dividing the inside into white foamy triangles. Each wave held a surfer coming out into the evening, like a band of wet vampires.
23 January 2013 aka 176 – Indicators – chest to head high+
What a run of surf. New swell filled in on top of the old today and Middle Peak was still offering big open faces. I didn’t have a lot of time but damned if that same spot in Indicators wasn’t still uncrowded and pumping. I had a 3-up 3-down kind of session. Three bad waves, each followed up by three good waves. One I tried to outmuscle, cranking a turn when it needed a lighter touch. One I paddled too far into. (On the upside, arms are feeling pretty good again.) The lip was over my head as I took off. Somebody else probably would’ve committed to their front foot and made it, but I bailed, went head-first into the face, the lip picked up my feet, I did a reverse full-layout flip and set aside a pint or so of Pacific Ocean in my sinuses for later.
But the others were there when it counted. I had my spot dialed and the trombone so capable of getting into them, so I was in on this one early. A shallow turn along the face to judge how steep the section was getting, then fading into the real bottom turn. watching guys on the shoulder pull off; drawing Js around paddlers in the trough. Linking lip to bottom turn to lip to drive through the last part of the turn. And after so many days now of perfect Indicators set waves, I knew that after a couple of turns I needed to look ahead for that inside peak. Float up to the high line and then set my line through it.
And today’s last wave? One of the longest runs of tunnel vision yet. Ease into the backside of the peak, stand up and then crouch, set the rail, lean forward with a shoulder, faint sound of someone hooting bounces off the wave face and into my ears—did I hear that? Set it on rail and head off down the line. It lined up all the way through Indicators. I dropped to my belly and took it back left into the stairs. Came to a stop among the mussels and the sandcastle worms.
It happens so fast. I just want to remember it all.
22 January 2013 aka 177 – Indicators – waist to head high
The swell continues. It dropped in size a little but it’s still ultra clean and powerful. The same spot in Indicators still working for me. Today was one of those wave magnet days, I don’t know what makes them happen. Every so often you have a day when you look out at the horizon and you see a swell line and you realize it is going to keep coming right at you and that everyone else is out of position for it. I don’t know how many waves I got but it was way more than I had a right to.
More time inside the parabola today. Barrels are pretty rare at the Lane, although you do see people getting them. But tunnel vision, where the lip is curling most of the way around your peripheral vision? I’ll take it. Indicators is the place to do it. A fairly wide section forms up at the top and a lot of people sit just off the shoulder and get in there. But with something like the trombone you can get in under the peak. Stand up into a crouch as the bottom starts to drop out, grab the rail, and feel the board give itself over to gravity. Stick a hand out to judge where the face is, like coasting on a bike next to a big blue wall.
Over and over. It was dark again when I got my last ride in.
21 January 2013 aka 178 – Indicators – chest to head high+
First ice-cream headache of the season. The swell was still solid, long period, firm, powerful hunks of water rolling in from the other side of the International Dateline. For some reason the crowd was still relatively thin: a pack of good surfers at Middle Peak, where they were getting pretty close to D.O. and doing all kinds of beautiful carves and down the line charges. And a pack of hesitant surfers strung along Indicators. But right up the top of Indicators it was fairly thin given the number of waves that would swing wide of Middle Peak and then stand up. I pushed up past the cleft in the cliff, a little bit into the graveyard, trusting the trombone to get me into the larger Indicators waves just a little before everyone else.
At first I paid for my boldness, pretty much as it always happens at the Lane. The problem is that when the macking sets come through the Peak, you’re too far inside—you can’t get out to the shoulder and you end up either getting in some ripper’s way or just taking an entire set on the head. Or both. Which, the ice cream headache. Actually two of them. Coming off a month back east my arms were not holding up their end of the bargain either. What a miserable feeling to watch walls of whitewater come at you, nothing left in your arms, your back screaming, you can barely pick your chin up off the board, it’s an effort just to push the nose under and kick the board through the next duck dive, and when you come up you’re it’s same shit, different day. These long-period sets just packed with waves. Ten waves on the head. Twelve waves on the head. By the time it’s over you’re completely knackered and you’ve been pushed all the way back to the statue almost, and now you have the long paddle back up to the lineup.
So yeah, that happened three times. But then there were those waves that I did catch. Two in particular. Halfway through the session, one of the classic rifling Indicators waves and me hitting the lip and coming straight down to a bottom turn, neck craned to look back up at the lip again. Fins on the trombone starting to hum.
Then a big lull. Caught inside again. It got to where there was just pale pink on the horizon and everything else was the color of smoke. Egrets coming by in threes and sixes. Flying so low they might as well drag one of those golden toes.
Those dusk waves. I pulled into something I could barely see and rode it with my feet listening to the trombone’s advice. The board was loose under my feet and it seemed to be sniffing out the curvature of the wave, curving off the bottom, projecting along the wall and then drifting up the face and back down again. Finding that surprise late peak halfway through Indicators and getting onto the highline for it.
20 January 2013 aka 179 – Indicators – waist to head high (much bigger up at Middle Peak)
First really solid contact with the Indicators reef since I started surfing here. The swell was doing weird things through Indicators and I had been caught at a bit of lazy tide estimating to make matters worse. It goes like this: “Well I went out at this time yesterday, and it was a little past the low tide and it was pretty good. So today if I go out at the same time it oughta be pretty good too.” Which it was, but you should still take note of the fact that in this part of the tide cycle the low tide will be lower than it was yesterday, and because of what the moon does every night, I will be hitting it at peak low tide instead of an hour past it.
Which is how I came to take off on a chest high wave that somehow formed a ledge in the face, hopped that and started on down the line. The wave buckled and churned as it got ready to climb up onto the reef, at which point a whole section jumped into the air. The board slid down into the trough and I dove off the front of the board. Started into a somersault as I was flying through the air, and a good thing I did too. The first things that hit the reef were my thoracic vertebrae, and I just rolled along that pockmarked rock with just a few inches of water over it. A couple of sacral vertebrae hit next and that checked my momentum, and I was standing up in knee-deep water. I’m really glad I hit a fairly flat and level part of the reef instead of some of those pillars and holes.
That’s not to say there were no good waves today. Let’s just be clear on that.
19 January 2013 aka 180 – Indicators – knee to shoulder high (head and a half at Middle Peak)
70 degrees. Monarch butterflies all over the sky. Kids on skateboards ollieing the driveway ramps. A low tide was just lifting off the reef at Indicators. A contest was going on at Middle Peak—a bunch of excellent kids in colored jerseys, plus the occasional old dude in a wetsuit. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was—who was allowed to be freesurfing up there and who wasn’t. But Page 1 is: if you don’t think you’re supposed to be surfing somewhere, you aren’t supposed to be surfing there. And who wants to be groveling on a 7’10” and trying to get your month-old arms back in order with a whole cliff full of people watching and a guy on a PA. Even at Indicators I hopelessly flubbed the takeoff on a knee-high section. The massive swell predicted for the weekend was still a ways off and sending advance feelers every 10 minutes or so. They broke in silvery lines up at Middle Peak and otherwise the conditions were clean, cold, and salty. I didn’t have any expectations but a few long, powerful lines wrapped through and then backed off at the graveyard and dropped their shortboarders, then steepened for the Indicators section. I got into what I figured was my wave of the day, chest high and the trombone instinctively finding the steep section just as soon as I popped up. The board accelerating in one smooth slant as the wave curls around and the lip comes almost all the way over and you’re slotted in that brief blue parabola and still speeding up. Then you’re out on the face, stand up out of your crouch and bring it around. Indicators was doing its job and the wave, waist high now, kept peeling and I kept going. After that I was completely unprepared for my last wave, a slightly larger one that reeled in through Middle Peak. One of the shortboard kids got into it early and did something radical and then fell. By that point he was past the good shoulder-hoppers and on to the generally poor shoulder hoppers, and they couldn’t quite get into it. And so on it came to me, steepening as it started to feel Indicators. The trombone was in early as always and I backdoored that same steep section, that same blue parabola wound itself around the peripheries of my vision and on out to the face and then up to the lip a couple of times in rhythm. I took it in to the statue and was headed for Cowells when a patch of kelp snared my center fin and I drifted off the back. An immature double-crested cormorant just sat there and stared at me. Its mouth was hanging open.
19 December 2012 aka 211 – Middle Peak – double O at the peak
18 December 2012 aka 212 – Middle Peak – head high+
17 December 2012 aka 213 – Middle Peak – chest to head high
In the rush of the holidays I never wrote down those last three sessions of 2012, and now they’ve drifted off into that haze of surfing memories. The swell had been building all through the week. I took early lunches to sneak out during the less crowded hours while the Ithacans would be eating Easy Wok or attending Directors Council. I remember two waves. One was a little overhead, and I remember looking down from the lip and seeing a guy who was caught inside and miserably paddling back out, directly in my way. Has happened to me so many times and always makes you feel like a worm. You never know which way the surfer is going to go so you can’t get out of his way. Fortunately gravity and speed gives the surfer plenty of options. I dropped down the face and cut in toward the breaking section, carving a wide J across the bottom, around the guy, and back up the face again. The second wave was the next day, Wednesday, the day we left for SFO. It was bigger that day, and I got into one of the lumbering giants near the top. Not the set of the day, but large enough that you start the drop and you just go straight, straight, straight down the face, long enough for your mind to clear, before you start your turn.
16 December 2012 aka 214 – Middle Peak – chest to head high
Completed my surreptitious repairs on the trombone by about 4:40 and peered outside to see just how dark it was. The last few days I had closed the curtains in the afternoon, rolled back the rug, and propped the trombone across the futon and coffee table to fill, glass, and sand the lacerations from the longboard collision a couple weeks ago. (Before glassing, I made sure to turn off the heater and extinguish the pilot light.) It’s not super smart to do your glassing inside your residence, but I wanted to be somewhere warm for the glass to have a chance at curing. So I held my breath, and afterwards I opened all the windows so the smell would be gone by the time Mea came home or the landlords walked by.
So anyway, I figured I had about 40 minutes of arguable daylight. My back had felt tweaked ever since the day with the 8-ball at the Lane. It was raining. It was past official sunset. Did this make any sense at all? These were things I thought while I jumped into the new wetsuit. On my way down Pelton Ave it actually got darker. At the point a new swell was just filling in. I have never seen a long period swell so junky—there’s 15 or 16 second waves in the water but also a bunch of double-ups and 6 or 8 second waves. I paddled the board out and figured I’d take what I got.
At first what I got was a couple of unpredictable takeoffs. Sets would wedge into Middle Peak from the north so that they made lopsided A-frames, steep on the right. Or they would bump through into the wave graveyard and then pitch up before they hit Indicators in wide sections with no shoulders. I took off behind the foamball on my first one, which is almost always a waste of time. A couple young athletes were out on longboards they couldn’t really control. I was paddling behind one as a breaking shoulder took us out. I duck dove and a moment later felt his board whack my leg, then my back. He had let go of it when the wave hit, not really realizing how bad form that is. At least his fins were nowhere near the trombone. Later, I talked with a gleaming-headed shortboarder who was having just as much trouble judging waves. He’d gotten a good one through Indicators, but also misjudged one, back when the light was good, and been pitched. Which is what the next one did to me: slouched in toward me out of the gray, then stood up and tossed me off the front. Later that night, doing laundry, some of that wave came tumbling back out of my sinuses and I hoped the other patrons were looking somewhere else.
It was a gray day that had gone dim with the sunset, and the waves were cold and green as a dinosaur’s eye. This was another scale of ocean texture: beautifully smooth on the surface with incessant 3-foot chop in between the actual waves. Like those modernist houndstooth check patterns that have been blown up. Still I found a good one, pulled under the peak just as it hit the reef and lifted, then set a rail and dropped into a face as smooth as fog. The trombone roared back to life. My back foot was a little farther back than usual and the nose just cranked around off the bottom turn. It was like the board had its own sense of timing as I came down and back up to come off the lip, down and back, three times down the line, carving around on my back foot, bringing the nose around almost vertically to carve down past a guy gawking on the shoulder, stepping up to get back in as the wave fattened out, to squeeze out one more drop. Then a paddle back up the cliff to the rocks. My back felt great.
12 December 2012 aka 218 – Indicators/Middle Peak – waist to head high
Took the 8-ball out at the Lane on a Wednesday afternoon. A clean, middle-sized swell was coming through on a deep minus tide. The high school surf teams were out for practice and the water was full of ripping groms and stylish teenage girls on super longboards. The good ones were taking off on sculpted head-high peaks and floating through beautiful carved turns on the faces, occasionally launching airs off the end sections out of sheer exuberance. Sitting back from their pack was the usual scrum of longboarders. So many that the water looked cross-hatched with their noses angling left and right against the sunset. It was a problem for the rippers just figuring out how to get through them all and I saw Ward Coffey’s son go full rail on one out of exasperation. Buckets of spray. Between the young stars and the milling longboarders the 8-ball didn’t stand much of a chance. I milked a couple of insiders that were waist high at best and went in, where Mea was wading around the tidepools looking for nudibranchs.
11 December 2012 aka 219 – Waddell Beach – shoulder to head high
After a trip to Truckee and a bit of flatness on either side we were finally starting to get waves again. The Lane was going minus and was getting mobbed by hopefuls on every kind of equipment imaginable. So up the coast, crossing my fingers for that fabled evening glass-off. The west wind was sideshore at Waddell and the surfaced was choppy, with occasional two-wave groundswell sets that were lined up across the beach. Waddell is so much better when it’s peaky.
I hadn’t put fresh wax on the silver lining and it was slippery as I dropped down to paddle and as I popped up. That made for some ungainly staggering popup-wipeouts. The smaller the board, the less buoyant it is, and the less strongly it pushes up against you as you paddle it. Maximizes the slipperiness.
Eventually I fumbled into a couple of clean drops and one or two faces, including a couple of turns on a left and a quick crouching right with a railgrab to set the line. Getting in early for once.
Meanwhile the sunset tried to sneak offstage under the heavy overcast. At first only the east lit up, going rosy against the wedge of cypress green coming down from the mountains. A long swell line broke, erasing the pink out of the sky as the lip touched down and went pearly white. Five pelicans came down the line, one wing in the white and one in the pink.
The groundswell sets were breaking outside. The lips reared up into long, yawning sections 100 yards across. In situations like that you paddle into the gap and then push the nose under the water. The silver lining’s nose dives quick and deep, pitching forward 30 degrees. A gulp of air into your lungs and you push your head under, and all goes quiet and still. This is the tense moment, because the pitching back of the wave might pull you up and over the falls. Or you might be late and the lip might drop on your board and rip it from your grasp. But this time I felt the lip hit the back of my calf. I put a foot in the middle of the board and pushed it deep. It’s like an upside down jump: you plunge under water but buoyancy pulls you back to the surface. The nose rises and planes you out the back of the wave, simple as that. Look up and check if there’s anything left in the set.
A hole had opened in the southwest and was letting the sunset through. The dimpled surface of the water lit up orange-rosy in every direction under a milky gray sky. For a long 3 minutes it was like being under the wing of a scissor-tailed flycatcher.
I made it over the next set wave as the sunset peaked. Rosy chevrons up high above blank sweeps of gray. There was one more long wall coming in and something about the long neck of the western grebe disappearing over the back of it made me think: go. And that was the last wave of the day, the crouching right down the face, 40 minutes after sunset.
I ended up in chest deep water over the reef. This was where I had dangled my feet into the bull kelp heads last week. Today on the minus tide they bent under the waves and then reared their heads into the air like a zombie army coming to life. I paddled back out and realized it had happened: the evening glass-off. The water reflected the clouds and it was bright like the way snow makes the most of starlight. I paddled through 75 yards of foam skimming over the smooth water and waited. But nothing came until the next set, biggest one of the evening, breaking way outside. I duck dove them all and then turned around and rode a dribbler in to shore. Stripped off the new wetsuit, so warm that the cool air on my chest felt refreshing. There was one other guy out there with me, his girlfriend waiting in the car. He came in so stoked he jacked up the tunes and started telling his girlfriend about the sets. “See you another time, brother,” to me as I pulled away.
5 December 2012 aka 225 – Waddell Beach – waist to shoulder high
On a whim I grabbed the silver lining out of the board bag it’s been sitting in for the last five years (which if you want to get technical is an REI sleeping bag liner I bought in 1995 as a cheap facsimile of a bag for my first California board, a Diffenderfer semi-gun that had somehow migrated here from Hawaii). The silver lining is a 6’8″ squashtail shaped for me by Spico back when I really wanted to see what it would be like to get under the 7’0″ mark. Named because the board is cumulus white with just a little sky blue peeking through in the logo and the name. It meant I would be giving up 6 inches of foam over the flying 8-ball and something like 14 inches over the trombone. But the 8-ball’s rails are a little stretched out for small waves and I’ve never felt that the swallow tail comes around well unless there’s a lot of face to work with. The trombone’s pintail (and the princess’s for that matter) are far smoother most of the time. So what the hell, it’s mushy and small, time to give the silver lining a try.
As I was getting dressed in the parking lot a guy pulled up, leaving his car running, and checked the surf. He looked extremely dubious. Not doobie-ous like the longboarders from yesterday, but just unconvinced. He had long gray tangles coming out from under a green knit cap and he was holding a coffee cup. He had checked Scott’s and Davenport and they were crappy, he said. I wanted to say, well you drove all the way up here didn’t you?
There’s usually a grace period with a new board, so maybe that’s what happened today. The surface was pretty clean under light winds and the swell, though still jumbled and bumpy, was a little more together than yesterday. The tide was a bit higher and all the peaks were still mushy—but slipping off the back because you can’t paddle fast enough is better than getting tossed over the lip of a cracking beachbreak that’s sucking sand off the bottom. And in fact I got into many waves once I found the take-off zone. More waves than yesterday despite the smaller board.
My first wave happened to also be the steepest of the day and I broke the tail loose on my bottom turn. That’s the difference in foam. The squashtail felt great underfoot and though none of the waves connected very well—they tended to either close out or die at the shoulders—a couple times I found myself pumping on down the line lefts. Lively.
The sun went down again. As it drops below the horizon all the grays soften on these overcast days. The contrast fades away and it actually gets lighter for a moment. A great blue heron came over, 200 feet up and 300 feet out to sea, like showing the pelicans a thing or two. The classic sunset lull took advantage of me and when I came in there was a ranger shining a flashlight onto the beach wondering if I was okay. How was it? she asked. It was better than not going out, I said.
I got in the car at 5:37, same time to the minute as yesterday. Kai Rysdall was on the radio, still sounding like he’s unbuttoning his shirt while he talks. Sorry dude, your delivery does not make financial transactions any sexier.
4 December 2012 aka 225 – Waddell Beach – thigh to chest high
Flat in town but the wind was light so I grabbed the 8-ball and headed up the coast. The ocean was silvery gray under a flat overcast. Though the light winds made for a fairly smooth surface there’s a storm just offshore and so what swell there was was windswell.
A couple young guys ran out ahead of me and spent their whole time in the shorebreak yelling back and forth to each other. Two older longboarders changed in their van and took care of inhaling some medical necessities before they went out. A little while later, out in the water, one of them mistook me for his buddy. He caught himself after a couple of exchanges and hurriedly provided an explanation, like I was the school principal.
Mushy jumbled peaks that wandered all over the place and seemed to not know where to go as they approached the shore. When they did break, the peaks toppled over onto slopey faces and trundled on in toward the beach. That meant it was hard to get into waves but you had a little time to ease over toward the drop once you did. I got into nothing special, but a couple of faces opened up—always something to be thankful at Waddell—and gave me the chance to try and find the rhythm in the 8-ball.
On one wave I started right but that shoulder disappeared and the left opened up. So around I went and found a little bit of acceleration along the line. Eventually the section got ahead of me and I ejected, ramping off the lip and letting the board fall away below me as I went over the back. Landed on my head in the water. It was a late trip up there and I stayed in the water until it was dark again. Little dark swishes every now and then like a sea lion was checking me out but never showing itself. Pelicans zipped past on a broad reach, their yellow necks flashing in repose against the gray background. Sitting inside and waiting for one in, I dangled my feet and kicked bull kelp stems. At dusk, on your own, that can feel like the floating arms of drowned men.
3 December 2012 aka 226 – Middle Peak – shoulder to head high and crowded
After a full week of storm and rain and blown-out surf I really needed to get in the water, if only to get the mildewed stink out of my damp wetsuit. The swell was dropping all day and the tide was doing the same thing, and 30 people were out trying to get leftovers at Middle Peak.
The storm had dumped a ton of sand on the inside reef up to the bottom of the rip rap. I thought that at first and then corrected myself: it had dumped hundreds of tons of sand on the inside reef. Where you pick your way down the rip rap you wedge your feet into the cracks of the slanty rocks, put a hand out for support when you hit the green algae, and then you sit down on the last boulder and lower yourself onto the cobbles just out of reach of your feet. At least that’s how it was until today. Today you just stepped down the last 6 inches and you were on a flat sand beach. Two and a half feet higher and not a cobble in sight.
I paddled around in the usual longboard jockey. Didn’t get much until I pulled into a Middle Peak left as everybody else was going right. Unfortunately a longboarder had decided to backdoor the peak left at the last minute and I dropped square onto him. He was nice, perhaps realizing he shared some blame for having come out of nowhere. (If I had charged right instead of aiming left, who would have been at fault?) After he paddled off I realized his fins had left two 6-inch-long gouges in the bottom of the board, straight through the glass and deep into the foam. Like a spiteful mermaid who’d been growing out her fingernails. So that’s it for the trombone for a while. Into drydock, try to get my ding repair level 2 merit badge. In the meantime I’ll have to step the foam back down a notch to the Flying 8-ball.
It’s amazing how you can be cold all day sitting in front of your computer and pecking at the occasional key. And then you go out and sit in 55 degree water, naked except for a 4/3 wetsuit and the loop of a leash collar around your ankle. And after 30 minutes you come back and it’s too hot inside the house.
25 November 2012 aka 234 – Middle Peak – shoulder to head high
Finished the latest round of fiddling with a tiny manuscript, writing, rewriting, discarding, shaving, elaborating, guessing, second-guessing. There were still a few rays of sun outside and what else good is it living 6 blocks from the Lane? I was in the water by about 4:45. There was an Asian woman on the cliff edge with her back to the railing, taking a picture of herself in front of Monterey Bay with her phone. Every single evening, people take pictures of themselves right here, trying to remember their day at the beach, and never get the chance to get wet.
I paddled out to Middle Peak and sat up behind a scrum of longboarders. The very first wave was a set wave swinging barely inside of me. The next one came straight down home plate. It was head high and kept walling, and I coaxed the trombone into deep turns instead of taking the highline. Eventually, somewhere around the second fishing cliff, the wall caught up to me. I turned one last time off the top and watched the section stretch out in front of me. The lip thickened, fractured, and slapped me straight off the wave. I actually fell through the air for a while and then hit the trough on my left shoulder, board coming down behind. I knew right then it was going to get dark on me.
It was inconsistent, but there were inside waves for a while and then outside waves for a while. The crowd was sleepy and I kept finding spots that worked. Nothing walled up like that first wave, but that was OK. I took off early on a Middle Peak bomb and cut immediately to the high line, crouching, looking over my shoulder to make sure nobody had backdoored into position on me. The wave surface crinkled under the board and bowled out onto the shoulder and down into the face. I looked down at the line of paddlers trying to get out of my way and cut back to the only patch of clear water, dropping smooth as a car spiraling down out of a parking garage.
I found myself sitting inside and hoping for a little one to go in on. So was everyone else, and they were on bigger boards than me. So what the hell, sets were coming about every 15 minutes. I paddled out to the top of the pack.
It got darker. A vee of egrets caught the afternoon sun, and then the sun was down, and the cypresses were silhouettes razored out of the sunset. The lighthouse light came on. The ocean surface went as dark as a polished stone, except for the top six inches of one last wave, which turned coke-bottle green as it thinned and launched itself out into the space in front of it. A dainty group of sea lionesses braided themselves through the kelp and a big bull snorted out in the distance.
It got even darker. Here we were sitting on a ribbon of blue Pacific that was gradually getting thicker as the minus tide filled back in. Seems like there’s always a sunset lull just to mock you. The worry, especially with a dying swell, is that the last of the sets will roll in just as the tide rises enough to negate it. I mean, at some point it has to go flat, right? What if it’s now?
But there were a couple of sets left. You had to squint to see them: a sort of dusky shading on the gray lines in the indeterminate distance. A couple of longboarders got theirs. And then finally, mine. A wide peak approached, the kind that will stand up forever and then a big section will drop unexpectedly. The night was blue and there were stars out. Jupiter would be rising in another hour or two. I edged slightly outside and turned for the wave. At the Lane there’s always the equally tragic possibility the wave will decide not to break after all. But this one was going to go. I reached my hands down the face, pulled scoops of calm water behind me, and stood up. The wave face was blacker than the sky, and starless. There was just the near-silence of the trombone dropping into the evening air, and then the crash as the first of the lip hit the trough. I had been out for a little over an hour.
24 November 2012 aka 235 – Middle Peak – shoulder to head high
A revival in the swell was sending inconsistent head+ peaks in through Middle Peak and the crowd was surprisingly thin, though still dominated by longboards. Spico was out there giving instructions to his 8- and 10-year-olds. We chatted for a bit and he cast an eye over the trombone and its pintail and bonzer fins. I snuck in and around the longboarders and came away with dozens of waves over three hours. A couple of ramping lefts; a straight drop on a set wave and wide bottom turn around a late paddler. A sea otter scraped the innards out of a red rock crab. The sound of his teeth was like rock on rock. Loons cut over the outer swell lines as streamlined as Romulan starships. On the sea stack by the stairs, an orange starfish was throwing a one-handed crux move to get past the overhang and up to the mussels. Made it look easy.
23 November 2012 aka 236 – Middle Peak – waist to chest high
The swell had dropped away and it was family day out at the Lane: high-school girls on big rounded longboards talking about who needs to call who back. Little tow-headed groms on old, oversized shortboarders paddling for anything. Dads watching them with one eye, keeping the other out for a set wave they could sneak into. Clueless guys on the outskirts and veterans who seem to live for cross-stepping. And all of them on longboards. It was hard to get waves, but it was pretty. I was happy for the bargain.
Back on the cliff an impromptu pedigree lesson was going on. An amiable dude was asking rhetorical questions to a couple of wetsuited girls with drops of saltwater in their eyelashes. “Do you know who this is?” They looked uncertainly at a wizened old man with thin hair sitting on a wheelie walker, hand on the handbrake. “This is Doc Scott. He invented Hotline wetsuits. Your mom used to work for him.” Doc smiled. He was about 80. Still bright-eyed but not likely to be paddling out today. A hearing aid wire trailed out of one ear. The girls looked like they wanted to get back in the water. “Do you know your dad’s one of the best surfers out here?” Outside, somebody else’s dad pushed his kid into a wave. It was a baton being passed.
22 November 2012 aka 237 Thanksgiving Day – Indicators – somewhat overhead
The tide was lower than yesterday, there was no wind, and the swell was still peaking, with set waves stacking up off Middle Peak into the distance. There was lots to be thankful for, and plenty of Thanksgiving surfers out there giving thanks. I got only one wave. It slipped past the Middle Peak crowd and I regretfully paddled for it around an otherwise very kind-looking young woman on a red-and-white longboard. On these kinds of days you just have to go for waves. I felt bad for squeaking her off the wave but after 25 minutes of my own jockeying I really didn’t want to give it to her only to watch her muff the bottom turn.
My twinge of misgiving vanished as I dropped down the overhead face and back up into the pocket. This time the wave had an urgency and a little more steepness than yesterday, thanks to the lower tide, and the trombone found the rhythm it had needed the day before. A couple of minor cutbacks to stay in the pocket and then a wall opened up, begging for a full drop, bottom turn, and the closest thing to a crack off the top that I can manage. Looking back down into the wave, head projected out into the gap, left foot coming around behind me, and back into another bottom turn. My eyes all wide aperture, I saw the wave in shallow focus, the grain of the face right off the nose. The lip curled and I switched focus, followed it on down the line, and realized this wave was going to steamroll straight through Indicators. A couple of short turns to keep speed through a walling section, then another big turn to the top, and a sweep around the whitewater. I was back on the shoulder, hooting at the longboarder who thought the wave would section me out. I kept going past the statue, past the cave, around the corner and inside Cowell’s, where the wave backed off and I took it back left, trying to catch my breath. From there I bellied a couple of waves back to the Cowell’s stairs. The banisters were in the shade but a fragment of sun had found its way over the cliff and was backlighting a spray-dazzled spiderweb. A chevron of mew gulls went overhead with their wingtips almost touching. Dads and granddads stood on the sidewalk and cheered for their kids and grandkids getting their first waist high rollers. It took a long time to walk back up to the lighthouse, and then I rode home.
21 November 2012 aka 238 – Middle Peak – pretty close to D.O.
A smidge too high tide for Indicators to work reliably, and the tide was just getting higher all evening. People were strung out along the whitewash line from Middle Peak on down. A pelican skidded to a landing right next to me and regarded me with a big glassy eye. They’re the best surfers in the world, and perhaps he was letting me know my wave was on its way. Because it was. I scratched into a couple-foot-overhead wall and took a couple sweet turns off the top. At least it felt that way, like maybe part of my board peeked over the lip, like maybe part of my body went horizontal on the cutback. I didn’t quite have the rhythm on this wave, despite the trombone’s best efforts. The wave alternated between mushy and walling, throwing my timing off. Still I took it all the way past the cave at the top of Cowell’s, then spent about 15 minutes trying to paddle back up against the current to the steps. A raft of about 6 or 7 surfers were bobbing in the soup. They had all taken set waves in and were now waiting for a chance to dart up the steps without getting smashed into them with a breaking wave.
I learned the true meaning of badonkadonk. It’s the sound of somebody taking off out of control on a wave, pushing their board out in front of them, and the board hitting your board. That’s the first badonk. The second is when your board hits your cranium.
Waves that avoided breaking at Middle Peak hit the wave graveyard as they approached Indicators, getting progressively less catchable and passing up dozens of frustrated surfers. When they finally broke, the peak was often farther off the cliffs than usual, which meant I ended up catching a couple of nice big lefts—a rare enough event in Santa Cruz that I was at a loss for what to do after I hit my bottom turn. But it sure looked pretty to see the shoulder curling.
The waves got bigger all evening. I sat on a shoulder and watched the guy three feet inside of me catch a wave. Didn’t want to contest it, the wave was too big for that kind of fooling around. I watched him from above paddling in, several feet below me, with the rest of the face yawning out into the trough. Later, I caught something similar and although the wave fizzled shortly afterward, that long drop and bottom turn was a rare, short sense of freedom.
20 November 2012 aka 239 – Middle Peak – about shoulder high and shattered
South winds and intermittent rain squalls. Big, lumpy, washing machine lines. The sea otters had gone someplace else. Even the kelp was ducking its leafy head, figuring no doubt that there was little point in photosynthesizing under the gray blanket of clouds. I was out for 30 minutes during my lunch break, and it felt great anyway.
18 November 2012 aka 241 – Middle Peak – chest to head high and clean
Before I had even paddled all the way outside, a Pacific loon surfaced in the whitewash less than 15 feet from me. It had a crisp black neck with a faint dusting where its throat patch used to be. Its slim straight bill switched nervously left and right as I paddled toward it, and then it was gone.
Afterwards, walking back through the clifftop parking lot, a Point Break era Patrick Swayze talked about his plans in the clifftop parking lot. The morning sun lit up the faded tattoos across his shoulders and torso. He was packing a glass pipe with an indeterminate and talking about his plans from behind vintage Ray-Bans. “I think I’m gonna go back out for a short second session, and then just try and save some juice for the evening.”
13 November 2012 aka 246 – Middle Peak – chest high
The tide was so low that the egrets had come in from the kelp and were standing on terra firma, staring intently into the tidepools. A Western Grebe surfaced abruptly from knee deep water, right next to my left hand. Farther out, a passing swell gripped a kelp frond as if with a hand and squeezed it upward, forcing out a shrill, animal bleating from it. Sea otters answered idly as they sculled along on their backs. The surf report said “poor to fair”: very small and inconsistent. But this is the Lane, and the waves that were coming through were standing up chest or shoulder high at times and slopping onto the exposed reef. A rich assortment of bare-footed leashless longboarders and groms was out there, the former getting on the waves early and the latter snaking mercilessly, as always. But still, there was that matchless feeling as the first glassy face lips toward you, the sound of the surf lurches in the reflection and then goes silent as the wave crashes over you and the first cold trickles seep into your wetsuit and you taste that briny ocean and the salt crystals start to form in your eyebrows again. Planes and cormorants crisscrossed the sky with chemtrails that sifted pixie dust into the sunset. The cypresses on the cliff grew darker and sharper against the sky. After a whole lot of nothing I scratched into the far side of a set wave. Small swells on a tide this low stand up forever and then break all of a sudden. I popped into a crouch and put three fingers under the trombone’s left rail. The trim was perfect. The board dropped into the curve of the wave as it steepened, accelerating in one smooth arc down and across as the peak stretched itself down the line. The board rose out of the drop in the same arc onto the shoulder and I stood up out of the crouch and cut it back around. The wave kept teetering along the reef edge and I steered it with just a little ankle fu from the middle of the board. Bailed out flat in shin deep water and my thumb went deep into the gooey part of an anemone. There’s no more to it than that. I walked in across the reef and watched little sculpins and rockfish darting out of my way.
2 November 2012 aka 257 – Middle Peak – chest high – Coldwater Classic
Unexpectedly inspired by yesterday’s performance from Kelly Slater at the Coldwater Classic. Not during his heat, which he lost to young local Nat Young, but at dusk, when the heats ended and he jumped off the cliff on a new board to try to get the wave wired. Despite the undersized, mushy, inconsistent swell that was only just starting to show some shape as the tide went minus. I thought I’d watch from the cliff just to see if I could see anything different about his surfing, live, and suddenly he started doing all sorts of cool seemingly un-pro things. He caught a middler of a wave and then, on the paddle back up, he spun and grabbed another one, presumably just because he liked the look of it. He disappeared around the point and then reappeared on a set wave, took it well inside, grabbed some air at the end and then… his leash broke, and his board went skipping with the whitewater over the kelp toward the rocks. He caught the next wave in and it was incredible how well he could plane while bodysurfing. He was so high out of the water it looked like he still had a board under him. When he got to the reef he stumbled and slipped his way over to his board and calmly picked it up. Took another two steps and fell on his ass in the kelp. Got up again and started picking his way back up around the rocks to the cliff, even though it was already half-dark. He stopped to pick up a beach ball a couple of kids had dropped over the edge and tried to volleyball-bash it back up to them a couple of times. Then he peeked around the corner of the cliff and headed back out. He caught three more waves in quick succession and, surfing without a leash, cleanly snapped his way through the sections and ended each wave with a clean 360 air, not even grabbing the board, not even needing to. And he did one thing that was totally pro. He disappeared around the corner again, and finally came the wave of the day. Out past Seal Rock it was already walling up all the way through the Point, Slot, and Middle Peak sections, a couple feet bigger than anything else all day. Around the corner comes Kelly, of course, just gunning the open section to get around the closeout at the Slot. He was going insanely fast without seeming to try—just midface carves generating acceleration that seemed to put even him off balance. It was a mutant of a wave—most waves at the Lane steepen up and then back off into flat shoulders so pros can just bottom turn and snap all day. This one just kept standing up down the line, and then a middle section would topple and relax. In moments Kelly was around those indecisive sections and then one last deep carve around the Middle Peak section and a giant lip smash at the apex, the kind where the surfer hangs at the top of the wave as his board comes around and then accelerates into another deep bottom turn. On a headstrong wave, he was never once out of step.
So today I finished work and did the last prep for the trip back east. My last chance to surf in a week blocked with unexpected car trouble, bike maintenance, packing. There was thin fog with the sunset streaming over the cypresses and suffusing into gold air. The contest was on hold owing to the fat high tides, dropping swell, and promise of overhead surf for Sunday and Monday. I paddled up from the statue to Middle Peak and sat among the shortboarders, the groms, and the one or two longboarders, and the amazingly cute freckled Asian girl who rides a hybrid shortboard at least a foot longer than strictly necessary.
It was glassy and there were sea lions flopping out of the water in all directions. Cole the grom made incredibly shrill sea-otter type shrieks until some older grom told him to quit it. Somebody looking like Nat Young paddled out and sat in the pack politely. A guy on a softtop who knew how to surf was paddling into set waves with his fins forward and surfing the board finless. I got a few small, fun, quick drops, drove the drop-in shortboarders off the shoulder with a top turn, and then hung with it as the wave subsided. There wasn’t quite enough swell and the tide wasn’t quite low enough for Indicators to reshape the lines.
I walked back up the rocks to the stairs, among the contest photographers, the video guys, crowds of Brazilians talking shit, and various guys in wetsuits who might or might not have been pros. I tried to look like I was pleased with my performance and just doing my job, as I hauled that 7’10” trombone back up the steps.
29 October 2012 aka 261 – Middle Peak – chest to head high
A weird swell angle had the peak breaking almost straight toward the cliff, and the tide wasn’t yet low enough for Indicators lines to start forming. There was a mixed-up crowd of young rippers—a couple warming up for the contest, from the sound of things—plus a few totally clueless types, the kind who paddle into a set wave and drop in on someone even though they can’t really stand up yet.
Nothing was working for me, but that was all right. It was sunny and I had taken a midafternoon excursion between transcribing interviews. It was great to be in the cold water and the warm sun, paddling around in the holey Hotline and thinking about warm wetsuits of the future. Frothers in bright wetsuits were taking Middle Peak lefts and leaving room for me to get into one or two of the rights. Then all of a sudden they started going right. I dropped in on one of them as he backdoored the peak, so I carved up off the shoulder and into a chunky Australian lady who was in the process of dropping in on me.
Conditions were better than I had anticipated, but the crowd was only getting thicker. Indicators was starting to work when I caught something chest high and had a moment of clarity when I cross-stepped up to the middle of the board, two quick steps, and let my eyes focus down the line instead of right in front of me. I started carving little swoops using the middle curve of the rails and a bit of shift in my lean to make it through the slow sections and into the little thigh-high wall. Another area of native talent for the trombone.
I was halfway along the cliffs when the wave ran down, so I climbed up the rocks by the culvert. Stepped over an anemone and onto the rough honeycombs of the sandcastle worms, past the gooseneck barnacles and the California mussels, up to the star limpets and the blacktop limpets and the ribbed barnacles and the little brown barnacles freckling the driest parts of the splash zone. Hopped over the crack where a black crab had just slipped out of view and on up to where the mud and the ground squirrel burrows and the guillemot nests started. Could’ve been a lot worse.
26 October 2012 aka 264 – Middle Peak – waist to chest high
More small, glassy afternoon surf, just a bit more crowd this time around. On the way in I found a cowrie at the water’s edge. There was a small hole where most likely a snail had bored in like a safecutter and sucked out the cowrie. I tossed it over to the bottom boulder of the walk down, and it lodged on the mossy step that’s cut into it, under a brown leaf of seaweed. I stumbled across the reef, water seeping in through the holes in my ancient Hotline, but the sun was warm. The crowd was typical f0r small-wave, sunny Middle Peak, a bunch of people on longboards who only sorta knew what they were doing. I cleaned up on the trombone, as much as possible given the long long lulls between sets. You had to paddle in toward Indicators and pick off small peelers and then every 20 minutes or so head up to Middle Peak and hope for the bigger set to show up. I ended up getting a couple of the short lefts off the Peak, even ramping along the face on a couple. Mea and Jean were on the cliffs for a little while, but I didn’t see them. The guy with dreadlocks tucked into his hood was back, eyes red-rimmed but cheerful, hiding from the glare behind his big black-banded board raised like a tombstone. He wasn’t getting into waves super consistently and I took off on a couple that he was in position on, ones he ended up not making. Felt kind of awkward about it, so I let him into a peak that was shaping up directly at me. A super skinny guy with a shaved head and big dark eyebrows was out in a shorty wetsuit with no leash, on a 10′ super wide noserider. He surfed fairly stylishly, but he was ruthless about taking waves on his setup, which I found annoying from the vantage of the 7’10” trombone. The tide floated up off its 0.8′ low and Middle Peak went flat. I sat out there with everyone, staring into the distance, listening to people gab about work or golf, soaking up the sun and feeling the cold water of Monterey Bay sloshing around inside my holey suit. Pelicans moving past silent as streetcars. One guy sat astride his board, hands in his lap, squirting water out of his fist to pass the time. Silhouetted in the glare, he made a very unfortunate profile. Eventually I heard the clock at the school strike 5 and realized my afternoon had been good enough. Turned around and paddled back through the pack to shore. My sudden burst of action must have upset their judgment, because 3 or 4 guys scrambled for a little dribbler of a wave just behind me before realizing I was just going in. The cowrie was still on the step under its seaweed awning. So I tucked it into the sleeve of my wetsuit and went home.
25 October 2012 aka 265 – Middle Peak – waist to shoulder high
Perfect, small, uncrowded, low-tide, weekday midafternoon at the Lane. After a week of flatness, a crossed-up south and northwest swell was sending head-high lines to the Slot with a hump in the shoulder and a cleanly separated peak at Middle Peak. I rode up on my bike and there were only about 6 guys on it. A building wind was streaming over the point and ruffling the water inside into little leaping diamonds.
A work crew was putting up aluminum bleachers in preparation for the Coldwater Classic next week. It’s a WCT event this year and for a brief moment I blanched at the thought that the 6 guys on Middle Peak would turn out to be Kelly, Fanning, Parko, John John, Medina, etc. But of course they probably haven’t even bought their plane tickets yet, and even if they were here they’d be with the hotshots at the Point.
So I locked my bike to the railing and picked my way down over the bright-green riprap. Eased into the water amid the cobblestones and purple seaweeds and waded out over the reef with kelp dragging at my ankles. With so few people out, almost the very first set wave came directly at me, and the tide was low enough for it to wrap all the way through Indicators. The trombone was quick while there was a face and then stable as I walked up to the nose to keep the board trimmed. Eventually I was standing north of where the wax ended and watching spray sheet out sideways from under the nose. The trombone is approaching magic status these last few weeks at the Lane.
A few waves came by like that, and the long paddle back to the peak was a good return after a week out of the water. A black guy was out on a black-and-cream-banded longboard, wearing an oversized neoprene hood with his dreads tucked in it. I took off on the backside of a peak and cut under it. He took off inside of me but didn’t make it around the section. I looked back at him and he shot me a quick wave and a smile. In between waves, Brown Pelicans sat in the distance, their chins drawn in, looking like big loons; and a Western Grebe sat closer, skinny-necked, like a loon with a dinner engagement for which it’s spruced up its grubby winter coat. Two waves later the Western Grebe was gone and a Horned Grebe was darting around the kelp. It dove for so long I started to wonder if it was coming back.
The wind picked up and the south swell took over. The tide lifted and Middle Peak seemed to shut down. I looked behind me and about 20 guys had come out on the stroke of 4:00. I heard one say, “I rode up on my bike and I saw like three waves with guys on them, and I figured I gotta go out.” I got one more small one, fighting my way into it just before the shoulder mushed—and then paddled over to grab the tail end of a Slot wave and belly the foam back into the reef. A couple young guys were obeying the time-honored rule of the poser: strip your wetsuit down to the waist at the very first opportunity after you get out. They didn’t know where the route was back up the boulders though, and they picked their own way up with their wetsuit arms dragging on the rock.
17 October 2012 aka 273 – Indicators/Middle Peak – waist to shoulder high
No waves of consequence, just a lot of people and a long sunset lulling into darkness. Once again I made and broke a promise to just go out for a short session. A few mushy knee-highers in Indicators and a bit of time jockeying with the longboarders at Middle Peak did nothing except trigger that Powell stubbornness gene, so I stayed out.
Frustration at the fickle sets alternated with calm amazement at the sunset that was happening all around. White triangles from the Wednesday night races speckled the bay, and the dark triangles of backlit surfboard noses pierced the foreground. The water got smoother and cleaner, as if the transparent popsicle sky were melting onto the floor of the world. Kelp stirred, rolled over, went back to sleep. Brown pelicans drifted by, inches off the surface and nearly hidden by the dusk, moving slow and steady and silent as a commuter train.
The new moon hung over the lighthouse, the air so clear and the long-gone sun so bright that even the dark side was lit up, and a thin ring of light iced the outline. A zigzag of stars ranged out behind it and the collection looked like some new constellation, a platypus wriggling across the night, following its crescent of a nose. Vees of snowy egrets flew over, dusky white, trailing feet that seemed to hold the last of the sunlight.
Eventually it was just me and one other guy, in almost total darkness. We peered out to sea and raised and lowered our heads to gauge whether anything at all was coming. The song in my head switched from Dwight (“Riding waterfalls is really neat.”) to Space Walk (“It really is dark out here.”) I took off on something that was bigger and closer than I had thought. Got to my feet but went over the falls anyway.
Like I said, no waves of consequence. But there were a few, caught well after dark, that seemed to have something to say about feel. The board scooted like a water strider on the glassy surface, and a couple waves gave that quick lift that said Get on your feet. They were smallish, and I pulled the trombone down the line while staying in a crouch. That sliver of moonlight and the streetlights on West Cliff threw enough photons out here that I could see the wave standing up down the line, in that algebraic curve that relaxes as you look along it. The first time, I tried to stay on the highline, not realizing the wave was going to back away and I came off the back. The second time, I leaned it back down the face. The feel of the rail biting silently into the water was something I need to remember for the daytime.
16 October 2012 aka 274 – Indicators – chest to head high (overhead at Middle Peak)
Great conditions, but the secret was out. These sunny fall minus-tide evenings bring everyone out as the waves break all the way down through Indicators, past the statue, and then another peak forms and rounds the corner into Cowells. People scattered along the shoulder like tomatoes that fell off a produce truck along the highway.
About a half hour after I got in I made up my mind to get out. At one point I was paddling for the shoulder to get out of the way of a lined-up wave that had two guys on it. I could barely get my arms in the water because of how close the other surfers were, doing the same thing. A middle-aged guy on a longboard dropped in on a middle-aged guy on a beefy hybrid, and they surfed the wave like they were from New Jersey, yelling back and forth at each other and waving their arms in the air. A guy took off on a longboard and nearly wiped out on top of one of the schoolkids surfing inside. Unfortunately for the longboarder it was Cole, the little blond kid whose dad is a fierce (and now protective) Westsider with fu manchu, close-shaven head, and neck tattoos. He hauled the guy over and told him to get out of the water… and the guy started to argue with him. Actually I give credit to the dad for trying to sound reasonable, “Yes, everyone has a right to surf out here. Except you have to know what you’re doing. You’re making it dangerous for other people.” The guy said, “I know how to surf. I just couldn’t help it that time.” The dad said, “You’re not getting the point here.” By then I was past them. A young guy on a softtop was somehow scoring set waves, but he couldn’t really stand up—jumped to his knees while dropping in on a head-high wave and then trying to wobble to his feet in the trough. Somebody was out wearing flippers and something that looked like an inflatable mattress. I took off on a wave and a few seconds later somebody’s longboard hit me from behind; he had taken off way late and wiped out immediately. Waves had 3, 4 people on them, one guy in position, a longboarder drops in on him and makes the bottom turn so he’s out in front, then both get taken out by a third longboarder who just drops in straight and barely gets to his feet before they go down like bowling pins.
I figured after a weekend in Yosemite it would be good enough just to get in the water and get back out. One wave in ought to do it. But then I got caught in the wretched battle for one wave that happens in crowded low-tide Lane. Kelp lay just under the surface like great piles of rigging on a ship’s deck and grabbed at boards, leashes, ankles, arms. I took off on a couple of waves only to feel the light offshores spray saltwater in my eyes and push up under the bottom of the trombone to back me off the wave. Then I was out of position, paddling around the ringer sets as people from up the cliff came past, or sneaking inside for any little scrap I could take home. Caught one or two but they were so unsatisfying I decided against my better judgment not to go in. Or ended up off balance and flailing, like when I tried to carve a turn with my back foot, forgetting I was standing past the middle of the board trying to make the most of a sluggish section. Turn around and see a wave, or a set, coming through right where you had been sitting before you decided to go for the scrap, and all these undeserving plonkers sitting in the perfect spot. The unfairness of being inside on a set is you can stare right at the perfect take-off spot, but you can’t get there while you’re ducking the incoming waves. Meaning that the moment you get outside and into position always coincides with the last wave of the set.
That’s how I spent a couple of hours paddling back and forth and straining my neck. A solid wall loomed at me and I needed to get under it. I was in a mass of kelp, just tied down from every angle, so I pushed the nose under as best I could, held on to the fronds, and the whitewater swept on past as the kelp stretched like bungee. I got more and more annoyed as I was perpetually out of position, and I knew I was doing the wrong thing: waiting for a redemption wave. More often than not, it never comes. I had chatted with a skinny guy on a red longboard early on. He thought he recognized me from the Eastside. “Don’t you take your girlfriend’s kids surfing some days?” I said, “There I go, thinking I’m an individual when I’m just a carbon copy.” And he said, “Oh yeah, everybody’s an individual out here.” I told him I was just looking for a wave in out of the madness. An hour later he saw me again and teased me for still being out—that’s how pointless my day had become.
Seemed like there was always one more person who was in position before me on the last few straggling waves of a set. A girl on a yellow longboard had looked intimidated in the thick of the crowd, so as one wall peaked up toward the two of us I just looked at her and let her go. She took off on it and disappeared. I was still waiting for a wave when she came back. Another wall veered toward us and she calmly paddled into position and took off on it. That kind of thing. Finally I was caught inside for the 14th time and paddling to get around the shoulder. People were scrambling for the wave but most of the people up the line were kind of unsure of themselves and they pulled back from the lip. The wave peeled past them and into a clear section, and the next person it was going to hit was me. I was still too far inside but already put out enough that I wasn’t going to let it pass. Four, five paddles toward the shoulder and then a turn—not even time enough to look back toward shore, just one more paddle stroke and push up into an angled drop on the steep section. Turns out, it was the redeemer. The trombone sprang into action. My back foot sank into the bottom turn and the board rebounded up onto a wide, clear face, came around at the top and carved fully around into the white water. I looked down the line and headed into a couple of smooth pumps along the mid face. I didn’t notice anyone as I went past.
Picked my way across seaweed and anemones over 50 meters of exposed reef and then up the dry stairs by the statue. Rode home round the lighthouse and into the clear tangerine blue of the sunset.
11 October 2012 aka 279 – Middle Peak/Indicators – head to head and a half
A clean westish swell marched over Middle Peak and the tide was low enough to keep it going through Indicators. Light rain pricked the flat gray surface of the Lane, the only texture was the feathery piles of kelp and pelicans disappeared into the gray air outside like dotted lines getting erased. I hadn’t even finished paddling out before a chest high line snuck in past the crowd and picked me out. So I wheeled and went with it: number one in a string of back to back to back to back 250 yard rides. It was ridiculously clean out, and I was pretty much the first person to figure out Indicators was breaking on wholly different sets from Middle Peak. The pack was pretty lining up at all the possible size ranges of Middle Peak, but waves kept swinging around it and then lining up in long Indicator walls and somehow I was just completely on it. The trombone paddles so well on this calm water and it feels alive under my feet, snapping around on top turns and carving 180s fully around with face enough left over to regain speed on the bottom turn. I rode one of those waves all the way through Indicators and past the statue and ended up just standing flat footed in the middle of the board as the wave, once head high, trickled out of juice at 6 inches. I dropped off the board, stuck my head underwater and yelled at the top of my lungs, because it was so good. I got out and walked back up the road to the lighthouse stairs and got in again. As I was paddling out, another Indicators wave zeroed in on me just like the last time. 30 guys out and the waves were coming to me. Paddling back up the cliffs took so long that I had to splash water on my face afterward just to cool off. Today, all by itself, pretty much made the whole drive across the country worth it.
10 October 2012 aka 278 – Middle Peak – chest high to barely overhead
Surgical strike during lunch hour. Took the trombone down to the Lane, where the water was calm and a middling West swell was shaking up Middle Peak, breaking outside, breaking toward the Slot, breaking toward Indicators. Given the fairly thin crowd of longboarders and shortboarders with no takeoff spot to camp out on, it was perfect for picking off untended, wandering peaks. The trombone continues to paddle with vigor and display two frames of mind: it loves to go down the line with its rider up at the middle of the board; but the pintail and the little side fins love to carve from the back.
A couple guys were talking about the disappointing showing of the swell so far. This was after all, the swell that sent Pipeline triple overhead yesterday. “It’ll get better though,” one guy said, “just watch.”
A set of smooth, overhead A-frames came right down the throat of Middle Peak and the pack tightened up a bit. But the next set showed a tendency to drift wide and break farther inside. I paddled over, prospecting, and sure enough, here comes a nice long wall just going from silver to blue as it got steep. I took the drop and straightened out around a guy still paddling out, then gave a lean on the pintail and carved back for the face. The smooth hump of the shoulder dropped back into view from my upper right peripheral vision. One of the jaded teenagers paddling out actually hooted as I cut back somewhere around the top third of the face. After that it offered everything: straight, steep sections I took on the high line leading into cutbacks around slower shoulders. Took it all the way down to the statue and got out. Chatted about fishing with a monolithic Samoan who had parked himself on the steps and was just staring straight up along his pole. The fish weren’t biting yet, he said, but it was going to get better.
7 October 2012 aka 281 – Ocean Beach – chest to head high
I had no expectations when I went out, and at least I wasn’t disappointed. OB has the mystifying ability to take regular smallish waves and make them extremely nasty. The currents go in every direction at once and the sandbars snake around out of sight beneath you so you never know when you’re past them. I must have duck dived a dozen crappy little waves before I got out far enough to duck dive the large ones. I posted up in between the two big windmills along the Great Highway and determined I was being swept south and started paddling to stay in place. Then the water around me turned all choppy and whitecappy and I realized I was at some rip current interface that had started sweeping me way outside. Turned around and paddled back in toward the breaking waves.
Went for a couple small ones and then inevitably took one of the bigger ones on the head. OB waves have this ability to pass over you, break behind you, then reach back and pull you back over just before you come up from your duck dive. They’re like those beater cylinders on the front of a vacuum cleaner perpetually smacking directly against the sandbar. I sat back up on my board in the roiled water, and a dark layer of sand settled out on my board.
A dark gray fin loomed out of the water next to the surfers in the main peak. And another. And two more. Four dolphins had found something in the sand. They spent a few minutes diving down to get it. Then they eased down the lineup, passing within about 30 feet of me. An outside set broke and I figured, I’ve done my time. I bellied it in to ankle deep water and went to go see Dwight. Wave count: zero.
5 October 2012 aka 283 – Pomponio – shoulder high
On the way up to San Francisco for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Kite surfers at Waddell, sun going down behind Pillar Point lighthouse, and then into the glassy bubble of Pescadero. For some reason there’s often a respite here from the NW winds that ravage the rest of the coast. With thin clouds across the sky and the tiniest crinkle of wind, the ocean surface was so silver and flat it was like you could lie down on it and dangle your arm over the horizon.
Pomponio was as good, in the sense of forgiving, as I have ever seen it, owing to the south swell angle which meant the waves eased onto the sandbars instead of smacking straight on them. The peaks stood up early and hung that way, and then just the tops curled over. I got in for less than an hour as the sun was setting and the light draining away and a bunch of kids and adults were playing sand football under the massive buffy mudstone cliffs and Mea sat in a Crazy Creek chair and called her mom. My last wave I rode left a ways and then straightened out into the whitewater. Waves were rolling up the steep part of the beach and bouncing back out to sea over the sandbar, giving you something to ollie over on the way in.
4 October 2012 aka 284 – Waddell Beach – waist to head high
The fabled evening glass-off. I bided my time on the second peak and got into closeout after closeout, only slightly less late than in previous days. I stayed out longer than I meant to, as the sun slid down behind thin clouds and the sea went from blinding silver to slate dappled by a barely existent wind. When seven of the 12 guys on the main peak had gone home, I shifted over there and bobbled the takeoff on one beautiful left shoulder. Took leftovers on in. There was a channel of trapped water high on the beach and beyond that, a young dead common murre with its heart pecked out by a gull.
2 October 2012 aka 286 – Middle Peak – waist to belly high (head high at the Point)
It was 93 degrees in Santa Cruz today. There was a girl out on a longboard wearing a neoprene shirt and bikini bottoms. People walking along West Cliff wearing an unbelievable number of skimpy outfits. An old guy in a wetsuit with grizzled long hair explaining how a leash works to two Mexican fishermen on the cliffs. People riding bikes with surfboards under their arms. A Tropical Kingbird reported from the park behind the lighthouse.
Day four of this pumping south swell. Tide going low. Fifty guys out. And I got three waves in less than an hour?
There was just enough west in the swell that a few of the wideswinging sets would drift over from the Slot and get captured by Middle Peak. I was there just as the tide was getting low enough for the waves to break, and only a couple of the good surfers had figured it out yet. At first I was actually too far inside, and I had to let the wave break on my back, belly into the trough, and pop up. Ugly, but effective.
I was in among the longboarders, but only a couple were paying attention to positioning. They got into the first couple waves of each set, but then there was another peaking at me. My third wave I picked out the corner of the approaching peak, paddled out to it, then spun the board and took off in the pocket, all alone. As I popped up my leash slipped between the toes of my front foot and I took the drop and the next two turns hobbled, feet too close together. Hit the face and reached down to pull the leash free. And then the wave just kept going. Dwindling down to butt high, thigh high, knee high, but always offering up the same steep but not too steep sections. The trombone is super stable and I crept up to midway along the board and fluttered it through the soft sections, past the fishermen with their fishing lines cast carelessly into the waves, past the previous longboarder, who had milked his ride almost to the culvert. I took that inauspicious Middle Peak dribbler all the way to the statue and then I laid in the water for a minute, letting my head cool off. I knew it wasn’t going to get any better than that. So I climbed the steps and went home. Everything else seemed smaller.
1 October 2012 aka 287 – Waddell beach – still a bit overhead
In my continuing quest to improve my paddle-in speed, I gave Waddell another chance to kick my ass and it did not look the other way. I scampered out for a long lunch break to take advantage of calm winds, pumping south swell, and midday crowd relief. All but the last one panned out—there were 15 guys sitting on the main A-frame peak and I relegated myself to the next one over, a broader, less peeling right. The last thing I need to be doing in overhead beach break is figuring out whether the guy next to me is really going.
Not that it looked like overhead surf while I was getting dressed. The only sign of the size was the fact that the entire pack was sitting well outside of the impact zone, lolling around on their boards and clearly waiting for something larger.
Soon after getting out I made my way into an early drop, the board rolling with the hump of the wave and me on my feet with enough time to push into the steepening section. Then a bunch of rejections. Finally I paddled nice and early into a left that was opening onto a shoulder. Here’s what I had been waiting for. I launched to my feet, body already leaning to attack the wall, toes curled into the wax, fixed on getting the board cranked around. It’s called being too facking eager, in the words of Juliette Lewis. You need to do these things with the calm speed of muscle memory, not the spastic lunges of anticipation. I went straight off the other side of the board and the wave peeled on without me.
When you make stupid mistakes like that, the ocean never fails to take notice and then underline the point.
Here came the real sets. Not just the set of the day. Three sets of the day ground through while I was inside. At least one head-and-a-half size wave per set. A couple of tweeners in each short lull—enough to get almost back outside before the race to the horizon started again.
Fifteen walls of whitewater to duck under. About halfway through I surfaced and realized the next wave I had to duck was one of the tweeners—that’s how far I had been pushed back in.
When these big waves break, it’s like boulders of whitewater start tumbling down the face. Big cauliflower ears rumbling down, and when they hit the water surface, they don’t just spread out on the surface like cake batter. You duck under the advancing front as deep as you can with as much forward speed as your spent arms can give you, grab a breath, and when you’re as deep as you can go you stick your foot in the middle of the board and give it a kick. The idea is the back of the wave will sweep you upward and the board will act like a hook and keep you from getting dragged backward.
At that deepest point, the chunks of whitewater twisted me upside down. Board above me, whitewater still crashing down, punched the board right out of my hands and followed through to crack me square on the head with it. I felt my neck vertebrae compress and a shock carried down my back. But that wasn’t enough of a lesson, and there was an even bigger set wave bearing down when I got back up to the surface. I didn’t even grab my board. I just tried to get under the wave. The whitewater grabbed the 8-ball and ran with it, and I felt the water sweeping past me as I got dragged with it. I just held my breath and tried to relax. Whitewater has a lot of air in it and it goes in every direction, so it’s really hard to swim in. Eventually, I knew, my wetsuit would bring me to the surface. In the meantime, I tried to swallow and pretend that was breathing.
So yeah, I was pissed when that was all over. I guess everyone has a sense of the perversity of the world, how sometimes it seems like it can be only actual malice that is preventing you from catching a break. With surfing the contrast seems especially sharp. The beautiful ocean, the shimmering sun, the ease of a caught wave and an open face, the smoothness of a bottom turn or a cutback, the freedom of it all, of harnessing the discarded power of an idle sun to make something beautiful. But yeah. There’s nothing like being reminded of the remorseless, uncaring power of a very large ocean. Not just being reminded, but having your face ground in it.
I eased inside and caught one of the tweeners and a small amount of left opened up for me. I drove into the closeout and then straightened out for the beach. I had been out exactly an hour.
29 September 2012 aka 289 – Waddell beach – head high to a teeny bit bigger
There were 20 guys out by 8:15 and I sat in the car and watched the show for 20 minutes before I decided I better give it a go. Sore arms, simmering frustration from paddling failures, deep-seated crowd aversion, and all those over-the-falls memories from Waddell in years past. But the conditions were just too good to ignore.
Dead calm, the water all silvery blue as tendrils of fog snaked up from Scott Creek into the clear blue over Waddell. Año Nuevo point all golden yellow in the sun. Big, super clean lines welling up out of the middle distance into two peaks, one of them A-framing as the small south swell clipped the larger northwest swell into right-hand shoulders. I suited up in the toasty and leak-free Rip Curl wetsuit from 2007. Much warmer than my old Hotline; it leaks right under the buttbones which means your warmest parts get flushed with new cold water every time you sit up on your board.
Got the 8-ball outside with just two duck dives and sooner or later surprised myself by getting into a wave and making the drop before it closed out. It was still hard to get into shoulders. The tide was coming up and that meant the peak kept moving inshore. I tend to sit too far outside because of my aversion to late drops. But if you’re consistently not getting in, you need to move inside. It was a good reminder: try to take off from the peak. People on the main (A-frame) peak were getting beautiful rides with long peeling sections, big mid-face cutbacks. Eventually I got into a few nice and early—early enough to get up, step on the gas, and slice down into the steep part of the wave as it formed. I still don’t have the 8-ball wired quite yet, finding myself pumping rather than finding the longer curves that will get me down the line carrying speed. But on the last wave I did tuck into the curling section for a brief sprint before coming out into the flats. So progress.
The conditions were so good that surfers were actually standing around in the parking lot talking to strangers. One guy said to me “I saw you get a couple nice rides out there.” Another guy said “Epic.” It was full high tide by the time I left. The waves were washing up the incline and over into the back beach, scattering clumps of seaweed across the sand. They laid there in the sun like the pompons of drowned cheerleaders. By the time I got back to Scott Creek, the fog was wrapped in thick again. Driving the road was like traveling in a dream where only the things close to you have any detail, and you could be going anywhere.
28 September 2012 aka 290 – Threemile – chest high to a little overhead
It was bad in pretty much all the ways Threemile can be bad. Well, I guess I wasn’t washed onto the split rock and the car wasn’t broken into when I got back, so it wasn’t quite all the ways. But it was the same inconsistent Threemile where the wave feels the corner of the reef, stands up, and then doesn’t break. The reef must be a jagged mess of boulders strewn down into the cove though, because there are boils all over and as a result the waves peak up almost at random. The only place it’s consistent is over toward the dry reef, where you never know quite how shallow the water is going to be. You inevitably get pulled over that way out of desperation, and despite all the other folks easing into beautiful shoulders, by the time a set wave tracks me down it’s doing that other freakish Threemile thing. The wave stands up early and the top flips like a palm tree in a gust of wind, and suddenly there’s no face below you. That happened to me on one of those slightly overhead sets. I kicked the board out from under me and started to fall, turned over on my back, and then caught up to the board. The rail whacked me right in the butt-cheek and then I was in the roiling water and thinking again about the rocky bottom and the guy we’d seen on the way in. He was walking out with a puffy right eye and a clean slice across the cheekbone, still bleeding.
It’s clear that I’m in the right ballpark of paddling fitness, but my technique is not any better than it used to be—I lack the paddling speed that surfers somehow manage, and I don’t have a knack for predicting the right positioning as the wave comes in. It means I have to get ready for late takeoffs when the number one key to good surfing is getting in early, before things get critical. At a place like Threemile it’s especially obvious because the wave has such little power until right before it nudges up against the reef.
Out of stubbornness I stayed out there late, with Mea reading her lobster book or watching sparrows on the shore, waiting to have an artichoke and a beer on the cliff when I got out. Even with all the aggravation, it was pretty out there. The light wind slightly offshore, dappling the ocean surface, the kelp sitting way outside, halfway to a moody blue overcast horizon. There was no sunset today, just a blue-gray that gradually dimmed into dusk. The water was clear and green as reptile eyes.
31 August 2012 aka 318 – Scotts Beach – about thigh high
Town flatness driving me to desperation, I took off up to Scott’s beach and found some ungainly windswell staggering onto the beaches. A huge flock of gulls, cormorants, and pelicans had collected on the north end of the beach, by the reef break, and I went south. Getting in by yourself at Scott’s in the gray morning is always a little unsettling, what with the beach hazards sign that has a dorsal fin icon next to the more usual broken glass and strong currents graphics.
I waded in to my knees and the waist high waves stood up in the deep water and prepared to crash at me. A great frothing at the surface offshore caught my eye, something angular rolling over and back into the sea. It was just the aftermath of a pelican diving. I pushed my board over the broken back of a wave and jumped on it. A seal surfaced not ten feet away, black and grey head glistening, big dog eyes staring, nostrils puffing open. As I sat and sized up the waves, which stood up, slackened enough to drop you off the back, crested, backed off, and then finally crashed into the sand, this seal and another kept swimming up beside me, or behind me, and looking at me like “what the fuck are you even doing here?” Like, getting-tangled-up-in-my-leash close to me. I discovered that the waves were peaking around a submerged reef, and my feet swirled in the seagrass that grew in it when I was just a little too far inside.
Brandt’s Cormorants were cruising by just outside, and one of the flocks had a shearwater with it. Was I seeing that right? But yes, shearwaters were cruising by ones and twos just 50 meters or so outside. A big ruckus was happening just inside of the main Scott’s break, on the other end of the beach. Pelicans dropped into the water and western gulls flew by in twos with their chests inflated, proclaiming in unison some kind of dual ownership over the rivermouth. I caught a couple waves, much to my surprise. It was easier than it looked. A big wall would build and you could catch it with the first push as it broke. Then it would back off and you had a couple seconds of rumbling face to work with before you needed to come off the back.
The baitball must have moved down the beach. Paddling back out, I was briefly enveloped in the feeding flock: hundreds of sooty brown juvenile Heermans gulls reeling around and pointing their red bills at the water. Snaky necks of Brandt’s cormorants surfacing unexpectedly like prairie dogs coming out of burrows. Brown pelicans schooning around like tall-masted ships. RIght in front of me, a Pacific loon in a neat brown business suit. Walking back across the beach the sand was scalloped by the wind and unbroken by footsteps except mine from the way out. The water was still fogged over, and a peregrine appeared out of the grayness and flew steadily inland, toward slopes and valley oaks lit up by the strong California sun. That’s all I remember.
27 August 2012 aka 322 – the Lane – flat and high tide
This was purely a paddling exercise. A Romanian fisherman on the steps below the statue threw his hook into the water with a couple of squid dangling from it. “I just had one,” he told me. “It was this big! It swam under the rocks and got tangled up though. I couldn’t get it out.” At the bottom of the stairs the water was fully chest deep, as deep as I’d ever seen it. Brown suds floated back and forth and the current pushed me up toward the cliff. Paddling out to the point I saw set waves coming in, each about 10 inches or a foot in height, their faces going silver against the clean blue water. Looking over a close wave, your eyes just inches above the water, it’s impossible to judge the height of the next one. You can’t tell how far away it is, and you can’t see anything but sky behind it, and you get excited about how big it might be. Then you realize how close it is. This has to be the same thing that gets possums killed on highways. There was a bit of a southwest breeze sending chop in from the bay, and little waves were actually breaking on the outer edge of the kelp beds. I paddled out there and then skirted the kelp all the way back toward Cowells. Stopping occasionally to sink into the water and let the cold Pacific wash into the neck of my wetsuit.
22 August 2012 aka 327 – the Lane – knee to waist high
It was so close to being flat that almost no one was out. Both numbers got small enough in the wave size to crowd ratio that it made sense to go out. Two teen girls on longboards were interspersing inane chatter with catching micro waves, but up at the point the very occasional set would come through angled just right to peak at the slot and then peel all the way through the inside. Small, sure, but better than a lot of the leftovers you get on bigger days. As a few more people realized this and the crowd grew to about 15, way more than the swell could handle, I appraised the competition and stuck to my spot at the top. A guy on a long pointy hybrid didn’t know what he was doing, found himself sprawled and motionless on his board as a wave I was on came right at him. I delayed a bottom turn to go around him and later he apologized. I told him don’t worry about it, but then he did the same thing to an intense shortboarder in a hood and everything, and he got chewed out. I felt bad for him. He started talking to his girlfriend up on the cliff: “I think I’m going to get out soon.” I just winced. Later, I had my chance to kook out: a set wave peaked up right over the closeout spot and the lip thrust me out over the face. I went over the falls, too startled to do anything but bail, right in front of anyone who might have been watching, in the worst style imaginable. I caught the next set wave and it did the same thing, but I stood up and made a stuttering drop onto the face. It was only a belly high wave, so it didn’t erase the ugliness of the last one. On the way back, I drove down West Cliff into the sun and the backlit cypresses.
21 August 2012 aka 328 – the Lane – flat to chest high
It’s been so flat that I rode down to the beach without a leash to paddle into the kelp and back. Little ropes of swell swung across the kelp and nudged the cliff. I ended up at the Point anyway and caught a few little waves as they wedged off the cliff. A 10-year-old coached another 10-year-old through the process of tiptoeing, ledge to ledge, down the vertical cliff, then jumping the last 12 feet. A teenager was catching waves right at the peak. He was a terrible surfer despite the nonchalant baseball cap he was wearing, but had his paddle-ins and pop-ups dialed—usually when you can’t really make a cutback you can’t catch a wave either. He was on a long hybrid and got into almost everything.
A rastafarian paddled out on a black-banded longboard, his dreads tucked into an oversize neoprene hood, and disappeared out the back. A couple waist-high waves rolled through empty and I caught them late with the rest of the pack paddling back out toward me. The Princess’s sharp tail bites into the wave face with just a quick yank on the downhill rail, and I had a couple deft dodges (me dodging them for once). My rhythm was off without the leash, trying to stay half-ready to grab the board.
Eventually some walls came through, two sets in a row that caught most everyone inside. Each time the rastafarian was in early, carving nicely down the line and pulling off the back when he hit the mushy section at the slot. At the outer edge of the kelp, another five thousand sooty shearwaters were streaming past.
19 August 2012 aka 330 – Waddell Beach – waist high, dumpy
Checked Davenport on the way up. A crew of aging longboarders were suiting up in the parking lot, led by a loud gray-haired guy with a gravelly voice wearing a tan shirt. He talked to no one and everyone at the same time: “There ain’t gonna be no waves out there for anybody cept me and Stumpy. Ah ha ha ha ha. You might as well just keep on going up to Waddell.” From the rise, a pretty little right was peeling across the bay, about knee high. The shirted dude was narrating as somebody’s terrier mix took a dump on the sand. I kept going up to Waddell. There were 7 guys out at the best peak again, soon to be 15. Davenport was fogged over but it was clear here, the sun warm on the back of my wetsuit as cold water sloshed around inside. The waves were few and far between, not to mention walled up, slow, and eventually flopping into the shallow water like a fratboy at the end of a pub crawl. One guy on an orange longboard with no rocker was getting in ridiculously early, letting the board coast before the peak had even stood up, and then getting long rides along what would eventually close out on the rest of us. I heard a new piping cry coming over the water and looked up to see three whimbrels. On the way home I turned the heater on.
14 August 2012 – aka 335 – Waddell Beach – waist high
Thin fog covered the beach and the wind was still. The water surface was smooth and shiny as the mercury in a thermometer. Waves crept toward the beach and broke in knee-high riffles, or otherwise, a set rolled through with big silvery lines. A break in the sandbar was marked by sluggish A-frames breaking at one and only one spot. It was 8 a.m., and there were 10 guys sitting on it. I was on the Flying 8-Ball and parked myself about 50 m down from them. Picked off little lefts at the end of the closeout.
The water was gray-white and it faded into a white-gray sky. My bright-red Golf was barely visible back on shore. About 20 minutes in, the sky lightened and a blush of blue showed through. And then abruptly everything went darker, except it was still white, just a darker white. And, somehow, swirling. It was like when you get up suddenly and your vision starts to drop out. If it weren’t for the direction of the swell it would’ve been easy to forget which direction the beach was in.
I got three waves on the 8-ball, the takeoffs almost too slow to happen and the drops easy because of the waves’ half-hearted approach. It was hard to keep it going down the line with so little face to work with, and less momentum than the Princess keeps. On the way back home, I counted 14 cars at the Waddell reef.
13 August 2012 – aka 336 – Steamer Lane – hairstyle high
I’m thinking of inventing the term “hairstyle high” when you want to say the surf was overhead but don’t want people to think you’re exaggerating. There was new swell today and some bombs came in that you would definitely need some serious product to keep the lips beneath your hairstyle. At 2:30 there were only about 15 guys out, but that number soon came up to 30, with some surfers jumping right off the top of the cliff by the railings and right into the backs of set waves. A photographer was in the water and some of the guys were pulling 360 airs right over the top of him. If they weren’t doing that they were putting their boards hard on rail and carving back to the cliff at full speed. One kid in a gray-and-red wetsuit got carried away with his turbo carve and went straight for the cliff, bailing at the last minute as the whitewater smeared on the cliff face.
Again, most of the swell aimed straight at the lighthouse. Walls would form up out to sea and immediately begin to warp to the right, so at first they stared straight down the cliffs but shifted some 30 degrees by the time they arrived. It was the kind of day when nobody is going to give you a wave and you get caught drifting inside for small waves you can’t quite catch and then hustling outside to get out of people’s way for the set waves. Up toward the point there were plenty of poor surfers among the really good ones—a woman on a hefty shortboard who caught a lot of waves but then wobbled to her feet and eased down the line; a latino guy who blustered onto shoulders and then made stiff zigzags on the face without ever dropping in or cutting back; a couple of indeterminate young shortboarders who jockeyed for position but then ate it on their first drop.
I tried to be content with the thigh-highers that very occasionally came through the inside. Even these offered something to focus on, and if the tide had been a foot lower there’d have been plenty of them to work with. Where I was catching them was inside of where the peak was forming. The wave is little and the board is moving slowly, so it took a couple of quick carves to get the speed to backdoor the new peak. If I made it then there’d be a little short section of wall and then a nice chance to S-turn it back to the white water and back up to the shoulder. The Princess was sweet and responsive. It wasn’t a head-high face, but it was something to come home on. Two guys were sitting on the rip-rap below the stairs with a beach umbrella and a glass bong about 10 inches tall. Back on the cliff, a 30-year-old woman in a ponytail and fitness shorts walked past saying into her phone “I just feel like I need to do this for myself.” The surf photographer was out of the water and out of his wetsuit by now. He was standing at the railing in his tighty stripeys and nothing else, talking to his buddy and looking out to sea.
12 August 2012 aka 337 – Steamer Lane – waist to shoulder high
Snuck out of the house at a little after 7:00 to see if the new south swell was sticking around. Out on the bay the fog and the water merged in a thin gray-whiteness. Kelp fronds darkened the surface like the faded pattern on a piece of old porcelain. Tight flocks of sandpipers veered around the point, the first I’ve seen yet. I got only two waves of consequence. They came early as I posted just off the cliff, well behind where the pack sites for the real set waves, but just inside of the shallow spot in the reef. Here the waves that wrap around the point sometimes close out and then begin to peel again, making a natural take-off point. Occasionally, a wide-swinger misses the main take-off point entirely, and that’s what my second wave was like, a nice smooth chest-high peak giving way to plenty of shoulder. After a promising start, the wide-swingers switched off abruptly and I ended up watching a lot of guys surf and then taking a dribbler in.
Up on the cliff a guy with no upper teeth was pedaling a bike with a cardboard box of possessions balanced on the back. “Hey man, can you hang 5?” he said, drawing out the “five” like it was his favorite number of all time. “That’s the real shit. Longboarding.” He winked at me. “You know what? I been to Hawaii. They got some real longboarders there. They got some people who can hang 10.”
Riding back along Lighthouse Field I saw a woman putting out pans of water for the feral cats. At least 10 cats had already gathered and she wasn’t finished setting up yet. The weird thing was I don’t think she lived there. She was getting all her gear out of a car parked at the curb, and setting up in somebody’s yard.
6 August 2012 aka 343 – Steamer Lane – waist high and very very inconsistent
The hotter the air is, the colder the water feels. There was a 2 foot 19 second swell in the water, but it was so inconsistent and the tide so high that it might as well have been flat. I paddled out to inspect the kelp beds and a kayaker passed by. Just about a foot higher than me and completely dry, she was boiling hot and said she wished she could trade places.
Occasional sets would rise up and smack off the point, their long ruler-straight lines reflected in curves back out to sea, like the icon of a wi-fi signal. To catch waves at high tide you have to be right next to the cliff, where the wave has no choice but to wedge upward into something that will break. A guy on a soft top was cutting it a little close. The wave exploded against the cliff and snapped his board in half. I paddled over to see if he was okay. “There’s an air pocket that forms under the cliff so you almost never hit the rock,” he said. “It’s just the board that gets it.” He splinted the board shut with a piece of driftwood and paddled in.
A group of kids came out next—a couple of 10 year olds and a few preteen and teenage girls. One 58-pound boy with yellow hair and white sunscreen smeared across his face was on his dad’s longboard. He could catch anything. In fact he could catch nothing—popping up on his board on the flatwater and practicing his switchfoot stance. A couple of teen girls had just got back from some surf expo in Huntington Beach. They were good longboarders and mercilessly paddled in front of me, with that sureness that comes from being born at this break and taught from day one to ignore anyone you don’t recognize. In between they gossiped about one of the hot surfers from Huntington.
Girl 1: So he texts me and he’s like ‘You’re hot. Let’s hook up.
Girl 2: Rilly?
Girl 1: I’m like, ‘Don’t you have a girlfriend?’ And he’s like ‘No or whatever.’ So I said ‘OK so you’re a manwhore.’ Basically he just wasn’t smooth. He’s like ‘You think I’m sexy,’ but I guess that means more like, ‘Do you think I’m sexy?’
Girl 2: You know the whole cliff can hear us.
Where I was sitting, about 20 feet off the cliff, there’s a pedestal of rock that’s just below the surface on a mid tide. A purple starfish was clinging to it and peeking up through the clear water past a wave of bright green seaweed. The small waves don’t break there and the large ones all have riders on them. I caught something tiny on my belly and paddled back to the statue. At least my arms felt good.
3 August 2012 aka 346 – Steamer Lane – head high at the Point, where I wasn’t
It’s a rare thing to get caught inside at the Lane in summertime, but I managed it today. A new south swell was hitting the point and I knew it was foolish to go out there on a Friday evening and hope to get anything at all. But once you paddle out, intending to paddle back in again, you always linger and think of what might come your way. The sets were trained on the point, slamming into that deep notch eating its way toward the lighthouse. Every so often one would swing toward the Slot and smush around the cliff. But the only things swinging any wider than that were the bombs lining up from the Point, people taking off deep making it around the semi-closeout section, and slashing a couple of top turns. One guy hit a 360 air on a head-high section, which is not something you see at the Lane all that much. I was in the perpetual never-land, wanting to stay away from the crowd of 25 surfers jockeying at the point, but nothing was making it through; other swells have occasional waves that swing wide and form up somewhere inside of Middle Peak, especially as the tide drops as it was doing this evening. The wind was howling over the cliffs and I actually got chilled as I waited. Pigeon guillemots were catching little triangular fish, some kind of rockfish or sculpin, one bright red and another as variegated and brown as f feather boa kelp. Guys on shortboards milked the mushy sections and hit the steep sections hard, though only one or two were linking carves. The others were overdriving each turn and wobbling in the middle, trying too hard. A couple up at the front were total dweebs, fighting for waves and then going head over heels on the drop. A longboarder in a hood was dropping in on freaking everybody, he seemed to think it was okay if he just eased over and off the shoulder as they got close. I thought if plonkers like them are up at the peak then why shouldn’t I, but in the end I just don’t want to be clutter. So I tried to sneak in and pick off the smaller walls as they came around the cliff, which is of course when a cleaner set came through and I had to paddle for Moss Landing to get out of the way. I did get one wave that included some kind of bottom turn and a section; and another one afterward that I’d promised to try cross-stepping on. The board came out from under me immediately. And that was the last wave of the day.
1 August 2012 aka 347 – Steamer Lane – about belly high every once in a while
Spent 2 of the last 3 days paddling the Princess without a leash, exploring the kelp, sneaking up on Snowy Egrets, and trying to get some strength in my arms. This morning I snuck out from 8 to 9 to see if the south swell and the low tide were working well together. It was foggy, gray, and the kelp lay on the surface like a giant doormat. But on days like this it’s always warmer in the water than out of it. At the point there were 5 other guys in the water, a couple of them taking lefts inside the notch. There was a black, deaf dude on a shortboard next to me, about as minority as you can get in surfing, and he kept up a constant string of silent conversation, signing to himself and occasionally looking over at me. A trio of Elegant Terns came winging by, one with a big floppy fish with a forked tail like a Starfleet emblem hanging out of its bill. Pigeon Guillemots paddled around with big flat things in their bills, looked like already-fileted anchovies. There wasn’t a scrap of wind and the gray water was smooth as a sheet. It was flat, flat, flat but I had seen the sets coming through the night before and so I figured there was some south out there somewhere, making its way up from New Zealand. Sure enough a couple of walls came through. I watched the shortboarders get’em and then I paddled into position, and luckily enough there was one more wave to the set. The hiss of the board as it started down the wave, and then the sight of the shoulder stretching out. I notched the Princess into the pocket, cut it around as the section slowed down, and then found another steep section. Paddled back to the top and damned if the whole thing didn’t happen again. A set wobbled through, the first indefinite frontrunners throwing all their weight into the cliff, then the first and second proper waves, picked off by shortboarders, and then I held my breath. At the edge of the fog, the kelp lifts, the hint of a wall. It nears and stands up more, a lump of water with a vague impulse for shore, groomed by the rocky bottom and unperturbed by the calm air. I’m in almost without trying and it’s a better wave than the last; I remember the timing from the last one, and make an extra section, crouching slightly as the wave curls on my backside. It went on like that for, like, seconds.
29 July 2012 aka 350 – Steamer Lane – light offshore and about thigh-high on the sets
I pedaled down to the cliffs with the Princess on the newly installed bike rack. The rather tubby Princess at a thick 8’0″ definitely maxing out the capabilities of the little seat-post-mounted rack. Strong NW winds eddied over the point and worried at the blue water on the leeward side, making it twinkle and pushing the kelp just a little out to sea. A girl riding bikes with her boyfriend stopped at the railing to look at sea otters. She said, “If I lived here, I’d go out there every day.” I chained the bike up near the statue, tucked my ring into the key pouch on my ankle and folded over the neoprene an extra time. Paddled all the way up to the point keeping my feet together. Didn’t stop until I was up at the cliffs, which is a moderately encouraging sign. There were no actual surfers up there—it was more like take your foreign relatives surfing day. People took turns taking off right next to the cliff, so close they were still in its shadow, and at 2 p.m. that’s not a huge shadow. One old guy with white hair on a big longboard was taking whatever he could get. A very vocal guy in his 20s on a softtop was, in his estimation, killing it, and whooped every time he saw a set wave arriving, and every time he pulled off a wave. Three German guys laid at the back of their longboards and tried to paddle in with double-strokes, like they were displaced members of the German Olympic butterfly squad. A 10-year-old kid on an eggy plastic shortboard, plenty big for him, got in early on one, his reward for paddling all the way up from Cowells. I scowled inwardly as one or other German paddled in front of me or spun in circles and got wrapped in kelp behind me, and then I realized that this was a Barney fest through and through, and there was no reason anybody should treat it like anything else, even if this was the hallowed Point. I caught three waves and nothing special happened, except for the sound of a clear green acrylic single fin slicing through kelp. Three pigeon guillemots tittered and squealed at each other. It was so flat that people on the cliff got tired of watching. A guy on a standup paddleboard came through. Somebody needs to teach those guys the j-stroke, because switching sides with the paddle makes them visibly unsteady. I paddled back down to the statue and felt just about as bad as ever doing it. Back on the cliff, a 14-year-old girl was walking by, saying “All I want is to have a best friend, you know?”
23 July 2012 aka 356 – Steamer Lane – glassy and kelpy with some windswell lumpiness
A foggy overcast hung just barely over the point, so that the boardwalk and even Cowells were pretty, sunlit, and blue, but looking out to sea it was damp and chilly. It was actually warmer in the water, underneath the light south breeze, where the lack of NW winds seemed to have quelled the upwelling for a day. A remarkably consistent south swell was delivering solid chest to head high lines to the 25 or so guys at the point. A grizzled old silvery-mopped guy on a blue longboard was camped out just off the cliff and gleefully shoulderhopping everything that came through, but he had so much style that no one got bothered about it. I sat just outside of him and didn’t get anything. That was okay though. I had reluctantly got in the water for the fitness benefits alone, walking the board down to the statue, then paddling back up to the point and trying not to look like a corpse in the process. A stand-up paddleboarder was there, a skinny guy wearing a two-piece wetsuit perhaps in a retro effort to cancel out the faddiness of his board. He nodded me into an early one and I decided I might just stay out for a while. A lull, then three waves in quick succession wobbled over to Indicators. The first okay, the second I was on the wrong side of the peak so I took it left, got in a springing bottom turn before it was all over. The third I got in late and watched a second paddleboarder drop in on me. So I stayed out for one more, and that’s when the lull really hit, coinciding with my arms giving out. A cheerful girl with long, wave-matted light-brown hair had the knack of being in the right spot for the one rideable wave that came through every 10 minutes. Finally I got my wave in but wound up off-balance and wiping out disgracefully, which meant only one thing: I was still waiting for my last wave. I reflected on how I really didn’t have anything better I needed to be doing. A big sea lion surfaced in the middle of the kelp and went under again, and my wave arrived, something waist-high but firm, presenting a face that allowed me to surf around a section, cut back, and head for the cliff. The paddle back to the statue was no less painful than last week.
21 July 2012 aka 358 – Waddell Beach – about thigh high
This was not a day when you would go surfing unless you really needed to for some reason. And I have some getting back in shape to do: arms pretty much ineffectual, back, shoulders, hips sore from the short session two days prior; even the ends of my ribs sore from lying on the board for the first time in more than a year. So out I went, sans booties (still lost somewhere in Giles’s garage) and I don’t know if the onshores have been particularly strong this year and the upwelling particularly vigorous, but that water felt like a creek in Tuolumne Meadows. My feet started to hurt before I had even waded out to the sandbar. Riding waves, the exertion woke my feet up from numbness and water sheeting over the board made them howl anew. There were weak windswell lines tottering in from around Año Nuevo and some reputed very small south swell coming in, as evidenced by the small crowd down at the reefs. It was good practice, watching the peaks and judging their consistency, checking lineup landmarks back on shore, finding the peak, eyeballing whatever soft walls approached. I got a handful, with one or two even revealing a bit of shoulder. On the way home I was the first to stop for a cyclist who hit the railroad tracks in Davenport and was sprawled on the pavement. He took it well, but his leg hurt like hell, and he held it mutely as he tried to get his thoughts together. Pretty soon there was a fire truck and then a helicopter, and I helped the paramedics roll him onto a backboard, and later took his bike back to his annoyed wife in Portola Vally. Turns out he had fractured his pelvis.
19 July 2012 aka 360 – The Lane – somewhere around waist high
Pathetic arms could barely make the paddle through the kelp from the statue steps up to the break. A group of sea otters lying in a circle soaking up the sun raised their heads, it was like they could smell my Massachusetts license plates. Then it was long waits and inconsistent but very clean rollers bowling up around the Indicators peak. Three guys on softtops, one of them with classic longboarder style, long blond hair and a 70s mustache (as if he had even been born by the 70s), the other two a little more green, were getting most of the waves, longhair sniffing them out in that way the good surfers do, paddling over to where the wave will break before it’s even visible. The Point and the Slot were much more consistent and somehow managing to produce head-high walls, a pack of guys were out there, backlit, demonstrating casual, fluid, summer-surf style. Two 11-year-old girls came out on softtops, one clearly the local, telling her cousin, or out-of-town-friend, Sierra, what to do. They were never in position but they both know how to paddle, backs arched way up, arms out like lizard legs, head checking right and left over their shoulder. These are kids who have watched their fathers surf. I got three waves. The first was a pretty enough wave, but I turned it ugly, an eyesore in front of the whole cliffwatching crowd. It was mushy and I almost came off the back, so I aborted the pop-up, took the drop and then thought about getting up, pretty much the crappiest style you can demonstrate at Steamer Lane in the summertime. The second one was a little better, by some miracle I was right under the peak on a reasonable set, something approaching chest high, and Giles’s board, the Princess, got in nicely to the steep section. I even gained a little speed and made a half-assed mid-face cutback. Then came the long lull, and I ended it by paddling inside and grabbing something roughly butt-cheeks high. But still clean and pretty. I caught the backside of the little peak, survived the slow section and then let it steepen up. Kicked out in front of the cliffs and paddled in extreme discomfort, arms worthless, neck screaming, back to the statue. Now there’s wax on the Golf’s upholstery, which is as good a way as any to end the day.
7 April 2008 – The Lane – chest high with occasional slightly overhead corkers
Impending move seeming more real all the time. I was out at sunset, wondering how many more to wait for before heading back for an all-nighter on a freelance project. After a pleasant but gutless ride back in to the cliffs I realized: summer is nearly here, and I’m moving east. These waves, right now, could be some of the best waves left this year. (Quickly banishing he horrible possibility that they could be the best waves left, ever.) I paddled back out and stayed through the dusk.
And then the wind switched around to a moderate offshore. A swell from over near Japan was filling in and the offshores groomed the lines into Steamer Lane perfection. Guys at the point were ducking into three, four second barrels. Duck dive through a green arching wave and the wind blew a curtain of white drops down on you, a thrilling reminder of just where you are and what you are doing.
I moseyed up to Middle Peak as the crowd thinned, and waited through the lulls. It was me and a guy on a blue and white longboard as an A-frame built out of the gray. I yelled “I’ll go left” so the longboarder was free to take the right, then scratched down the face. A solid, beautiful, barely overhead left opened up under me. All I was good for was a bottom turn and a sluggish top turn as the lip hooked over, but in the breeze the wave was smooth and etched with powdered glass. I drifted off the shoulder as the wave closed out into the Slot.
And there was more after that. Spokes swinging wide and lighting up Indicators even on the rising tide. The set waves, five thousand miles old, pushed against the reef and built rapidly at the peak. Lying forward on the butterknife, I coasted in easily and stood up, breeze rushing up the face. Trimmed into the wave and took it as far as it would go. In the darkness after the last wave, I heard the church bells tolling up on the cliff.
5 April 2008 – Pleasure Point – knee to waist high
Less windy and more fun, surfing in a crowd with Seth and Brian, getting little stuff. For a while I was picking short lefts just to avoid competition, popping up into a crouch on the back of the board and carving a mini-bottom turn. Skinny Brian was getting into everything on his 8’6″, taking it nicely in trim down the line. Seth on a 9’6″ was perfecting his run-backwards-down-the-board wipeout on the larger waves.
I stayed out for one more after B&S went in, and finally it came. A giant, belly-high set wave rifling over from first point. A woman in a soft-top was inside of me but facing the wrong way and accomodatingly didn’t make a go for it. I paddled into the firm face and popped up with speed.
Outside, a half-dozen whale spouts shot above the whitecap spray, and the Chardonnay ran downwind for a closer look.
4 April 2008 – Pleasure Point – knee to waist high
Summerlike waves are here, which means go to Pleasure Point. Usually flat and sheltered, it gets only the strongest windswell warbles and whatever south swell is in the water. The result is small but clean and pretty, and the place is always mobbed with barefooted longboarders with great style. Sometimes it’s almost enough just to watch them.
Sea otters were rolling around with their pups. Outside, the bay was a mess of whitecaps. Walking back in over the football-field-sized reef, I saw 35 sanderlings wing over in unison. Through some collective decision they turned before they reached me, stalling in the breeze for a second, then peeling away, light as a cloud of autumn leaves.
14 March 2008 – Pleasure Point – waist to head high
Big, lumpy, gray windswell, with fresh spring winds howling around the point, blowing everyone off the peak toward 38th Ave. I was back on the butterknife and unused to its size, surfing like a retard. The next morning, Mea fell.
10 March 2008 – The Lane – shoulderish high
The mellowest Middle Peak crowd ever. A longboarder just back in town from Oahu saw me scratching for a set wave and said “It’s yours dude,” even though he was technically in position. Somehow, on this marginal day, sitting up at the top peak, wave after wave came to me and the 8-ball dropped into them all, getting in during the moderate offshores, through the sunset glass-off and straight through the weird onshore switch that came at dusk. I got an uncountable number of waves. Like, twelve or so.
The sunset appeared suddenly, dropping into the clear from a low overcast. Gulls roaming 300 feet above me suddenly turned bright rosy pink against the gray clouds. I got one last shoulder, hit the lip, and drove the nose around hard, like setting a clock back an hour. No idea where that came from.
9 March 2008 – The Lane – head high on the sets
Threemile is pretty and solitary, but let’s not get carried away. I went back out to the Lane and snuck into one memorable wave, wherein I took off behind the peak just after a longboarder took off on the right. But no, I didn’t go left, I leaned into the drop, gathered speed, and sank the rail in the flats to carve around the falling lip. This usually never works for me. But this time I came around the section at warp speed, blasting up on the longboarder like a highway trooper. He obligingly carved off the shoulder and I took a long cutback with the rest of my speed. I don’t remember anything else.
8 March 2008 – Threemile – blown out and chest high
Noting that I’d been complaining about crowds more and more regularly, I made the unpopular decision to surf 3-mile in 15 knot onshore/sideshore winds. It was as bad as threemile ever gets – fickle, soft-shouldered, lumpy, mushy, punctuated by waves that break where they have no business breaking. The wind had the water sloshing around in all directions and I couldn’t get up any headway whatsoever on the 8-ball. Still, it was beautiful, with the sun going down beyond the big pillar that comes up off the reef 60 feet into the air. Ugly chunks of the broken reef poking up out of the 0.1′ low tide, a hundred yards off the beach. Gulls winging by. Smell of fertilizer wafting off the brussels sprouts fields. The walk back takes 10 minutes and gives you time to reflect. On how insanely great this place is even on a bad day. In the fencerows were three-foot mustard plants being devoured from the top down by clusters of brown snails.
7 March 2008- The Lane – occasionally a little overhead
It had gotten dark and I was still looking for a good wave to go in on. I kept being second in the lineup on approaching set waves. The sets were staircasing, each one bigger than the one that came before. I’d back off to let a guy go, then have to duck dive the rest of the set. One time it was a guy just paddling back to the lineup. He found himself just inside of me and in position, though I was already paddling into it. But they’re ruthless out here. He wheeled around and hooted me off .
Now it was dark. The butterknife got me in early but slowly on a smooth hump, still gathering itself for the fall onto the reef. I stepped forward, leaning into it, kneeling, and wedged the rail into the forming wall. It steepened and the board, angling down, snuck into the peak through the backdoor. For many magic seconds I was crouched in the pocket. On my front foot, chin right over my knee, back leg trailing, left hand still trimming the board. In the dusk the gray-blue lip curled up and around my vision, vanishing as it went over and behind my head. I was locked in, steering with a left hand at the rail, marveling at how the wave strung out down the line and then rushed at me, spinning.
It was one of those lined-up Indicator waves that only slackens for a moment before throwing up more wall. I held the line for a long, long time. The whole color of the evening and the dusky stretch across the bay, the blurry points of light from town, all funneled into the sharp detail of water bending around me. I kept waiting for it to end, and when it finally did I casually stood up out of it and had the presence of mind to lay down a fully committed frontside cutback as a sort of underline. Of course, I was on the butterknife and too far forward, used to the responsiveness of the 8-ball. The board banked over and began its cutback, but I was leaned out way too far and ate water before the turn was halfway through.
It was a great, frozen five or seven seconds, painted a strange gunmetal blue in the twilight. I had finally found myself in position, and had the presence of mind not to screw with the line. Then it was over, and I was back to being a struggling surfer, disconnected from the wave. I climbed the slick rocks back to the street, hopped the guardrail, and went home.
6 March 2008 – The Lane – around head high
Gloomy, overcast, but the air was warm. The smallish waves were matched by a smallish crowd – still outnumbering the waves, though, with surly shortboarders scratching all over the place for peaks and then getting upset when they found themselves on top of each other and in the way. Ruthless longboarders continued to take the majority. I got a couple short waves on the 8-ball, the highlight probably a late drop eked out in a race against someone to my right. Got to my feet just as the bottom dropped out, but instead of flailing I took the free-fall centered over the board, landed in the pocket and headed out onto the shoulder. The sun went down behind the clouds, but the sky stayed a solemn gray, with one unaccountable spray of pink high above the horizon.
2 March 2008 – Indicators – head high to a little overhead
Big Middle Peak sets marched into a stiff offshore breeze. Paddling around, the water was sloppy and bumps bulled their way up the wave faces. Waves stood open forever and then zippered shut all at once.
It’s spring here. The hard northwest winds whip white streaks across the bay, and the Brandt’s cormorants have their silvery white cat’s whiskers on. One was fishing around the takeoff spot at Indicators, holding its place and diving over and over. I started using it as a buoy to recognize where I was in the lineup.
Took the flying 8-ball out today on the theory it meant less board area to smack me in the head.
1 March 2008 – The Lane – chest high to a little overhead
Let’s see: Warm + offshore + middle-sized + low tide + sunny + Saturday afternoon? Equals bring your largest weapon. So I loaded up the 8-0 butterknife for the first time in like a year and headed out with the pack. I started just off the statue looking for waist-high-ers and below, intending just to focus on the basics. But it was just as crowded down there as anyone else.
I jockeyed for position as longboarders paddled innocently in front of me, around me, and then into the set waves as if I was just out there birdwatching. As a solid west set approached I eyed the same guy lining up who had snaked me last time around, and decided there was nothing else to do but burn him. The wave was rifling in and steepened up perfectly for both of us, but I went for it anyway, forcing him into a straighter bottom turn that stranded him in the whitewater. Me? I was crouched on the highline as the very corner of the lip came curling over my head. Then out onto the flats and back up on the wall.
Later, I got sucked up the point just trying to find a break in the crowd. Pretty soon I was at Middle Peak and some bombs were approaching, teetering in against the offshore winds, their faces all silvery-blue and spray ripping off the lip like pages coming out of a spiral-bound notebook. It was a mess of people up there, but no more of a mess than anywhere else. After a minimal amount of dodging people and set waves, my wave lined up. It kept getting steeper and I stood up early, one hand on the outside rail, wedging the inside rail into the wave. Before me a sea of surfers, maybe 40, straggled out among thick clumps of kelp. I took the straight line and ran over the kelp instead of the people. The wave fumed and spun at my back.
My next wave, an insider, was a later and more desperate takeoff. Tumbling through the whitewater there came a solid conk and I surfaced with blood running down my face. A neat, half-inch slice from my board or someone else’s. Enough blood to get people’s attention in the lineup, but it had nearly stopped by the time I reached the steps.
29 February 2008 – Indicators – waist high (a little overhead up the point)
Don’t ever go surfing at the Lane on a midsize, sunny Friday lunchtime. If you do, bring your biggest board, which is what everyone but me did. Hordes of longboarders just huffing into waves with no regard for other people in the water.
The most impressive part of the day was seeing the effects of the giant storm swell of last weekend. Walking my board out at low tide under the lighthouse, the bottom was entirely smooth sand with just a few strands of kelp streaming out of it. It was almost like I was at a beachbreak. Relentless storm surf had trucked tons and tons of sand down the coast and then dropped it here as the currents eddied out behind the lighthouse. Where you normally would stumble across boulders and into crevices, feeling squishy anemones underfoot and stumbling through wads of feather boa kelp, it was flat as a sandbox and seemingly a foot higher than it had been. Over the spring and summer, the gentler waves will wash it all back out again. But I do wonder how the anemones and their neighbors survive this seasonal burial.
22 February 2008 – The Lane – 9 foot groundswell with big messy windswell
More of the same but this time I was on the 7’2″ flying 8-ball. The rain let up and the onshores switched around, so the waves cleaned up nicely and I was treated to some more aimless paddling and constantly being in the wrong place. But when your expectations have been so throughly deflated you wind up happy for what you have. I patiently waited for some gray 7′ slab to come reeling through for me, and when it never did I accepted a couple waist high castoffs and squelched back toward Cowells on them.
Drifting around in the eddy/current off the parking pullout there’s eventually nothing to do but paddle deep and hope for a middling wave to line up for you. Instead, you always get cleaned up by the real sets which break way up at the Peak, 100 yards or more away, and are still walled up and occupied by the time they crack on your head. The whitewash sweeps you inside and down toward the statue, even further out of position. Eventually you go for one of the wobblers just to end the cycle.
I dropped in to a small section and looked ahead to see the Cowells section shaping up early and about to tumble. I couldn’t make it across. Instead, I pulled as much speed as I could out of a little bottom turn and launched toward the peak. It was only chest high, but I smashed the flat part of the board against the white lip anyway, just as it tumbled, then carved away frontside, back left, the 8-ball’s sharp left rail dug in and carving under all my weight, back to the curl, up onto the whitewater, and stood up out of it. It was something – something small – materializing out of nothing. And over before I thought about it. Enough.
Be in the right place at the right time; do the right thing. It’s the simplicity that gets you.
Back at the rocks, seven surfbirds tiptoed around the fringe of blue mussels. Surf spray flew up all around them. They looked at it, eyes wide and delicate, and waited for it to fall again.
20 February 2008 – The Lane – large and ill-intentioned
Big and chugging through Indicators, but you had to be up at the Peak to get in. If you just want to line up at Indicators and get something medium-sized without jockeying with two dozen assorted rippers, longboarders, and occasional clueless folks in over their head, you’re out of luck. Waves that squeaked through to Indicators had very little intention of breaking at all.
So despite the Trombone’s general paddling ability I found myself, as always it seems, out of position and constantly fighting the current, sliding off the backs of waves. A couple early waves nevertheless found me and I surfed them with little inspiration. The hard part about fiercely concentrating on surfing basic lines (in an attempt to learn something) is you have to do it without actually thinking.
Walking back to the top stairs I ran across the infamous Ribsy, best surfer I know, a local’s local, born and raised on Swift Street. Just back from his annual post-Christmas Baja trip. I’ve never seen him out of position on a wave.
Passed the car and decided to jump in for one more, knowing I shouldn’t, but envisioning a wave immediately lining up on me once I got out. That endless futile optimism. This time it didn’t even get that far.
It’s amazing how much horror and awe and shock can be packed into a half-second. That’s how long it took – midway down the mossy riprap – for the trombone to slip out from under my arm and pick up speed toward the sand 15 feet below. Unfortunately there were several jagged rocks in between. Somehow, as I stared in fascination at this board that could not possibly be about to shatter onto the rocks, I grabbed the leash and yanked it back up.
Crunch. Splinter. Boinggg – as the leash stretched and the board yo-yoed. Splinter. Crunch. Splinter. I hauled the board back up to find four major gashes – three on the bottom, one on the rail. (Sorry Giles. I’ll get it fixed.) Stood there, dumbfounded. What just happened? How does someone drop their board? Right at this exact spot? Then (I’m ashamed to add): Do I have to go back home now? Can I get one more ride out of it? How much water would soak in?
As I stood there, a rail-thin, shaggy blond surfer nipped up the rocks in bare feet and tried to cheer me up. “Aw, no broken fins! Bummer it’s on the bottom, but fix those up and you’ll be cherry.” There are no insurmountable problems after a day of good surf.
17 February 2008 – Indicators – waist to shoulder high
A lot bigger up by Middle Peak, but there were enough people up there that I was stoked to find a section shaping up just opposite the parking pullout. Little peaks would frame up and hang in the rosy sunset and then I would be in. When things went right, I’d make a quick pop up, setting the rail with a quick tug and a lean forward and down the line. The pintail would squirt around and push the board up into the breaking section as the lip feathered up, over, and back behind me. Slotted and holding on.
16 February 2008 – The Lane – macking
Something like 10 feet at 17 seconds, but a weird swell angle that shot most of the energy in toward the slot, right under the lighthouse. I was on the 7’2″ 8-ball out of general principles, and found myself with just enough arms to make slow headway into the current. But not enough to get into the waves I really wanted. Instead I jumped into the thrashing white corners of peeling waves and hoped for the best. Everyone does it on days like this, but it reeks of bad style.
15 February 2008 – The Lane – chest high to much larger
Circling at the top of Indicators, either caught inside on the reelers coming down the point or haplessly chasing the diminishing shoulders from Middle Peak waves that don’t have quite enough oomph. I never have the knack of being in the right place on days like this. The waves I got had mushy shoulders and I surfed them with indecision, thinking too much about what I should be doing.
I had jumped in on a rising tide. Bellying the last wave to the steps I passed a triangular rock sticking up off the reef, crown of blue mussels low on its brow, water slapping up its green sides. On top, a western gull was all snowy white and gray, pink rubber boots shining and wet.
14 February 2008 – The Lane – special Valentine’s Day report
I arrived at the Lane with every intention of surfing, but today we had too much of a good thing: head-high-plus swell met with howling offshore winds. The whole bay was a glittering sheen of wind-whipped blue, as whitecaps turned their backs and raced out to sea. Middle Peak set waves reared their heads and the wind tore away plumes of white spray. Curtains of droplets shot up double, triple the height of the wave and fell back into the sea some 30 yards behind. It looked like Yellowstone.
Later, I was parking on the Westside to go up on campus. A black Toyota screeched to a halt and a young Mexican kid jumped out, maybe 19, grinning wildly. He took off running down the street. A mylar balloon with red hearts on it had blown out of his car window and was making a break for it. The wind pushed it out of his reach once and eddied it behind a parked SUV. He ran around. It hit an updraft and angled toward the rooftops. He craned his neck back, anticipating that bittersweet moment of balloon-losing, when you realize the best you can do now is enjoy the way it looks as it shrinks into the sky. But here came one last dip toward Earth. With one desperate leap, baggy jeans and all, the kid snagged it, legs split like a hurdler’s in the light coming down the street. Another Valentine’s day rescued.
11 February 2008 – Indicators – slightly overhead on the sets
Chilly morning turned warm and breathless and under the February sun. I was too hot in my wetsuit. I splashed water over my head and dropped in on lumbering lumps that chugged down the cliffs with short shoulders. Walked up the steps at the statue and back to the top steps, the water pooling gradually deeper around the riprap. I misjudged the current on one paddle out and had to make a desperate sprint away from the cliff, ducking the trombone under a line of whitewater just as it dashed against the barnacles.
9 February 2008 – Indicators – chest high, a lot bigger toward the point
A Saturday, sunny, really warm. About 300 people in the water if you count Cowells. Expecting this, I brought the trombone and promised not to paddle up past the statue. I lined up inside of the longboarders and had a succession of totally fun chest-high waves swing in toward me. Trying to concentrate on getting the right line through all the sections. There was a thin layer of fog just three feet above the water at sunset, and above that the coastline was clear all the way around to Monterey.
Eventually I got greedy and paddled up to the top of the cliffs for one last wave, one of those nice overhead peelers everyone was getting. As dusk set in I kept being second in line or sliding off the backs. Eventually it was surfing by Braille, difficult on a smooth glassy evening. I got into a beautiful big one, not a ripple on its face, just one corner breaking pearly under the new moon and the rest a great slaty slab, but I couldn’t see and slid off the back before I was really in it. Nothing else came my way after that, which is what I deserved.
8 February 2008 – The Lane – about shoulder high
Got in after the sun had already dropped below the point. Clean and glassy, with brown tangles of kelp breaking the pink water and a thick crowd. Somehow I managed to pick off three great waves before it got totally dark. They were crisp and fast and lined up all the way through Indicators, my favorite kind with long steep walls and no sections. The trombone sucked speed from the wave 50 yards at a time, fluttering and driving through the top third like a long wailing note. As soon as the wave jumped up from the pink surface it went a glossy, varnished blue-green spattered with little explosions of kelp. Cutbacks returned me to the pocket, high on the wave and crouching, one foot forward, back hunched, with the whitewater at my hip. The wave pushed, and it was back out onto the wall. I could almost feel the fin flexing as the board sprang back onto the face.
5 February 2008 – The Lane – occasionally overhead outside, but less consistent
Too many people. Everybody in town, apparently, figured they would jump in for a quick one right as the sun set. In any crowd my half-English breeding causes me to pull back on waves I ought to at least have a go on – especially when the same longboarder keeps clogging up set waves, jumping up early into an awkward teetering crouch. It’s refreshing to hear someone hoot in excitement after a wave, but they really ought to get their bottom turns figured out first. By rights, they shouldn’t still be within earshot by the time they come off the wave.
So it was another day of, basically, nothing. Except an incredible sunset. One may tire of reading about sunsets – and certainly of trying to write about them – but you don’t really tire of looking at them. This one had another splay of cloud strudels stretching out of the horizon. It all started in a moderately spectacular orange but then kept going, like that one firework you light on the Fourth that outlasts all the others, as if prepared in a separate shop probably somewhere high in the Himalayas, by people, Kung Fu masters no doubt, with long gunpowder-measuring fingernails, according to a recipe passed down through the millennia since the Golden Age of Fireworks. It keeps producing more and stranger colors long after it should have run out – burning through tangerine and rose and a kind of murky scarlet, straight into purple and all its synonyms: lilac, mauve, magenta, etc., spreading into a deep bruise with the lighthouse silhouetted in front (and some 18-year-old ripping the last visible peeling wave). And then it really is out, the colors vanished, the sky back to bottomless blue with those same strips of cloud now sitting overhead in trails of ash.
I bellied one in, went to the nearest polling place, and voted for whichever candidate was promising better waves. Then I went to the liquor store and purchased some Devout Stout with which I hoped to propitiate the 8-ball gods, just in case politics isn’t up to the task. The lady in the car next to me was eating Dill Pickle flavored sunflower seeds. Seemed like maybe she should’ve just bought some dill pickles.
4 February 2008 – The Lane – overhead down to waist high, depending
Some days you get out in the water and realize you’re repaying the ocean for all the great rides you had last week. You haven’t reached a new level of grace and style in your surfing after all; you’re the same old crappy surfer you’ve always been, thrashing through the water, falling off the back of waves you should catch, lurching around on your board, looking old, out of shape, and probably goofy in your tight rubber Batman suit.
I stayed out for an hour after official sunset waiting for a wave I could get it right on. They kept passing just inside of me, or breaking way outside with someone making a sweet late drop, or just crumbling and piling up foam on the surface like shaving cream and knocking me down the beach another 20 yards.
One problem with staying out late on the West Coast is that you’re looking toward the sunset. It’s beautiful, with the sky going all the colors of citrus from grapefruit down to tangerine and the dimpled sea kind of an electric silvery blue. But it’s a lot brighter in that direction. Wheel around in time for a promising wall and suddenly you realize it really is nighttime. The wave is pretty much invisible until it breaks, and then it’s too late. I got to my feet just before the head-high wall turned white and tumbled, first headlong and then ass-first and finally shaken straight again, back to headlong but several feet underwater by now, flicked by the wave like you read about cowboys killing rattlesnakes, stuffed down by the whitewater, mercilessly as that last bag of trash in the trash can on trash day, kelp fronds wrapping around my legs, board whipping around at the end of my leash and then finally let go as the wave passes, and kicking back up toward the surface, wondering that it can be so deep here. Then climbing the wet stairs, water running out of my ears, and just the tip of a shiny brown rat’s tail disappearing under the rip-rap and ice plant.
1 February 2008 – The Lane – head high and larger
The bigger the Lane gets, the harder the current runs down the cliffs. It doesn’t matter which way the tide’s going, the current sweeps you down toward Cowell’s and away from the breaking corners. At higher tides, the bounce off the cliffs adds a push out to sea on top of it all. Board choice becomes a dilemma: you need something short to get under the giant piles of crumbling whitewater that sooner or later catch you inside. But you need length in order to make any headway against the current. Some days, you can miss just one wave and never make it back to the lineup.
So it was today. But I chose the 8-ball anyway, since it had been so good to me. I took a skeet-shooting approach to wave selection. I was the clay pigeon. I launched from the top set of stairs and dug for the outside. As I lost ground against the current I hoped a breaking corner would home in on me while it was still catchable. Ride it in to the stairs by the statue and walk up to the top again, almost like a river run. This worked nicely for six or seven undistinguished but totally fun waves.
Choosiness became costly. My last time out I turned my nose up at a head high shoulder, hoping for one of the comfortably overhead faces I kept seeing from the cliff. Soon I found myself out of position, and spent the next 25 minutes feebly paddling back toward the point. At the end of it all I had lost 300 yards and was paddling in waist deep water over kelp and anemones. I picked up my board and walked back to the car.
31 January 2008 – The Lane – chest to a little overhead
At first, the sky was gray and the falling rain was invisible. Little drops of water leapt up off the surface and that was all you could see. The wind had fallen and the grey-green water, dimpled and creased with the ripples, looked like the hide of a great dinosaur flexing its muscles. Twenty minutes later the sun broke out of the clouds and the smooth water turned silver. Approaching sets were like tubes of aluminum foil unrolling. This was the best period of a very good day, with Middle Peak waves reforming and offering up short shoulders all the way in through Indicators. I was on the 8-ball and normally would have looked for a wall to run out before trying a long cutback. These wedgy shoulders gave up less real estate, and my bottom turns had to dig in hard enough to take me high on the lip and back down. Felt great.
After a few hours the dark clouds that had been hanging over Natural Bridges moved over the lighthouse on a steady southwest wind. Three pelicans hung in the sky, kiting 100 feet over Seal Rock, slowly pivoting into and out of formation, getting a good look around but not going anywhere. It was like they were the only creatures that didn’t realize it was windy out. A gull wheeled around them but couldn’t hang.
29 January 2008 – The Lane – chest high and raining
South wind is about the worst thing that can hit Santa Cruz – it’s onshore everywhere and the town’s magic trick of turning California northwesterlies offshore finally fails. Today we had moderate south winds, gray skies, and high tide. I went in anyway. There was a frothing crowd at the Slot and the Point, but at times I had Middle Peak to myself. Inconsistent, but with no competition I could afford to wait. The wind dropped, the waves cleaned up, and the rain started, first a mist you could barely see spattering the surface, then real drops. Occasional lines warped and lumbered in, and after working out a few kinks, the trombone came to life, springing out of the bottom turns and sinking its sharp pintail into the cutbacks. A kid in bare feet, sporting a proud half-inch of scraggle on his face, made idiotic conversation and couldn’t get into anything on his shortboard. He gave off the most intense smell of fabric softener. Every time I got a wave in and paddled back to the lineup, it looked flat and moody out to sea, like that was all there was going to be. But there was always more.
28 January 2008 – The Lane – chest to a little overhead
One of the most amazing surfing days ever. Mixed up windswell from four days of rainstorms out of the south, and a high tide to keep things bouncy. But more waves than riders, and I jumped in on Giles’s 7’10” trombone. Overhead, to my surprise, were a half-dozen white-throated swifts cruising the cliffs on scimitar wings.
The crowd thinned and the offshores lessened, and those of us left in the water were swept into the sunset. Kids at the Point dropped in to waves on sharpened ellipses, and behind them sea lions, raising their heads and barking on Seal Rock, made the opposite shape. I had missed the Southern Lights in Antarctica, but here were the Western Lights, great hazy dreadlocks of fire swept across the sky, miles up. Over Capitola the rain hadn’t quite let up its hold on town, and dove-gray cumulus crept over the hills like beats from a kettle drum.
The tide dropped, the water calmed into stillness, and every so often great Middle Peak humps started to feel the reef. The trombone absolutely bombed into them with all the stubby power of an MG at LeMans. Once in, the single deep scimitar fin locked us in to endless figure-8 carves back in toward the cliffs. The board’s chubby frame held onto all the momentum from the drop and somehow I had the presence of mind to size up my line, crouch, and backdoor the Indicator section. Back at the cliffs, the swifts swept by, wings chattering “Faster, faster.”
In between waves I watched the sun envelop the lighthouse and vanish behind it, leaving sharp silhouettes: watchers at the rail, bikers pausing, the last two shortboarders jumping off the point. Groundswell lines began to rear up, replacing the windswell and connecting inside. One of these took me in to the cliffs and reformed, and I rode it out from the nose, 10 yards off the rock face and out into the open water again. I sprawled in the water for a minute, then climbed the slippery rocks back to the road.
Offshore, sea otters muffled themselves in rolls of kelp, and the gulls cried about the end of another day: ca-ca-ca-ca-ca. Back at the car, in the dusk, the swifts were too small to be seen. Another sound, ki-ki-ki-ki-ki, came from inshore, and a moment later a big peregrine flapped purposefully overhead, not out of second gear yet.
17 January 2008 – The Lane – waist to about head high
Looking back, it might have been a mistake to go surfing on a crystal 60-degree day, clean head-high bump in the water, just prior to going job hunting in the inland East Coast.
Small enough not to be crowded, about half longboards with a smattering of hopeful newbies. Fortified by last night’s bottle of nutritious 8-Ball Stout, I grabbed the flying 8-ball and went out to meet the bottoming tide. Oblong peaks lumped up at Middle Peak and broke both ways. I got a rare Middle Peak left, which on big days is the banzai choice back toward the cliffs and the pointy-toothed crowd at the Slot. Today not so much. A green hook of lip hung over my head at the bottom turn, and I did my best to hit it.
The wave of the day came 20 minutes later, sneaking past three shortboarders who were a little too optimistic about their line-up. The long peak slipped up under me like a loop flipped along a rope. Eyelids-high and so smooth it was out of focus. It kept throwing up section after section of green water I swear I could see the wharf through. The eager 8-ball was on rail and lapping up speed, fluttering and driving through all that blurred color. Nothing made any sound. I put the foot down and headed out on the shoulder.
15 January 2008 – The Lane – chest high to a little overhead
Arms feeling much better today. Fun, pretty waves were all over, but the most notable was an ugly half-wave halfway through. It peaked up in one long wall with a shortboarder way deep but going for it anyway. I popped up into the steep section, left hand on the outside rail, levering the board into the wave. (Behind me, he was fighting his own losing battle.) The lip came over, and for a few moments I was slotted in that ugly tripod stance known as pigdogging. Everything went a murky green as the space ahead of me pinched shut and the roof collapsed. I came out through the back, board still in hand. The shortboarder was behind me, sputtering in the foam.
14 January 2008 – The Lane – a little overhead
Sore. I went out for an hour just to try to loosen up. Remnants of Saturday’s swell were still showing up at Middle Peak. I got one and only one wave: an 8 foot wall that had the whole lineup duckdiving. I watched the last foot kick under the face as I turned, just at the curving shoulder. Up on the green-blue wave, the butterknife felt chunky and fast. My leash was tangled around my front foot, making me feel even more awkward, but this was a classic Indicator wave, long and walling and churning and gentle, and I concentrated on not screwing it up. Back to the wave, I leaned out into the blank air of the trough and brought the board around in a full 180 degree swoop back to the breaking section. Whitewater piled high. Back to the steep high line. Over and over again, each time the wave a little smaller. When it was over, I just laid in the water, like a starfish that has come loose from the rock. Everything was fizzing.
12 January 2008 – The Lane – double overhead plus
The burnt-rubber smell of QANTAS flight 25 touching down in California had barely dissipated when I found myself looking at a 10 foot 16 second swell marching in on the Lane. Fifty miles to the north, pros hucked themselves over 30-foot lips at Mavericks while I paddled the butterknife out to Indicators. I took a few lines of whitewater in the teeth before making it to the fat shoulders on the outside.
My penance had begun. Two months out of the water and I could barely make the butterknife move. I drooped off the back of swell after swell as guys 100 yards up the line dropped into bombs and came ripping past. Mea’s next door neighbor got one so good he was still talking about it the next day. One guy in the lineup to another: “Dude, it’s the kind of day where, I can’t exactly remember the details of any of my rides. But that wave was sick.”
I got into one late, set my rail into the sheer wall and carved straight back off the wave. Not enough commitment to head down. The current was relentless – I paddled patiently into it and slowly lost ground. Up ahead, it was sunset. Fog out by Natural Bridges turned the light soft and golden, silhouetting cypress trees and kids jumping the fence at the lighthouse, surfboard in hand. A kingfisher took off across the waves for Moss Landing. At the cliffs above Cowells, horned grebes and goldeneyes.
24 December 2007 – Cape Crozier, Antarctica – shin high and offshore
Steely blue waves lapped onto the smooth sea ice out of deep water, not really breaking. Water temp was around 28 degrees and floes the size of basketball courts jostled against the fast ice. Also, there were leopard seals in it.
Across the ice, a crowd of young emperor penguins slouched in down jackets, malcontents waiting for swell, drinking 40s in the parking lot, CROZIER tattooed across their backs in gothic letters.
Snow petrels were freesurfing the cornices 100 feet overhead. I didn’t get in.
18 November 2007 – Pleasure Point – chest to head with larger sets outside
My last surf before Antarctica. Fog close to shore made it hard to see the crowd, as the waves were breaking about 200 yards offshore. Once I got out there it was still, the water grayer and smoother than the fog. People were everywhere and it just got more crowded as the morning stretched on. But this was Pleasure Point and most people were on longboards. I was on the Flying 8-ball and that allowed me to sit on the inside where I could duck dive. Wave after wave found me, with that beautiful Pleasure Point shape where they get steep enough to take off on well before they actually break. In early, and working down smooth, steepening face after face. What a way to say goodbye to Santa Cruz.
But just like that friendly smack on the back before parting, I paddled in just too a little too late on a head high wave and got tumbled into the foam and held down. It was one of those ragdoll moments where you figure you’re just being pushed out in front of the pile. Then you feel the bottom and you realized the water is still coming down on top of you. I came up a few seconds later, spluttering. A pelagic cormorant swam close and looked at me, face bright red and a new, sharp hook to its beak, gleaming with seawater.
17 November 2007 – Indicators – up to about ceiling high
Big, chunky, and blown out from a weird south wind that came up out of a clear blue sky. The high tide had water bouncing off the cliffs and sloshing back southward, where it collided with the thick wind chop. Approaching walls were big, thick, and corrugated like tree bark. I caught a couple but they meant business, churning and bouncing and not offering much of a wave face to head for. I stayed on my belly and took them all the way down to the stairs at the statue.
13 November 2007 – Indicators – chest to head plus and still brown
A bit bigger swell today plus a lot bigger crowd equals almost no waves caught. Twenty-five minutes after sunset and it was still too crowded to sneak into a wave.
At last, in nearly full darkness I dropped into something smooth and slightly overhead. I found the steep point and carved down the line, fully on rail, with just specks of moonlight scattered over the wave to guide me. It was like running through the night with a sparkler in my hand.
12 November 2007 – Indicators – chest to head high and BROWN
There’s a brown tide going on right now, billions of dinoflagellates in a reproductive frenzy turning the water the color of cheap diner coffee. But the Lane was working on a moderate northwest swell, the tide was dropping, and the sun was going all tangerine and blood orange.
Glassy as you like it, and not enough of a crowd out to stop the Flying 8-ball. Pulled into a few smooth walls and shot out onto the shoulder. Kelp fronds yanked at my fins.
Surfers out on the point about to jump in, the lighthouse silhouetted under a thumbnail moon, and gold streaks spreading out toward Japan. It was dark when I came in, walking around cuts in the reef I knew by heart.
8 November 2007 – Waddell Beach – shoulder high
A slight downturn in the south swell and suddenly Waddell was working. I had come prepared with the Flying 8-ball and less than five minutes after paddling out was hurtling down a glassy gray left (and into a closeout section almost immediately).
Five other surfers strung up and down the beach, pretty much all of them more on it than me, as usual. But my wave came and I scraped into it. The 8-ball’s sharp blue rails bit down, and swooshed into the hollow between wave and flat sea. I reached for the curling wall, and we held on.
Ravens congregated in a stubbly field above the cliffs and ate broken pumpkins.
7 November 2007 – The Lane – head-and-a-half or waist high, depending on where you were
An absolutely pumping south swell is in full effect. Some unheard-of size like 5 feet at 16 seconds, with absolutely no wind, low skies, and all the kelp draped across the water and stretching round the point. The water had a dull gleam pierced occasionally by little eared grebes. Pelagic cormorants flew close by, like they were disoriented in the stillness.
I’ve been surfing poorly lately. No rhythm, bad decisions that build on themselves, because poor performance makes you tentative. Sitting on the shoulder, or the next peak over, off balance.
Today I popped up in position on a long, smooth gray roller. It peaked over a bump in the reef, ahead of me. I nudged up into the lip and then slotted into the high line, halfway up the board, and held it. It wasn’t any kind of move to remember, but it was just the right thing to have done. I lanced a 30 yard section under the peak and emerged onto a clean slate shoulder for the cutback. For just those seconds, it was no longer me trying to get my surfing right.
6 November 2007 – Waddell Beach – about 8 feet on the sets
Not that I seriously went for any of the set waves. Stiff lines were rolling in from New Zealand and hitting North America like a cue ball coming across a pool table. The spray at County Line reef, a quarter-mile down, was shooting 100 feet into the air. Hard onshores were meeting them from the north, corrugating the faces, and I was sitting on a trombone with rails like someone’s rib cage.
I took it easy – telling myself it wouldn’t do any good to get my teeth bashed out or my back bent 2 weeks before going to Antarctica. A Pacific loon zipped downwind, way offshore, head lowered. Surf scoters were having a ball. Pelicans banked into swell lines 200 yards long, and their stretched wings fit well below the wave’s lip. One cormorant was with them, envious, still flapping. Even the workmen surfers who had parked above the riprap got into the waves gingerly, but at least they dropped over the ledge. I went for a few smaller ones and came in, feeling cowardly and satisfied.
3 November 2007 – Waddell Beach – knee to waist high
And totally inconsistent. Elsewhere, a meaty north swell was pitching surfers down the line, but Waddell sits just in the shadow of Point Ano Nuevo and on high-angle swells it’s pretty sheltered. Too sheltered, in this case, and so I bobbed around for an hour and a half, becalmed and thinking about Antarctica.
1 November 2007 – County Line – chest to head high
A lot of windswell with occasional solid northwest sets marching up to the reef at County Line, then tumbling flat, like someone had stretched a wire across the street and tripped a marching band.
The sun dropped behind thick fog, leaving a dusky blue sky dropping into a crumpled sea the same color. A hundred young, chocolatey Heermann’s gulls chattered and dropped into the ocean behind me, accompanied by a half-dozen pelicans, their freshly molted white necks shining and crisp. I was paddling back outside when they all rose at once and headed offshore. They skittered low over the plumb-colored water, past me and into the smudged horizon, their wings shooting off at all angles into the evening sky.
I ducked a set wave and so did a western grebe. We came up together, and a fish drooped out of its beak.
26 October 2007 – Threemile – knee to chest and fickle
Oily pink water and a loon in the sunset. No waves to speak of, and the few humped peaks lurched steadily away from me.
After the sun went down, a low line came on like the fold in a paper airplane. The tide was low. I pulled into a section that’s as concave as Threemile gets. The bottom was a boil; it gurgled and I felt the corrugations as I shot over. Against the slick green rocks inside, yellow starfish held their ground.
20 October 2007 – Indicators – chest to head high; going off at Middle Peak
It was the first large northwest swell of the winter and for a while it was fine just to sit and watch all the fantastic Santa Cruz surfers, the stylish old guys swooping on longboards and the ripper shortboard kids.
The arms race was in full effect and I had dusted off the 10’0″ lollipop to try and get even with the crowd. That was foolish. There were some 300 people out between the Slot and Cowells, and no one was making room for anyone else. To get waves on a day like that you just have to barge your way in, and I wasn’t feeling up to it. So I ate leftovers.
19 October 2007 – Pleasure Point – waist high
and c-r-o-w-d-e-d. Everyone out on longboards and me on the trombone, trying to be polite, and not getting anything. One skinny guy on a big red noserider kept unselfconsciously paddling up to the front and grabbing set waves. Like the rest of us weren’t really there to surf. I growled. At least when I’m on my noserider I try to make sure I let a few sets go for those less fortunate.
13 October 2007 – Moss Landing – chest high
Miraculously, the wind held off even though I slept in. At the gas station north of Moss Landing the flags all pointed offshore, and I could look across Elkhorn Slough and already see that peaks were everywhere. There were maybe 10 surfers and as many surf kayakers out, but still plenty of places to be alone.
A Bonaparte’s gull stood on pink legs at the high water mark. The black smudge behind his ear said “Welcome to fall.”
11 October 2007 – Threemile – chest high
Gray clouds scudded across the sky and over the brussels sprouts fields. The wind that brought them came all the way down to water level, and we bounced in the chop on the unforgiving soft shoulders just outside the lineup. The takeoff zones were clogged with young rippers newly back at the university. I got one on the trombone; it dutifully trundled most of the way inside, and that was about it. Of course I went back out, though, and sat in the dark through the lull that seems to always set in at sunset, no matter the conditions. As it got darker, three remaining kids passed the time by making unsavory comparisons about girls they knew.
6 October 2007 – County Line – waist high
Weak and inconsistent. About the best thing to be said is that the sunset was pretty.
My wetsuit is, unaccountably, too big for me. Fifty-five degree water has little trouble sloshing in through the neck while I paddle out. When I sit up I get the exhilarating, peppermint-patty-like sensation of that coldwater sweeping down my torso and pooling around my navel. Not really one of the major selling points you look for in a wetsuit. It’s unaccountable because this suit is the same size and model as my first one and as far as I can tell I’ve only gotten bigger since then.
5 October 2007 – County Line – chest to shoulder
On the way up Highway 1 the sun was bursting downward through an opulent pile of golden clouds, like some Renaissance painting. People were stopped in every pullout, cameras raised, gawking.
I got to county line and the onshores were still going strong, but the cliff comes right down to the beach here. The wind bounces off the cliff and funnels along the curving coastline to a less-damaging sideshore angle. It was cold.
The waves were inconsistent and chopped up, but I stayed out until long after the sun had dropped under the horizon. The problem with looking out to sea, westward, is that the horizon is a lot brighter than the view to the east. When you whip around for a wave, you suddenly realize you can’t see a thing. I paddled for my last wave on faith, stood up over a smooth inky carpet, and was surprised to find myself suddenly taking the drop. Behind me, the wave broke and turned white.
3 October 2007 – County Line – chest to shoulder
Set my clock for the dawn patrol and was surprised to find it still pitch-dark at 6:20 a.m. The waning half-moon was still high in the sky and the streets were as still as the inside of a book. I was halfway down the street when I realized my alarm clock was still on East Coast time.
Three hours later I hit replay. This time the dawn was already well along. There was a pearly fogbank offshore rubbed with rose and lavender at the top edge before the sky went white again.
The waves at county line stirred the bull kelp, tugging the little shrunken-heads toward shore. They’re on short leashes and they go under as a swell passes. A few seconds later they pop to the surface unnannouced, with what I could swear is a fiendish grin.
The shoulders were mushy and the sets, when they came, were mostly breaking outside me. My arms reminded me I haven’t been surfing enough.
1 October 2007 – County Line – chest high
The light was dying but so were the 20-mph winds that had the kite surfers out in force just 45 minutes earlier. I jumped in the water just as the bottom edge of the sun touched the horizon. For the next 15 minutes I watched it set and rise over and over as waves passed underneath me.
After a month out of the water, anything would have been great. The water was cold and salty and the wind made my ears ache. The Flying 8-ball went cleanly into each duck dive and pulled me out through back of the wave each time, the green water sheeting over my head.
Pretty soon a long, 11-second-period wall rose before me. I paddled into position and shot out to the right, linking up a few peeling sections before it mushed. I reached for my board amid a hundred bobbing kelp heads. Just outside was a young western grebe, its head and neck all grimy from the molt. It was like he’d been on the road a long time, and was just getting back in to wash off.
2 September 2007 – Waddell Beach – very inconsistent south and really nothing else
Just way too many guys out for the 2-wave sets spread 25 minutes apart. But what do you expect? It’s Labor Day weekend. I paddled around for a while with salt water in my mouth. I may have caught a wave or two, if I remember correctly. Then I went to watch the Brutesquad play frisbee.
1 September 2007 – Pleasure Point – waist high, inconsistent
Except for up at First Point and Sewers where the really talented kids hang out, where it was head high on the sets. And I do mean kids – your average 14 year old on the East Side fully rips.
A young Hawaiian guy with stringy long hair paddled out in trunks on an 8-foot soft top. The soft top is the mark of the beginner – so much so that it’s occasionally ridden as a show of style by excellent surfers. Same with wearing trunks in NorCal – even at Pleasure Point in summer. This guy was hiding a shorty wetsuit under his trunks, but he was still clearly in the second category.
I saw him weave through the crowd for a wave, looking back over his shoulder to line up. He was paddling away from the peak – usually a poor move left to uncertain surfers (such as myself) who prefer to hop shoulders. An especially bad idea in a crowd, where position under the curl is key.
So what was this guy up to? Just as the wave broke I remembered the shape of the reef underneath – a flat wall with a notch cutting shoreward just … about … there. Three guys stood up into a closeout. And Stringy stood up right where the wave started to peel.
Later I saw him leaving. He caught a three-inch wave to the beach and rode it onto the sand, both feet forward like he was standing at parade rest. Once aground he stood there a bit longer, feeling it rock.
28 August 2007 – Waddell Beach – waist to neck, glassy
Not quite enough push on most of the waves. But pretty: slick water sat under the fog like rained-on streets. A tiny hint of an offshore breeze blew on my neck as I suited up.
Another day surfing small waves in shallow water and just trying not to draw too much water on the wipeouts. One left opened up into a trundling shoulder and I went with it.
Pacific loons in place of murres today. I was in the water until 8, at my desk by 8:50. Where I heard the news of a shark dragging a surfer under at Marina. My sympathies to the injured (looks like he will recover).
26 August 2007 – Marina – waist to chest, mushy, windblown
High tide on a sloping beach. The water ran up the beach and sloshed back out to sea. The wind lulled on the paddle-out and little wavelets came from all directions. Under broken gray skies the water reflected white, rain-gray, and blue. It was like paddling around in the bulb of a thermometer.
Most waves peaked up outside, toppled, and then backed off again to reform with a smack on the sand. You catch one, try to milk it to the inside, and then be careful what you wished for.
Coming back in I picked up my board in shin-deep water but couldn’t make it up the beach against the draining wave. The next shorebreak wave saw to that: head over heels, then flat on my back, board in hand, skidding up the beach.
Three dolphins next to me in the lineup. Time for a new descriptive term: pretty crappy. As in crappy, but also pretty.
25 August 2007 – Moss Landing (the side where they don’t slash your tires) – waist high at best
Light winds, an aluminum blue sea surface, and the sun setting into a far-off fogbank. It was my first evening glass-off of the season. Short rides on small waves with the trombonezer, riding almost up onto the beach before stepping off into calf-deep water. Coarse sand wedged itself into the gap between my wetsuit and my booties.
Three seals and a sea lion pup kept looking at me curiously. When I looked back at them, they usually flinched and dove. But they never left, and the sea lion was still looking at me as I walked back down the beach to the car.
To the east, seven-eighths of a moon shone low over the yellow dunes. It could still see the sun, when none of the rest of us could.
23 August 2007 – Waddell Beach – waist to very occasional head high, choppy, peaky, crossed-up, high-tide, mushy, gray-sky, early morning, frigid windswell
But like the guy next to me said, “These are the biggest waves I’ve seen in two months!” He was a shortish, burly guy with a head full of frizzy hair. He was a good surfer and slipped easily into waves, early, to head down the line and make precise snaps at the lip, which I glimpsed from the back side in between struggling to get my own.
One opened a nice backside wall for me. It was on one of the rare sets and some boisterous guys from Oregon yawped appreciation from 50 yards away. Two seconds later it was over.
A light, mostly onshore breeze occasionally eddied around to offshore, etching pretty scallops on the wave faces. The rest of the time it was gray and lumpy, but no one complained. There were six guys in the water before 7 a.m.
In amongst us, a couple of molting common murres twittered their wings and dove.
28 July 2007 – Waddell Beach – knee to chest high windswell
The sky and the water were the same color and texture. Fog smudged out the horizon and slow lumps of windswell warbled in to shore. A single file of 40 pelicans came drifting southward against the tan cliffs and dark reef rock of County Line. It was 8:30 and already 10 surfers were out in the cold water, waiting for a few promised south sets that never arrived.
After an hour a wisp of breeze began to ruffle the water. It built, slowly, until it was a moderate onshore that disguised all but the most significant windswell lines. Just outside of the breakers was a nonbreeding plumage marbled murrelet. It bobbed in the water like a dutch clog.
A debate rages in certain forested western states about whether they’re really endangered (for the record, they are on the list) – there are more than a million in Canada and Alaska. But in the Santa Cruz mountains there’s no question. The numbers are around 500 at best, and no one gives them much longer than 40 more years. This one was unconcerned. Pointed its stubby beak at the sky, spread its skinny wings, and dove.
15 July 2007 – Indicators – completely flat
This was a fitness paddle on the 10’0″ lollipop – from Indicators over to the harbormouth and back. It started out nicely but soon wound up taking what little windchop there was abeam, which makes you waddle like a tortoise in a sandpit.
On the way back across I paddled under the wharf, way out near the end, which is where the sea lions hang out. It was reasonably low tide and there was a sea lion on a crossbar about 8 feet above my head. I startled it and it dropped into the water right in front of me. The splash woke up the sea lion on the next crossbar. He started barking and for a moment I thought I was about to be attacked by sleepy, grumpy sea lions.
Out the other side of the wharf without incident. A tourist yelled down from above, “Hey are you going surfing out there?” Much cackling. “Seen any sharks yet?”
4 July 2007 – 38th Ave. – neck high, clean south
I locked eyes with a gray-bearded surfer on a shortboard, just as I went backwards over the falls. On our race to the shoulder he pivoted and scraped for the wave. He would have had it, but I was in his way. Unforgivable.
The lip pushed me delicately into midair and gravity did the rest. The guy scowled. The trombone came down on top of me, followed by a smallish chunk of the Pacific.
Thirty minutes later I wound up next to the guy again. I apologized. “Don’t worry about it.” He even smiled. “Anyway, you took a beating for it.”
A set reeled in. He was too deep, and he waved me into it.
I love the way this board surfs, but I had spent the last couple of days trying to get its style – flat rocker, five funny fins, business pintail – to rub off on me. On this wave we gelled, slotted into the high line, fluttered through the sections.
Fireworks were everywhere. Locals were emptying their bottle rocket caches from the clifftops. Yachts were lighting up the bay with contraband rockets. Down 36th Ave., twelve-year-olds were lighting roman candles and jumping through the fountain.
Way above, the blue sky was cavernous, and the sparks had stuck there.
3 July 2007 – 38th Ave. – chest high, clean south
It was ridiculous even while it was happening, but I stayed in the water until 10 p.m. The swell was still strong, though dying on the high tide. The crowd was skewering my chances at waves, so I just stuck it out. At 9:00 or 9:15 there were still a good 50 people sitting in the gloom.
But it was really glassy. The trombone would notch into a wave and then shoot around and down the line and it was like going over a hill on a country road: gliding, floating, no sensation of going over a surface at all. So I stayed out.
As the darkness gathered, the tide rose and the swell floated up off the reef, flattening out. Pretty soon, it was hard to tell how big or even how close a wave was. The dark band of kelp offshore was the only thing that separated horizon from water, and it constantly looked like a big wave coming. The real waves were closer, and invisible. It was hard to time duck dives, with the foamball moving a lot faster than it seemed.
Fireworks were going off to the east and to the west – not the occasional bottle rocket but streams of red, green, and silver dandelions coming one after the other. A sea otter was eating crab three feet away. From out over the kelp came strange, skittering seabird calls.
2 July 2007 – 38th Ave. – chest high, clean south swell
But man was it crowded. Everybody knew this swell was coming and so I paddled the trombone on out through longboarders and shortboarders and softtoppers and hybrid-riders sticking up out of the water like untrimmed weeds.
A young western gull was standing on a dead seal trapped in the kelp about 200 meters outside of the break. There wasn’t much else happening, so I paddled over and had a look. It was – who knows? – maybe a week dead, its body bloated until the pressure had squeezed out the last of its intestinal contents.
His head was intact. A bit worse for wear, but teeth still firmly clenched. So probably not killed by a shark – but certainly investigated afterwards. A wide oval of teeth marks dug through the blubber on one flank, about the size of a football in outline. Actually, it was hard to imagine a shark being dainty enough to make such a light impression. There was no gouge, no missing bite. The shark had just swum up, sunk its teeth in until, presumably, the mouthful started to taste dead, and then let go.
The poor seal was going nowhere, firmly entrenched in a band of kelp 50 meters thick. His hide was covered with seabird poop of at least two different varieties. The western gull hung around until I was within two paddle strokes. It was taking him all day to get a meal out of the carcass. Even a western gull’s massive beak doesn’t seem enough to get through sealskin, and he was having to pick at the meat through individual holes the shark teeth had made.
I paddled back as the sunset was turning the water pink. Not long after, a tummy high set wave wrapped in at me and caught everyone inside.
23 June 2007 – Pomponio – chest high and all over the place
Trying to make the most of some marginal windswell brought me, Seth, Brian, and Jacob up to Pomponio, past the 25 knot winds at Waddell, round the beautiful offshores at rocky Pigeon Point, and into the (semi-) glassy bubble of Pescadero-Pomponio. The surf was doing the triple-level thing with two sandbars crunching close in to shore and some large mushy sliders far outside.
The longshore current was absolutely ripping south. After two waves I became involved in a 30-minute battle to not get swept down to Davenport. The trombonezer had eased nicely into the sloping waves but now refused to dive under the whitewater. A couple of inconvenient outside waves bashed me back into the heart of the current. Knowing I was beat, I caught a dribbler and bellied on in. Above, the 100-foot cliffs were a mustardy mudstone, still gleaming from the high-tide spray.
18 June 2007 – 38th Ave – waist high and inconsistent
A classically fickle summer swell at Pleasure Point. But the sky was gray and the water glassy and relatively warm. I got a nice one on the trombonezer early on – another one of those zen approaches where something tells you to paddle … just … over here. And almost immediately something peaks up out of the kelp and heads right for you. Took that one all the way into the beach, each section shaping up out of the shoulder just in time. The plank-like board bites into the wave, solid like a longboard, but the pintail lets you sweep around. It carries speed smoothly through the turns and at speed the five fins hum like the rudders on a catamaran.
Late in the day I was in a pack at Second Point. A longboarder who scored a nice wave 10 minutes before saw the next one coming at us, and let it go, bless him. I was right on the peak and looking at the face start to ripple down the line as it steepened. Spray blew off the lip as the board sank into a bottom turn, swooped up to the lip and back to the water in one curve, fins barking.
11 June 2007 – Middle Peak – chin to lower nose high, sunny, hot
A rare northwest bump was pushing small, mushy, but serviceable A-frames at the peak. It was midafternoon and I took the trombonezer out amid a dozen or so longboarders. The trombonezer is the interim name for Giles’s 7’8″ bonzer, so named because bonzers have no business being that long, so this is kind of a mutant bonzer that’s been suddenly stretched a foot or two, and the remaining foam that might have gone into a longboard has been compressed into a thick, straight, flat, hell-paddler of a surfboard.
A tanned local with a tufted soul patch paddled up on a longboard – clearly a shortboard ripper in winter and a little sheepish to be longboarding it at the Lane – commented on the lucky swell. Pointed at the Slot with his chin, where the south swells break in summer, said this was nice for a change.
I bobbed in the water next to my board to cool off. Acres of kelp were at the surface, and the brown emphasized the texture in the water, the long, wobbly swells shifting through. On a hunch, I paddled outside of the pack. A lone wave, not even a set, marched over and peaked up right behind me. The trombonezer hit warp speed and I was popped up, hooting at another longboarder inside me who was planning his drop-in. He pulled off, and I cut around at the shoulder, those five bonzer fins going woof-woof-woof as they snipped through the kelp.
9 June 2007 – Davenport Landing – shin high with 35 knot onshores
The header kind of speaks for itself. Out with Mea, Margaret and Linda, just getting back in the water after a month off. I always love how the saltwater tastes after a long time away. What swell there was was wrapping around the cluttered rocks to the north. The howling sideshores up there were ripping fringes of water off the peaks and into the slanting evening sun. I paddled over to the reef at the south. A couple of pro French windsurfers were launching off the peaks. I scurried into one on the trombonezer and scooted along in front of it, kind of like sliding over the kitchen in your socks. Picking up and heading back for the parking lot, the wind almost ripped the board out of my hands.
6 May 2007 – Threemile – waist to chest high and wobbly
Catching the end of a morning minus tide. The reef here is chunky and full of holes. Outside, strange boils surface as sets push deep water through the spaces. At the point, I catch something with no shoulder but find it catching up to a reform wave coming in from the right. I scoot across the flat, push down and into the reform, and I’m on another wave. Weird.
Everywhere else, it’s spring. The pigeon guillemots are back from the open sea, twittering at each other and shaking their beaks. They circle the cliffs looking for crevices they can crawl into and raise chicks. You can see their red legs a hundred feet away, like wellies.
5 May 2007 – 38th Avenue – almost flat except for every 40 minutes or so
Happens every south swell: a nice-sized set comes through as you’re walking down the stairs, so you paddle out and sit optimistically far from shore. After 15 minutes of tweeners creeping through to break far inshore, you creep back with them. Maybe you catch a shin-slapper or two. Or maybe you just slide off the back of some insignificant pulse you should feel ashamed of even paddling for. Then it happens.
The set of the day rolls in. Chest to shoulder, way outside. You and all your groveling compatriots spin around but you’re helplessly inside.
The set is long, and each wave breaks larger and farther out. Only one guy is spared. He looks around, finds himself miraculously outside, and eases into a long wall that obscures the horizon. It’s fringing in the offshores, razor sharp, spray blowing up and backwards in the wind and the evening sun.
He eases to his feet, stands gingerly, then relaxes. Accelerates. I missed the rest, because I was duck diving.
28 April 2007 – Slot/Middle Peak – waist to head high
Another hot afternoon grabbing leftovers. A crow in a Monterey cypress took flight with an entire bagel in its beak. I could see the sky through the hole in it.
Later, on my way back out of the water, the last waves of the set shoved my leash loop through a crack between two pieces of rip-rap. I climbed back down among the mussels and the barnacles to yank it loose. The arrow-headed barnacles are made of overlapping, bone-gray plates. They look like fossilized artichokes or an undiscovered kind of armor.
Another wave broke and from each apex, each barnacle darted out a fringed net, full and brown as eyelashes.
27 April 2007 – Slot/Middle Peak – waist to shoulder high
The waves were small and swarming with people who had quit work early. The sun was baking, and the water was cold, and green, and salty. Kelp fronds trailed through the water like pennants.
26 April 2007 – Indicators – head high
Standing on the cliff edge, it was evident I had come in one set early. Wave after wave peeled down line, walling up into the curl and churning. Ten waves, 15 waves, each with a surfer slotted, whacking at the lip or just finding the trim line. I got back in.
This never happens, but less than 15 minutes later another one of those waves homed in on my position. A shortboarder was inside of me and I let him go. What’s this behind it? An even bigger wall, miraculously sectioning, wiping out two scrabbling longboarders like an elbow coming down on a dinnertable.
Three minutes later I was on the stairs again. Chuckling this time.
25 April 2007 – Indicators – head high to 2 feet overhead
Graced by a solid late-season swell, the town hit the low tide in force, midweek midafternoon be damned. I was inside, on the flying 8-ball, trying to stay on the reform peak as big Middle Peak waves crumpled outside.
Inevitably, someone in the Middle Peak pack would scrape into the foamball and come flying out on their belly, struggling to their feet to milk the wave until it reformed – right where I was trying to catch it. Priority is what it is, and so they got to ride. That’s the annoying thing about traffic control at the Lane. Shaky guys on big longboards push their way to the top and clog up the waves, over and over again. I know, because I’ve been one of them.
After hours fighting a longshore current that reduced my arms to hypothetical mental constructs, I coasted into something small and mushy that nonetheless lined up all the way around the corner and into Cowells. The 8-ball made the most of any steepness it was offered.
Despite the rising tide, Cowells was still lined up all the way across to the pier. From the cliff I saw an old guy, white hair shining, slotted in the curl of a belly-high green wave. Screaming.
22 April 2007 – Scott Creek reef – 4-6 feet
Wave count zero at the reef. I paddled over to the beachbreak, caught three dribblers and called it a day. It was like the waves were moving underwater. The ocean surface sat there, motionless, as each wave bulged up over the reef and then folded onto it. At the shoulder, the water was essentially not moving.
The worst part was the certain knowledge that if anyone else had been out there, they would have shown me how it was done. Happens every time. The number of kickass surfers in Santa Cruz is bewildering.
20 April 2007 – Scott Creek beachbreak – 4-5 feet, glassy but uncooperative
Rain moved in from the south last night, momentarily flummoxing the spring winds. The ocean was lightly ruffled north of town, and went completely glassy around noon. Inconsistent sets heaved out of the dimpled water while mystery currents pushed me in strange and unproductive directions.
From behind one of these sets, in the quiet, came a sound like a pressure washer at a car wash. Twenty yards away a slick patch of water twirled, and then a gray whale surfaced, back arching, knobbly head sliding under, white spout spouting. I paddled closer, and it trundled on.
An outside set cleaned me up, three big waves on the head. The sun came out, and I pulled myself back together and started back outside. The water was mood-ring green. Bubbles the size of softballs churned in the creases of the turbulence as it sorted itself out. Elsewhere, they tailed off down to soda-pop fizz. In the quiet after a clean-up set, ears still ringing, that sound of bubbles comes from everywhere all at once.
The first of the by-the-wind sailors are here. Little blue jellies the size of credit cards, rectangular, like little scrubby brushes with one stiff ridge to catch the wind. Every spring, the constant winds push them ashore in hordes, where they litter the high tide line, sometimes ankle deep.
18 April 2007 – Indicators – shoulder high and clean
Magical evening offshores at the Lane sculpted thick lines at least halfway through Indicators. The 8’0″ butterknife accelerated smoothly at the peaks and then fluttered down the long walls. The sky was a cloudless, distant, steely blue with orange glowing up through the cliff and lighthouse, where the sun was setting.
A flurry of white skipped across the water way out toward the pier, like panicked baitfish. It was a flock of sanderlings skimming low. They banked one way, brown backs against blue water, and vanished. Then they corrected, white bellies caught the light, and were there again.
16 April 2007 – Middle Peak – waist to shoulder high
Waist-high at Middle Peak is kind of a logical impossibility. Let’s just say it was too small to be breaking at Indicators.
A string of seventeen cormorants came past, wings swishing. Two seconds go by. Then here comes number eighteen.
High above everybody else, the first merganser in a while. Flapping like hell.
15 April 2007 – Indicators – chest high where I was sitting
Sets to about 9 feet outside, where a contest was going on all day. Surfer commentary over the P.A. (“nice little cutty slash there”), with occasional strains of Tom Petty, Bob Marley, or unidentified Chicago blues drifting out over the water. I guess it makes the spectating more fun, but it’s just not right in the water. Still, a cloudless day, bright blue water, otters with the uncanny knack of lying serenely on their backs at the exact spot where the shoulder stops breaking.
A hundred Bonaparte’s gulls came gamboling past, light on their wings, black hoods marking them as not your everyday gull. They’re the smallest gulls around, and they fluttered into the wind almost like terns, looking down, white wing-triangles flashing. They pushed around the point in a long string and disappeared, but I think they made a loop, because I saw them in the same spot, headed the same way, a half-hour later.
14 April 2007 – Indicators – chest to head high through the inside
Putting sunscreen on in the last of the rain. Stacked gray clouds bundled over town, but a fierce northwest wind shoved some blue sky underneath them. Boats in the bay turned downwind and set their spinnakers.
One wave lined up in the breeze and sped me over the sand-filled reef. I could have gone in then, but I didn’t, and nothing that good came my way again. Eventually a couple of confident girls in shorty wetsuits on pink longboards paddled out and started taking everything in sight.
The clouds turned white and bent forward on their way inland. Suddenly, I was in a crowd of cormorants, maybe 300 of them, with western gulls snapping above their heads and calling out jealously. The water was wriggling with oily green necks, brown kelp ropes, and the wingslaps of cormorants taking off and gulls hovering. I never did see what they were eating.
13 April 2007 – Indicators – chest to head high, mostly mushy
A big south swell was lighting up the point, but southern angles don’t do much for Indicators. I was on the flying 8-ball, a 7’2″ swallowtail that simply refuses to answer to any other name. I set up inside a flock of longboarders and every 30 minutes or so a nice peak wobbled over in my direction and firmed up right over my head.
A longboarder was breaking virtually every rule in the book. The most dangerous of these was “Don’t try to teach your girlfriend how to surf.” If you break that one, you should at least try to stick to “Only give one tip per day.” His was a running commentary: “paddle-paddle-paddle, aw you shoulda gone for that one, watch out don’t turn your back you could get wiped out, hold your rail to steady yourself, start going for some of these, practice some standups while you’re waiting.”
He was tanned and barrel chested, mid-30s, short haired, bull nosed, your classic career surfer/carpenter, apparently. But the way he shouted across the still water seemed out of character. He quickly goofed a couple of waves, cursing before he hit the water. I was inside of him on one and saw him scramble to his feet, way ahead of his balance. (Remember Mallory Knox: “Next time don’t be so f#@&ng eager!”)
The bad advice continued: “If a big wave is breaking in front of you, just dive off your board and get away from it.” “If you see a wave you want, just start paddling for it.” I filed this one away as a warning, and sure enough as the next peak approached I saw him lining up, head down, huffing to the shoulder. I happened to be right under the peak and the good ol’ flying 8 coasted in, instantly on rail and arcing. Mr. Advice was oblivious, still going straight. Bonk! went his giant eggo waffle of a board against mine.
I tried to yank him off his board as I went down, but unfortunately that seemed to be just what he needed to regain his balance. It was his wave of the day, and I didn’t see him again for 20 minutes, sneaking back up the lineup and hoping not to be noticed. Then there he was, dropping in on one knee, front leg extended like a runner doing stretches, veering…directly…for me.
In between kelp patches, a sea lion surfaced. She was small, sleek, silvery brown. I could barely hear her exhale.
10 April 2007 – Indicators – head high, much larger up at Middle Peak
On my way through the tidepools, I rested my hand on some wet sand that had collected in the nook of a boulder, only to feel it recoil, shiver and spray me with tiny jets of seawater. It was a forest of tiny anemones – probably all clones – each one holding aloft a grain of sand or a shell chip, hiding out from the dry air.
Outside, Steamer Lane was living up to its reputation as one of the classic California point breaks, and the midday, midweek crowd was thin enough for me to scrape into a few long, chugging, lined-up waves. Between sets, offshore breezes spread seafoam across the whole lineup till it was one big capuccino with otters in it.
I found a spot just off the statue and three or four waves in a row homed in on me. Waves at the Lane are like those impossible scenes from Big Wednesday or Point Break – big, sloping faces that steepen and relax on cue, just begging you to go top to bottom, or slot into the highline and put the accelerator down. Everybody needs a day like that every now and then. On the cliff above, a white utility truck slowed down. Somebody yelled out the window “Hey! I just wanted to let you know I’m not coming back in to work today.”
8 April 2007 – 38th Ave.- waist-chest high wind/south swell mix
With spring winds blenderizing the waves along most of the coast, the south-facing Santa Cruz shoreline was working its magic. All the breaks in town were calm, the kelp forests dampening most of the windchop and leaving long, clean lumbering faces rolling in free over the mudstone.
The crowd was manageable and mostly good-natured. I was on the 8’0″ butterknife, which put me at a distinct paddling disadvantage but allowed me to adopt an ever so slightly smug sense of superiority over the longboard-toting majority. (This quickly evaporated when I strayed over to the shortboarder peak and watched guys coast effortlessly into waves on boards a full two feet shorter than mine. So much for smugness.)
It’s mushy at 38th, but I got a few with enough shoulder to work in a sweet sweeping cutback or two. Paddling back out, rendered senselessly happy by the sunlight and the idyllic marine fauna, I had to admit it’s not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon. A sea otter ripped the legs off a crab and sank his teeth through its shell – make that partially idyllic. Another set walled up outside and the longboarders wheeled around into position, like little compass needles.
3 April 2007 – Waddell Beach – south swell still dragging in like a fourth grader without his homework
Three days ago it was western grebes; yesterday red-breasted mergansers and an oily-green Brandt’s cormorant with long white whiskery plumes coming off its cheeks. Today it was surf scoters, two dozen of them, the orange-beaked males flying in, white nape patches gleaming like the bald strip on a clown’s wig.
On the side of the road, a raven stood on a sofa cushion, stabbing with its beak and pulling out fluff. Perhaps it was going after a cozy nest lining, but I know it was secretly hoping for french fries.
1 April 2007 – Waddell Beach – 2′ with very lazy 4′ south swell dragging in
Waves really not worth mentioning, especially once the northwest winds picked up. But with me in the mess, dodging whitecaps, were about a dozen western grebes poking their crisp black-and-white necks around the peaks. About eighty whimbrels flew up the coast, about 100 yards offshore, in big untidy S-bends as if they couldn’t decide between the beach and the open sea. Cinnamon patches in their primaries caught the morning light. Eight miles south, a bobcat prowled the edge of a strawberry farm.
25 March 2007 – Pomponio – three feet and mixed upDriving up on a Sunday to do some work in the megalopolis, I drove straight past Waddell beach (above) where the wind was howling out of the northwest and the kiteboarders were everywhere. As happens from time to time, the wind magically died north of Pigeon Point lighthouse. At Pomponio beach the picnickers were throwing sandwich ends and leftover tortilla chips into the trash cans, and the ravens were pulling them right back out again.
The wind was onshore but light enough that it didn’t matter. Waves were small, mixed up – wind chop coming from several directions at once. On the outer sandbars the bigger swells rolled but didn’t really break until they reformed on the inner bar. There it was all waist-high lips crashing down at once, finishing in a sandy green turmoil without ever developing much of a face.
I paddled around for ages, perpetually out of reach of the outer waves. A hidden current was slipping sideways off the shoal, so whenever I stopped paddling (a month in Germany, c’mon) I found myself courteously escorted alongshore, the wrong way, halfway back to the shorebreak.
After 40 minutes of alternately enjoying the sunset and losing my temper, I caught sight of two pitiful peaks simultaneously wobbling toward me. By the time they reached me they had merged into an actual A-frame and I was somehow in exactly the right spot. What followed was roughly seven seconds of retribution: the trusty Flying 8-Ball knew just what to do, dipping under the peak, cutting back to zip along the small face back to shore. That was it, but then it doesn’t take much. I walked back to the parking lot feeling just like one of the ravens.