Every male who lives in Santa Cruz County between the ages of 5 and 75, it seems, has to, at one time or another, deal with the surfing question.
Am I a surfer? Am I not a surfer? Do I pretend to be a surfer to outsiders who wouldn’t know the difference? Do I drape a damp wet suit over the backyard fence to show my neighbor that I spent the morning shredding out at the Hook when in fact I just walked the dog around the block? Do surfers even say “shredding”?
Spend more than a day in this town and you’ll begin to discern the various species of surfers common in Santa Cruz – the turf-conscious adrenaline junkies who all seem to know at least one guy in the Expendables; the Zen surfers who view surfing as some kind of worship service (until they meet an Expendables fan out in the water); the older guys who won’t stop talking about how much better it used to be; the bright-eyed newbies at Cowell’s who tend to carry around newly purchased pucks of Sex Wax in their pockets; the handful of “pro” surfers who got an endorsement deal or two in years past and often go by names such as “Weasel Boy.”
Me, I was born a land mammal and will almost certainly die one. There is no seal in my family tree – though I do have a couple of uncles who bear a striking resemblance to the sea lions that bark down at the end of the Wharf.
The few times I’ve been out in the water, Mother Ocean has assaulted me with cheery indifference, often pile-driving my face into the sand and blindsiding me with walls of water that could suit up in the NFL as pass rushers.
That freezing stripe that runs vertically along my spine where the zipper of the wet suit touches my skin is all too symbolic of where my head is at when I’m out in the surf. Like carnivorous jungle cats, the ocean can smell fear.
But next month, Santa Cruz will be even more deeply enshrined as the West Coast’s greatest surfing mecca with the release of “Chasing Mavericks,” the new film about the late surf icon Jay Moriarity. (How’s that taste, Huntington Beach?).
So, in that spirit, as a nod to the “Live Like Jay” ethic, last week, I decided I was going to get up on a moving surf board or die trying – well, “die” is a little much.
It helped that when struck by this decision, I happened to be spending the day in Waikiki after a week on Oahu’s North Shore, the only other place that rivals Santa Cruz in surfing awesomeness (Boo-yah, Huntington Beach!).
My wife clearly abdicated her responsibility as my primary caretaker by encouraging this madness, particularly in the face of my many failures on this front. So, I had no choice but to carry out the mission. I employed a young man to drag me out into the surf – which in Waikiki is quite mellow, and, unlike Santa Cruz, less cold than the seas of Neptune.
I’m not what anyone under 70 would call a young person, and my musculoskeletal system is increasingly balky – squatting, for instance, is on my list of Things I’ll Probably Never Do Again. So, I was quite concerned that the clean and jerk required to get to a standing position on a surfboard would be beyond me and that I would exposed as a pathetic spaz in front of the hordes on the beaches of Waikiki, which that day consisted of probably two-thirds of the native population of Japan.
It helped that I was given an aircraft carrier of a surfboard, a massive plank that in the water was so enormous and stable, you could have played a tennis match on the thing. The day before, I had literally seen a dude riding a wave while – no lie – standing on his head. As I paddled out, I kept thinking that guy was clearly mocking me. I had to take action.
And then, it happened. On my second wave, I yanked my reluctant bones into position and stood on the deck of the USS Honolulu. Mother Ocean, so wantonly cruel before, just stood back and grinned. I was riding a wave – not in a dream, or a video game, or a Photoshopped gif, but in real life.
Was it awesome, friends? Surely, it was. It was a feeling of grace and power that I could see getting used to. All I heard in my head was Dick Dale. For a while, I was convinced that with a little practice I could rip the gnarliest curl in the sea – if that even makes sense.
But, in all my athletic endeavors, humiliation follows triumph every time. On my next wave, I collided with another surfer, but the next one after that was even better than the first. I was getting the hang of this. It was only then, I was waylaid by something I clearly didn’t see coming.
Paddling out again, suddenly the world was swinging wildly in my line of vision. I have always been, we should note, notorious for motion-sickness. Here I was ready to ride another wave and yet I couldn’t get up anymore, not because of my bad technique or creaky legs or fear of falling, but because I was seasick on the surfboard. Who would have thought it?
I drifted onto the beach and laid in the sand like a sack of garbage, determined to hold down my expensive breakfast.
In the crashing of the waves, I could hear Mother Ocean cackling.