Learning to surf in the sixties.
For my eleventh birthday, my father took me to the Dave Sweet Surfboards shop on Olympic Boulevard, in Santa Monica. From the rack of used boards, I chose a solid, sunbrowned 9’0″ with blue-green paneled rails and a fin built with at least eight different types of wood. It cost seventy dollars. I was five feet tall, weighed eighty pounds, and could not reach my arm around it. I carried it to the street on my head, feeling self-conscious and scared of dropping the board, but as happy as I had ever been.
It wasn’t an easy winter, trying to learn to surf. Even though the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” (“Let’s go surfin’ now / everybody’s learning how”) was on the radio, I was the only kid at my backwater school who had a board. We spent most weekends in Ventura, so I got in the water regularly, but California Street was rocky and the water was painfully cold. I got a wet suit, but it had short legs and no sleeves, and neoprene technology was still in its infancy. At best, the little wet suit took some of the sharpest chill off the afternoon wind. My father liked to tell a story about a day when I got discouraged. From the warmth of the car, he had been watching me flounder—I imagine him smoking his pipe, wearing a big fluffy fisherman’s sweater. I came in, my feet and knees bleeding, stumbling across the rocks, dropping my board, humiliated and exhausted. He told me to go back out and catch three more waves. I refused. He insisted. I could ride them on my knees if necessary, he said. I was furious. But I went back out and caught the waves, and in his version of the story, that was when I became a surfer. If he hadn’t made me go back out that day, I would have quit. He was sure of that.
In the seventh grade, I finally moved on from the hill-girdled intimacy of my elementary school to an enormous, anonymous junior high out on the floor of the valley proper. There I started making friends on the basis of a shared interest in surfing. Rich Wood was the first. He was short, aloof, a bit roly-poly, sarcastic, a year older than me. But he had a tidy, graceful style that suited the long, satiny, gently folding waves at California Street, and he slipped into the scrum of a surrogate family—mine—with an ease that was surprising at first, considering how reserved he was, how little he had to say for himself. It made more sense after I met his family. His parents were a matched set of short, leathery golfers who were rarely around. Rich had a much older brother, and it seemed like their parents had already checked out on raising kids, moved on to some internal Florida. Rich’s big brother, Craig, could certainly have driven them to it. He was a hard-charging, muscle-bound hot-rodder of some sort, cocky and loud. He claimed to surf, but I never saw him in the water. Craig had named his penis Paco and he always had stories about Paco’s adventures with women.
“Paco been doing some damage, cabrón!”
When Rich started going with a girl, Craig would demand to smell his fingers when he came home from dates—he wanted to verify his kid brother’s sexual progress. Rich and Craig could not have been less alike.
Rich and I studied California Street together. He was strangely circumspect about where he had learned to surf. He had learned his chops somewhere, obviously. But he was vague. “Secos, County Line, Malibu. You know.” I didn’t, really, except from the mags and from Steve Painter. We applied ourselves, anyway, to California Street together—the lineups, the locals, the tides, the invisible ribs of rock under the dark kelpy water, all the idiosyncrasies of a long, somewhat tricky wave. Nobody spoke to us, and we found takeoff spots that were intermittent or overlooked and that suited our abilities, so that we could surf without interfering with anyone. But we also studied with fanatical intensity the moves of the top local guys, and discussed them into the night in our bunks in the duplex that my family had started using as a beach house. We got to know a few of their names: Mike Arrambide, Bobby Carlson, Terry Jones. How did Arrambide sideslip through all those middle sections? What was that crazy, quick-step first turn that Carlson did on the drop? Was he really switching stance (going from right-foot-forward to left-foot-forward)? Rich and I were still mastering the basics—clean takeoffs, hard turns, tight trimming, walking the nose—but we had to learn from the big guys because there were few kids our age at California Street, and none, we realized, who surfed better than us.
I actually got as much pleasure from watching Rich himself surf as from watching anyone else. His balance was solid, at times impeccable, his hands expressive, his footwork refined. He rode a big board that was pigmented a solid white. He got far less confident, less aggressive, when the surf was over four feet, but he had the makings of a small-wave master, and I was proud to surf with him. We would always be outsiders in small-town Ventura, but in time we were getting curt nods of acknowledgment in the water from some of the regulars.
My parents took to dropping us off at dawn, when it was often foggy and always glassy, and only picking us up in the late afternoon. There was no beach at C Street, as we learned to call it, just rocks and a low, crumbling bluff, huge oil storage tanks, grimy fields, and, farther up the point, some abandoned fairgrounds. Even farther up the point, in a grove of trees, was a hobo jungle, which meant you had to keep an eye out for shabby characters coming down the shore from that direction, since our towels and lunches were stashed in the rocks while we surfed. The onshore sea breeze usually sprang up and ruined the waves by lunchtime. That made for long afternoons huddling around driftwood fires under the bluff, waiting for our ride. Once, when the wind was particularly biting and wet, we dragged old tires into a pile and lit those. The heat was magnificent, but the thick, stinking column of black smoke blowing into town brought a police car, and we ran with our boards—not easy—and hid in the fairgrounds. At the end of those days, finally back at the duplex, Rich and I, still in our wet suits, would share a hot outdoor shower, thirty seconds a turn, the one in the cold counting off the time aloud, then knocking the other guy out of the stream, until the hot ran out.
The close, painstaking study of a tiny patch of coast, every eddy and angle, even down to individual rocks, and in every combination of tide and wind and swell—a longitudinal study, through season after season—is the basic occupation of surfers at their local break. Getting a spot wired—truly understanding it—can take years. At very complex breaks, it’s a lifetime’s work, never completed. This is probably not what most people see, glancing seaward, noting surfers in the water, but it’s the first-order problem that we’re out there trying to solve: What are these waves doing, exactly, and what are they likely to do next? Before we can ride them, we have to read them, or at least make a credible start on the job.
Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable—language is no help. Wave judgment is fundamental, but how to unpack it? You’re sitting in a trough between waves, and you can’t see past the approaching swell, which will not become a wave you can catch. You start paddling upcoast and seaward. Why? If the moment were frozen, you could explain that, by your reckoning, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the next wave will have a good takeoff spot about ten yards over and a little farther out from where you are now. This calculation is based on: your last two or three glimpses of the swells outside, each glimpse caught from the crest of a previous swell; the hundred-plus waves you have seen break in the past hour and a half; your cumulative experience of three or four hundred sessions at this spot, including fifteen or twenty days that were much like this one in terms of swell size, swell direction, wind speed, wind direction, tide, season, and sandbar configuration; the way the water seems to be moving across the bottom; the surface texture and the water color; and, beneath these elements, innumerable subcortical perceptions too subtle and fleeting to express. These last factors are like the ones that the ancient Polynesian navigators relied upon when, on the open seas, they used to lower themselves into the water between the outriggers on their canoes and let their testicles tell them where in the great ocean they were.
Of course, the moment can’t be frozen. And the decision whether to sprint-paddle against the current, following your hunch, or to stop and drift, gambling that the next wave will defy the odds and simply come to you, has to be made in an instant. And the deciding factors are just as likely to be non-oceanic—your mood, the state of your arm muscles, the deployment of other surfers. The role of the crowd is, in fact, often critical. Other surfers can signal approaching waves. You watch someone paddle over the top of a swell and you try to assess, in the last instant before he disappears, what he sees outside. It helps if you know the paddler—whether he is liable to overreact to the sight of a big wave, whether he knows the spot well. Or you may look down the line, upcoast or downcoast, at someone who may have a better view of what’s in store for you than you have, and try to gauge his reaction to what he sees. He may even try to signal which way you should be moving—to give you a jump on whatever is bearing down on you. For the most part, though, the crowd is just a nuisance, a distraction, distorting your judgment while you jockey to get a wave to yourself.
At California Street, Rich Wood and I were just young apprentices. But we were serious about the work, which did not go unnoticed by the more experienced hands, who began to give us waves occasionally. The way Rich and I pooled our notes, studied each other, quietly competed—this too was, for me, fundamental. Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered. My memory of learning a spot, of coming to know and understand a wave, is usually inseparable from the friend with whom I tried to climb its walls.
From Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © William Finnegan, 2015.
William Finnegan is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid and A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique.