Chasing Mavericks: Surfing in Northern California

The swell had finally hit.

Steamer Lane was 6 to 8 feet on the sets with fun waves and not that many people out. My sons Israel (16), Daniel (14) and I quickly donned our wetsuits and jumped into the lineup.

We were on the second part of our Thanksgiving week excursion up the coast of California to visit college campuses in the world’s best public university system (Israel is a junior in high school) and hopefully catch a few waves.

Before heading north, we checked out Southern California schools and surf spots.

Jumping off of the rocks at Steamer Lane.

Jumping off of the rocks at Steamer Lane.

My wife, Emily, flew into San Francisco the day before Thanksgiving and we planed to join my dad, my brother and the rest of our family for a feast.

The Lane, a World Surfing Reserve, is ground zero for Northern California surf culture (technically it is Central California—but I’m calling Santa Cruz and SF Northern Cal). It is a frenetic beehive of surfers, waves, coastal culture, and surf-gazing tourists.

It is the Main Street of surfing in the United States, with a lighthouse and panoramic view for the wave-filled lineup of Monterey Bay. I couldn’t think of a nicer place to spend an afternoon.

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While the boys gleefully jumped off Lighthouse Point and into the Slot, I carefully walked down the upper staircase and delicately threaded my way down the rocks and into the lineup at The Point.

While I fought the crowd for a few lined-up rights, the boys snagged set waves, then found waves to take them inside, where they would run up the inner staircase,  back to the outer rocks, fling themselves back into the lineup and start all over again. Grom heaven.

After a couple of hours at the Lane, we hurried northward along the Pacific Coast Highway. Our destination was Half Moon Bay and Pillar Point, home to Mavericks, one of the world’s most infamous and challenging big-wave surf spots.

After hitting a bizarre pre-Thanksgiving traffic jam in Half Moon Bay (which is literally in the middle of nowhere), we found the Mav’s parking lot at the base of Pillar Point.

The boys with Greg Long.

The boys with Greg Long.

The boys ran down the trail ahead of me.

“Hey, Dad,” said Israel, running back toward me after a couple of minutes on the trail. “That’s Greg Long,” he said, pointing to a lone surfer walking down the beach carrying a big-wave gun.

And sure enough, we were lucky to catch a moment with one of the world’s best big-wave surfers.

“The waves are coming up,” Long said. “It’s not super big, but I wanted to get ready for tomorrow.”

Sunset at Mavericks.

Sunset at Mavericks.

All I can say about Mavericks is that I have a deep well of respect for the surfers who challenge themselves on what has to be one of the gnarliest and most difficult waves to surf on the coast of California.

The rocks, the waves, the paddle, the sharks, and the boils come together to make it a true surfing gauntlet.

As the sun set, the boys and I joined a couple of locals and a group of Japanese surfers on the cliff above the beach and watched 12- to 15-foot waves pour through the surf zone.

It was gnarly. And it wasn’t even that “big.”

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For the next two days, in between wonderful meals at my brother’s house, the boys and I enjoyed great waves at Fort Point and Ocean Beach in San Francisco. We couldn’t have been more stoked.

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So for those of you who spend your time and money searching the world for great waves and adventure, make sure you haven’t overlooked our wonderful surf-filled state.

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Jack Oneill’s Surfing Life and Legacy

Drew Kampion has always been one of the most astute and intelligent observers of modern surfing. With over 10 books to his name, the former editor of SURFER, SURFING and the Surfer’s Path, has published a new tome on the life of Jack O’Neill, the legendary innovator behind surfing wetsuits and the founder of the Santa Cruz surf giant, O’Neill.

Serge Dedina: You’ve documented the evolution of surfing since the 1960s. For you, what was the most innovative and exciting era?

Drew Kampion: Definitely 1968-1970 … what could compare? So many converging impulses in that atmosphere of cultural upheaval and experimentation. Surfboard designs were changing by the week – by the day! 40 years on there are still people going back to some of those ideas and realizing that there had been no follow-through. So you see a re-exploration of concepts. The fact that the 40-some pros on the WCT (and the rest of the ASP and ISA circuits) ride boards that appear to be essentially cookie-cutter, in fact there are infinite varieties out there being ridden and tested, and each of them has its own little cult following and band of believers and all of that. Those thousands of little niches create the actuality of the surfing world.

Dedina: Your tenure as the SURFING editor in the 1970s seemed to be the zenith of mainstream surf journalism for adults. Are surfers really interested in coherent and contextual reporting anymore?

Kampion: I think so. In fact I’ve really, really enjoyed a lot of the surf writers over the past 20 or 30 years. I think surf writers are pretty good as a group –they tell good stories about adventures on the edge of things, they integrate environmental and naturalistic perspectives, they do a good job of enlarging our understanding of the sport and art and culture. I think the surf mags have done very well, even as ownership and management have shifted, the guys on the beach have stayed on mission. Thanks to them all!

Dedina: Jack O’Neill seems to be one of the last generation of founding fathers and surf CEOs. Do you think in today’s world of multi-national surf companies that O’Neill’s success is even possible anymore?

Kampion: Absolutely. Surfers are quick to pick up on things that improve their game in one way or another, and practical innovations will always attract a market.  From there, you just start selling T-shirts and “sportswear,” and you’re golden!  That’s where the money is, in all of these companies.  No one really got right making surfboards or wetsuits; it’s the sportswear (made in China and sold to folks in Chicago or Knoxville) that builds the so-called “industry.”

Author Drew Kampion

Dedina: When O’Neill looks back on his own life and career, what is his greatest legacy

Kampion: Aside from an incomparable accumulation of innovations, inventions, and improvements in the world of wetsuits and related comfort-causing products, I’d say Team O’Neill was the big one. Largely Pat O’Neill’s baby, the Team O’Neill concept (an international roster of top riders who toured, marketed, competed, and partied together around the planet) really provided a template for what became modern pro surfing and also inspired the other big companies to follow suit. Team O’Neill arguably ignited the reality of career surfers with potential beyond the performance arenas.

Dedina: Out of all the innovations that have spurred the progression of surfing, where does the development of modern wetsuits fit?

Kampion: Well, it’s one of the top three probably, right up there with foam (which Jack pioneered too) and the leash (which Pat O’Neill helped create).  So, the O’Neill name is pretty essential in the evolution of surfing.  Picture surfing without Jack and his kids, and the vision would be far more limited, I’d say.

Dedina: How did the development of wetsuits and especially the commercialization of flexible, neoprene suits for surfing help advance modern surfing?

Kampion: Without the wetsuit – and specifically the smooth-skinned neoprene wetsuit – surfing would be a far more limited, unknown, and warm-weather sport associated with certain parts of the world. As it is now, with the proliferation of the wetsuit and associated technological developments, surfing is a global sport that has participants in the northernmost points of Europe, America, and Asia, as well as the chill zones of Africa, South America, and Australia.  Surfing (and a full range of other sports and activities) is a year-round global sport, in large measure due to the wetsuit.

Dedina: Why did Jack O’Neill set out to create a surfing wetsuit?

Kampion: Jack had been working in sales for several years following WWII, and he’d moved from Portland to San Francisco to work for an uncle in the fire-equipment business. Anyway, this kept him trapped in the downtown world most of the time, and Jack, being an adventurous spirit, was getting progressively more claustrophobic. His only escape was a drive down to the beach and a plunge into the Pacific.

This was totally invigorating, and he was an excellent and dedicated bodysurfer, but there were limits to how long you can swim in that water without protection.  So the cycle of “dive in, swim out, catch a wave or two, start shivering, get hypothermic, sprint back to the beach and the fire to warm up and do it all again” had (its) own frustrations, so… he began to think about ways to keep warm and thus be able to surf longer.

First came bathing caps and wool sweaters, but when he saw a piece of PVC foam in a surplus store, a lightbulb went off, and he tried fitting pieces of the foam into his bunhugger trunks … and behold! At least that part of him was warm. So, one thing led to another, and soon he found neoprene and the rest is history.

Dedina: Out of all of the surf personalities you have written about who stands out? And whose surfing stands out for you?

Kampion: Well, I learned to surf (literally) in the shadow of Miki Dora. I was awestruck by the surfing and animal magnetism of Nat Young. I was blown away by the intricate artful sensibilities of Tom Curren. I was overwhelmed with the powerful insights and commitment of Titus Kinimaka, and on and on and on.  Every one of the hundreds or thousands of surfers I’ve interviewed has been a unique pearl of human perfection, and each one I’ve appreciated in many ways, but I must say that it’s hard not to admit that Kelly Slater is the most impressive surfer (meaning a person whose central mission in life is riding waves) that I’ve encountered.

He’s 40 years old, and he’s still the best.  In fact, his mission may be to see how old the best can get.  But Kelly is amazing on other levels too — interpersonally, heartfully, aesthetically.creatively — that it’s hard to see him as anything other than the culmination and fruition of numerous forces.  I continue to follow his career with fascination, keeping one eye out for the amazing genius that will inevitably follow him.

Dedina: Your book, Stoked: A History of Surf Culture, provides an excellent framework for understanding the world of surfing, but has surfing become too mainstream and too commercial to be considered a lifestyle or culture anymore?

Kampion: An old friend of mine, who sold advertising in the surfing world, used to caution companies and clients, “Don’t forget to water your roots!”  Meaning, don’t leave the beach to chase the dollar – you’ll regret it.  Some big companies buy a surf brand and then see the brand go into immediate decline — because not only do they not water the roots, they don’t even know where the roots are!  The fact the sport becomes mainstream or commercial only affects those that are affected by that.  The core practitioners of the sport-art don’t change, they just move further out to the edges, where all of that in drowned out by the sound of moving water.

Tsunami Stories

Tsunami aftermath in Japan.

From my Imperial Beach Patch Southwest Surf Column of March 23rd.

On Friday March 11, I woke up around 4AM and found a message in my phone from my father, “There has been an earthquake in Japan and there is a tsunami warning for the coast of California.”

I immediately turned on my computer and found the devastating news about the largest earthquake ever to hit Japan. The National Weather Service forecast a 2.2-foot tsunami hitting Imperial Beach at approximately 8:30 that morning.

Meanwhile, my English cousin Toby Bray and his girlfriend Polly Stock who had just visited Imperial Beach for my mother’s memorial service heard the news in Britain (it was morning there). Toby, terrified that his parents Martin and Zena who were still here with my dad on California Street, would be washed away by the tsunami, phoned my dad’s house sometime after 2:30 and woke everyone up.

Groggy, Martin and Zena along with my Aunt Liliane who was visiting from Paris, watched the CNN coverage of the disaster in Japan in disbelief, then jumped in Martin’s rental car and headed to the Wal-Mart at the end of Palm Avenue.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Zena, who hails from the fishing village of Looe in Cornwall, England. “So it didn’t hurt to take precautions.”

When local surfer Cheyne Merrill, 15, awoke, and heard the news, “I knew the tsunami was going to be small.  The epicenter was so far away that the energy would decrease when it reached IB.  When I saw the tsunami on television I realized how destructive nature can be.”

At the time the tsunami was to hit in San Diego, I was scheduled to fly out of Lindbergh Field en-route to San Francisco to attend the SF Ocean Film Festival’s screening of two WiLDCOAST films, One River and The Baja Wave Document.

I was a concerned that the airports I was to depart and arrive from were at sea level. Luckily, my WiLDCOAST colleague Paloma Aguirre was on the ground at Fisherman’s Wharf and texted me that the tsunami had barely been noticeable in San Francisco Bay.

According to Ben McCue, “By 8:30 KPBS had posted reporters at beaches around the county. By 9:00 the IB Pier was packed with nervous spectators and news cameras were out in force. When the tsunami finally arrived after 10 only the regulars were left to see it come ashore in what looked like a extra big tidal push.”

“Lifeguards reported that tsunami surges hit the beach throughout the day,” said Imperial Beach Lifeguard Matt Wilson. “Including around 3PM when on duty lifeguards noticed that a group of children who were up to their knees in the water suddenly were engulfed by a mini-tsunami.”

More than 1,500 miles south in Saladita, Mexico, “We watched as the tide came in and out all day,” said Cat Slatinsky, of IB’s Siren Surf Adventures.

Down the coast in Zihuatenejo, giant schools of sardines began swarming the shallow waters of the bays and beaches, a phenomenon that local fishermen had never before witnessed.

Sardines schooling in Acapulco, Mexico on March 11.

Across the Pacific In Tokyo, my sister-in-law Louise Young, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin on a yearlong Fulbright Fellowship with her husband Geoffrey Chambers, and children Anthony and Celia, was at home with Anthony.

“Geoffrey was out at the doctor in Shinjuku when the earthquake hit, and has managed to get on a bus, by some miracle,” wrote Louise in an email to her family and friends four hours after the earthquake hit. “Celia is on the school bus, making slow progress on surface roads to the nearby bus station where she will pick up her bike and come home. All subway service and train service is suspended. The images from Northeast Japan are horrifying.”

Explosion at Fukushita. Luckily authorities are assuring the public that nuclear power plants are "safe."

Alarmed by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station disaster, the Young-Chambers family is now safely in Baltimore with my wife’s sister Estelle and her husband Marv. They plan to return to Tokyo at the end of the month.

Essentially with the exceptions of Santa Cruz and Crescent City, much of the West Coast got off lucky. However, since much of the California coast and and the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre Nuclear Power Plants are in tsunami and earthquake zones, California citizens need to carefully scrutinize energy and industrial projects placed in the coastal zone. And more importantly we need to make sure their backup generators  work and that government regulators actually monitor their safety instead of allow them to get away with safety violations as in the case of Fukushima.

Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo C...

Image via Wikipedia

Unless we can safely store spent nuclear fuel (we can’t) or contain the damage from nuclear power plants during an accident (we can’t), we should not build them.

“The fact that this trio of disasters stuck a coastline much like our own, with a booming surf culture, affluent coastal cities and beach towns, and important ocean resources, makes it so much more real,” said IB surfer and my WiLDCOAST colleague Zach Plopper.

My prayers go out to the victims and their families in Japan and hope that the ongoing Fukushima disaster can be contained quickly and with as little harm to Japan and its people as possible. But it doesn’t look that way.

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