The Right Coast

June 29, 2004
My surfing safari
By Tom Smith

I have been meaning for some time to relate my surfing adventure with Ross Garrett, famous San Diego surfer, but various things have gotten in the way. As I told Ross, since he kindly took me surfing, my summer has not worked out quite as I planned. It may be karma, since I spent last summer adventuring in Peru and getting in shape to do said adventuring, I seem fated to spend this summer driving kids to various activities. So far this has been the summer of the minivan. I do plan to get back in the water and for those of you who are wondering, I can report, surfing is a good thing.

My attitude going in to trying surfing was, as with most things, fear and apprehension. I imagined that it would be largely an exercise in making a fool out of myself in front of twenty-something hard bodies who would point at me as say things like, “Dude, look at the Barney,” Barney being, I think, surfing slang for untalented person. But, it wasn’t like that at all. First, I was greatly relieved to see the crowd at Tourmaline State Surf Park was one in which I was far from the oldest, baldest or fattest. This crowd looked more like someone had ordered everyone at the driving range to take off their clothes. It was, frankly, not that pretty of a sight. Nor were there an inordinate number of feminine hotties, another staple of surfing movies, the limit of my previous exposure to the sport, and I was glad of that, as they cause me to pull in my stomach uncomfortably and otherwise make me self-conscious. My impression was that this group of surfers was a lot easier to take than the crowd at a typical ski resort, which isn't saying much I know. It actually seemed like nice, family type people. Imagine.

Various people have confided in me that surfing is one of those things you have to grow up doing, and maybe that’s true if you want to be really good. But my impression was that it is a sport a middle aged guy can learn. It certainly seemed a lot easier than fly-fishing or golf, both of which are not possible to learn. Ross and I met at the parking lot around 8 and he kindly lent me his dad’s old wet suit, a large which I barely squeezed into. The wet suit is a remarkable thing, and really does keep you toasty warm in water that would otherwise make you a eunuch. There was not much in the way of surf, maybe 2 or 3 feet waves, but that was plenty for me.

Ross had brought for me a Surftech 11 foot board with a bright blue foam top, said to be the best learner’s board. It was, by any standard, a very large object. It was too big to get my arm around, so I had to carry it on my head, as in the old Endless Summer poster. He showed me how to paddle out, and that’s what we did. The paddling was surprisingly hard work, the most exercise of the process. The big board, however, was very stable. It felt like you could host lunch on it. We turned around at a spot Ross chose, and waited for a set, this being what a group of waves is called, to come in. This struck me as one of the most difficult bits, choosing a wave to attempt to ride. I could distinguish big waves from small ones, but judging which would break in the right place and when to start paddling seemed pretty mysterious. With Ross telling me when to start paddling, I managed to catch a few waves, even standing up once, very briefly. It was quite amazing how the big board came to life when the wave got under it, as if it wanted to rush into the shore. Given that these were tiny waves, I can only imagine what the sensation must be like on big waves. Ross does some tow-in surfing, which involves being towed by a Jet Ski (personal water craft or PWC to us surfers) at high speeds into waves that are too big and fast to catch by paddling. That must be, as they say, intense.

After a while, Ross started shoving me into the waves at the right moment, and this made catching them a lot easier. However, it would be a violation of the surfing ethic to rely on this permanently.

Overall, I would say surfing seemed a lot easier to pick up than I have been led to believe. I found it considerably less humiliating than golf and better exercise as well. For the rest of the day I felt this weird combination of post-workout high and relaxed mellowness that may explain why they (we?) call people dude. I think what I need to do is get a board and figure out a way to practice that is not too embarrassing, perhaps early mornings. My older brother lives in Hawaii, and he tells me there surfing is a family affair. A trip to the islands in definitely in order. It seems clear you absolutely don’t need to be some ripped rock star to surf. Ross made a point which seems right to me, that surfing has been ill-served by being depicted as an extreme sport for edgy urban twenty year olds. There is that side of the sport. But as with mountains, you can confront the void on K2 or you can hike up to the top of Bob’s Peak and eat a sandwich. Both are legitimate.
UPDATE: Here's a link to Ross's blog. He is hanging with Yvon Chouinard this summer, helping Patagonia get their surfing thing right. Other exciting developments in his career, but I'll wait for permission to explain.