“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
–David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Chris is obsessed with waves. He loves reading books about monster storms at sea, tsunamis and surfing. Living in Pennsylvania, we never really had an opportunity to fear a storm or tsunami or to even see surfing. Sure there were a few people in the Outer Banks or Florida who had surfboards, but we had never seen real surfing. As we set out on our cross-country roadtrip, it was no wonder that Chris’ only request of me was to make sure that he tried surfing. It was his one dream that was above and beyond any expectations he had of our roadtrip, but he was dedicated to finding a way to make it happen, and he leaned on me for accountability.
Our story began with an accidental meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We had sold our home in Pennsylvania and were traveling through the United States seeking its many treasures and had been on the road for ten months by this point. We were hiking at Bandelier National Monument and had stopped to photograph a bird when we heard a slight rustling in the leaves on the side of the trail. The rustling was rhythmically consistent, not the sporadic rustle of a rodent or insect. We waited and watched as a five foot long diamondback rattlesnake uncoiled itself and left its leafy nest for its evening hunt. As the snake slithered first towards us and then away from us, some other hikers joined to watch the show. That is how we met Peter, a tall, wiry man beyond middle-aged. His dry humor won our admiration immediately. He has a true penchant for conversing, and we found ourselves enjoying his company. At times he gently slides to slight pessimism, adding a measure of seriousness to his humor; making him all the more endearing. We learned that he was born in San Francisco, but had spent the majority of his life in Santa Cruz; he and his wife were vacationing in New Mexico for the week. He also mentioned that he surfed. Chris’ eyes lit up. Intrigued, we asked about surfing in California, to which he quickly replied that we should come to Santa Cruz, and he would show us. He even offered to take Chris out for a lesson, and he would supply all the equipment. Traveling full-time, we meet a lot of good-intentioned people offering us a place to visit; but Peter quickly gave us his contact information and told us to email him a week before we got there. He was serious.
Several months passed before we were in Monterey, California. We had zig-zagged across California from L.A. and Santa Barbara to Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, then back to the coast along Monterey Bay. Peter’s promise was still on our minds, and while we hoped he would remember us, Chris was reluctant to reach out. I had to nag Chris several times, but he finally relented to email Peter the day before we were heading to Santa Cruz. Why was Chris reluctant in going after his dream? I am not sure to be honest. Chris is a friendly person always seeking to make others feel comfortable, and he hates to put people on the spot. Also, by this time, he knew how cold the Pacific was, and quite frankly, we had not seen any waves or surfers that met our expectations. California had only shared with us waves that reminded us of the Gulf of Mexico with a few surfers content to sit on their boards ten yards out enjoying the gentle ocean like bobbers on a fishing line. I would not go so far as to say that we were disenchanted, but we were underwhelmed. Additionally, we had spent a night at Seacliff State Beach right on the water, where there was a sign warning people of a recent large shark sighting and asking them to stay out of the water. Seacliff is 10 miles from Santa Cruz.
Regardless, Chris heeded my advice and put together a pleasant email thanking Peter for the offer, while also completely releasing him from his promise, especially on such short notice. To our surprise, Peter responded immediately, he absolutely remembered us and had just been thinking of us a few days earlier, and he was still willing to fulfill his promise. Unknowingly, he had actually already taken a half-day from work during our intended visit, and he selflessly offered that time to spend with us. He also informed us, regretfully, that he had gone surfing the day after his return from New Mexico and had won himself a concussion. He was still suffering its effects and would sadly not be able to surf, but he wanted to show us the surf scene of Santa Cruz and give Chris an opportunity to get in the water.
At the appointed time, we met Peter at his home and he grabbed a wetsuit, a surfboard and a couple of beers to bring along. We hopped in to our Dodge Ram 2500 and headed to Pleasure Point. On the way, Peter attempted to give us an introduction to Santa Cruz based off of his 50+ years experience at one of the most renowned surf spots in California. He pointed out places he had lived and the homes of people he knew. He was an insider, and we gratefully recognized the advantage of having him with us as we drove through the narrow streets to our very first view of real surfing. As we found one of the last available parking spots near the Pleasure Point street sign, we alighted from the truck with heightened awareness in all of our senses. We had yet to see a single wave, but we could feel the energy around us. The streets were lined with parked vehicles, many with boards attached, some with dry men changing in to wetsuits and others with wet men changing back in to dry clothes. Two young men on bicycles holding their boards by their sides rode passed us. The sun blazed over us, very potent despite the 70 degree air temperature. The briny smell surrounded us carried by the constant wind. The sound of the surf battered in the distance. We walked down the street toward the sound of the waves and an overlook of the water.
When we came to the overlook at Rockview Street, we saw the steep drop down to the beach and rocks below. There were several staircases providing access from the neighborhood above down the cliffside to the mix of sand and rocks at the water’s edge. As our eyes scanned from the land to the water, we saw the hundreds of surfers expectantly waiting on their boards. We were shocked by their numbers, on a weekday afternoon no less. There were some women in the crowd and men of all ages. Some were close to land practicing on the smaller breakers, but farther out, the surfers sat in groups in anticipation of the next set. Some seemed to be conversing with buddies, while others sat slightly apart from the group. Still farther out, a couple hundred yards from land, there was an elite grouping arranged in what appeared to be a channel. The massive beds of seaweed lay motionless spread across the water below and above them, but they bobbed in an area with no seaweed. This is what we had hoped California would share with us.
Peter explained that the channel below us was called “Sewer Peak” after the sewer drain pipe that still juts from the land there. While it no longer deposits raw sewage in to the Pacific, Peter remembers when it did. It was a deep channel where the rock ledges dropped, causing the best waves in the area. It is a black diamond, meaning it has 5 to 10 foot waves and is labeled for experts. We stood, our eyes affixed on the surfers sitting on their boards on the edge of Sewer Peak waiting for the next surge.
As we waited, Peter divulged bits of surfing knowledge one at a time. He relayed that most surf spots are named after nearby streets. In this case, Pleasure Point is the street used. He revealed that the waves we were seeing were from a southern swell, up from New Zealand. He prefers low tide, because the waves are bigger. He also prefers when the wind is blowing inland. Peter explained that Sewer Peak is a wave that can be counted on. Due to the rock surface below and the deep channel, the waves there are dependable and break in a typical fashion. Alternately, with sand below, the waves are unpredictable as the wave churns the sand changing the topography below. Peter called himself “goofy-footed”, meaning that he prefers to go left on the wave, unlike most surfers. While Sewer Peak is not a great spot for “going left”, he knew of other places that were.
He explained that to truly study surfing, one must not only understand the waves and the mechanics, but also study the philosophy and psychology behind what was happening on the water. Some view surfing as a spiritual act, seeking peace on the waves. Others view it is a sport, seeking the pump of adrenaline. Some surfers are there to enjoy the whole experience, while other surfers are after a sense of conquering accomplishment. Some surf spots are tolerant of newcomers, while others are more territorial running off strangers regardless of their talent or experience. There is a lineup, but everyone is reacting to each other to decide who gets the wave. Peter had a litany of things not to do: don’t let go of the board no matter what – it is amateur and endangers everyone; don’t continue on a wave if another surfer is closer to the whitewater; don’t take any waves as a new arrival – wait for others to have their share first; don’t get in anyone else’s way – which seemed impossible with the hundreds of surfers on the water; don’t be ignorant of egotistical surfers – it can get ugly. Suddenly, Peter’s voice was contested on the air. The sound of the ocean began to drown him out. We instinctively turned our eyes from his purposeful face back to the ocean where a huge set started to roll in. Peter went silent, and we watched in awe as the surfers began to make their attempts at Sewer Peak, sometimes 5 or 6 men at a time. As the wave hastened toward them, they paddled to get in to position. With instant force, the wave effortlessly lifted them over ten feet in its swell, and they paddled kicking their legs with all their strength as it drew them to its crest. Their jump to standing happened in less than an instant, and they shot along the wave like from a cannon. As four gigantic waves rolled in for the set, we watched on as eventually one man would prevail and ride out the wave. The man who caught the wave closest to the whitewater usually owned the wave. The rest should bail out or pull back. From our vantage point, it looked like a chaotic selection of ownership, sometimes through the limbs of the crowd; but we saw our first glimpses of big wave surfing unfold before us. We were inspired watching the first set roll in. The sheer force of the waves and the speed of the surfers was mesmerizing. Watching as the waves quickly lifted the surfers to their peaks with undeniable force was overwhelming. It was easy to relate to surfing’s addictive quality, and we were in awe.
As the set ended and the water calmed, the noise dulled down again and the surfers paddled to regain their positions to patiently wait for the next set to roll in. Our attention was drawn back to Peter as he explained how the good surfers were triangulating their location for the spot where they wanted to lie in wait for the next set. As Peter told us about the darker side of surfing full of dangerous egotists, he suddenly broke off the running dialogue with, “Well, enough talk, are you ready to get in the water, Chris?” As he had lured us in to a darker and darker picture of the surfers and the danger of the waves reciting adamantly his long list of don’ts, and all the while giving absolutely zero practical surfing tips; Peter clearly felt that it was time for action. Chris and I, on the other hand, stood stunned above what seemed to us a cauldron of life sucking water crashing against rock protected by a bunch of jerks on boards who would rather run him out of the water than offer a hand of help, at least that was our worst fear. This cannot be the ideal place for a beginner who has spent the last ten years sunning himself on the shores of the mild Gulf reading distant stories of Laird Hamilton. Ideal or not, it was the opportunity given to Chris. With an attempt at encouragement, I turned to Chris and said, “This is a once in a lifetime chance – you will never have this opportunity again.” Still in a bit of a daze, Chris agreed to try it. Peter finally offered some advice, “So, you will descend the stairs and get in the water here at the entrance closest to Sewer Peak (my heart skipped a beat) and paddle out a little to try to catch a wave after they have broken. The current will take you down to the next set of stairs over there, beside the home of Jack O’Neil, the man who invented the wetsuit. Jen and I will walk along the sidewalk above watching and will meet you at the other staircase.” And that was the amount of instruction Pennsylvania Chris received in total.
We turned our backs to the water and headed back to the truck, where Chris began to get in to the wetsuit on loan from Peter. Peter had warned that men usually go naked in to a wetsuit, or some wear a speedo. Chris pulled the gritty, dry wetsuit over his swim trunks, and the adrenaline coursing through his veins masked any bodily discomfort. Peter also mentioned that there were several holes in the suit, but once he felt the cold water against his skin, Chris would get used to it. Chris was told to keep the top half of the wetsuit down until he reached the water, when he would zip up like the other surfers. Peter owns multiple surfboards, some from elite makers, but for Chris, he brought a Costco board and mentioned that he forgot any wax, but Chris should be fine. Chris’ imperfect equipment matched the imperfect scene for a beginner. To add even more instability to Chris’ emotions, Peter told him that surfers go barefoot once they have changed. Later, Chris informed me that the black street macadam scalded his feet as we walked back to the water.
At the top of the steps, I gave Chris one more whisper of, “this is once in a lifetime,” and he zipped up his borrowed wetsuit and headed down to the water’s edge, leaving Peter and me on the sidewalk above looking on. The first task facing Chris was getting in to the water. It is easy to imagine surfers walking down the sandy beach and gently gliding in to the surf beyond; but the reality for Chris was much different. As soon as he stepped off the bottom stair, he was on a black, rock ledge being pounded by white water. Seeing him take a first few cautious steps on to the rock, then grow bolder and push through the water, place the board in front of him, jump on and begin paddling through the rolling waves was my favorite moment. I was witnessing a man assessing his surroundings and moving forward in faith that he would overcome them. In that moment, Chris felt the rushing cold of the water in his wetsuit, the terrible power of the waves which he had not experienced in years and never at this level, the overwhelming feeling of being scrutinized by the expert surfers in the water and the crowd of onlookers above, and the burden of all of Peter’s don’ts, yet he persevered. I can only imagine how out of place Chris must have felt, but for us, looking on, he looked great. Peter immediately commented, “He actually paddles very well, most people have a hard time at first.” But I knew better. Chris is an athlete, and his well above average coordination allows him to learn new movements quickly, and that is what happened on the water. While he was panicked below trying not to get in anyone’s way, from above, he fit the surfer mold perfectly. He looked confident and collected, paddling with a purpose.
Chris continued on his surfboard from ‘outside Pleasure Point’ where the wave energy has lessened a little and in to ‘inside Pleasure Point’ where the wave energy is even lesser still. He was near the first levels of surfers from shore, about a hundred yards out. He watched the collections of surfers around him and tried to regain a rhythm with the oncoming waves that he hadn’t known in years. He spent time paddling around and also a little bit of time sitting on his board like the other surfers. He kept well clear of any others, mainly taking in the whole experience for himself. After figuring out the timing as he was too early or too late on multiple waves, Chris was able to ride two waves laying down. He never got a chance to try to stand up, which was his one disappointment. He later told me that the entire bottom was rock. The responsibility of not injuring himself weighed heavily on him with the dangerous rock below. Understand, reader, that if Chris is injured and unable to drive, we would have a big problem on our hands. Even something as simple as a broken ankle or arm would put our fifth-wheel in park for a long time, and we would be reevaluating our situation on the road. Chris carries a heavier burden while we are traveling, and in these type of instances, reason wisely wins his attention. After spending about 45 minutes in the water, he made his way over to the designated staircase, which had a small patch of sandy beach allowing him an easier exit from the water. We met his bright eyes and glowing face on the steps. He said he had a hard time staying on the board, that it was too slippery. We could not distinguish that in any of his movements and were surprised to hear it. Peter said he probably needed the wax. Chris also complained that the back of his neck was killing him. He had spent so much time laying on the board holding his head up, add to it that Chris has a diagnosed neck problem; and I can understand his complaint. Regardless of the pain, Chris loved being immersed in the surfing experience. His joy showed on his face as he shined before us. He was thrilled to have been able to be out on the water and feel the waves with the other surfers. He learned so much from his first overwhelming experience that he could not wait to try it again, but at a less crowded location where he could work on his attempts without the pressure of onlookers.
As surfers just arriving on the scene raced past us on the steps, Chris decided that he was done. We walked back to the truck, so he could get out of the wetsuit and lock up the surfboard. Peter grabbed the beers he had brought, and we three walked back toward Sewer Peak and partially down the stairs to where there was a concrete bump in the wall large enough for us to be seated. Chris and Peter enjoyed a beer as we watched the surfers lifted high by the undulating waves.
As we sat and watched set after set, more and more surfers came rushing out of the streets to weigh the waves after they got off work and then return 20 minutes later in their wetsuits with their boards. The intensity of their gaze and their sheer joy at seeing worthy waves was intoxicating. The energy was contagious. Some of the newly arrived surfers greedily jumped in to the water and started paddling, while others took time for reflection and stretching before entering the water. We often smelled the wafting of pot and saw more pit bulls than I can remember in one area. It was clear that the culture surrounding surfers subscribed to representing a toughness in its appearance that matched the toughness needed on the water.
We listened while Peter answered our naive, outsider questions. He has been on the water with a Great White only 50 feet from him at a surfing spot closer to San Francisco. He reported being very scared, but he calmly paddled to shore and did not allow the experience to keep him from the water. At Pleasure Point, he typically sees small sharks, otters, dolphins and on occasion sea lions and whales. He is not a fan of paddleboard surfing; he remembers when it was only old men in Hawaii who did it. He knew of Kelly Slater, and said that he is as good-natured as represented, and Peter believes that is how all professional surfers should act. He despises jet skis and thinks that their only purpose for surfing should be to help injured surfers.
Peter also divulged his perceived threats to true surfing: the silicon valley facebook guys (Peter’s affectionate title) who show up with a drone to film their moves and disrupt the natural experience (he pointed out that they are buying up second or third homes in the area sadly displacing long-time residents who are forced to rent); the overeager trick seekers who treat a wave like a skate park; the crowds that continue to rise due in part to the cheaply made surfboards now available at Costco; the thugs who have begun to infiltrate Santa Cruz and are more territorial. Peter is a purist in his art form and understandably clings to the surf scene of decades ago.
With the end of the beers came the end of our introduction to real surfing in the town credited with being the home of the first surfing in North America. Never would we have imagined that Chris’ desire to try surfing would have led us to the birthplace of surfing in the continental states with a well experienced, authentic surfer guide. Although disappointed in the current surfing culture and the unmanly behaviors, we did share a great interest in the waves and an appreciation of our time spent with Peter, whose life is so different from our own and who we loved from the start. The waves gave us a great desire. A desire to return to Santa Cruz one day and truly learn to surf, me included. Not to become great, but just to be able to stand up and ride a few minor waves.
And who was the hero of our story? Chris proved himself the hero from the moment he stepped off the stairs and into the face of overwhelming pressures. Despite the far from perfect preparations and circumstances, Chris felt what it was like to be on a surfboard in the water at Pleasure Point, one of the most renowned surf spots in California. He learned the timing of the waves and paddled against the threats of danger. He returned from the water a conqueror of fears and ready for his next chance to surf. A hero indeed.
Thank you, Lord, for the mighty waves, for the tests of manhood, for our soul surfer friend Peter and for our hope to return to Santa Cruz one day and truly experience your waves (the smaller ones, please).
Several weeks after our story happened, we received a package at our campground in Florence, Oregon. Inside was a long-sleeved shirt, two postcards, a Santa Cruz keychain and a typed note from Peter.
Here is the note, word-for-word:
“Chris and Jen. The shirt is to bring back memories of your adventure in the building south swell from the southern hemisphere (tell all your friends ‘it was exactly like Teahuapoo (cho-poo) was a week before except smaller and colder…’. You were surfing right in front of Jack ONiells house. The design on the shirt was drawn by Jim Foley back in the mid 60’s. Foley was years ahead of his time in surfing. He later went on to design a series of remarkable sailboats. The last one he sailed around the world with a Surfboard garage in the transom. He bought a cushy sofa at sears, took it all apart, replacing all the metal parts with stainless steel, and rebuilt it inside the cabin of his 40’ boat. The interior also had a slatwater <which he crossed out in pen and wrote saltwater> aquarium. The postcard of PPSP was done by a signpainter friend. The photo was likely taken in the early 60’s. It’s on the road that borders the surf area – we walked past the building, but it’s been remodeled from the barn-like design. The otter card is for the otters you didn’t get to see. Otters are nearly tame around surfers because there’s been generations of peaceful co-existence. It’s really great when the babies are frolicking around. Up the coast when I’m on my surf mat, young seals want to play with my swimfins. Gotta go. Enjoy… Peter <signed in pen>”
True to himself, Peter gave us more history of surfing, harkened back to the 60’s multiple times and shared some of the beauty he has found on the water. Proving Peter to be the hero of his story, a soul surfer story.